Monday 22 October 2018

Muslims in Non Muslim Countries: Portugal

In the series of posts of Muslims in Non Muslim countries, I have so far covered Ukraine and Spain. While writing a rather detailed account of Muslim conquest of Spain by the Ummayad in early 8th century, I did not mention Portugal which was also partly under the Muslim rule for almost five hundred years. Today I exclusively focus on Portugal as both Spain and Portugal saw the rise of Muslim rulers in their countries, benefited from the rich cultural heritage, and then forced them out as part of after the Reconquista.  

The Iberian Peninsula, also known as Iberia, is located in the southwest corner of Europe. The peninsula is principally divided between Spain and Portugal. So when the Ummayad invaded Spain and their rule expanded, parts of Portugal also came under their fold. Thus from 711 to 1249, much of the territory of what is now Portugal (namely south of the Mondego river, but particularly in the Alentejo and the Algarve) was under Muslim control, and was called Garb Al-Andalus (the west of Al-Andalus). Whilst first Seville and then Cordoba came to be known as the capital of the Muslim Kingdom of Spain, the city of Silves was the capital of the medieval Muslim Kingdom of Portugal. [1]

Like Spain, the fall of Muslim rule was torturous and cruel as the Muslims were either forced to convert to Christianity or forced to leave the country to neighbouring African states. The end fate could not be better explained by Robert Fisk in his article "There's a reason why anti-Muslim ideology hasn't found a home in Portugal"as under: [2]
The ramparts of the Portuguese Castle of the Moors – “Castelo dos Mouros” – fell to the Christians of the Second Crusade in 1147, a bunch of thieves and drunkards, according to local reports, which included a fair number of Brits. There’s a story that a huge fortune in gold and coins still lies beneath the castle’s broken and much-restored walls, hidden there by the Moors when Afonso Henriques’ thugs were climbing the hills above Sintra. My guess is there’s none. Our relations with the Muslims have always revolved, it seems to me, around money and jealousy. Besides, the Crusaders looted their way across Lisbon – after a solemn agreement with the King that they could do so – and then massacred and raped their way through the panic-stricken Muslim population.
I came across a reference from a textbook of Portugal (1930-1974) which said: "For Portugal to be born, it was necessary to fight and expel Moors. who were not only the foreign enemies of our motherland, but enemies also to our Christian faith." Which implies that the making of Portugal, in other words, is literally the erasure of Islam; in such a narrative, by definition, there was no place for Muslims in national history. [3]

However, unlike Spain, where the Arabic text and all Arabic books were burnt, the Portuguese inherited a lot form the Arabs and are still regarded as as exotic and educated peoples and whose own culture was never erased from the streets of Portugal’s cities. Nowhere can present day connections between the Muslim and European past be more perfectly illustrated than in Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in the northern suburbs of Lisbon. Old Gulbenkian, the richest Armenian of his time, the original “Mr Five Per Cent” of oil earnings, was an extraordinary philanthropist of his time, his foundation even trying to bridge the insurmountable gap between the Armenian peoples and their genocider Turkish fellow citizens after 1915. This may be why the short biography of the man available at the Lisbon institution refers to the Armenian genocide – disgracefully – as merely “the tragic events”.[2]

As of today, according to the Islamic Community of Lisbon, there are about 40,000 Muslims living in Portugal (according to 2011 estimates). The majority of Muslims in the country are Sunnis, followed by approximately 5,000 to 7,000 Sevener Ismā'īlī Shīʻa Muslims. Most of the Muslim population originates from the former Portuguese overseas provinces of Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, most of the latter having their origin in South Asia. Although very small percentage of the population, the existing community is respected and problems with it are unheard of. Portugal has a floating Muslim community in Porto, they come and go and don’t stay long. However, Lisbon has a sizable Muslim community. In Lisbon and Odivelas they are mostly originally from India, Pakistan and moved to Portugal via Mozambique after the independence of this country. They are Portuguese and are today well integrated members of society.

I personally know a friend of my son whose parents moved to Portugal years ago and are not Portuguese citizens. There is another community in Palmela, where they have one of the best schools in the country and own businesses.

As for the Muslim women attire, niqābs are almost unheard of and even hijabs are not that common. Halal meat is very rare to find. More liberal Muslims should have no problem living in Portugal. Conservative Muslims might have a harder time since the country is not well catered for a religion with such a small representation and culturally so different from the Portuguese way of life. As of now islamophobia has not found its inroads in Portugal and the locals are very friendly to foreigners and people of other faiths.[5]

The Muslim introduction of new agricultural technology and plain hard work made Portugal prosper. To this day, the common Portuguese verb “mourejar” means “to work like a Moor (Muslim),” and it implies unusual diligence and tenacity. Indeed, Portuguese is saturated with thousands of words with Arabic origin.

While the full extent of Portugal’s Muslim heritage has long been forgotten or ignored, while converting the 16th-century Convento da Graça into a luxury hotel in Trivira in 2010, developers uncovered a cobbled street and foundations of a dozen homes built more than 700 years ago by the Arab Muslims who then ruled much of Portugal. In order to conserve the heritage, instead of the pool, there’s now a small museum under the hotel bar. Walkways allow visitors to wander above what remains of the medieval Moorish neighborhood. [6]

Although, the Spaniards did not leave a single trace of the Arabic language, they could not remove the traces of great Moorish architecture from Spain. It seems the Muslims concentrated more on Spain and less in Portugal as far architecture is concerned. Today, the town of Mértola, in the Alentejo, possesses the only partial remains of a mosque, converted to a Catholic Church after the Reconquista. The waterwheel in Algarve today is a descendant of the Muslim waterwheel that helped revolutionize agriculture in Portugal as in Spain. [4]

The Portuguese language is however peppered with words of Arabic origin, often those relating to food, farming and manual work. One commonly used is “oxalá” – a direct descendant of “in sha Allah”, the term meaning “God willing.” The city we know of as Lisbon, originates from the city once known as Al-Ishbun. The famous city of Algarve, takes its name directly from al-Gharb al-Andalus. These are not the only places to inherit a Muslim name, hundreds of place names in Portugal start with “Al”, the Arabic for ‘The’. The Alfama district in Lisbon is one such example. In fact, all across the Mediterranean this is the case, from Alghero in Sardinia to Algeciras in Southern Spain. The Portuguese language continues to borrow many words from Arabic, such as azeitona (olives) and garrafa (bottle). Others include azenha (water mill), from the Arabic al-saniyah and nora (water wheel), from the Arabic na’urah. [4]

Commenting on the footprints the Muslims left in Portugal, Adalberto Alves, the country’s best-known expert in the field writes: [6]
“If by magic it was possible to wipe out all the remnants of the Arab legacy from today’s Portugal, our ethnic, cultural, physical and human landscape would be completely different.” 
“We might be blond instead of dark, we’d stop speaking the Arabized-Latin that we call Portuguese and we’d loose over a thousand words from our dictionaries. So many of our villages and towns would no longer exist or have to change their names. We wouldn't know how to name the things we grow and eat. What would we call Jasmin, oranges, dates and pomegranates?”
As for masjids, Lisbon has a big mosque and some places in the suburbs have them as well, but it's not the easiest thing to find in Portugal. Watch this short video clip of Muslims celebrating the Muslim festival of Eid in Lisbon:
Islam is Europe’s second religion. As for Portugal, we pray that Islam will flourish in these lands once again and make it prosper as it once did. "Oxalá."

Photo: Central Mosque of Lisbon | References: | 12 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |
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