Eduardo Moga · Spain

Miguel de Cervantes and Islam: some reflections

Last April 23rd saw the 400th anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes’ death (which actually occurred on April 22nd, 1616; he was buried on the 23rd). He passed away just three years after the expulsion of the Moors, which began in 1609 (in Valencia) and officially ended in 1613 (in Murcia). The Arab presence in Spain had lasted from 711, when Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Berber leader, and his troops, invaded the peninsula (and fully conquered it in 719) to 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs of Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella, recovered Granada from the last sultan, Bu-Abdilah (in Spanish, Boabdil). But actually many Moors stayed in Spain after 1492, forcibly converted to Christianity under the threat of exile (although many secretly kept their rituals and creed).

The expulsion of the Moors decreed by King Phillip III affected 300 000 people, approximately, and took place between 1605 and 1615, when the first and the second part of Don Quixote were published. It certainly deprived Spain of some of her most qualified farmers (as the previous expulsion of the Jews, in 1492, had deprived her as well of most of her best merchants and bankers), which caused a great deal of human suffering and also a great harm to her economy, and dismantled towns, cities and communities. Spanish monarchs have never hesitated to inflict pain on their subjects and damage on their own country if such were the price to attain their most valued goal: national unity, sustained by religious unity: one country, one king, one faith: Catholicism.

How did Cervantes see –and experience– this tragedy? Did he in any way? A wider question can be asked: how did the Arab culture, which had coexisted with the Christian culture for so many centuries, influence his literary work? What attitude can be identified in his work, and especially in Don Quixote, towards the Moors and their habits and laws?

In order to be able to answer these questions, let us remember that, in the context of the war that the Ottoman empire and the Christian countries were fighting in the Mediterranean since the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands in 1453, in September 1571 Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, part of the galley fleet of the Holy League that defeated the Ottoman fleet on October 7 in the Battle of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras. Though laid low with fever, Cervantes refused to stay below, and asked to be allowed to take part in the battle, saying he would rather die for his God and his king than remain under cover. He fought on board a vessel, and received three gunshot wounds: two in the chest and one which rendered his left arm useless.

In September 1575 Cervantes set sail on the galley Sol from Naples to Barcelona. When the Sol had arrived off the Catalan coast, it was attacked by Ottoman pirates, and Cervantes and his brother Rodrigo were captured and taken to Algiers, where they were kept in captivity, as slaves of a Greek renegade, until 1580. After four unsuccessful escape attempts –for all of which he claimed to be the only one to blame; he was tortured and imprisoned as punishment for his desire for freedom; it is interesting to note that in two of these escape attempts Cervantes and his fellow prisoners were betrayed by Christians, one of whom was a Dominican priest, who received, as a reward, one escudo and a jar of lard–. In 1577, Cervantes’ mother (who even presented herself as a widow, which she was not, in order to move their sons’ captors to pity) had gathered together, with great effort and difficulty, a ransom to free her sons, but it was not enough for both of them, so Miguel preferred his younger brother Rodrigo to be released, who indeed went back to Spain. Finally, Miguel too was ransomed by his parents and the Trinitarian Fathers (although the amount these carried was not sufficient again, so they had to desperately collect what was missing, which they managed to do at the last moment, when Cervantes was already on board a vessel bound for Constantinople, weighed down with heavy chains), and returned to his family in Madrid.

Not surprisingly, this traumatic period of Cervantes’ life supplied subject matter for several of his literary works, notably the captive’s tale in Don Quixote and the two plays set in Algiers, El trato de Argel (Life in Algiers) and Los baños de Argel (The Dungeons of Algiers), where he very realistically depicts life and living conditions of Christian prisoners in the African city, as well as episodes in a number of other writings, although never in straight autobiographical form. The harshness of Cervantes’ ordeals in North Africa did not prevent him from going back. Actually he did shortly after he was released, in 1581, as a spy at the service of King Phillip II, who wanted to profit from his knowledge of the situation on the ground and of local circumstances. Cervantes gathered important information in Oran and Mostaganem which turned out to be very useful in fighting pirates and Turks in the Mediterranean.

Some Cervantes scholars have suggested that he might have studied and even accepted Islam as a result of his five-year-long stay in Algiers, since his confinement was not as traumatic as it is commonly thought. For example, the 2 000 blows he was sentenced to receive as punishment for one of his escape attempts were never administered, since a number of other slaves and servants, whom he had previously done favors for, begged for and were granted mercy for him. There is no record that Christian captives were, in general, simply for being captives, tortured or murdered, let alone forced to convert to Islam. Quite the opposite, it is well known that where there were hostages in greater numbers, assistance by priests, spiritual as well as material, was tolerated for those who requested it. The Moorish and Muslim captives in the dungeons of the Inquisition did not benefit from a similar leeway. In spite of this, Cervantes informs us about the appalling habits of some Moorish masters he knew too well. The Spanish captain in the captive’s tale in Don Quixote complains: “They put a chain on me, more as a mark of this than to keep me safe, and so I passed my life in that baño with several other gentlemen and persons of quality marked out as held to ransom; but though at times, or rather almost always, we suffered from hunger and scanty clothing, nothing distressed us so much as hearing and seeing at every turn the unexampled and unheard-of cruelties my master inflicted upon the Christians. Every day he hanged a man, impaled one, cut off the ears of another; and all with so little provocation, or so entirely without any, that the Turks acknowledged he did it merely for the sake of doing it, and because he was by nature murderously disposed towards the whole human race”.

Next, he reveals that “the only one that fared at all well with him was a Spanish soldier, something de Saavedra by name, to whom he never gave a blow himself, or ordered a blow to be given, or addressed a hard word, although he had done things that will dwell in the memory of the people there for many a year, and all to recover his liberty”. And we must remember that Cervantes’ second surname was Saavedra.

Next, he reveals that tive’ of some Moorish masters its loads of contradictory -and orming them into sime

Under the influence of Erasmus, Cervantes had become what we would call nowadays a liberal. He introduced in Don Quixote many ideas which still strike us, just because they are so modern and challenging. But he was no revolutionary: he was, he couldn’t but be a man of his time. It is important to see, though, how these ideas are introduced not for their own sake, but as motives or underlying causes for his characters’ behavior. Cervantes builds up in Don Quixote –and, in fact, in the rest of his literary work– a living treatise on human conduct, and human beings –except fanatics– are always paradoxical and contradictory. Cervantes is the very opposite of a fanatic: he never pushes his ideas beyond human understanding, beyond human suffering. That is why Don Quixote is the world’s first and finest novel: because it creates personalities we can believe in –true personalities–, because Don Quixote and Sancho are as real as their readers –us–, because their feelings and thoughts are also ours.

Cervantes collects his contemporaries’ view of the Moors, which was not favorable, generally speaking, and makes his characters share it. For example, they think they are liars: “No truth was to be looked for from Moors, as they are all impostors, cheats, and schemers” [1] (although Moors also hold Christians as liars: “For you Christians always tell lies about yourselves and make yourselves out poor to cheat the Moors”, says Zoraida in the captive’s tale; and also as thieves: “Christians, Christians! Thieves, thieves!”, cries out Zoraida’s father, when he sees them come near). Moors are also closed to reason. Thus, Lothario says to Anselmo: “It seems to me, Anselmo, that thine is just now the temper of mind which is always that of the Moors, who can never be brought to see the error of their creed by quotations from the Holy Scriptures, or by reasons which depend upon the examination of the understanding or are founded upon the articles of faith, but must have examples that are palpable, easy, intelligible, capable of proof, not admitting of doubt, with mathematical demonstrations that cannot be denied, like, ‘If equals be taken from equals, the remainders are equal:’ and if they do not understand this in words, and indeed they do not, it has to be shown to them with the hands, and put before their eyes, and even with all this no one succeeds in convincing them of the truth of our holy religion”. Lastly, Turks are also accused of homosexuality, a horrid sin at that time. Speaking of “Don Gaspar Gregorio, whose comeliness surpasses the most highly vaunted beauty, I was troubled when I thought of the danger he was in, for among those barbarous Turks a fair youth is more esteemed than a woman, be she ever so beautiful”.

And, with regard to the banning of the Moors, Cervantes seems to agree with it. Ricote, an expulsed Moor and a former neighbor of Sancho Panza, says: “Seeing that the whole body of our nation is tainted and corrupt, he [the King] applies to it the cautery that burns rather than the salve that soothes; and thus, by prudence, sagacity, care and the fear he inspires, he has borne on his mighty shoulders the weight of this great policy and carried it into effect, all our schemes and plots, importunities and wiles, being ineffectual to blind his Argus eyes, ever on the watch lest one of us should remain behind in concealment, and like a hidden root come in course of time to sprout and bear poisonous fruit in Spain, now cleansed, and relieved of the fear in which our vast numbers kept it. Heroic resolve of the great Philip the Third!”

Cervantes understands the political and religious reasons for the expulsion –by the way, doing otherwise might have resulted in significant trouble with the relentless Inquisition–, but shows his compassion for those who suffer it, especially the truly Christian ones and those who did not conspire against the King (since there had been a rebellion in Las Alpujarras, a mountain range in Granada, between 1568 and 1571: the Moors living in Andalusia rose against a 1567 decree banning their language, their way of dressing, their baths, their rituals and cult, and so on. It was a cruel war, resulting in numerous atrocities and several thousand dead on both sides, and 100 000 Moors forced into exile in Castile: in La Mancha, a name, by the way, of Arabic provenance: Manxa or Al-Mansha, “waterless land”, where Don Quixote had been born). This is the way his book is written: transforming ideas into feelings, diluting them in the chiaroscuro and paradoxical spaces of human conscience.

Cervantes shows Ricote, a shopkeeper, as a “good” Moor, decent, respectful, tolerant and patriotic, and therefore shatters the image of ruthless enemies and unassimilable people cultivated by the politically-minded, who wanted to put an end to national discrepancies, and not necessarily by ordinary Spaniards, who, in many cases, were sorry for their neighbors and friends. When, after the expulsion, Ricote and Sancho meet again –the former has come back to Castile from Germany in order to dig out and get hold of the treasure he hid when he was forced to leave Spain–, Ricote calls Don Quixote’s esquire “brother”, and Sancho “without getting off the ass threw his arms round his neck” and also calls him “friend”. And the pain caused by the expulsion, in Sancho’s town, appears in the following scene: “–I will not press you, Sancho,” said Ricote, “but tell me, were you in our village when my wife and daughter and brother-in-law left it? –I was so,” said Sancho,“ and I can tell you your daughter left it looking so lovely that all the village turned out to see her, and everybody said she was the fairest creature in the world. She wept as she went, and embraced all her friends and acquaintances and those who came out to see her, and she begged them all to commend her to God and Our Lady his mother, and this in such a touching way that it made me weep myself, though I’m not much given to tears commonly; and, faith, many a one would have liked to hide her, or go out and carry her off on the road; but the fear of going against the king’s command kept them back”.

(This daughter will show up again in part two, when she is captured at sea and delivered to the Spanish Viceroy in Barcelona. There she explains that don Gregorio [first called Pedro and later Gaspar], a Christian nobleman who is in love with her, went to exile with her: “Don Gregorio chose to accompany me in our banishment. He joined company with the Moriscoes who were going forth from other villages, for he knew their language very well and on the voyage he struck up a friendship with my two uncles who were carrying me with them”. But this is no ornament or romantic excursus in Don Quixote: Cervantes seems to be pleading, not only for integration or assimilation, but for the utmost measure of blood-crossing and mixture: marriage between Christians and Moors).

Ricote shares with Sancho his pain for his lost motherland: “In short it was with just cause that we were visited with the penalty of banishment, a mild and lenient one in the eyes of some, but to us the most terrible that could be inflicted upon us. Wherever we are we weep for Spain; for after all we were born there and it is our natural fatherland. Nowhere do we find the reception our unhappy condition needs; and in Barbary and all the parts of Africa where we counted upon being received, succored, and welcomed, it is there they insult and ill-treat us most”. Historically, though, this was not so: Moors were mostly welcome in Tunis, where sultan Utman understood they could largely benefit his country.

Ricote goes on making an even more amazing statement: “I left our village, as I said, and went to France, but though they gave us a kind reception there I was anxious to see all I could. I crossed into Italy, and reached Germany, and there it seemed to me we might live with more freedom, as the inhabitants do not pay any attention to trifling points; everyone lives as he likes, for in most parts they enjoy liberty of conscience”. Liberty of conscience in Germany, something which could not be thought of in Spain at the time. Nevertheless, the term is ambiguous, because in Cervantes’ time it lacked the sense it has nowadays, and many used it to refer to licentiousness, mental perversion and even moral perversion.

It is also very interesting to see what Ricote says further on: “For, after all, Sancho, I know well that Ricota my daughter and Francisca Ricota my wife are Catholic Christians, and though I am not so much so, still I am more of a Christian than a Moor, and it is always my prayer to God that he will open the eyes of my understanding and show me how I am to serve him”. Ricote is no apostate or nonbeliever. He is not seeking heresy, or returning to an Islamic world: he is just looking for a place to wait fearlessly for the light of true faith.

This last passage shows too a fascinating fact: in XVII century Spain, members of the same family could be Christian and Muslim. Moreover, we can note a certain hesitation among people between Catholicism and Islam: there seemed to be a sort of border battle between both faiths, and it is not therefore difficult to imagine Cervantes situated as well near this thin theological and even mystical border frontier, despite his frequent, official and predictable assertions on the pre-eminence of Christianity.

This is essential to the understanding of Cervantes’ attitude towards Islam and the development of Don Quixote: the Arab cultural and literary substrate after so many centuries of Arab presence in Spain. “Leave it to God, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “for all will be and perhaps better than you think; no leaf on the tree stirs but by God’s will”, says Don Quixote. “With Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them but He. And He knows whatsoever is in the land and in the sea. And there falls not a leaf but He knows it”, says the Quran (VI, 60).

Among the many influences of Muslim literature and culture, and his own experience as a slave in Algiers, Cervantes includes in the first part of Don Quixote the story of the Christian captive (chapter 39-41), the captain Ruy Pérez de Viedma, his alter ego, with whom Zoraida, the Moor –historically, the daughter of the renegade Hajji Murad, mayor of Algiers–, falls in love, escapes to Spain and becomes Christian. Cervantes proves his extensive knowledge of Arab customs, clothing and language, as a result of his own captivity in Northern Africa, and also a wide and merciful perception of the human soul –Spanish and Christian or African and Muslim– by refusing to establish a Manichaean view between the good ones and the bad ones. In The Dungeons of Algiers, a play tightly connected to the captive’s tale in Don Quixote, Christian prisoners do not react to their fate and to the daily challenges of their captivity as sound representatives of a God-blessed moral and religious pattern, but as individuals, each one with a different bias, with particular faults and weaknesses –and quite a few behaving in a not too gallant way–. This diversity breaks any possible narrow approach to the situations Cervantes exposes, and mixes up the moral grounds on which action takes place, as they are mixed up in real life. And this can be taken as the main conclusion of Cervantes’ work: his ideas, which he had, right or wrong, never interfere in his characters and plots as to suffocate or reduce them to ideas; the vagueness and uncertainty of reality, of life itself, with its loads of contradictory –and valuable– views, pervades his plays and novels, and fills them up with human warmth and truth. In the Christian captive tale, the captain addresses Zoraida, his Moorish lover, in this surprising way: “The true Allah protect thee, Lady”. Of course, Cervantes is referring to the Christian God, the one and only –the “true” one–, but he feels no discomfort to call him “Allah”, since he is speaking to a Muslim maiden, Zoraida, whom he later pictures in an extremely praiseworthy manner: “It would be beyond my power now to describe to you the great beauty, the high-bred air, the brilliant attire of my beloved Zoraida as she presented herself before my eyes”. He feels so ecstatic in her presence that he goes on identifying her as a goddess: “I felt as though I had before me some heavenly being come to earth to bring me relief and happiness”. The association of the beloved with a deity is well-known in all literary traditions, but the suppleness Cervantes handles the concept of god with is infrequent and still surprises the reader.


[1] translation by John Ormsby: