Every Muslim has heard of al-Andalus, where Europe meets Africa, where the Mediterranean almost closes its lips. It’s a land of sonority and luminosity, a storied land, an imagined land. Millions know the story of Boabdil (or Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII), the last Andalusi sultan, shedding a tear as he turned to view Granada one last time, bidding farewell to eight and a half centuries of civilisation, and his mother reproving him: ‘You weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man’. The phrase comes from Washington Irving, American Romantic author of Tales of the Alhambra and other fairy stories, but no matter. There’s a place in the Alpujarras mountains called the Pass of the Last Sigh, and Salman Rushdie wrote a novel called The Moor’s Last Sigh. For Muslims, al-Andalus represents lamented past glories, a standard against which to measure the decadence of the present, and hope for the future. For Spaniards and other Europeans it provokes reactions including embarrassment, denial, and delirious enthusiasm. Its image is burningly relevant to our contemporary global arguments over multiculturalism and migration.
So Muslims ruled a chunk of Western Europe for the best part of a millennium, until Europe’s Renaissance, which was in important ways provoked or fed by Europe’s Muslim civilisation. The final end of Muslim rule in 1492 provides one of those temptingly portentous dates by which to simplify history, for Christian Europe discovered the Americas in the same year, and in following years, funded by New World silver, dominated the eastern sea routes too, establishing the long ascendance which is only ending now.