Monday, November 02, 2009

Who Are the Moors?

Hey, folks. I have been thinking lately about the term 'Moor'.

You see this term is used a lot to describe the Muslims who lived in Spain. It has several different meanings, and it seems that 'Moor' is the most widely used term to describe the Muslims Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). But what does this term really means. Beside a term to describe the Muslims of Al-Andalus, it is sometimes used to describe the individuals who are of mixed Arab and Amazigh (Berber) peoples of Northern Africa.

Those of you know who do not know Arabic may be suprised to find out that this term is not used in books written in Arabic - the official language used in Al-Andalus. Therefore, what did the people of Muslim Spain and Portugal (Al-Andalus) call themselves? What did Muslims from other lands refer to those people who inhabited Al-Andalus when Islam was dominated that peninsula?

One thing is for sure, and that is that the Muslims of Andalus (Andalusis) did not refer to themselves in terms as people do today. Race as we know it today was not conceived as we conceive it today. The closest concept was ethnicity. Many of the Muslim people were part of tribes, and may have see themselves as part of a tribe first. The concept of nationalism (wataniyyah of qawmiyyah) was not as it is today. The Westerner concept of the 'nation' as defined it a people and a common land with cleary defined borders did not exist until the Westphalian Treaties of 1648, and did not enter the Muslim lands until after Napolean invaded the Muslim lands.

The tribes were indeed the bases of loyalty for most in Al-Andalus. The 'state' was made up of alliances that were not necessarily limited to a specific piece of land. However, people did have a sense of being from a certain land or descended from a particular place. This, however, did not lead people to have extreme patriotism, nationalism, and racism as we have today.

There was also the identity of religion which was much bigger then it is nowadays. Muslims viewed themselves as member of an ummah (worldwide Muslim community). They regularly look at other people as being part of clearly defined religious communities.

Then there was the linguistic identity of Arabs and non-Arabs. The Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad - sallallahu 'alaihi wa sallam - (May Allah mention him among His angels) explained that "there is not difference between an Arab and non-Arab...except by God-conciousness." Arabic is a blessed language since the revelation was brought down in this language and the Quran is preserved in that language. The Prophet Muhammad - sallallahu 'alaihi wa sallam - (May Allah mention him among his angels) defined an Arab by those who speak Arabic and not as an identity based on descent.

Another matter I would like to touch upon is the fact that Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus) was a country that had a diverse ethnic community. The main ethnic groups in Al-Andalus were ethnic Arabs, Amazigh (Berbers), White Europeans, and Black Africans. Most of these population of Al-Andalus were Muslim. There was also a large Christian and Jewish population to which their was great tolerance towards them.

Having said all of this, I realize that I have not anzswered the question of who are Moors. It seems that this term relates mainly to the Amazigh people who are of various races (black, whites, and tans). The terms also can also be expanded to several other tribes of North and West African. The term also spread in Europe and came to refer to all Black Africans and also any of the Muslim peoples. The use of the term in this expansive meaning is really where a lot of the confusion comes into play.

So what about the fact that the Moors never called themselves Moors? Well it is true that this term was not used during the Andalusi days. The Romans prior to the introduction of Islam to Iberia refered to the land south of Iberia as Mauritania and the people as 'Mauros'. In fact, the term originated with the Greeks who used the term 'Maurus'. But from my research, there is evidence that the tern originated in Africa.

So one fact that I think should not be overlooked is that the Muslim of Spain, despite their ethnic origins, refered to themselves as Muslims and also refered themselves as 'Andalusi'. The inhabitants of Al-Andalus were indeed Andalusi. Further, they never refered to themselves as Moors from what I know.

Viewing themselves as 'Andalusis' should not be confused with any modern concept of nationalism. It simply is a matter of attributing themselves to the land in which they lived. The term Andalusi is much more inclusive than the term Moor and much more relevant to the history of Al-Andalus.


  1. "....the Arab by those who speak Arabic and not as an identity based on descent"

    That maybe how the Prophet defined it but Arabs as whole back then and today don't define being an Arab as such.

    As the case of Al Murabitun, Berbers and Black Africans, who felt disrespected and slighted by the Arab Ummayyah rulers of Al Andalusia. The Arabs treated the Christians and Jews of Andalusia better than Berbers & Black Africans which lead to notion that the Ummayah were not fit to rule Andalusia.It's one of the main reasons Al Murabitun conquered Al Andalusia.

  2. Hamza,

    It is true that there are various defintions of Arabs out there. You can review the book "The Definition of Arab" by Shaykul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah

    It is true that there are those who have stressed the ethnic origins of Arabs. This definition was present during the early days of the Ummawi (Ummayyad) caliphs, it seems to have been making a come back in the past century with Pan-Arabism.

    I am not sure as to whether or not the ethnic Arabs treated the Christian and Jews better than the Berbers and Black Africans.


  3. Assalaamu Alaykum,

    Good post. I have often identified myself as being of Andalusi origin via the Dominican Republic. My Grandfather was from Andalusia and my Dad often talks about our spefically Andalusi ancestry versus a wider Spanish identity. The idea of identity, especially for reverts of Hispanic decent, is at times a point of contention and at best confusing.

    On the one side we have a rich Catholic history with it's parallels to Islam to draw from and on the other we have a vague understandin of an ancient Moorish past. What I like to stress is the connection between the Spanish Reconquista and the discovery of the Americas. While Columbus was off rediscpovering what the West Africans had been talking about for centuries, the Spanish were busy driving the Moors to the sea. After the Reconquista, many Muslims fled to the "New World" and many of these families existed as Moriscos undercover for many years and subsequently lost their Muslim identities.

    It would be interesting to do extensive genetic testing of the Caribbean Hispanic populations and see who is who and what is what. I think Hispanics from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic would be surprised to find out how Arab and Berber they really are and that Moro is not just a rice and beans dish but a real part of their history and culture.

    Abu Amhara Yarehk Ibn Hernandez Al-Andalusi

  4. Interesting… I might try some of this on my blog, too. It’s quite interesting how you sometimes stop being innovative and just go for an accepted solution without actually trying to improve it… you make a couple of good points.

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