al-Andalus, Catholicism, Islam

The Martyrs of Córdoba: Part I

St. Eulogius was a Priest, later Archbishop of Toledo, who was the martyrs’ hagiographer. Along with Paulus Alvarus, he wrote in defense of the martyrs, against critics in the Christian community who were unfavorable towards the movement. He himself was later martyred in A.D. 859.

Introduction:

In the wake of the Islamic conquest of Visigoth Spain in the early 8th century, the Muslim minority conquerors found themselves, much like in the case of the conquests in the East, ruling over a majority population of Christians and Jews. Under Islamic law (sharia), the Jews and Christians of Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) were accorded the right to remain, and to keep their religion as “People of the Book.”  In exchange for this, they were required to pay a poll tax (jizya), to not proselytize, and to submit to other socio-religious restrictions as laid out in the “Pact of Umar.” As dhimmis (the Arabic term for these second-class citizens), these Jews and Christians were expected to abide by this contract, lest they forfeit this status, and the associated protection of their persons and property that came with it.

By the mid-9th century, the Abbasid caliphate had now replaced the Umayyad one in the East. In spite of an Abbasid liquidation of the Umayyads, prince Abd al-Rahman (d. 788) had escaped and settled into al-Andalus, eventually becoming the emir of Córdoba. By 850, abd al-Rahman II was the emir, and the capital was growing economically and culturally.[1]  Specifically, the Umayyad court underwent a transformation as it sought to emulate the court of the Abbasid caliphs in the East, with all its trappings of Arabo-Islamic high culture.[2]  This was the time period in which a man named Ziryab (aka “Blackbird”) fled from troubles in the Abbasid East and settled into Córdoba.[3]  As Brian Catlos points out, “Ziryab… [brought] to al-Andalus the entire package of ‘Abbasid high culture and fashion, which had been perfected over the preceding half century.”[4]  By 852, al-Andalus had been established as an economic giant in the Mediterranean world.[5]  It is precisely during this period of economic and cultural ascendancy that a remarkable series of events unfolded.

Under the emirates of abd al-Rahman II and Muhammad I, between the years 850-859, over fifty Christians were executed for violating Islamic laws pertaining to blasphemy and apostasy.[6] They are commonly referred to in the academic literature as the “Martyrs of Córdoba”, or the “Voluntary Martyrs”; the latter appellation betraying the somewhat unique character of most of these martyrdoms in that most sought out the Islamic authorities on their own accords, rather than being discovered as blasphemers or apostates.  As Janina Safran notes, “perhaps most notoriously in the case of Rogelius and Servus Dei, who entered the Great Mosque during worship to preach the truth of the Gospel and the falsehood of Islam, these radicals deliberately provoked violence that stimulated members of both communities to redefine their identities and clarify their relations.”[7]  The communities Safran refers to, of course, are both the Muslim and the indigenous Christian (often referred to as Mozarabic) ones.

Many of the martyrdoms fit the profile of a verbal denunciation of Islam and/or Muhammad, subsequently punished by the Islamic authorities as blasphemy, while other martyrs were executed for apostasy due to having once been Muslims.  In the latter case, due to sharia permitting a Muslim man to marry a Christian woman, accompanied with it also declaring that any offspring of such a union would automatically be considered to be Muslim, there arose the situation where the children of such mixed marriages later became Christians.  This made such children guilty of apostasy under Islamic law.  This process seems to have been facilitated by the influence that a Christian mother could have on her children[8], or by the laxity in families’ enforcement of sharia with respect to the duty to raise the children as Muslims.[9]  As Safran points out, concern for the religion of the children of intermarried couples was part of Malik ibn Anas’s rationale for disapproving of the practice altogether.[10]  The Muslim scholars (ulama) of al-Andalus and the Maghreb adhered to the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, which draws its name from him.

Hugh Kennedy seems to sum up the state of scholarship regarding the Martyr’s Movement ca. 1996, when he wrote: “The motivation of the martyrs has been much debated.  Its historical importance is difficult to determine…but it raises interesting moral and theological points about self-inflicted martyrdom which make the whole episode the subject of continuing debate.”[11]  This debate surrounding the motivation of the martyrs stretches back to the 15th century.  In Part II, we will examine how scholars have historically handled this question.


[1] Jessica Coope. The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion.  Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Pgs. 3, 7.

[2] Hugh Kennedy. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus.  New York.  Routledge, 2014. Pg. 48.

[3] Ibid.  Pg. 46.  Jessica Coope. The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion.  Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Pg. 7. 

[4] Brian A. Catlos. Kingdom’s of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain. New York. Basic Books, 2018. Pg. 97. 

[5] Hugh Kennedy. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus.  New York.  Routledge, 2014. Pgs. 59-60

[6] Joseph O’Callaghan. A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca.  Cornell University Press, 1975.  Pg. 110.

[7] Janina M. Safran. “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus”, Speculum Vol. 76.  No. 3 (July, 2001): Pg. 575. 

[8] Ibid. pgs. 583-584.

[9] Jessica Coope. The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion.  Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Pg. 28. Cf. Janina M. Safran. “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus”, Speculum Vol. 76.  No. 3 (July, 2001): Pg. 584.

[10] Janina M. Safran. “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus”, Speculum Vol. 76.  No. 3 (July, 2001): Pg. 583.

[11] Hugh Kennedy. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus.  New York.  Routledge, 2014. Pg. 48.

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