Book of the Month, June 2023 – ‘Yusuf Ibn-Tashfeen’ by Naseem Hijazi

For June’s Book of the Month I have chosen Yusuf Ibn-Tashfeen, book 1 of the four part series The Downfall of Muslim Spain by Naseem Hijazi (1914-1996), translated and published by Irum Sarfaraz (2017). Naseem Hijazi was the pen name of Urdu novelist Sharif Hussain, who was born in the Punjab, went through Partition, and lived most of his life in Pakistan. When writing, he used historic backgrounds as settings for his novels, which mainly cover the rise and fall of the Islamic Empire.

I chose to read this book as a contrast to the ‘gung ho’ action of May’s Book of the Month The White Company which followed the adventures of Christian knights and soldiers travelling to southern Spain to reclaim Andalusia. Yusuf Ibn-Tashfeen is a far more measured tale, also using historical events, places and people, to tell the history of Andalusia during the Spanish Reconquista by Alfonso VI, who was eventually repulsed by Tashfeen, the leader of the Berber Moroccan Almoravid empire, in the late 11th century. The author’s technique of illuminating fact with fiction, creates an engaging story, leading the reader through real events as it follows the careers of two families of friends from Cordoba.

The strength of this story lay in its well-illustrated message that the near fall of Islamic civilisation in Andalusia was caused by the arrogant disregard of its rulers for the plight of their peoples, as the rulers turned their backs on the faith of their forbears which had made them great. They maintained their power and position by buying peace from their enemy Alfonso at such a high price, they stripped their lands of all their wealth and assets in taxes to placate him. They came to trust in money rather than on Allah, and scorned the disciplines and practices of Islam which could have saved them. Those still true to the faith had to call on their Muslim brothers from Africa to help bring change and save the day.

The novel provided an informative counter-text to the narrative I had been brought up with, of good heroic Christians saving Europe from evil Muslim invaders. I had long questioned that narrative as my studies had shown how advanced Islamic science, medicine and mathematics had been during the era of the Christian Dark Ages. This book describes a rich and flourishing Islamic culture at the start of the medieval era – the culture that would produce the Alhambra in Granada, the Almohad Mosque in Seville and the Alcazaba in Malaga – only brought down by the sins of its selfish leaders.

Too often, remembered history is written only by the victors, but this book provides a more nuanced understanding as it reveals a small part of the other side. In metanarrative, the novel uses its historical base to illustrate yet again, that moral tale of human weakness that has been told in many ways since the dawn of civilisation.

So there we have it, June’s Book of the Month! Be sure to check back in July as I’ll be revealing another must read.

Take care,

Maggie x

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