[Review of A Saint Under Moslem Rule by Justo Perez de Urbel, Catholic Authors Press.]
To much of the world, Spain is an enigma. Isolated from the rest of western Europe by the daunting barrier of the rugged Pyrenees Mountains, for the greater part of its history as a nation, Spain has been a world apart — primitive, alone, and misunderstood. In modern times, after her bitter and tragic Civil War (1936-1939), Spain was shunned as a “Fascist” state during Franco’s rule, not worthy to participate in the affairs of the “progressive” democracies of the West.
Not too much is known of a good part of her history; I speak of a period that spans from the early eighth century through the fifteenth and up to the time of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The only knowledge most Americans have of this great Catholic queen is that she financed Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the New World. The events chronicled in this fascinating book take place in the eighth century.
Setting the Scene
The Iberian Peninsula, including the present country of Portugal, was in the hands of the Visigoths (originally, a western Germanic people) at this period, although they did not constitute the majority of the inhabitants. Roderic, the Visigoth’s king, loosely controlled much of the peninsula because he had military superiority. It seems that periodic raids from North African Berbers were a fairly commonplace occurrence during these years. In such a raid, in the year 710, the Berbers defeated the army of Roderic, killing him in the battle. Because contemporary records are non-existent, it is not known if this was the usual “hit and run” kind of attack, or if it was actually meant as an invasion of the Peninsula with the intention of conquering it. At any rate, their initial success obviously encouraged greater waves of Berbers — fairly recent converts to Mohammedanism — to enter Spain in 711 and to move inland, conquering and occupying the Christian cities and towns as they moved north.
The peninsula had been Christian for centuries already, and the wealth of the Catholic churches (that is, their holy vessels, ornaments, and artwork) was an attraction to the plunderers. To quote the author, Justo Perez de Urbel: “Barefoot and in rags they had entered Spain, but quickly they made themselves masters of the soil and lorded it in the princely residences where they now lived surrounded by all the refinements and luxury.” In other words, the invaders quickly dispossessed the Christians of their homes and properties, sent the wealthy to live in the most undesirable areas, and simply took over as thieves and squatters what was not theirs. As the conquerors became well entrenched, the resident Jews and Christians were treated as second-class citizens — as dhimmis — the common way Muslims treated those non-Muslims whom they did not kill outright. (As we saw in the review of Islam at the Gates, the Turks refined this system in later centuries during their march across Asia into the Christian lands of Eastern Europe.)
Spain becomes ‘Al Andalus’
As the invading Muslims gained more complete control of the peninsula, each local strongman set up his own fiefdom and became absolute ruler in that area. (Interestingly, and as an aside, the strongmen did not always get along. Many times they conducted raids against each other’s cities.) As is logical, because of the direction whence they came, their stranglehold on the newly conquered territory was tighter in the south. One look at a map of Spain shows us its proximity to North Africa, the homeland of the Arabic-speaking invaders. After Saint Isidore of Seville converted the Arian King Recared in 587, Spain became solidly Catholic. Now her loyalty to the Church was severely tested by the infidels who spared no cruelty in convincing their subjects to apostatize. With the spread of Mohammedanism, the southern part of Roman Hispania became “Al Andalus.”
Córdoba, in southern Spain, was one of the largest cities of the Christian world and a great center of both secular and holy learning. Greek and Latin classical education was practiced here by the leading lights of the Church. It had many splendid churches, and the wealthy classes, who traced their lineage back to Roman times, lived in beautiful homes with luxurious gardens nourished by a temperate Mediterranean climate. All this changed when the Muslim Moors (Berbers, Black Africans, and Arabs were so called) took over the area, making Córdoba the capital of Al Andalus and, in the process, evicting the Christian owners from their homes and lands.
Our saint was born into a senatorial family of Córdoba scarcely one hundred years after the invasion. His old grandfather, also Eulogius, was one of the revered Christian elders of the city, who took time to teach a few little boys in the shade of his patio. The old man knew the classics and Catholic thought and conveyed them to his charges. More importantly, he remembered better times and hotly resented the treatment accorded to him and other Christians under the Muslim yoke. All who refused to abandon their Catholic Faith were forced to pay the local cadi a monthly poll tax. The old man dreaded the day each month when he had to make the trip to the tax collector at the palace, for, along with the exorbitant exaction, he was forced to endure slaps and jeers from the hated conquerors. Many fellow Christians went into hiding to avoid paying the tax and the humiliation of the monthly mistreatment. Worse, apostasy was common; Christians out of fear pronounced the dreaded words proclaiming Allah with their lips while remaining Christian at heart.
One of old Eulogius’ pupils was his own grandson, his namesake, who showed great promise in the sacred sciences. The young man’s close friend, Álvaro, was also a brilliant pupil, and while their lives took different paths — Eulogius to the priesthood and Álvaro to the married state — they remained close friends until the death of Eulogius. At the age of seven, little Eulogius was enrolled in the school attached to the church of Saint Zoilo, marking him a candidate for the priesthood. He was tonsured and clothed as a cleric and had the best teachers in all of Córdoba.
As Eulogius grew older, he became more and more aware of the difficulties that the Christians had to endure in Al Andalus. After his ordination, the brave young priest became the leader of the Christians, always exhorting them to remain strong in their faith and not to fear the enemy. Eventually he was made pastor of the Church of Saint Zoilo.
One of the things that the fervent priest preached against was the Muslims’ excessive love of luxury — rich furnishings, feasts that featured fancy foods and wines (although the Koran forbade alcohol), and impurity. A succession of cruel and insatiable rulers ascended the throne in Córdoba, and harsher constraints were put upon the poor Christians, making life even more intolerable for them.Eulogius ’ preaching against the oppressors helped to steel the Christians’ resolve and make them braver in the face of added persecution.
Persecution and Martyrdom
During the early part of 850, a priest named Perfectus was accosted on the street by a group of Muslims who wanted to know what the Christians preached about Mohammed. Perfectus, fearing for his safety, told them that he would tell them what the Gospels say about their prophet if they promised him his safety. Curious to know where in the Gospel Mohammed is spoken about, they agreed. Perfectus quoted Saint Matthew, 24: 24, “There shall arise …false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect.” He further pointed out that “the chief of these false prophets is Mohammed, the enemy of God, seduced by the devils and the prey of evil enchantments, who after having sunk you into the filth of uncleanness, seeks to fling you into the torments of hell.” Needless to say, Perfectus had signed his own death warrant. Dragged before the cadi, he was sentenced to death and thrown into the worst prison in Córdoba. His beheading months later ended the fasting and feasting of Ramadan and began the great persecution of Christians that lasted for almost a decade in Córdoba.
Martyrdom or Suicide?
Perfectus’ death spurred many young Christians to proclaim their Faith publicly, even to presenting themselves before the Muslim rulers and judges, proclaiming Jesus Christ and blaspheming their Islamic prophet as a false one. The judges followed Muslim law by condemning them to the same fate as Perfectus, public beheading. Now while Eulogius was the Christian leader praising the deeds of these martyrs, the bishop of Sevilla, Recafredo, who was a pawn of the emir, felt otherwise. He tried, without success, to convince Eulogius and his followers that presenting oneself for such a death was not martyrdom, but suicide. And so, for ten years, Eulogius continued to spur the true believers on to martyrdom, all the while keeping a record of their heroic actions in his Memorial of the Martyrs. When he awaited the same fate in his prison cell in 859, he wrote his Exhortation to Martyrdom.
The Catholic Heritage
While the nearly eight hundred year occupation of the Muslims of the peninsula was far more tragedy than triumph, one of the grand elements to come out of it was the Mozarabic Rite of the Church. The term Mozarab came to mean Spanish Catholics who had been “Arabized” — they spoke and wrote Arabic fluently; they were familiar with the education and learning of their conquerors. The Rite of Mass that came to be used in the Catholic Churches of Mozarabic Spain still exists in one chapel of the cathedral of Toledo. It is very different from the Latin Rite that we know; it is much longer and has more singing and more Propers. It is said to be very beautiful.
We all know that the conquerors were finally conquered themselves in 1492, when they lost their last stronghold, at Granada. Thanks to Los Reyes Catolicos — King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castilla and their courageous Catholic warriors — the Reconquista was achieved and Spain was united again as a Catholic nation.
Lately, I have read in certain periodicals that the Muslim occupation was a positive thing for Spain — that much art, learning and love of luxury poured into what was a dour and rather primitive Christian society. Nothing can be further from the truth. While it is so that there exist many beautiful buildings of Moorish design in southern Spain — the Alhambra, the Escorial, the fountains and courtyards and the poetry of the Arab culture, the truth is that the conquering Muslims stole what was not theirs in their attempt to spread their new religion. They cruelly subjugated the defeated people in an attempt to wipe Christianity off the face of the Iberian peninsula, and if they had not been defeated by Charles Martel in 732 at the Battle of Tours, they would have done the same to France.
A Saint under Moslem Rule is a little gem that will give you insight into a part of Catholic history that is not well known. It is easy to apply what happened there to the portentous situation that is developing demographically in modern Europe today with the growth of this false religion both from Muslim immigration and from reproduction. While a once-Christian Europe is contracepting itself to death, the followers of Islam are being fruitful and multiplying.