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The Moors Got the Last Word

History Hans
September 11, 2021

A romantic rendition of the dramatic events of the late 15th century that culminated in the fall of the last Muslim King of Iberia claims that a young Emir Muhammad XII, upon leaving his beloved Granada, released such a resounding and meloancholic sigh that his mother, who was accompanying him, began to weep. It may have been “the moor’s last sigh”, however, it wasn’t the last word on the subject. Indeed, Muhammad XII, better known as Boabdil to Westerners, was the last ruler of a Muslim kingdom in Spain. Although anyone who has visited Andalusia in southern Spain can attest to the influence the Arabs and Berbers had on Spanish culture, many people underestimate the extent to which nearly 800 years of Muslim rule had on the Spanish language. 

Numbers vary, but most etymologists agree that Spanish is suffused with about a thousand Arabic roots and 4000 words or more of Arabic origin. Perhaps “ojala” is the most obvious but such common words as “hasta” and “usted” derive from Arabic. Moreover, virtually every word that begins with the letters “al” originated with an Arabic version. Of course, Latin has had the most significant impact on Spanish, though Arabic is second. A closer inspection of the Arabic-Spanish lexicon highlights an impressive “Islamic or Moorish” civilization that flourished for centuries on the Iberian peninsula.  

Algebra, alchemy, ajedrez (there are amazing paintings from the 12th century showing Muslims, Jews, and Christians playing chess), alfombra, guitarra, cifra and so on are words that reflect a level of sophistication well beyond any place in Europe during the Middle Ages. Much has been written about the splendor of Cordoba at around the year 1000. In fact, it was the largest city in the world at that time! Scholars, merchants, and holy men of various faiths mingled and enjoyed the over 70 libraries at their disposal. Although inter-faith harmony suffered at certain times during the Muslim’s 800 year run, Al-Andalus was a beacon of tolerance and cultural diffusion. Learning and the arts in Islamic Spain foreshadowed and directly influenced the Italian Renaissance. However, by the High Middle Ages, the zeal of the Reconquista had reached a pinnacle, and the alliance of Castille and Aragon proved too much for Muslim Granada. What a consequential year 1492 was!

Etymology is not boring, despite popular opinion to the contrary. When history and language teachers utilize the connections between history and word origins, words take on additional meaning. Arabic and Muslim influence on Spanish culture provide a wealth of opportunities for teachers to engage students in meaningful and interesting lessons. So the next time you are searching for ideas for a lesson, just grab a guitar, indulge your students with some aceitunas and albaricoques, and settle down on an alfombra and set up an ajedrez tournament all the while knowing you might as well be in Al-Andalus.

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