Phobia and Admiration for Islam in Cervantes’s Don Quijote
By Eric Graf
Being foremost an academic, I write a lot about how history’s greatest novel, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha, anticipated all types of creative fiction, especially modernist experiments involving unreliable narrators who reveal themselves as such, winking at readers, disallowing that seamless illusion of a tale in which we might lose ourselves.
It also previewed socially and politically rebellious texts that interest professors of feminist, gay, and post-colonial studies. In Don Quijote, subtle women tower over inept men; male bonding and boyish beauty challenge bourgeois modesty; and Spanish imperialism becomes a lost cause: at best, nostalgia for personal values; at worst, an abandonment of humanist principles, a disturbingly racist enterprise, and a waste of lives and resources.
Personally, I’m more intrigued by Don Quijote’s subtleties: aljófar is an anagram for alforja; just how a character treats his galley slaves makes all the difference on earth; there are uncanny signs that Sancho’s asses are not matters of authorial error; Plato’s Cave proliferates from Algerian prisons to Roman monuments to gashes in the Manchegan countryside; Zoraida’s name in Arabic means the Pleiades, or Las Siete Hermanas or Los Siete Cabritos in Spanish.
Nevertheless, I’ll admit Don Quijote’s contemplation of Islam might also be of interest. The novel meditates on Europe’s first global expansion, when Spanish militancy changed from a medieval response to a Muslim invasion into a modern means of sustaining an empire encompassing Iberia, Italy, the Netherlands, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, and Goa.
While elements of the latter cut across his fiction, Cervantes seems to have been more interested in Spain’s fading encounter with the Orient. Indeed, throughout the 16th century, Moors, Saracens, or Hagarenes were antagonists as problematic to Spaniards as were their English, Dutch, French, or Portuguese rivals, or whatever was happening in America.
It’s a tragic irony that terrorist attacks the world over highlight another of Don Quijote’s prescient questions: what the hell to do about Islam?
Writers like Juan Goytisolo and Luce López-Baralt would have us believe Cervantes abhorred Christianity, that he and his imaginary Moorish narrator Cide Mahamete Benengeli are joined at a subversive hip. Similarly, scholar María Rosa Menocal and author Antonio Gala imagine the Cordovan Caliphate as a religious, cultural, and ethnic lovefest shattered by Reconquista thugs.
Said writers’ confusion is not baseless. Islamic Spain certainly produced some amazing scientists and philosophers; peaceful harmony it was not. Moreover, isolated from the fanatic hordes of North Africa, those worldly successes attributable to Cordoba remain exceptions to the rule. We still await a secular Islam ready to coexist alongside atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Yazidis. In American academia, Islamophilia versus Islamophobia informs the spat between Edward Said and Bernard Lewis. I’m with Lewis.
In deference to multiculturalists, however, Cervantes blurs easy binaries. This owes to his five years as a slave in Algiers, and the fact that his literary career took shape between the rebellion of the Moriscos in the Alpujarras region of Andalucía (1568-71) and the eventual expulsion of all Spanish Moriscos (1609-14).
Proud of having participated in the Holy League’s victory over the Turk at Lepanto (1571), he was uneasy with domestic policies of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing, longing for the mutual respect that characterized certain phases of previous eras. Also, he hated the Inquisition and was critical of Philip II’s efforts against Islam in North Africa.
Finally, Don Quijote’s details do suggest respect for Muslim culture: its final cosmic pen, its emphasis on the Song of Songs, its ethical rendering of the gold standard, its spontaneous vision of commerce, its appreciation of multiracialism. We’re all pomegranate seeds in God’s garden, Aldonza Lorenzo (Dulcinea) is a Morisca, and, during lucid intervals, our knight rejects blood purity, warns against obsessing over lineage, and resolves ethnic, religious, and fiscal conflicts in Andalusia.
Cervantes was also a precursor to the classical liberalism of Locke, Hume, Jefferson, and Twain. This also explains the tendency to overdetermine his reasoned tolerance as somehow limitless, revolutionary, or contemptuous of Western traditions. But more cautious thinkers also read Don Quijote.
Bastiat took Sancho’s rule of Barataria as a lesson against utopianism. Burke rejected our “metaphysic knight” for the “recovery of his natural rights” via actions more proper to “a highwayman and murderer.” Voltaire’s deeply quixotic Candide may have inspired French revolutionaries, but he also wrote an ominous warning: Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophète. Hobbes braced Britain for future Armadas, but he, too, noted that mad spiritual militancy was not peculiar to papists: “It is not the Romane Clergy onely, that pretends the Kingdome of God to be of this World, and thereby to have a Power therein, distinct from that of the Civill State.”
Admittedly, Renaissance Christianity also inspired assassinations and wars. In less lucid moments, Don Quijote is a caricature of Catholic orthodoxy infused with nationalistic fervor. He’s even a parody of an antiquated reaction to the Moorish threat. In its last gesture, the hidalgo caste responded to a series of pitiful militia calls in Southern Spain in the late 16th century.
But Don Quijote’s cynical portraits of political counselors voice a Spanish warrior’s distaste for rigorous pacifists like Erasmus or Vives. In The Captive’s Tale, near the end of Don Quijote, part one, Cervantes laments the Duke of Alba’s beheadings of Egmont and Horn in Brussels; yet, in the same story, he upholds Lepanto as a great victory, lauding Don Juan of Austria and Don Álvaro de Bazán as noble leaders in the struggle against the Turk.
There are two fault lines here: to the north and west, rapprochement; to the south and east, resistance. At the center, criticisms of Habsburgs and Inquisitors aren’t endorsements of Islam. Anti-imperialism and private religiosity still lead west, not east. Cervantes knew Islam’s call for submission was anathema to humanism, scholasticism, and liberalism on either side of the Reformation.
Still, Don Quijote’s Mediterranean episodes reveal that admiration towards Moorish culture, or “Maurophilia,” and Islamophobia are not mutually exclusive. The 1605 novel seeks assimilation. The Algerian princess Zoraida’s love for Captain Ruy Pérez de Viedma signals conversion and miscegenation as exits from the Andalusian nightmare.
In the 1615 novel, Sancho’s Morisco neighbor Ricote grieves over the expulsion. True, Ricote’s admission of religious ambivalence makes the invasion of Sancho’s island and Don Quijote’s fear of Greeks inside Clavileño into ominous metaphors for the idea that Moriscos represented a fifth column, not unlike what haunts the United States and Europe today.
Nevertheless, Murcia’s Ricote Valley was inhabited by loyal Moriscos. These were even granted exemption from expulsion, although this was eventually revoked. In Don Quijote, Ricote redeems himself by financing the rescue of Gregorio, his daughter Ana Félix’s Christian lover.
So Sancho’s refusal to help Ricote reflects poorly on the governor of Barataria; after wolfing down his friend’s wine and caviar, Sancho’s fall into a cave is poetic justice. Conversely, Antonio Moreno’s offer to advocate for Ricote at court models magnanimity. As late as 1615, then, Cervantes hoped for a pragmatic approach to the Moriscos, perhaps even readmissions after expulsions, especially in cases of intermarriage.
It was not to be. Spanish leaders at Lepanto embodied the same tragic dilemma. Don Juan of Austria had also led the repression of the Alpujarras Rebellion, and many influential men, especially Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, blamed Spaniards for mismanaging the whole affair. Similarly, Don Álvaro de Bazán, whom Viedma hails as “that thunderbolt of war” for his role at Lepanto, had a son, the second Marquis of Santa Cruz, who played a major role in the expulsion. Cervantes regretted such contrasts.
Late in Don Quijote, we encounter four effigies of mounted saints: George, Martin, James, Paul. Catholic pragmatism parades before us, a kind of New Testament Ecclesiastes: “there’s a time for every saint.” Our knight chuckles at Martin’s halfhearted charity, about James he says too much, and he remains in utter awe of the fallen Paul, the “greatest defender” of the faith.
But this sequence is not simple. James is outmoded, but does this mean giving up the fight? Pauline pacifism makes bad foreign policy. Resigned laughter is essential to Don Quijote, so I submit Martin signals the better option. Share the cape; keep the sword. Cervantes’s reply to those among us who are so open-minded that our brains run down our faces would be a paraphrase of Alan Dershowitz: “If Muslims lay down their arms, there’ll be peace; if Christians lay down their arms, there’ll be genocide.”
But Cervantes would also encourage us to praise what we can about Muslim culture, to attempt trade and other social interactions, and to assimilate those who are up for it. Recall that Saint George slew dragons in defense of women in Libya.
Don Quijote’s allusion to Saint Casilda of Toledo in Doña Rodríguez’s story about her daughter and the Duchess draws a gendered line in the sand. Cervantes’s justification of Christianity bypasses Pascal’s critique of Mohamed’s revelations. Islam’s treatment of women; aye, there’s the rub.
Ana Félix’s decision to marry a Christian and Ricote’s acceptance of her decision make them admirable. Zoraida gazes at Viedma when women beg her to unveil herself in public. Viedma encourages her to do so, speaking Arabic no less. And Zoraida’s father Agi Morato is antithetical to Ricote.
If her father learns she desires to flee to Christian Spain, in her words, “he will throw me straight into a well and cover me with stones.” I wager Cervantes found this repugnant.
In “Europe’s Bloodless Universalism,” Theodore Dalrymple asks difficult questions regarding Molenbeek, an unassimilated Muslim neighborhood in Brussels: “Do we have the stomach to tar many people with the same brush?” and “How many innocent people should Europe accept for one suicide bomber?”
In “The Cold Realism of the Post-Paris War on Terror,” Emile Simpson calls moral relativism the “Hamlet non-strategy.” Such analysts recall Cervantes’s anxiety over expulsion. Ironically, given the Renaissance struggle between England and Spain, the “Quijote strategy” indicates the solution.
It’s an unpleasant version of Hamlet coming to his senses (not that today’s Spaniards have the stomach for it). Forget Syria, Iraq, and Libya; our homes require admittedly schizophrenic and melancholic versions of what Donoso Cortés called “decisionism”: border restrictions, assimilation, arming the domestic populace (some of whom will display excessive zeal), and, yes, the occasional expulsion.
Respect, science, even a decentralized order opposed to authority in places like Rome or Madrid are attractive elements of the Moorish Mediterranean. Islam’s proclivities for slavery, misogyny, and metaphysical certitude are not. This last point is crucial. Cervantes’s irony performs an unrelenting game of “perspectivism.”
Right when readers locate a virtuous act, contradictions arise and we’re obliged to think again. There’s no ultimate vantage from which to impose our wills on others. Cervantes’s attitude resembles Hayek’s regarding economic planning. Better to go about our business. Certainty is a dangerous pretense. Does this mean submit? I doubt it.
Like Voltaire’s “let us take care of our garden,” Ortega y Gasset’s Biblical phrase, “Benefac loco illi quo natus es” (do good to the place where you were born) echoes the wisdom of Don Quijote’s friends. But gardens can require weeding.
Sadly, a bloody Islamic Reformation is probably the best hope. Then again, some foreign-policy experts argue for ignoring Islam. The regions it dominates and the cultures it inhabits aren’t worth our blood and treasure. Then again, technology makes domestic-oriented solutions hopeless.
Camusian nightmares seem as plausible as Cervantine truces. Sometimes, I imagine zealous young xenophobes whispering absurd, brutally comedic dialogues in occidental laboratories near microscopes: “Hey, Aamir, I got this mix of common cold, Dengue, HIV, influenza, rabies, and smallpox so it only kills Jews. I added syphilis for the hell of it.” “Great, Zayan, let’s spread it around.”
For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced intervening to avoid this would be successful or desirable. Best to create new gardens immune to whatever Aamir and Zayan concoct. Who knows? Their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters might join us.
Eric Graf is a professor of literature at the Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala. He is currently teaching a freely accessible online course on Don Quijote: donquijote.ufm.edu.