Don Quixote is the Saturday Night Live of the Spanish Inquisition. Cervantes roasts everybody, including the Catholic Church and even the reader. This magnum opus—called by many the first Western novel—is really a book about reading: Carlos Fuentes famously said of Quixote: “Su lectura es su locura.” [“His reading is his madness.”]1 Quixote reads too much (if that’s possible) and wants to become the literary heroes of his books. But just who are those heroes?
Quixote lauds Amadís de Gaula, El Cid, and Roland, among others. But he also venerates figures—ostensibly enemies of Christian Spain—from the Qur’an as well as Spaniards who were exiled for Muslim ancestry.
The Reconquest described in Quixote’s books ended a century before, in 1492, when the final independent Muslim kingdom in Western Europe (in Granada) was expelled. By Quixote’s day, there were apparently no more Moors in Iberia. Still, Quixote lights out in search of heroic battles to sanctify Spain, in the guise of El Cid. (The historical Cid—Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar—served many years on the court of the Taifa de Saraqusta, but, in the epic poem about his exploits, he fights exclusively against Muslims.)
On his great quest, Quixote finds only madness and Manchegan windmills, mistaking the latter for giants (i.e., Moors). Between the lines, however, Cervantes concealed a story that literary critics are only beginning to resolve. It’s a biting satire of the Catholic Church—but also a nostalgic and painful account of the systematic destruction of Islamic culture in Spain.
In the months leading up to the US-led invasion of Baghdad, many Iraqi students left the country bound for European universities. One was Muhsin al-Ramli, who completed a doctoral work in Madrid titled Las huellas de la cultura islámica en el Quijote [The Influence of Islamic Culture in Don Quixote]. Thanks, in part, to al-Ramli’s generation of scholars in exile, the last two decades have thrust the Spanish literary establishment into a much-needed convulsion.
A traditional line of scholarship holds that Cervantes was Islamophobic and something of a Catholic zealot. Universidad de Alicante professor Luis Fernando Bernabé Pons asserts that Cervantes was an evangelical who wanted “to convince” moriscos (or “little Moors”—Spanish converts to Christianity, many practicing Islam in secret) to become “committed” Catholics. “I do not agree,” Bernabé Pons has said, “that Cervantes tolerated Islam, or that he respected Islam. Cervantes was a Christian. He wanted the moriscos to convert.”2
Similarly, Darío Fernández-Morera, an emeritus associate professor at Northwestern, argues it is “unlikely that Cervantes envisaged a multicultural Spain. … He would not be in favor of diluting national, cultural, and religious differences, but in favor of preserving them.”3
“I have another view,” says al-Ramli: Cervantes was “in favor [of Islam]” in Don Quixote. “The Inquisition was going on,” notes the Iraqi scholar, “and Cervantes knew how to camouflage his ideas.” Al-Ramli foregrounds the author’s lived experience in the Muslim world, saying, “without his experience in Algeria,” where he lived for six years, “Cervantes could not exist as we know him, nor his literature.”4
ISLAM & CERVANTES
Parts of Spain were under Islamic rule for nearly eight centuries. During Cervantes’s boyhood, moriscos lived everywhere: the Catholic Church tried to weed them out through standardized tests (let’s see if you eat this pork without grimacing) and a network of spies (bad news if you wear green, bathe regularly, or possess a text with Arabic characters). Perhaps the most violent morisco mass deportation began in 1609, a date that falls between the publication of Don Quixote I (1605) and its sequel (1615). To belabor the obvious, the question of morisco Spain was all the rage.
Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, the sector of Madrid with the largest morisco population.5 He likely also lived for a time in Sevilla and Córdoba, both hubs of Islamic culture. While many lineage documents from this era do not survive, some scholars believe his ancestors were converts to Christianity. “Whether Cervantes was a converso,” note David Castillo and William Egginton, remains “crucial to disentangling the meaning of his texts.”6
As Ordóñez points out, some “Islamists say that Cervantes was Moorish. There are also those who say that he was a Jew. Instead of ‘What was Cervantes?’ one might ask, ‘What wasn’t he?’”7 While conversion from one religion to another—and sometimes back again—is a process characterized by fluidity, terms like “Muslim” and “Jew” and “Christian” suggest immutable categories.8 The words themselves are sometimes deficient: they belie how transitions among faiths occur (especially when conversion is forced). Don Quixote aims at the spaces in between.
In 1575, a crucial event in Western literary history occurred: Cervantes was en route to Barcelona from Naples when his vessel was intercepted by a Berber ship that may have been piloted by a Spanish convert to Islam.9 Cervantes was taken captive and brought to Algeria, where he was held for nearly six years. When Arnaut Mamí (his captor, an Albanian convert) found letters from Don Juan and the Duke de Sessa in Cervantes’s personal effects, he incorrectly regarded him as a powerful nobleman. “Cervantes often complained,” observes Cornell professor emerita María Antonia Garcés, “of the high opinion his master had of him, thinking he was one of the principal gentlemen of Spain.”10
Anything you can do Cervantes could do meta.
A prisoner of means, Cervantes was held for payment, not labor, and he enjoyed a great deal of privilege. The words “slavery” and “bondage” often appear in Cervantes biographies concerning this period, but he did zero work and was free to move about the city as he pleased. (His first escape attempt amounted to trying to walk to the next town. Tired and thirsty, he eventually walked back.) He had no tasks or duties. He was not disciplined like other captives for any of his four escape attempts. He sent and received letters and spent a great deal of time socializing with friends from Algeria and around the Ottoman world.
Algiers was then a cosmopolitan city of over 125,000, with an important enclave of deported moriscos. Many Europeans in Algiers, captives and otherwise, voluntarily converted to Islam.11 Elite converts in Algiers, like Cervantes’s captor, “were invested with commands and dignities.”12 Mamí and others apparently encouraged Cervantes to join them in recognizing Mohammed as prophet. While Cervantes ostensibly rejected these offers, he was immersed in Islamic culture, lived life in Arabic and other tongues, experienced and perhaps took part in Ramadan (the holy month) as well as salat (daily prayers) and the Five Pillars (primary spiritual rites).
In six years someplace, life happens. As Garcés observes, some scholars believe there may have been a “love affair between Cervantes and a Moorish woman.”13
Eventually the ransom arrived. By late October 1580, Cervantes was back in Spain. Curiously, after a few unhappy months in his homeland—probably some reverse culture shock—Cervantes sought to return to Algeria. By mid-1581, he was back on the Barbary Coast, this time as a royal messenger. (He was later sent on to Lisbon.)
Many critics emphasize the pivotal importance of those years in North Africa: Américo Castro says it was “the most transcendental event in his spiritual career,” while Juan Bautista Avalle-Arce says this experience “organizes the entire life of Cervantes.”14
ISLAM & DON QUIXOTE 15
“Cervantes spoke of Islam and Judaism in his stories in discreet and subtle ways,” Kevin Bullard Quiñones, of the Universidad de Puerto Rico, wrote to me in an email, “as his views did not fit the narrative the Catholic Church wanted to create.” Cervantes’s masterpiece has many dimensions; several stem from his shrewd—“discreet and subtle,” as Quiñones puts it—narrative technique. By making Don Quixote a madman, for example, Cervantes can escape the prying eyes of Inquisition censors. He could insult clergy, even the Bible, as part of the protagonist’s lunacy.
Consequently, he could put much of the material in plain sight. This results in scores of puns, one-liners, and parodies. This wordplay begins early in chapter 1, as the narrator explains the main character’s last name: Some say “his surname was Quixada or Quesada … although from reasonable conjectures it seems plain that he was called Quexana. This, however, is of but little importance to our tale.”16 Of little importance? Only if you miss the jokes. “Quexana” (“Quejana” in Spanish and “Kexaa” in Euskara, the Basque language) is a town in the Basque Country that marked the northernmost border of Muslim Spain. “Quixada” (“Quijada” in Spanish) means “jaw,” while “Quesada” at that time was a Moorish surname.17
Even so, the role of Islam itself in Don Quixote is not about parody but irony. Cervantes venerates a lost Spain, a beautiful one, that was being destroyed by the Inquisition. The narrator explains that Don Quixote is an Arabic manuscript (it may be aljamiado, Spanish language written in Arabic characters); it was discovered in Toledo—holy Toledo!; and its author is Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Spaniard and an Arab from La Mancha.
But if Don Quixote is a Spanish tale written in Arabic, what we read is transcribed or translated into the Roman alphabet (Borges called it, in jest, “a bad translation”18). Many scholars claim this entire backstory was a joke. Whatever the case, the narrator wants the reader to know that Quixote speaks Arabic:
“[Hamete Benegeli] is a Moorish name,” said Don Quixote.
“Maybe so,” replied Sancho; “for I have heard say that the Moors are mostly great lovers of berengenas.” [Berengena, or eggplant, was brought to Iberia by Muslims, and traditionally consumed by some during Ramadan.]
“Thou must have mistaken the surname of this ‘Cide’—which means in Arabic ‘Lord’—Sancho,” observed Don Quixote.
Sancho asks about the word albogues and Quixote defines it (musical instrument) and clarifies that the word derives from Arabic, “as are all those in our Spanish tongue that begin with al; for example, almohaza, almorzar, alhombra, alguacil, alhucema, almacen, alcancia, and others.”19 Some fundamental components of Quixote’s being, his name and linguistic proficiency, link him directly to an Islamic-Spanish-Arabic world.
The novel also alludes to Muslim life under Catholic law. Ahmad ibn Abi Jum’ah’s 1504 Oran fatwa decreed that Spanish Muslims might feign Christianity and consume alcohol and pork when under duress. A weekend meal of duelos y quebrantos, or bacon and eggs, may convey a sense of Quixote’s concealed anguish. Carolyn Nadeau argues that the name of the dish (“trials and sorrows,” in English) alludes to the consumption of pork as a method to prove Catholicism and to the “physical and moral pain” of that task.20
Traditional views deny anything of the sort. Fernández-Morera claims that Cervantes welcomed the morisco expulsions: “Surely even a saint would have felt some sense of poetic justice upon seeing the same people who had enslaved him and occupied his land finally expelled from it.” Regardless of whether “occupied” is the right word to characterize a 781-year period, Fernández-Morera goes on to evidence his assertion by noting that: “Don Quijote’s axiological enemy [is] the Knight of the Green Cloak.”21 During the Inquisition, one of the “supposed non-Christian practices included wearing fine clothes,” notes Rukhsana Qamber, “especially those made of silk.”22 Green is perhaps the color most symbolic of Islam (for some Muslims, paradise is that color) and it appears on many historic and contemporary flags in the area, including that of Algeria, Andalucía, and Al-Andalus. But Cervantes emphasizes that Quixote himself uses “green silk” socks: “I say green silk [a third time], because the stockings were green.”23
Moreover, the Muslim prophet and Quixote have some remarkable physical similarities. Mohammed was known for a birthmark or a mole—called by some “the Mark of Prophethood”24—in the center of his back. When Quixote says, “Sancho … help me to strip,” Dorothea asks, “What does your worship want to strip for?” “To see if I have that mole,” answered Don Quixote. “There is no occasion to strip,” Sancho interrupts. “I know your worship has just such a mole on the middle of your backbone, which is the mark of a strong man.”25 Mohammed and Quixote also die in similar circumstances. After nine days of delirium, their fevers break: in a final moment of lucidity, they offer last words of advice about property, and then expire.
Whether these retellings are incidental—I doubt they are coincidental—is unclear. But Cervantes addresses the morisco expulsions directly in his sequel, the 1615 installment of Don Quixote. In chapter 54, Sancho meets Ricote, his former neighbor, now an exile who has returned to Spain disguised as a pilgrim. They laugh and cry together before debating the expulsion decree. In the end, Sancho refuses to denounce the Spaniard, “an illegal” in his own land. (If exposed, Sancho’s “see something, say nothing” decision would have brought reprimand.)
Echoing sentiments Cervantes likely heard from Spanish exiles in Algiers, Ricote explains, “Nowhere do we find the reception our unhappy condition needs; and in Barbary and all the parts of Africa where we counted upon being … welcomed, it is there they insult and ill-treat us most.” His eloquence expresses something Benengeli wasn’t satirizing: So profound “is the love of one’s country” and “the longing we … have to return to Spain,” Ricote explains, that “wherever we are we weep for Spain.”26
Perhaps the most learned person in the novel, Ricote’s name means “very rich” in Spanish. In 1614, the Valle de Ricote—also known as El Valle Morisco, in the Murcia region—was the final Spanish community to be deported.
ISLAM & EXILE
Cervantes’s labyrinth intersects places, histories, metaphors, communities, languages, writing systems, and translation. It brings us from the northernmost point of Islamic Spain (Quejana) to its final enclave (Valle de Ricote). But Ricote’s pain—“wherever we are we weep”—reaches beyond borders and transcends Cervantes’s masterpiece. His words have the same meaning in Algiers and Alcalá de Henares and Mecca and Jerusalem that they have on the Mexico/US border, whether in Arabic, English, Spanish, or Hebrew.
Mukadder Yaycioğlu deftly argues that, in Don Quixote, translation itself (Arabic to Spanish) and transcription (Arabic to Latin characters) merge deep components of being, time, community, and experience:
If we try to understand what the game consists of, we realize that we do not fully understand it until we finish reading and do another take: a retrospective and a futuristic one; return from the end (which is equivalent to now/the present) to the beginning (which is equivalent to before/the past) and vice versa, to foresee the future. It is the eternal return that saves us from the threat of forgetting history. With this linear and circular structure, in which Western and Eastern cultures merge, and through the aljamiado text and its transcription into the Roman alphabet, Cervantes creates an intercultural game/deception and confronts the writing system of the Semitic languages—Arabic and Hebrew (which are written right to left, back to front)—with Latin, which is written in the opposite direction, to show that the difference between the two systems is no more than a formal reality and does not change the concept, beginning and end.27
Anything you can do Cervantes could do meta.
Novels can say what history silences. In the centuries since Don Quixote, the form has given us a single June day in the city of Dublin, regret in a house on Mango Street, and an old train climbing the hill toward Macondo. Like the questions posed in Gabriel García Márquez’s Aracataca, Sandra Cisneros’s Chicago, and James Joyce’s Dublin, the irony and humor of Cervantes’s novel ask questions about Spain that are otherwise unutterable—questions about state policies and religious beliefs, about personhood and belonging, in ways that emphasize the distance between truth and fiction, between perception and reality.
Cervantes knew that after the terrible, dogmatic reality in which he lived, there would be imagination. But the power, beauty, humor, and eloquence of Islamic Spain wasn’t something he had to imagine.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.
- Carlos Fuentes, En esto creo (In this I believe) (Planeta DeAgostini / Seix Barral, 2002), p. 162. My translation. ↩
- Luis Fernando Bernabé Pons, “Los moriscos a través de Cervantes” (The moors through Cervantes), in El Quijote en Ricote – Cervantes, El Islam y Los Moriscos (Quijote in Ricote – Cervantes, Islam, and the moors), conference panel, Universidad de Murcia, May 25, 2015. My translation. ↩
- Darío Fernández-Morera, “Cervantes and Islam: A Contemporary Analogy,” Cervantes y su mundo (Cervantes and his world), vol. III, edited by Kurt Reichenberger and A. Robert Lauer (Reichenberger 2005), p. 153. ↩
- Muhsin al-Ramli, “Cervantes y el mundo islámico” (Cervantes and the Islamic world), La Noche de los Libros (The night of books), symposium, Casa Árabe and Librería Balqís, April 22, 2016. My translation. ↩
- Francisco J. Moreno Díaz del Campo, “Algo más sobre los moriscos de Madrid” (Something more on the moors of Madrid), Tiempos modernos: Revista Electrónica de Historia Moderna (Modern times: Electronic magazine of modern history), vol. 8, no. 34 (2017), p. 322. ↩
- David Castillo and William Egginton, “Hispanism(s) Briefly: A Reflection on the State of the Discipline,” Hispanic Issues Online (2006), p. 50. ↩
- Ordóñez, “Respuesta: Provocación ridícula: Cervantes era catalán y homosexual” (Response: ridiculous provocation: Cervantes was Catalán and homosexual), Hispanismo, 14 March, 2005, p.1. My translation. ↩
- “In the work of Cervantes neither Christian nor Muslim can be clearly categorized,” argues Meaghan O’Halley, “rather there is considerable fluidity and overlapping between the two categories, as an array of complex situations reveal not only the uncertain identity of many characters, but also their ambiguous place within both Muslim and Christian societies.” (From O’Halley’s 2013 dissertation, “Placing Islam: Alternative Visions of the Morisco Expulsion and Spanish Muslim-Christian Relations in the Sixteenth Century,” Duke University, p. 8.) ↩
- It was common in this period for such vessels to piloted by Spaniards who had converted to Islam. In Cervantes’s play Los baños de Argel (The Baths of Argel), Hazén and Yzuf are Spanish converts to Islam who plan to go to Spain, boasting that they can guide ships along the coast better than others because they grew up there. ↩
- María Antonia Garcés, Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), p. 40. ↩
- Such conversions are not a thing of the past. Several US soldiers at Guantánamo reportedly chose to convert to the faith of their prisoners. See: “Guantanamo guards ‘embrace Islam’,” Al Jazeera, October 14, 2003. ↩
- Thomas Roscoe, The Life and Writings of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1839; Wentworth Press, 2019), p. 28. ↩
- Garcés, Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale, p. 50. ↩
- Quoted in Garcés, Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale, p. 15. ↩
- This section is indebted to the work of Mukadder Yaycioğlu, María Antonia Garcés, Luce López-Baralt, Mahmoud Sobh, Rabéb Touihri, Kevin Bullard, Shadi Rohana, and Muhsin al-Ramli. ↩
- Cervantes, Don Quixote, chapter 1. ↩
- Just before dying, he says: “I was mad, now I am in my senses; I was Don Quixote of La Mancha, I am now, as I said, Alonso Quixano (Quijano, in original).” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, chapter 74). Quixada (jaw) can mean “chatty,” or refer to a person speaking condescendingly. ↩
- Jorge Luis Borges, “An Autobiographical Essay,” New Yorker, September 19, 1970, p. 141. ↩
- Cervantes, Don Quixote, chapter 67. ↩
- Carolyn Nadeau, “‘Duelos y quebrantos los sábados’: la influencia judía y musulmana en la dieta del siglo xvii” (“Trials and Sorrows on Saturdays” : The Jewish and Muslim influence on the 17th-century diet”), Comentarios a Cervantes (Commentaries on Cervantes), edited by Emilio Martínez Mata and María Fernández Ferreiro (Fundación María Cristina Masaveu Peterson, 2014), p. 237. ↩
- Fernández-Morera, “Cervantes and Islam: A Contemporary Analogy,” p. 153. ↩
- Rukhsana Qamber, “Inquisition Proceedings against Muslims in 16th-Century Latin America,” Islamic Studies, vol. 45, no. 1 (2006), p. 26. ↩
- Cervantes, Don Quixote, chapter 44. ↩
- Hassan Abbas, The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib (Yale University Press, 2021), p. 53. ↩
- Cervantes, Don Quixote, chapter 30. ↩
- Cervantes, Don Quixote, chapter 54. ↩
- Mukadder Yaycioğlu, “El uso del aljamía por Cid(e) Hamet(e) Benenegel(i), autor(a) del Quijote disfrazado/a de mujer/hombre” (“The use of aljamiado by Cid(e) Hamet(e) Benenegel(i), author of Don Quixote disguised as a woman/man”), Siglia, no. 26 (2010), pp. 97–98. My translation and emphases. ↩