Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

(First published 1991)

This book is the first in the series of five books labelled “Islam Quintet”. These books are historical novels which deal with a particular period in the history of Muslim civilisation. This one is about the dying days of the Muslim Spanish civilisation. The year of 1499, seven years after the reconquista of the last Muslim stronghold in Al-Andalus, forms the background. The Christians armies are consolidating their control on the whole of Al-Andalus. It is a time of intense stress for Muslims as they don’t know what would be done to them. The Inquisition on a large scale hasn’t yet started.

The narrative starts with the massive bonfire instigated by the Christian bishop Cisneros, who wants to remove all symbols of Moors from the face of Andalus. More than one hundred thousand books from all the Muslim libraries of Cordoba burn in this fire as the people – Muslims, Jews as well as knowledgeable Christians – stand there to watch in disgusted silence. The achievements of the rich Andalusian and Moorish civilisation is turned into ashes in full public view.

The story revolves around the family of Banu Hudayl who have lived in a small village outside Cordoba for at least 500 years. The head of this family belonged to the nobles of the Cordoba court before falling in the hands of the armies of Isabella and Ferdinand.

This family and others like them has painfully adjusted to the new reality. They hope that the new rulers would let them practice their religion and keep their language and identity. But news coming from different corners of the country suggests otherwise. Some members of this large and influential family have converted to Christianity in order to avoid annihilation and to continue to keep their property and businesses. Even then, they are constantly watched for being ‘fake Christians’.

The narrative proceeds with legends of love and hate, rivalry and chivalry, friendship and enmity of the family of Banu Hudayl with other Muslims as well as Christians and Jewish people of Al-Andalus. The holding point of the whole narrative is the air of uncertainty about their future as Christian tighten their grip.

The burning of books en mass is an event which has put all their hopes in doubt and now it is only a matter of time that they will be either annihilated or subsumed into Christianity at the point of sword.

One young member of the family, while a visit to Cordoba and after having suffered humiliation at the hands of Christian soldiers, decides to take up arms. The family finds out and tries to stop his suicidal mission as there is not a thin chance of success. The guy insists and finally leaves home to fight.

Some among victor Christians are not in favour of an Inquisition but rather want to guide the “heathens” to the true path of Jesus Christ through dialogue, just, as they argued, the Moorish had done to them at their turn! But those voices are silenced and the Inquisition ensues.

As the family of Banu Hudayl enjoy the returning home of an old grand-aunt who had been away due to a family dispute, the Christian armies, who had been angered by one of the Banu Hudayl guy who took up arms against them, arrive in the village to take revenge. The palace is surrounded and fighting begins, despite all efforts of the head of the family to engage Christians in negotiations. The result is a massacre of hundreds of people. By the end of the day, there is not a living soul in the village except a small kid and his servant-protector, who manage to hide during the bloodbath.

This is a wonderfully executed story and one that is faithful to history. In that sense, it is not so much fiction but history with fictional embellishments. It portrays the richness of the Spanish Muslim civilisation and depicts its corruption in later decades which led to the humiliating defeat; So much so that the last stronghold was surrendered without the proverbial shot being fired. The military superiority of Christians led to brutality of unprecedented proportions, that which we would today call ethnic cleansing and a genocide.

My rating 4/5. Find it on AMAZON

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3 thoughts on “Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

  1. Salvador, thanks for pointing it out. I probably confused Granada with Cordoba when I reviewed the book. The reason is that I read the book long before I actually sat down to write about it. My apologies.

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