Ways for Muslims to Follow Islamic Law amid the Spanish Inquisition

By Terrence George

This post is part of the Digital Islamic Law Lab (DILL) series, in which a Harvard student analyzes a primary source of Islamic law, previously workshopped in the DIL Lab.


In the year 711, Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula and conquered most of its defenders within a decade. The Muslim Andalusian Umayyad dynasty was established in Iberia through the efforts of Amir ʿAbd al-Raḥmān of Cordoba to unite the disparate Muslim groups who had conquered parts of Spain. The dynasty lasted from 756 until 1031 and is often described as a “golden age” in which learning and architecture thrived. The era is also viewed as one of relative religious tolerance in which Christians and Jews, though subject to many restrictions, were not enslaved or forced to convert to Islam.[1]

Following the collapse of the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty in the eleventh century, its Muslim successor states were unable to hold back the encroaching Christian kingdoms and the last Muslim state in Spain, the Emirate of Grenada, fell on November 25, 1491.[2] In the following years, life for Iberia’s Muslims became increasingly difficult as Christian rulers implemented harsh policies, including forced baptisms and the destruction of Islamic manuscripts.[3]

Source: The Oran Fatwā: Authorizing Relaxations of Sharia Law in Sixteenth Century Spain.


It was with regard to the difficult conditions for Muslims in the newly reconquered Spain that the so-called “Oran Fatwā” was handed down by a muftī in North Africa in 1504.[4] Though no consensus exists as to the identity of the muftī who wrote the fatwā,[5] a paper by Islamic studies scholar Devin Stewart argues that Mālikī muftī Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Abī Jumʿa al-Maghrāwī al-Wahrānī penned the document while serving as a professor of law in Fez.[6]

The fatwā, addressed to “those living afar, yet near to Allāh,”[7] lays out a number of ways in which Muslims living under Christian rule could still fulfill the requirements of Islamic law while appearing to conform to the tenets of Christianity when necessary to survive.[8] The fatwā addresses situations that may be encountered by persecuted Muslims, ranging from being forced to drink wine to being compelled to accept Jesus as the Son of God.[9] In all instances, the document specifies countermeasures that could be taken to minimize the spiritual impact of the oppression on Muslims.[10]


The fatwā opens with praise for devout Muslims enduring hardships in Christian Spain. Muslims who are “steadfast upon their deen” it says “are like someone who holds on to hot coals.” These “blessed” Muslims do what is right despite the fear that their faith might be discovered. They persist, the fatwā says, when others falter and so are “like a man who is alive among the dead.” The fatwā also expresses hopes, including for divine “mercy and protection” and that readers continue to follow Islam and instruct their children to do the same.[11]

Next, the fatwā addresses its primary subject: how Muslims may modify their behavior to conform to Islamic law while surviving in Christian Spain. In a seeming rejection of the Crucifix and other Christian symbols, the fatwā reminds readers that “idols are carved wood and hard stone” and that God “did not take to Himself a son.” Instead, the fatwā says, there is but one God, to which Muslims must display devotion.[12]

Ergo, Muslims must continue to pray five times a day “though only by making some slight movements.” Muslims must persist in contributing ritual alms “even though as if apparently it is a hypocritical show of generosity to a beggar.” Muslims must perform ritual ablutions following a major pollution “even though by plunging into the sea.” Those prevented from praying during the day must make up for it at nighttime. And those made to pray to Christian “idols” must “turn their intention towards Allāh.” If forced to drink wine, or “do anything which is forbidden,” Muslims must reject it in their hearts. If obliged to blaspheme, Muslims must attempt to equivocate and keep their faith. The fatwā closes with a prayer for the liberation of Muslims in Spain.[13]

A salient aspect of the Oran Fatwā is the fact that implicit to its conclusions is the premise that Islamic law allows Muslims to modify their religious obligations when living in a hostile country. When discussing prayers, the fatwā says that Muslims in Catholic Spain may disregard the requirement to pray in the direction of Mecca, “as it is in the case of prayer when in danger on the battlefield.”[14] It is unclear, however, that this is an apposite comparison. Prior to the issuance of the fatwā, the predominant line of thought among Islamic scholars was that Muslims must emigrate from countries in which they could not properly observe Islam.[15] Also significant is the fact that the fatwā did not urge Muslims to violently resist their oppression. The Qur’ān says that Muslims are justified in taking up arms in self-defense[16] and in the defense of innocents who are being oppressed.[17] The fact that the fatwā makes no mention of these verses may evince the notion that its author believed violent resistance to be futile for Spain’s Muslims.

Regardless of its author’s reasons for rejecting emigration and violence as solutions for the situation in Spain, the fatwā enjoyed wide acclaim amongst its intended audience. It was translated into several languages and for the Moriscos (Moors in Spain who had been baptized), “it formed the basis of their Islamic status” for over a century: until their expulsion from Spain.[18]


[1] Muslim Spain, BBC (Apr. 9, 2009), https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/history/spain_1.shtml.

[2] See Filip Andrzej Jakubowski, The Influence of the Reconquista on Muslim Law in Al-Andalus, 6 Colloquia Humanistica 9, 10 (2017).

[3] See John Edwards, Reconquista and Crusade in Fifteenth Century Spain in Crusading in Fifteenth Century Spain, in Crusading in the Fifteenth Century 181 (Norman Housley ed., 2004).

[4] L. P. Harvey, Muslims in Spain, 1500 to 1614 60 (2005).

[5]See Devin Stewart, The Identity of “The Muftī of Oran”, Abū l-‘Abbās Aḥmad b. Abī Jum’ah al-Maghrāwī al-

Wahrānī, 27 Al-Qantara 265, 268 (2007).

[6] See id. at 295–97.

[7] See Harvey, supra note 4, at 60.

[8] See Stewart supra note 5, at 266.

[9] See Ibn Abi Hashim Al Muhahir, English Translation of the Fatwa of Mufti of Wahran, An Incomplete History: The Muslims of Spain Post 1492 in a Global Contest and its Relevance to Muslims Today (Mar. 12, 2009), https://historyofandalus.wordpress.com/2009/03/12/appendix-v/.

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] See id.

[14] See id.

[15] See Harvey, supra note 4, at 64.

[16] Qur’ān 22:39.

[17] Qur’ān 4:75.

[18] See Harvey, supra note 4, at 64.

Leave a Reply