The history, myths and legends surrounding the last Muslim ruler in Spain – whose surrender ended seven centuries of Islam at the heart of Western Europe – is the subject of a new book and Hay Festival appearance by Cambridge academic Elizabeth Drayson.

I wanted to show why his life matters – and the meanings it now has at this time of extreme tension between the west and the Islamic states.

Elizabeth Drayson

Based on original research, and drawing attention to the connections between the medieval Moorish king Boabdil, and current social and political concerns in Europe today, Drayson presents the first full account in any language of the Moorish sultan of Granada, and head of the Nasrid dynasty.

The academic’s research has also uncovered a potential mystery regarding the final resting place of the last Muslim king in Spain. Long thought to have died in Algeria in 1494, experts are now hoping to exhume and DNA test what they believe to be the remains of the sultan beneath a derelict mausoleum in Fez, Morocco.

In the ten years before Boabdil’s fall in 1492, his kingdom of Granada was the theatre of one of the most significant wars in European history. The sultan’s territory was the last Spanish stronghold of a Muslim empire that had once stretched to the Pyrenees and beyond – including the cities of Barcelona, Pamplona and Cordoba, which had been home to paved roads, street lighting and more than 70 libraries at a time when London and other European cities were backwaters of disease, violence and illiteracy.

“How did Boabdil change the course of Spanish history? Does he now represent what he stood for in the past? And how significant is he as a figure of resistance to the forces of western Christendom?” asked Drayson, who spent three years working on her new book – The Moor’s Last Stand: The life of Boabdil, Muslim King of Granada.

“That Boabdil was a key figure at a crucial moment in world history cannot be doubted: the current tensions between Islam and the West have their roots in his reign and in the kingdom he lost. Christian posterity has treated him with scorn and pity – viewed from the perspective of the victors. But my account presents the other side of the coin, revealing that issues of violence, tension and compromise between Muslims and Christians were as pressing then as they are now.”

Betrayed by his family and undermined by faction and internal conflict, Boabdil’s defeat at the hands of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (the parents of Catherine of Aragon) symbolised the epoch-changing transition of Granada from Islamic state to Christian territory – a moment which set Spain on course to becoming the greatest power in early modern Europe.

The Christian victory marked the completion of the long Christian reconquest of Spain and ended seven centuries in which Christians, Jews and Muslims had for the most part lived peacefully and profitably together.

“Five centuries after his death, it’s timely to consider the impact of his defeat then and now,” added Drayson. “Boabdil was a man of culture and war: a schemer, rebel, father, husband and brother. He was a king, yet also the pawn of the Catholic monarchs. I wanted to show why his life matters – and the meanings it now has at this time of extreme tension between the west and the Islamic states.”

The end of Muslim rule at the heart of Spain came to an end on January 2, 1492 when Boabdil relinquished the keys to the Moorish capital to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. “These are the keys to paradise,” he said before leaving the city with his mother Aixa.

Legend has it that as Boabdil retreated into exile, he turned around for one final, distant look at Granada – sighed, and burst into tears. His mother, betraying little sympathy for her vanquished son, is said to have told him: “You do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.”

The ‘last sigh’ has long been used by historians to belittle and diminish Boabdil’s legacy, ignoring – according to Drayson – the immense sacrifice he demonstrated in saving his people from certain slaughter at the hands of Ferdinand and Isabella’s irrepressible armies which encircled Granada.

“The fall of Granada was of such magnitude that a mythical story was needed to explain, accept or legitimise the immense upheavals the conquest brought about,” said Drayson.

According to her, Boabdil’s heroism, long repudiated by most historical commentators, is evident in his ability to recognise the futility of further resistance, and the choice he made in rejecting the further suffering, starvation and slaughter of his people. Instead, he bargained for the best terms of surrender possible, rejecting martyrdom and willingly sacrificing his reputation for the greater good.

Mild Islam is an oxymoron. Islam is not a religion which all are free to pursue, it is a weapon. It is the most powerful tool that can be wielded with manipulative skill to control entire populations. Beneath Islamic fierce rule, every aspect of daily life is dictated. What is worn, what is eaten, what you say and what you write are all scrutinized. Violations of these stringent laws are met with extreme punishments.

Freedom of speech and press are Islam’s top enemies. They are targeted on a regular basis, making it difficult or impossible for the truth to be revealed to the world. While others may take their privacy for granted, the people living under this kind of tyranny must think about everything they say and do. Sometimes even the bravest of souls turn away in the face of such intimidation.

No religion can be considered in abstraction from its followers, or even from its various types of followers. There are some remedies worse than the disease. We could say as much about most of Occident’s erroneous ideas about Islam. Chief among them is the notion that Islam is good and the terrorism committed by Muslims is tangential from Islam, a transmogrification of Islam proper. The remedy for this terrorism, the theory goes, is to deradicalize those Muslims who have taken the plunge into the dark waters of Islamic terrorism, or better yet, prevent those Muslims considering taking this plunge by sheltering them from the dangers of radicalization. The consequences of these imprudent and sciolistic estimations is now catching up to the Western world, a world that at one time believed our freedoms and our unhindered way of life immune from the egregious cultures and violent sectarianism to which Islam is innately connected in other, far away reaches of the planet.

Those who have not really taken Islam seriously, who have assumed that its adherents and its tenets are probably quite similar to those of the other major religions, have done so at the expense of our future and the well-being of the Western world. The insouciant and the foolhardy pluralist among us believe that the hegemony that Islam strove violently and ruthlessly to achieve in the not-so-ancient past cannot possibly be the end and the means that the moderate Muslim envisions and employs today for the future of Islam. The most glaring failure of our modern experts is that their premise has always been, and remains, that Islam is good and, as the logical extension of this premise, terrorism and the terrorist are anomalies tangential from Islam proper. The creeping obtrusion of Jihadi ideologies into the Western political narrative will continue in congruence with the propagandistic existence of such contradictory assumptions.

While the predominant view among the world’s Muslims, insofar as we can learn from these polls, rejects terrorism, a significant minority does not. If, on the whole, say, 20 percent of Muslims, a conservative estimate of the average of these numbers, support terror often or sometimes, that amounts to 300 million people; and if, say, another 15 percent support it rarely, then the total base of support for at least occasional terror acts comes to 500 million. There is little comfort to be found in such figures. Such figures prove without a doubt that terrorism within the Muslim world and terrorism committed by Muslims in Occident can no longer be viewed as incidental or anomalous, but the norm. Such figures also do little to exculpate Islam from the common but oft-slandered and suppressed opinion that this religion is a root source of anti-Jewish hatred and terrorism, and the primary inspiration for Jihadi ideologies.

Nothing is so fatal to religion as indifference. Nothing is so fatal to Western democracy as indifference to Islam and the terrorism that inevitably manifests itself in a minority of Muslims that numbers in the hundreds of millions. You cannot judge a religion’s efficacy, whether good or bad, by its exceptional personalities, but only by the behavior of those masses who are conglutinated by its tenets. In this sense and from this perspective, Islam is not merely insalubrious for mankind, but even worse, and because of this same insalubrious nature, it is a grand deception that has hoodwinked the Western world in such a way that we bend over backward in abject humility just to accommodate this intolerant religion in abstraction from its followers, or even from its various types of followers.


Islamic sentences may seem like madness, but in fact there is a cold and calculated pattern to these actions. When Muslims gain power, they immediately create their own pseudo-judiciary system in order to legitimize their implementation of sharia law. This judiciary system is, in fact, used less as a tool for bringing people to justice, and more as a tool to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Once this silence is ensured, they are able to oppress the entire society, restrain any budding opposition, imprison and torture innocent people and sentence thousands to death.

By imprisoning, torturing and hanging idealistic and rebellious young people, the ruling politicians and the Islamic judiciary system are using them as an example to send a message to millions of people that they will not tolerate anyone who opposes their religious or political view.

Islam has been using torture and death in many nations to impose fear and shock in the public. Muslims aim at silencing people and making them subservient. Once they have control, they will stop at nothing to keep it.

Once you submit to Islam, your freedom of speech and of the press belong to Allah. Your only job is to exercise silence and obedience, and follow your religious leader, imam, sheikh, or velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist).

For the ruling Muslims, it does not matter if you have been a loyalist all your life. If you speak up or oppose them just once, you will be eliminated. If they are such violent and oppressive people, you might wonder how they are ever able to gain power. They do this through manipulation, charm, and countless false promises.

Some Muslims, before they gain power, promise people equality, justice, peace, and a far better life. They appeal to the young, to the traditional, and to the hopeful. But once they seize power, they close an iron grip around any and all freedoms, available to their people, in particular freedom of speech.

Once Islam has gained power, established its own judiciary system, or infiltrated the legal system with its sharia law, no one is capable of criticizing the government or the political establishment. In a social order ruled by Islam, the government is Islam; the government is the representative of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. Ruling politicians who decide the laws are divine figures supposedly appointed by Allah. They are not to be questioned.

There are many people who are currently imprisoned, tortured on a daily basis, or awaiting their execution for insulting Islam, insulting the prophet, insulting the Supreme Leader, and so it goes. The issue is that we do not hear about these cases. Some media outlets refuse to report on them in order to appease an Islamic Republic, just further proof of how coercive their power can be. The only way to reduce it, and the oppression and slaughter of so many people, is to bring attention to the human rights abuses conducted under the Islamic banner of religious legitimacy and authenticity. This type of tyranny is a danger, not just for those enduring it, but for the world.

Lands ruled predominantly by sharia are apparently the most vulnerable to multitudes of executions without fair trials. At the top of the list, with the most executions, are those nations that enforce Islamic sharia law. Despite many human rights violations, these nations, apparently undeterred, continue to execute their citizens.

Sharia makes those in authority infallible and untouchable. Therefore, whatever the government or those in power deem to be “just” can be carried out without question or consequence. Under sharia law and the Islamic penal code, executions can be carried out in sickening forms. Those convicted may be beheaded, hanged, stoned, or shot to death.

As disturbing as the numbers may be, they do not represent the reality that the citizens in these nations across the world face every day. There is, evidently, a connection between radical Islamist governments and extremist groups. There are gruesome executions that are carried out on a regular basis by extremist Islamist groups and non-state fundamentalists, such as members of the Islamic State (ISIS) and their affiliated groups. These executions include slitting throats, burning alive, drowning alive and crucifixion.

Mass executions are evidently also being carried out by both extremist Islamist governments and Islamist groups. A culture of executions, often extra-judicial, as in Pakistan, seems to run rampant within the borders of these countries. Without any consequences for this horrifying disregard for human life, the numbers will only increase.

Both Islamist governments and Islamist groups justify their brutal acts by referring to the “religious” Islamist legitimacy of their murders. Members of fundamentalist Islamist governments, to legitimize these types of atrocities, also exploit the right of “sovereignty”: they point out that they belong independent state with a fully operating and “legal” judiciary.

Iran ranks number one, per capita, in executing people. It also accounts for 66% of all officially recorded executions in the region. This amount only represents those executions that are officially registered.

Executions carried out under the strict governmental laws of sharia and Islamist judicial systems can have even more grotesque characteristics. The high number of executions include children, some convicted before the age of 18. Death sentences frequently lack due process and acceptable standards of proof. People have often been arrested or detained on the basis of a rumor; then convicted without trial, counsel or often even the chance to mount a defense. In many countries where people were sentenced to death or executed, the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards. In some cases, this included the extraction of ‘confessions’ through torture or other ill-treatment.

Prisoners’ vulnerabilities also had no bearing on their executions. Even those seriously ill were executed. Mass executions or stoning could be ordered and then carried out within a very short time, sometimes within days, giving those convicted no time to mount any form of appeal.

The laws under which these people are sentenced to death are often not only vague and open to interpretation. Charges that warrant the death penalty, for instance, include being “corrupt on earth”, “enemies of Allah on Earth”, or alleged “crimes against chastity”. What exactly does “corrupt on earth” or “enemies of Allah on Earth” mean? There are no guidelines to establish guilt or innocence. Those in power are therefore able to decide who has violated what laws on what can only be a capricious basis. Islamist sheikhs, imams, or judges can subjectively interpret charges any way they like. A charge of being “corrupt on earth” can apply to having fun at a party or writing poetry that government decides is critical of it. A charge of being “corrupt on earth” can apply to someone who is homosexual, someone who is claimed to have committed adultery, or who has simply declined to accepted an unwanted advance. It can mean anyone who has done anything that the ruling leaders dislike.

These Islamist laws, moreover, also serve as a perfect tool for exploitation. A woman finding herself accused of breaking a law may be assured that if she agrees to sleep with a judge, for instance, he will interpret the law in a lenient way and protect her from the death penalty. After a woman submits to this, she can be executed nevertheless. Sometimes girls are forced into sighah — the Shiite Islamist law of temporary marriage — with a cleric, or a governmental official; after “consummating” it, they can also be put to death.

What does a charge such as “crimes against chastity” mean under sharia? This accusation can apply to a girl who has been raped. Instead of the law providing protection for the victim and consequences for the rapist, the victim is accused of the crime of “adultery”, convicted without a fair trial, and swiftly executed.

When Islamist laws enter a land, it seems the number of stonings, beheadings, and executions goes up. Leaders of these nations can use this flexibility to terrorize and control entire societies, expand their power, export their ideology, and ensure that there is no opportunity to resist. More disturbing is that those numbers are just a portion of the truth.

“The loss of Granada is viewed by modern writers as a prelude to the repression of the Muslim world,” added Drayson. “At a time when Europe is seeking a way of addressing issues of racial and religious intolerance, equality and freedom, we might look closely at the Spanish Muslim society of which Boabdil was the final heir, which successfully tackled some of these problems.

“Today, Boabdil represents a last stand against religious intolerance, fanatical power, and cultural ignorance; his surrender of the city and kingdom of Granada symbolised the loss of the fertile cross-cultural creativity, renewal and coexistence born out of the Muslim conquest of Spain.”

Elizabeth Drayson appears at the Hay Festival as part of the Cambridge Series on Sunday, May 28 at 2.30pm on the Good Energy Stage.


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