Historians and archaeologists are showing just how integral Islam is to the country’s identity.
Marta Vidal (Aljazeera), 2020
Lisbon, Portugal – After fleeing war in his native Iraq, 33-year-old Mustafa Abdulsattar risked his life on a perilous boat trip from Turkey to Greece.
Once in Greece, he was offered resettlement in Portugal, a country he knew very little about. But he was able to find some familiar features.
“I found many common words,” he explains before beginning to list them. Some relate to food, others to cities or regions. Then there is the expression “oxala” (pronounced oshallah), a direct descendent of the Arabic “inshallah”. Both mean “God willing”.
No more foreign
It should not be too surprising that Arabic influences can still be found in the Portuguese language. For centuries, the region was ruled by Arabic-speaking Muslims known as Moors.
In the 8th century, Muslims sailed from North Africa and took control of what is now Portugal and Spain. Known in Arabic as al-Andalus, the region joined the expanding Umayyad Empire and prospered under Muslim rule. But that legacy has been largely forgotten in the predominantly Catholic country.
In Portuguese schools, the five centuries of Muslim rule are studied only briefly. Textbooks place more emphasis on a triumphant “reconquest” of the territory by Christian rulers, aided by crusaders, that ended in the 13th century.
Since then, Portuguese identity has been constructed in opposition to the Moors, historically depicted as enemies. But not everyone agrees with this version of history.
“A great part of the population converted to Islam,” explains Filomena Barros, a professor of Medieval History at the University of Evora.
Research has suggested that by the 10th century, half the population of the Iberian peninsula was Muslim.
For Barros, Muslims who sailed from North Africa were no more foreign than the Christian kings and armies from northern Europe who conquered the territory before and after them.
“The Iberian Peninsula kept being conquered,” she says. “It’s interesting we don’t talk about the Roman conquest, or the Visigothic conquest, but we always talk about the Islamic conquest.”
Before Muslim armies arrived, the region was ruled by Visigoths, a Germanic people who ruled between 418 and 711.