How my hero ruined his family and the dynasty, and lost his kingdom in Muslim Spain
January 2, 1492, marked the official surrender of Muslim Spain’s last bastion, the city of Granada in southern Andalusia. Those who are familiar with the history of those turbulent final years or the readers of Sultana, my medieval series set within the period, know the decline began much earlier. The final dynastic period of the Moors devolved through infighting between two men related by blood, a nephew, and his uncle. The younger Muhammad, whom contemporary Spanish sources referred to as Boabdil, could not maintain power, not when his uncle and namesake had wrested away control of the vast majority. Surrender and exile became the fate of both. A bitter defeat, in which 781 years of Muslim rule over the lower quarter of Spain collapsed. An end to a royal line, the Nasrids, which had existed for 260 years. Quite the burden for Muhammad, the “hero” of my final novel of the series, Sultana: The White Mountains.
Legendary tales about Muhammad predicted his doom and the fall of the Moorish people, apparently from birth. His parents had an interesting marriage, which presumably had some influence over the troubles he faced. His mother Aisha encouraged her son as a young man in a successful rebellion against his father Abu’l-Hasan Ali (Muley Hacén in contemporary Christian sources) during the summer of 1482. While stories of harem rivalries between Aisha and her husband’s second wife, a former slave christened Isabel de Solis, have emerged as the source of trouble, Aisha had other causes for hating her husband and motivating her son. Whatever the real reason, Muhammad paid the price for his disloyalty. Within a year of his reign, he made a fateful raid on Christian Spain in which he lost his freedom. For some time, he became the unwilling guest of his indomitable enemies, the Catholic Monarchs Isabella of Castile and Fernando of Aragon. Both made their jointly-held intention clear – if Muhammad wished for a swift release, he had to surrender Granada and its beautiful crowning jewel, the palace of Alhambra.
During Muhammad’s captivity, his uncle took over the kingdom. The beleaguered prisoner begged for help from his jailers in regaining his throne. Unyielding, they insisted he had to fulfill their deepest wish for a unified Spain free of Islamic influence. Muhammad assented and returned home, but as a further condition, he had to give up his eldest son Prince Ahmad to Isabella and Ferdinand as a hostage. They raised the boy well and kept him in comfortable custody. Ahmad would not see his father or his mother the queen Moraima again until he was nine years old; by then, a boy who knew nothing of Islam and could not speak one word of Arabic.
In the interim, Muhammad vied with his uncle over a rapidly shrinking territory, while Isabella and Ferdinand seethed at the delay in Granada’s capitulation. When they tired of Muhammad’s indecisiveness, they invaded the kingdom and seized city after city. Ronda and Marbella in the southwest fell in 1485, and then two years later, Malaga on the southern coast, followed by an eastern victory at Vera in 1488. Before 1492, Muhammad’s uncle lost his remaining territories, including Guadix and Almeria. Only Granada remained, with Muhammad ensconced in his palace and fearful of the citizens who had turned against him for his failures.
Could there be a worst main character? Cowardly and conniving, sniveling and weakened before his mother and his enemies? How could any writer redeem such a historical figure and turn him into the unlikeliest of heroes? By lying, of course. Not outright falsehoods; no, never that. One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing historical fiction is the development of characters’ motivations. History can tell us “who, what, when and where,” but often, the “why” usually remains obscure. Lacking any journal in which historical figures regarding their personal triumphs and tragedies, their reasoning behind events of the past, historical novelists invent causes for actions no one else might have ever known or understood, except the historical figure most affected.
Muhammad’s mother has come down through history as a great patriot, who wanted to arm the people of Granada against their external enemies. Surely, she imbued her son with the same strengths and virtues. She was also a great schemer, who planned the successful overthrow of her husband. Undoubtedly, she taught Muhammad about intrigue and survival in a harem, threatened by their internal foes. Even Muhammad’s final surrender takes on a different meaning when viewed in the light of a ruler seeking the protection of his people and the preservation of one of the most beautiful relics of Muslim architecture in the country. Giving the character of Muhammad believable aims and approaches is a challenge, but not impossible.
Lisa Yarde, January 11, 2016