The Portuguese rediscovering their country’s Muslim past
Historians and archaeologists are showing just how integral Islam is to the country’s identity.
Lisbon, Portugal – After fleeing war in his native Iraq, 33-year-old Mustafa Abdulsattar risked his life on a perilous boat trip from Turkey to Greece.
Once in Greece, he was offered resettlement in Portugal, a country he knew very little about. But he was able to find some familiar features.
“I found many common words,” he explains before beginning to list them. Some relate to food, others to cities or regions. Then there is the expression “oxala” (pronounced oshallah), a direct descendent of the Arabic “inshallah”. Both mean “God willing”.
No more foreign
It should not be too surprising that Arabic influences can still be found in the Portuguese language. For centuries, the region was ruled by Arabic-speaking Muslims known as Moors.
In the 8th century, Muslims sailed from North Africa and took control of what is now Portugal and Spain. Known in Arabic as al-Andalus, the region joined the expanding Umayyad Empire and prospered under Muslim rule. But that legacy has been largely forgotten in the predominantly Catholic country.
In Portuguese schools, the five centuries of Muslim rule are studied only briefly. Textbooks place more emphasis on a triumphant “reconquest” of the territory by Christian rulers, aided by crusaders, that ended in the 13th century.
Since then, Portuguese identity has been constructed in opposition to the Moors, historically depicted as enemies. But not everyone agrees with this version of history.
“A great part of the population converted to Islam,” explains Filomena Barros, a professor of Medieval History at the University of Evora.
Research has suggested that by the 10th century, half the population of the Iberian peninsula was Muslim.
For Barros, Muslims who sailed from North Africa were no more foreign than the Christian kings and armies from northern Europe who conquered the territory before and after them.
“The Iberian Peninsula kept being conquered,” she says. “It’s interesting we don’t talk about the Roman conquest, or the Visigothic conquest, but we always talk about the Islamic conquest.”
Before Muslim armies arrived, the region was ruled by Visigoths, a Germanic people who ruled between 418 and 711.
History textbooks emphasise the battles fought by Christian rulers against Muslim ones, but the defeat of Muslim armies did not mean an end to the Muslim presence in Portugal.
“The Christian reconquest doesn’t mean Muslims go back to their land, because this land was theirs as well,” says the historian.
Today, however, less than 0.5 percent of the population of 11 million is Muslim, and few are aware that Muslims once made up a much larger proportion of the population.
“What is taught in school is always taught from the perspective of the [winners],” says 30-year-old Noor-ayn Sacoor. Born in Portugal to parents of Indian and Arab origins, Sacoor is a member of Lisbon’s Muslim community.
She would have liked the school curricula to better cover the long period of coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews, often believed to be the reason the region prospered as a hub for culture and science.
“I wish there was more focus on the heritage left by Muslim rule, it’s not very well-known in Portugal,” she reflects.
Constructing a European identity
All students who attend Portuguese schools are required to read The Lusiads, an epic 16th-century poem by Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoes that celebrates the glory of Portugal’s kings and explorers at a time of imperial expansion.
The poem tells the story of the navigator Vasco da Gama’s first sea voyage to India and his encounters with Muslims, who are portrayed as sly and treacherous.
Celebrated as a national hero for opening the sea route to India that gave Portugal access to the spice trade, which had been controlled by Arab merchants until then, da Gama has also been accused of carrying out a campaign of terror against Muslims in the struggle for control of the sea trade.
In retaliation for attacks against the Portuguese, da Gama captured a ship with 200 Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca and set it alight, killing hundreds on board. But such massacres are not mentioned in The Lusiads, nor in Portuguese school textbooks, where Muslims are blamed for most attacks.
Widely regarded as one of Portugal’s greatest poets, Camoes is commemorated on June 10 in a national holiday called Portugal Day.
The holiday used to be known as the “Day of the Portuguese Race,” and was promoted by conservative nationalist Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, dictator between 1933 and 1968, as a nationalist celebration. This continued until the end of the authoritarian regime he established, the “Estado Novo”, in 1974.
With Catholicism at the core of nationalist narratives, the ultraconservative dictatorship depicted Muslims as invaders and “enemies of the Christian nation”.
“Camoes is not responsible for the appropriations of his work by nationalism,” says Barros. “He’s still one of the greatest Portuguese poets.” But, the historian adds, The Lusiads was a product of the period’s ideological construction of European identity in opposition to Muslims, and a crusading mentality that depicted Christian-Muslim relations in conflictive terms.
According to Barros, when the poem was written, the Ottoman Empire posed a threat to the hegemony of Europe’s Christian rulers.
Throughout the 15th and 16th century, Portuguese kings continued to expand into North Africa, where they established military bases and engaged in warfare. This continued until a disastrous 1578 defeat in the Moroccan town of Ksar el-Kebir (known in Portuguese as Alcacer Quibir) that put an end to Portugal’s expansionist ambitions in North Africa.
The Moor became Portugal’s stereotypical “other” as European identity was being shaped in opposition to Islam. Although the term “Moor” traditionally referred to Arabic-speaking Muslims in North Africa, the label was often used to broadly refer to Muslims, reducing their diversity to a mass of otherness.
But nationalist narratives built on a Catholic identity gloss over centuries of coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians in what is now Portugal and Spain. Barros explains that, contrary to dominant versions of history and long-standing myths, Muslims were not outsiders.
“It’s dangerous to appropriate this for nationalist propaganda,” adds the historian, especially in light of the rise of the far-right across Europe.
Portugal’s Estado Novo was overthrown by the Carnation Revolution of 1974, but some of the old narratives still linger on.
In 2019, a newly formed far-right party won a seat in Portugal’s parliament for the first time since the end of Salazar’s rule. The party has proposed excluding “the teaching of Islam” from public schools, and emphasises the need to combat “Islamic fundamentalism” and defend Europe’s borders from an “invasion” from the south of the Mediterranean.
Erasing Portugal’s Muslim and Jewish history
In 1249, King Afonso III of Portugal captured Faro, the last Muslim stronghold in Algarve. Most Muslims there were killed, fled to territory controlled by Muslims or converted to Christianity, but a small minority were allowed to stay in segregated neighbourhoods.
In 1496, King Manuel I decided to expel all Jews and Muslims, turning the kingdom exclusively Christian.
There are no exact records, but estimates place the number of Jews at the time between 20,000 and 100,000, and the Muslim community is thought to have been considerably smaller. After they were expelled, synagogues and mosques were either destroyed, given to the Catholic church or turned into private dwellings, in an attempt to efface the region’s diverse past and centuries of Jewish and Muslim presence.
The expulsion of the Jewish minority has been acknowledged by the Portuguese government with public apologies and a 2015 law that offers Portuguese citizenship to descendants of Jews who were expelled. Yet Muslims who were expelled by the same 1496 edict were not granted the same courtesies.
Jose Ribeiro e Castro, a conservative politician who drafted the restitution law, said earlier this year that “the expulsion of Muslims is more related to conquests and battles than [to] religious intolerance.”
Because of the supposed background of conflict, politicians argued that the expulsion of Portugal’s Muslims could not be compared to the persecution of Jews, which was based purely on hatred and bigotry.
When religious minorities were given three stark choices – convert to Christianity, leave Portugal or face the death penalty – most Muslims fled to North Africa, where they assimilated into local populations.
The majority of the Jewish population, however, was not allowed to leave the kingdom, as King Manuel turned the initial edict of expulsion into an edict of forced conversion. Some Jewish children were taken from their parents and adopted by Christian families. The remaining Jews were forcibly baptised.
Historians believe that Muslims might have been allowed to leave the kingdom unharmed because the king feared retaliation from Muslim states, while Jews had no such protection.
Those who were forcibly converted were only allowed to leave Portugal after the Lisbon massacre of 1506, when between 1,000 and 4,000 “New Christians”, as the Jewish converts were called, were killed, many of them burned at the stake.
Many fled to the Ottoman empire, establishing vibrant Jewish communities in cities like Thessaloniki, Istanbul and Dubrovnik.
The New Christians who remained in Portugal continued to be persecuted after the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536.
The restitution laws of 2015 were meant as a way of acknowledging the harm done to Portugal’s Jewish community and the erasure of their legacy.
Although Muslims were not granted redress in the form of citizenship rights, a growing interest in Portugal’s Islamic past is slowly clearing the way for a different kind of historical reparation.
Just like Mustafa Abdulsattar, the Portuguese writer Adalberto Alves made a list of Portuguese words derived from Arabic. What started as mere curiosity turned into a decade-long project that led to the publication in 2013 of a dictionary of more than 19,000 Portuguese words and expressions with Arabic origins.
“I wanted to overcome the ‘cliche’ of antagonism between Christians and Muslims and the oblivion about Andalusi civilisation,” Alves explains.
His goal was to emphasise common heritage and to give visibility to the long-neglected presence of Muslims and their contributions to the country’s identity and history. Alves wanted to show that the “other” was, in fact, part of the self.
Alves believes the cultural and intellectual legacy inherited from Islam is yet to be acknowledged in Europe, as Muslims have been written out of European history.
To correct this historical erasure, Alves has spent the last 35 years documenting the influences of al-Andalus in Portugal – from poetry and language to music, carpet-weaving and pastries, to minaret-shaped chimneys. His efforts were acknowledged by UNESCO with the Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture in 2008.
The legacy left by Muslims is vaster than most imagine, Alves explains, pointing out how the Portuguese empire depended on the navigational sciences developed by Arabs. Even Vasco da Gama, whose epic voyage is so widely celebrated in Portugal, is believed to have relied on a Muslim pilot to reach India.
But it was perhaps with poetry that Alves most contributed to changing the way Islamic heritage is perceived in Portugal. With his collection and translation of Arabic poetry from the Andalus period into Portuguese, poets such as al-Mu’tamid, the last Muslim ruler of Seville and one of the most celebrated Andalusian poets, are coming to be known as “local” poets. This year, an exhibition held in Lisbon at the National Library celebrates the work of both Alves and al-Mutamid.
“I dedicated a great part of my life to try to do justice to the great poet and King al-Mutamid ibn Abbad,” says Alves, “maybe because we have origins in the same city, Beja.”
Close to the southern city of Beja, in a region where the influence of Islam is most evident, another pioneering project is debunking the stereotype of an Arab-Muslim invader and recovering the Islamic past as a foundational element of Portuguese identity and heritage.
A shared Mediterranean
It all started with broken pieces of pottery found under a fig tree in Mertola, a small town by the banks of the Guadiana River.
Archaeologist Claudio Torres first visited the whitewashed town in 1976 with the historian Antonio Borges Coelho. Then a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Lisbon, Torres had been invited to Mertola by one of his students. Torres and Coelho stumbled upon some Islamic ceramics near the town’s medieval castle.
Torres, who is now 81, decided to start digging. In 1978, he established the archaeological Field of Mertola and moved to the quiet town with his family.
“Mertola doesn’t show us the battles,” explains researcher Virgilio Lopes, who has been working at the archaeological site for the past 30 years. “It shows us how people used to live together. Underneath these rocks, there is this extraordinary idea of coexistence.”
Next to the medieval castle stands a church with horseshoe arches, a vaulted interior and a mihrab – a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of prayer – behind the church’s main altar.
Archaeologists found traces of a Jewish community and discovered that the church stands on what was once a Roman temple and later a mosque.
“Different communities lived together here until the end of the 15th century,” explains Susana Martinez, a researcher at Mertola’s archaeological field and professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Evora.
“The expulsion of Jews and Muslims breaks the long period of coexistence as Christianity from the north imposes its faith on everyone,” she adds.
Archaeologists in Mertola uncovered a past of coexistence that challenged the way history is told in Portugal. Torres believes that Islam spread across the region through centuries of trade and economic relations and not as a result of violent conquest.
This might explain why, after the first victory in 711 when an Arab and Amazigh army led by Tariq ibn-Ziyad crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa and took control of the south of the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims managed to conquer most of the territory with little difficulty. Generous surrender terms also meant there were more peaceful capitulations than violent battles, allowing Muslims to control most of what is now Portugal and Spain within just a few years.
“The great ruptures we are taught in school didn’t actually materialise,” explains Lopes. “Mertola is important because it shows us the continuities, the moments when religions coexist, the connections between peoples.”
In a time of hardening borders and strict divisions between the north and the south of the Mediterranean, it is hard to imagine that the sea once served as a connector. But this is what archaeologists in Mertola have found. Despite the divides created by nationalism, both shores of the Mediterranean share a common culture and history.
“We shouldn’t look at the south of the Mediterranean as if there was a border dividing us,” says Lopes. “Those people are also our people. Genetically and culturally, we are very close.”
The focus on continuities across the Mediterranean has helped question the dominant nationalist historiography that depicts Muslims as the “other,” but it takes time to change deeply ingrained ideas about national identity and history.
“We need to continue telling the stories of continuities,” says Martinez. “Not the story of elites and their battles, but the stories of common people and the way they interacted, the way they shared similar ways of living. These stories are a powerful way to deconstruct stereotypes and prejudice we might have about the other.”
But perhaps nothing tells the story of continuity and a shared Mediterranean as clearly as Claudio Torres’ own experience.
In the 1960s, Torres was a student and a dissident who was arrested and tortured by the authoritarian regime. When a letter of conscription to serve in Portugal’s colonial war arrived, he decided to flee.
Unable to afford the smugglers’ fee to reach France, he fled Portugal on a small motorboat to Morocco. Carrying other Portuguese fleeing colonial war and dictatorship, his boat nearly sank in a dangerous trip, not unlike Mustafa Abdulsattar’s sea crossing almost 60 years later.
“Today, every day, there are trips like that one,” says Lopes. “But we have forgotten that just decades ago we were the ones crossing.”