Not a Moor, Exactly

Following a truly bizarre exchange on Twitter a few months ago, the racial animus that inheres in the term moor has been on my mind. It’s not just social media, either: I’m teaching a Muslim Spain course this fall and using Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain as the main text, which meant that I had to devote part of my lecture on race in the Middle Ages to why we don’t use that term even though Fletcher does, and what it means for us to live with the book this semester and to try to do better than its author does when we write and talk about questions of race. It’s been percolating in the back of my head, then, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the role of moor in Spanish historiography and popular perception made its way into the talk I gave at the University of Minnesota this week. What follows is the introduction to that talk, which went on to discuss the ways in which Judah utilizes Arabic and Arabizing literary forms to advocate for the preservation of the literary culture of al-Andalus:


This statue that you are looking at, located in the Realejo district of the Spanish city of Granada, is known in the popular parlance as “el moro,” or, “the moor.” A colleague at the University of Granada assures me that the locals are fond of placing a cigarette between his lips (or just rolling up a piece of paper to look like one), and so he also called, colloquially, “el moro fumando,” that is, “the smoking moor.” When academics speak about Islamic Spain in, the convention is to avoid the term moor or moro, a word that manages to be, simultaneously, uselessly imprecise and full of racial animus. Originating from the Latin word MAURUS, the term moro never acquires a precise definition in the way that words like Ishmaelite or Saracen do; it also goes on to be imbued with a regular and fierce racial animus that makes it a term best avoided. Yet despite our scholarly understanding of this term, we have not yet adequately conveyed the racism of this term to the popular world, where it is still common currency: In movies and certain kinds of commentaries that valorize the Crusades to different political ends. In a Harry Potter Reddit forum devoted to determining whether Salazar Slytherin is actually a crypto-Moor. In the annual “Cristianos y Moros” festivals in Spain and, interestingly, in Mexico. And even in title the popular history that I am using as the textbook this semester in my freshman-level introductory course: Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. And so when I look at this picture in an out-of-the-way plaza in the shadow of the Alhambra, I wonder how rank-and-file lay citizens understand the honor bestowed by the existence of the statue they call “the moor”: In memory of a noble savage, perhaps? As a part of their history that they will render as strange and other as possible after accepting, grudgingly, the impossibility of escaping it? Without fully knowing the depths of the racism encoded in such a moniker?


But to borrow a turn of phrase from yet another popular phenomenon, Sarah Koenig’s smash-hit first season of the podcast Serial: “The villain is not a moor, exactly.” Nor, in this case, is he even a villain. The statue popularly misidentified as “el moro” and plied generously with cigarettes was cast by the Granadine sculptor Miguel Moreno in 1988 to represent a fellow native son of Granada, the 12th-century Jewish physician and translator Judah ibn Tibbon. As fine an Arabist as they come and a lover of Arabic philosophy, but not a Muslim and, in no possible ill-conceived way, a moor.

Yet the transformation of this figure from the father of the medieval Hebrew language that would go on to become the single philosophical lingua franca for Jews into a nameless moor, the butt of local pranksters’ jokes, is unknowingly a perfect reflection of his intellectual biography: From Judah to moor, this is the figure who, more than anyone, made Arabic philosophy available to a European Jewish audience that would never have known it otherwise. His legacy is a Jewish one, to be sure, but it is that much more the Arabic literary culture of al-Andalus that he brought with him into exile. When the locals of Granada make Judah a nameless moor, they give him, however backhandedly, his firmly deserved place in the pantheon of Arabic authors of al-Andalus. Even though he was a translator, even though he was Jewish, even though he wrote and translated into Hebrew, Judah is, for better or worse, a moor through and through. His literature is Arabic and his culture Arabized, and so, not-so-miraculously, he is lumped in with all of “them.” To be able to pass as a member of a different despised faith amongst the modern citizens of his native city, in effect, proves the legacy of his literary and cultural project. Judah was an Arabic writer and his culture of reading an Andalusi-Arabic one, a Franco-Jewish thinker no less a “moor” than Tariq ibn Ziyad or Averroes.

That Judah is memorialized in contemporary Granada as a nameless moor is a double insult, to be sure — a racializing and an erasure — but paradoxically it is also the surest proof of the success of his own endeavors. It seems a shame that he is run together with so many figures and subsumed under the anonymous heading “moor,” but here he is, remembered — however ham-fistedly and forgetfully — as he would have wanted to be: as an Arabic writer of al-Andalus.


4 thoughts on “Not a Moor, Exactly

  1. This is an interesting post and it has drawn my attention to a few important points, certainly to Judah’s story and his statue. There are some points I would have liked you to clarify though, perhaps for the misinformed or less-specialised reader. I would have liked you to define the term ‘Moor’ as it is/was racially understood in medieval Spain before and after the conquest (the definition changes). There is also the other term which is often used vaguely and incorrectly as an equivalent today (specially in new translations), such as ‘Arab’, a definition of it would have been very useful here- even if just from a medieval point of view. My last point here is my understanding of the term ‘Arabic’, do you mean ‘Arabic’ as a person who chooses to write in Arabic? This is how I understood it and it is spot on if this is what you meant. Having said that your conclusion raises a remarkable point. ‘Memorializing’ Judah ‘as a nameless moor’ is definitely an insult, I hope your post helps make a change to this!

    Sorry if I’m asking too much, and thank you for sharing your post and welcoming comments!

    • I didn’t walk readers through the history of the term “moor” because the article that I linked to already does that really well. But you’re absolutely right about how I’m using the term “Arabic.”

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience teaching this material. I too occasionally teach about al-Andalus, to Moroccan students. I find that the term “Moor” (and “Maure” in French) offers the opportunity to delve into issues of race, ethnicity and religious identity. It gets students discussing the meaning and use of the term (along with “Saracen,” “Arab,” “Mozarab” and “Berber”) in history. I get to discuss the global “career” of the term (Othello, the Portuguese identification of “Moors” in West and East Africa, India and Southeast Asia, Roman Mauritania and French colonial Mauritania) and its embrace by African Americans (the Moorish Science Temple). While the term cannot be used today in any scientifically definable way, as an historical artifact of language I don’t think we should throw it out.

  3. i find the persistence of the term moro in latin america pretty fascinating- rice and beans moros y cristianos- “hay moros en la costa!” etc. deep imprint and an erasure at the same time
    when did they put up the statue?
    I assume he and Maimonides would both be horrified by a 3-d image of themselves!

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