Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34.1 (2004) 65-94
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Mothers of a Hybrid Dynasty:
Race, Genealogy, and Acculturation in al-Andalus
D. Fairchild Ruggles
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
One of the enduring debates among historians of Iberian culture is the question of how acculturation (or transculturation) occurred in the Iberian Peninsula, where large populations of Christians descended from Hispano-Romans and Visigoths lived alongside Muslim Arabs, Muslim Berbers, and Jews from 711-1492 and after. At the extremes of the political and intellectual camps, Iberian culture has been characterized as either the product of a dark-skinned, Muslim, North African people who conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the early eighth century and were only partially expelled after 1492, or an essence that is European, Christian, and white. 1 Today most scholars adopt the more reasonable position that Spain and Portugal are the result of an intermingling of those peoples with a generous admixture of Jews. 2
These perspectives describe the consequence of convivencia (cohabitation) but they rarely address the question of howsuch cultural diversity occurred. Convivenciais a loose term that suggests that by virtue of living in close proximity the people of the Iberian peninsula enjoyed cultural diversity and a corresponding richness of artistic forms and styles between the arrival of Islam in 711 and the expulsions in 1492. But history shows that, just as military and political frontiers do not necessarily prevent trade on the popular level, the proximity of diverse groups does not in and of itself cause interchange. 3 With respect to al-Andalus, historians have rarely agreed on how diversity was achieved. One argument is that Arabs and Muslim Berbers came to Spain in 711, met a population descended from Roman and Visigothic Christians, married and produced children with the genes and cultural formation of both groups, and suddenly Spain became a melting pot of many ethnic flavors. Opponents to this model point out that the Muslim army that crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 did not consist solely of men; the soldiers traveled with their families, and so, instead of an [End Page 65] immediate mingling of Arabs and Iberians through intermarriage, the households of each maintained separate identities. 4
But whether or not the Muslim army arrived with wives and daughters, it is a fact that throughout history women have been objects of exchange. In Islam, as in Byzantium and ancient Rome (and even parts of the modern world), women were bought and sold as slaves, one of whose functions was sexual and reproductive. The family formed around a Muslim man could include non-Muslim wives as well as Christian and pagan slaves of both sexes. It is therefore quite likely that from the earliest days of the Muslim conquest of Iberia, plenty of unions occurred between free Arab men and Iberian women taken either as wives or slave-captives.
In this study, I will argue that convivenciashould be understood not as a natural or automatic consequence of cultural proximity, but in distinctly gendered terms in which the concept of "race" or ethnic identity was used by men in order to link themselves with the ancestors who gave them their legitimacy as rulers, yet was in actual practice countered by the presence of women whose ethnic difference introduced alternative cultural habits. The difference was manifested in religion, speech, music, dress, and a wide spectrum of social behaviors. In hybrid cultural contexts such as al-Andalus, people of different cultural backgrounds do manage to communicate and learn each other's spoken and visual languages, yet—important for this study—the point from which they must start is their own early formation when their mothers tended and taught them. The following case study focuses on the elite class that produced the art and architecture in which acts of patronage and reception can most easily be traced; it demonstrates that women cannot simply be added to an existing historical narrative, like a dash of pepper to an otherwise...