The Middle East and the Islamic West: Maribel Fierro's View of Medieval Spain

May 23, 2017

Maribel Fierro, Research Professor at the Centre for Human and Social Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council, and Visiting Scholar at CMES and Senior Scholar at the Islamic Legal Studies Program at HLS in spring 2017, was the distinguished speaker this year for the H.A.R. Gibb Arabic and Islamic Studies Lecture Series, established in 1964 in honor of Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb, who was a director of CMES as well as University Professor and James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard. Arafat Razzaque, PhD candidate in History and Middle East Studies, covered the lectures for CMES.

Roy Mottahedeh, Maribel Fierro, William Granara
Roy Mottahedeh, Maribel Fierro, and William Granara (photo: Martha Stewart)


The twelfth century CE produced four major scholars writing in Arabic who had immense, lasting influence throughout the world. The physician and philosopher Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) was the author of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the tale of a child who grows up alone in a desert island but acquires knowledge and eventual enlightenment through the observation of nature and the use of reason. Arguably the most frequently published Islamic text in early modern Europe, the book was translated by, among others, the Italian Renaissance humanist Pico Della Mirandola and influenced the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. It may be a perfect example of what is nowadays considered “world literature.” Ibn Tufayl’s famous colleague Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), called Averroes in Latin, was known in medieval Europe as simply “the Com­mentator” to Aristotle. His exact contemporary Musa bin Maimun (d. 1204), known by his Latinized name Maimonides or the acronym Rambam in Hebrew, likewise needs no introduction. One of the most important rabbinical authorities in Jewish history, Maimonides was also a philosopher and medical doctor, and served for a time as royal physician at the court of Saladin. Lastly, Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), the mystic, poet, and philosopher, was revered by many Muslims as Shaykh al-Akbar or “the greatest master,” whose enormous corpus of writings have inspired spiritual communities from West Africa all the way to Southeast Asia, making him the single most influential Sufi in history.

Remarkably, all four of these figures share one simple fact in common, as Maribel Fierro—widely acclaimed, in Roy Mottahedeh’s words, as the doyen of current scholarship on the medieval Islamic West—pointed out in the first of her two Gibb Lectures at Harvard this spring: they were Andalusi in origin, that is, they hailed from “Islamic Spain.” This detail alone testifies to the significance of al-Andalus not only in European intellectual history but crucially in the development of both the Jewish and Islamic traditions. Averroes and Maimonides were natives of Córdoba; Ibn Tufayl was born in Guadix, and Ibn Arabi in Murcia. Local origin, however, says little otherwise about the trajectory of their lives. Ibn Arabi’s largest work, al-Futuhat al-Makkiya (“The Meccan Revelations”), was inspired by his pilgrimage in 1202 but took thirty years to finish while he wandered throughout the Middle East, including a sojourn in Konya before eventually settling in Damascus, where he died and remains buried in a mosque-shrine complex built three centuries later by the Ottomans. Maimonides’s biography reflects a similarly itinerant life: exiled from Córdoba in the wake of the Almohad conquest of 1147 when he was only ten years old, his family became migrant refugees for nearly two decades, spending time in Fez near the Almohad heartland and briefly in Jerusalem, ruled then by the Frankish crusader kingdom, before eventually settling in Cairo during the last days of the Fatimids. Between Europe and the Middle East, this was a world far more interconnected than we might assume.

The far-reaching consequences of political upheavals and regional crises, and the often unexpected long afterlives of intellectual activity originating in rather specific circumstances, are especially highlighted by the case of the Almohads—who continue to intrigue historians today, and who have been the subject of Fierro’s research for over twenty years.

The theme for Fierro’s Gibb Lectures was “Scholars and Rulers in al-Andalus.” Her first talk, on March 7, was titled “Averroes’s Disgrace in Context,” referring to an enigmatic episode toward the end of his life when he was publicly denounced as a heretic, expelled from the great mosque of Córdoba, and exiled to Lucena. The incident seems to have been mired in the complexities of the Almohad era. Regarded by some scholars as precursors to a kind of “fundamentalism,” the ­Almohads (al-­Muwahhidun) were a Berber dynasty and a Mediterranean empire that began as a revolutionary state based in the High Atlas mountains. Overthrowing the Almoravids (al-Murabitun), also Berbers but of different tribal origins, the Almohads ­initiated a new era with a renewed theology. As indicated by the appellation al-Muwahhidun, meaning “the people of tawhid” or divine unity, the movement capitalized on a central doctrine inspired by the messianic figure of the mahdi Ibn Tumart (d. 1130). His successor Abd al-Mu’min waged fierce military campaigns that saw the founding of a vast empire uniting the Islamic West, comprising what are now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, northwest Libya, and southern Spain. Claiming legitimacy through a projected Arab genealogy linked back to the Prophet, as Fierro has ­documented through pain­staking research, Abd al-Mu’min established his own caliphal dynasty.

But the caliphate also signaled its break with the past through symbols like square coins instead of circular, new titles and slogans, and a distinct architectural style. Other changes had serious social ramifications, most notably the “puzzling” decision, as Fierro has described it, to abolish the conventional Islamic protection (dhimma) of Jews and Christians living under Muslim rule. This persecution was precisely what led Maimonides into exile from Spain. On the other hand, rather strikingly, the Almohads seem to have encouraged the pursuit of philosophy. Compared to an earlier generation of Spanish Arabists viewing them as barbarians who ruined traditional Andalusi society, Fierro has noted the irony that some of the most original thinkers of medieval Iberia, including the four scholars named above, were products of the Almohad period. Indeed, both Ibn Tufayl and Averroes wrote under the patronage of the caliphal court in Marrakech, and it has been suggested that Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan may be an allegorical meditation on the political and social role of philosophy in light of the Almohad context.

There are still many unanswered questions about the Almohads. Fierro has wondered, for example, about their attitudes to other Muslims, given evidence that they did not consider non-Almohad mosques properly Islamic. The issue speaks to a key theme of Fierro’s academic career, which features a recurring interest in the problem of orthodoxy in religious history. Beginning with a ninth century ­Andalusi text on bid‘a or religious innovation that she studied for her doctoral thesis and published in 1988, she has written extensively on medieval Islamic notions of heterodoxy, as well as on several known cases of heresy trials from across the eight centuries of Muslim Spain. Much as observers of today’s Middle East have tried to highlight and examine the complex socio-political backdrop of present conflicts, Fierro investigates both the deeper context and the specific circumstances that gave impetus and meaning to public violence in medieval society—another topic of interest to her, and on which she has published a number of papers.

The challenge of detailing the beliefs and policies of the Almohads, however, is made more difficult by the effects of a “de-almohadization” program that likely took place after the fall of the dynasty in 1269. Nevertheless, a growing number of scholars—including current Harvard graduate student Abbey Stockstill—are trying to understand the period through careful study of the available sources, as well as through art and architecture. This revival of interest in the Almohads is helping revisit gaps in past scholarship, which was typically more interested in the “golden age” of Córdoba, historic capital of the Umayyads of al-Andalus. A lot of Maribel Fierro’s own scholarship has been dedicated to that earlier period as well, and she is the author of the only biography in English of the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912-61), arguably the most powerful Muslim ruler in Iberian history. Fierro’s prolific scholarship on religion and politics in Umayyad Spain has considerably advanced our knowledge of how the Islamic West acquired a distinct regional identity, while remaining closely linked to developments in the Middle East. This regional characteristic includes the complex ethnic makeup of al-Andalus, comprising descendants of the early Arab settlers, Muslims of indigenous or Visigothic ancestry, Berbers corresponding to several different waves of migration, and the so-called Saqaliba or “Slavs” of European origins. Of particular concern to Fierro, another important feature of the Islamic West was its adherence to the Maliki tradition of Islamic law. Through extensive original research, she has shown the significance of Malikism as well as that of the social role played by judges in al-Andalus: for example, as members of the urban elite, qadis became de facto rulers in several cities throughout Spain during periods of crises in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in some cases even establishing their own dynasties.

This interest in Islamic legal history naturally leads Fierro to inquire into the law as a window on the Almohad experiment. Contrary to previous scholars who regarded the Almohads as uninterested or unable to bring about major changes to the shari‘a, she believes they did attempt a far-reaching program of reform. An important clue here is none other than Averroes. Fierro suspects he was an insider to the regime and a member of the talaba (“students”), the new religious elite serving as a core support base for the Almohad bureaucracy. Averroes even served as a judge in Seville and Córdoba. To be sure, the interpretation of Averroes’s legal and philosophical writings, and his relationship to the Almohads, are contentious matters of debate among specialists. But Averroes’s major book of comparative Islamic law, alongside known references to some of his lost works, are signs to Fierro of a significant reformist initiative backed by the caliph. Together with his technical reinterpretation of Ibn Tumart’s theology, Averroes may have been trying to adapt the revolution to the needs of the state and its present context. But this likely put him at odds with Almohad elders, the Mahdi’s original community more invested in their messianic legacy. Moreover, the envisioned reforms and a step towards legal codification threatened the authority of the Maliki establishment, whom the Almohads sought to bypass but had to continue to rely upon to some degree. Fierro believes these multiple tensions, rather than an objection to philosophy per se, explain Averroes’s “disgrace” and the accusation of heresy against him.

Fierro’s second Gibb lecture, delivered on March 9, was titled “A Christian Emperor for the Muslims? Heraclius in al-Andalus.” It dealt with another fascinating case study from twelfth-century Spain, again related to the dynamic of scholars and rulers but in a different context: that of the Christian expansion in al-Andalus. In the history of the so-called Reconquista, a decisive turning point was the fall of Toledo in 1085, a few decades before the rise of the Almohads. The mounting Christian offensive would be one of their biggest challenges, and by the time the dynasty came to an end, al-Andalus was drastically reduced to the kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain for another two and a half centuries.

In her lecture, Fierro recounted a story from the conquest of Almería in 1147 by Alfonso VII of León and Castille, allied with a Genoese fleet as well as Pisans and Franks mobilized by the Second Crusade. Among those in the citadel of this key Mediterranean port city when it fell to the Christians was a learned hadith scholar and later judge named Ibn Hubaysh. Reportedly, according to Arabic chronicles, Ibn Hubaysh was freed when he informed Alfonso VII that he knew the king’s genealogy traced back to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Alfonso VII would leave the administration of Almería to his vassal Ibn Mardanish, a muwallad or descendent of Hispanic Muslim converts. Ruler of Valencia and Murcia, and known by the Christians as Rey Lobo or “Wolf King,” Ibn Mardanish was a bulwark against the Almohads, who nevertheless managed to retake Almería a decade later.

But it is the curious story of a Muslim scholar claiming to know a Christian king’s genealogy and mediating for him a Roman legacy, that most intrigues Fierro. To her, it is indicative of a socio-political milieu in which Andalusi Muslims had to increasingly contend with the reality of living as minorities under Christian rule. In helping negotiate this experience, Heraclius had great symbolic significance. Emperor in Constantinople during Muhammad’s lifetime, Heraclius is said to have been sent a letter by the Prophet inviting him to Islam. Although he refused conversion, in his reply Heraclius allegedly recognized the truth of Muhammad’s mission as prophesied in the Bible. The Islamic tradition portrays Heraclius as a wise, pious and just ruler, and thanks to his positive exchange with the Prophet, the survival of Byzantium for so long was often understood by Muslims as divinely ordained. Medieval Christians, on the other hand, would commemorate Heraclius as the “first crusader” who fought the Sassanid Persians and returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. As Fierro observed, the memory of Heraclius seems to have had a particular currency in al-Andalus. Various Muslim accounts suggest the Prophet’s letter to Heraclius somehow ended up in Spain: Mamluk ambassadors claimed to have seen it at an Iberian royal court, and one Almohad scholar believed it had been in the possession of Alfonso VI, conqueror of Toledo and Alfonso VII’s grandfather. 

For Fierro, this becomes the story of “a Christian emperor for Muslims,” perhaps a way for some Andalusis to legitimize their collaborations with the religious other, or to understand their own Christian kings in light of “the Islamic” Heraclius. In fact, Alfonso VI apparently took the Arabic title al-inbaratur dhi’l-millatayn, “emperor of the two religious communities.” The same king also possessed the Arca Santa of Oviedo, containing relics of Mary and Jesus, including fragments of the True Cross, originally rescued from Jerusalem during the Persian conquest of 614, just when Muhammad was beginning his prophetic mission in Arabia. The lavish silver plated chest of the reliquary depicts scenes from the life of Christ, framed by an ornate “pseudo-Kufic” border imitating Arabic calligraphy. Both Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain, in other words, saw themselves as connected to the Middle East in more ways than one.

Scholars of medieval Islam like Maribel Fierro seek to understand a distant past that nevertheless often evokes surprising resonances with the modern world. Not long after the decline of the Almohads in the thirteenth century, as Europe was slowly taking a form now familiar to us, North African societies experienced a veritable flood of refugees pouring out of Spain—an echo, perhaps, of today’s Mediterranean refugee crisis, as ongoing conflicts in the Middle East reshape Europe, the United States and the international order. In various, complicated ways, the Middle Ages seem to throw into relief today’s global age: not only the uncertainties of our own times, but also the richness of our diverse intellectual and aesthetic traditions, and indeed the resilience of the scholarly enterprise. That, above all, is the legacy of Ibn Arabi and Maimonides.