Killing the Prophet: The Spanish Exception

The continuing controversy regarding the depiction of Prophet Mohammed in literature and art has produced the strong impression that the prophet is an untouchable character. It is true that Western artists have to think twice before portraying Islam’s holiest man, but there are a few exceptions in which the prophet takes his place on the European stage and even gets killed without anyone getting too offended.

I am thinking of Spain, the Western nation that has had the longest continuous contact with Islam. Last September, when Muslims were celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, I attended a festival of Moors and Christians in the small town of Villena, in the region of Alicante. There, every year from September 5th to the 9th, the town reenacts the medieval clash of Moors and Christians in a never-ending fiesta that combines a tribute to the town’s patron saint, the eventual defeat of Islam, and a carnival that mocks and transgresses the sacred values of each religion. There is no doubt that, in the end, Villeneros, as the locals call themselves, reclaim their mixed cultural and racial heritage, even as they triumphantly convert the defeated Moors.

The effigy of the dark, bearded Prophet Mohammed is borrowed from the neighboring town of Biar, where he is so revered that every possible precaution is made for his safe journey. Once in Villena, the Prophet leads his Moorish troops on the second day of the fiesta and occupies the hilltop castle overseeing the whole town. Two days later, after a succession of religious and secular parades, including the carnival, Christian troops return to the palace and demand its surrender. When the Moors resist, the Christians storm the castle and defeat the Muslims. The dead prophet is then carried out ceremoniously in a moving funeral, attended by Biar and Villena’s mayors. The Moors later convert in the town’s main church and all parties embrace. That night, Villena’s patron saint, Our Lady of Virtues, is carried through the main avenue in a solemn procession.

When the president of the fiesta gave me a tour of the fiesta museum, which contains several reproductions of what they call la mahoma, he tried to talk down the significance of the figure, explaining, rather halfheartedly, that it is not really the Muslim prophet. Of course, he is (nineteenth-century documents make that clear), but I saw no reason for him to worry. Although Muslims in Spain have complained and managed to change several pejorative depictions of their faith, they seem to have accommodated themselves to the representation of their prophet in Villena’s folk theater. Though the prophet dies in the end, his death is a tragic event, not one that elicits revanchist glee.

Watching this episode in the wake of the Danish cartoon scandal and, more recently, the publication of Sherry Jones’ The Jewel of Medina, a novel about Mohammed’s wife, made me reflect about the Spanish exception. As the fiesta unfolded and I talked to locals, I realized that in many ways the people were not celebrating Christian, or even European, racial triumphalism as much as they were acknowledging their hybrid identities. The Prophet is represented as dark, but so is the Virgin.

When I asked Villena’s foremost historian of the fiesta about the contradiction of cherishing the Moorish and Moroccan elements in the festival while many contemporary Spaniards look down on Moroccan immigrants and Islam in general, he explained that immigration debates are about assimilation, not some visceral hatred of Islam. His explanation begs more questions, of course, but I did get the feeling that Spain has found ritualized ways to deal with its long clash with Islam. Most Villeneros are inducted into the fiesta’s Moorish or Christian camp in infancy, so being Muslim is almost second nature to them. Islam may be imagined as a rival, but it is not alien to the Spanish imagination. To be a Spaniard today is also to be partly Moorish.

Villena’s fiesta of Moors and Christians is a subtle reminder that the enemy is often an inextricable part of us. Would that more nations found equally creative ways to deal with their mixed origins.