'California' has Always Been Islamic


California as an IslandIn 1496 Garcia Rodriguez de Montalvo, a Spanish author of that maximalist pre-cursor to the modern novel known as “romance” wrote a popular book entitled Las Sergas de Esplandian or “The Adventures of Esplandian.” As a genre romance was a fusion of poetry and prose united in the telling of fantastic tales, and the titular adventures of Esplandian was no exception. Montalvo’s volume was similar to the many romances consigned to the fire by the curate in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, an adventure tale filled with amazing if not dangerous stories of exotic lands. Montalvo’s romance features a powerful black queen who fights with an army of monstrous gryphons. Her kingdom was an island at the western edge of the terrestrial map, where the sun descends and Eden was rumored to still exist; as the author wrote, this island was “very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise.” Montalvo feminized the word “caliph,” the Arabic term for a religious ruler, and “christened” his heroine Queen Califia. A ruler as powerful, sage, and wise as Queen Califia would naturally deserve to have her name conflated with her nation, and so the mythical earthly paradise at the ends of the world would also have an Arabic name – California.
It’s instructive to remember this but a few weeks after Sayeed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik shot and killed fourteen people and injured twenty-one more in San Bernardino, located in that non-mythic California. Predictably there has been an increase in that vile bigotry of Islamophobia throughout America. Perhaps less predictably the frontrunner in the primary elections of one of our nation’s two major parties has called for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Perhaps this flirtation on the political stage with outright fascism, a policy proposal which is basically a call for preemptive ethnic cleansing, should not have been surprising coming from a man who has already advocated for the monitoring of all Muslims in a national database and the requirement that they be forced to carry national ID cards baring their religious beliefs. This candidate, whose name I don’t need to write, and his popularity, is based upon a simple yet pernicious category mistake, that Muslims are de facto not Americans. And yet this position is historically untenable, as the New World which was that Terrestrial Paradise at the western terminus of the world was threaded through with every culture, men and women brought willingly and unwillingly to a land as new as invention and as old as legend. The word “California” is a corrective to the view of history that has it that “America” is exclusive a white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant nation. When innocent Americans’ blood was shed on our soil, the name of that very land which it rained on is etymologically Arabic. The tragedy is not that a Muslim killed Americans, the tragedy is that an American killed other Americans.Of course to grapple with the complexities of San Bernardino, of California, of America, would require the politicians with simple answers to white-wash our history and to construct that divisionary binary that separates an “us” from a “them,” and for the right it would worst of all require us to ask questions about our shameful idolatry of firearms. Rather it is easier to characterize Muslims as an exoticized threat to the nation. Yet the arrival of Muslims is not a recent development in American history, indeed as Peter Manseau writes in a New York Times article from February of 2015 that “Muslims arrived here before the founding of the United States – not just a few, but thousands,” and that perhaps 20 percent of African slaves were Muslims.
Though its origin is in an Orientalized romance written at the end of the fifteenth century, California has in some sense always been “Islamic.” It’s telling that the leading Republican candidate echoes the conquistadors who read Las Sergas de Esplandian, calling for a type of Reconquista of American lands from Muslims, who have always had a home here. It’s true that this candidate seems to embody many of the most noxious elements of discredited rightist totalitarianisms from the previous century, but his discourse has a long if not venerable tradition within Anglo-American discourse as well. It makes sense that his xenophobic obsessions focus so much on both Muslims and Hispanics, for he is simply reiterating that old trop of La Leyenda Negra or “The Black Legend” where English writers conceptualized Spain as a tyrannical, superstitious, cruel, and most of all impure land. For the GOP front-runner Hispanics and Muslims go together, as they always have in this literary mode of intolerance, as part of a generalized “Other” threatening the body politic of pure, lily-white America.
Sailing up the Sea of Cortez, the men who named California (which is the fourth-oldest European place-name in the New World, and the oldest with an Arabic root) mistakenly thought it was an island like the one in Montalvo’s romance. Island or not, the choice of this name reflected a hope that this land would perhaps be a sort of paradise. Indeed America in general had not only romance projected onto it, but that other Renaissance mode of utopianism as well. There was a sincere faith that a New World could make New People, and even with their self-destructive obsession with racial purity the Spanish brought to America not just Catholicism, but the hidden Judaism of conversos and Islam of moriscos. The fascist right may wish to erase our history, but this is a land that has always been polyglot, always been multicultural. No less an American prophet than the poet Walt Whitman wrote of the Spanish influence on the nation that “We Americans are yet to really learn our antecedents…. We tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only… which is a very great mistake.” And it is an error whether Hispanic influence has been erased, or Islamic.
A half millennium has taught us that America is very far from that country Utopia whose name literally means “No Place.” There has always been a disjunction between the words expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, or indeed the nebulous desire to find paradise towards that direction where the sun descends. It is true that the “discovery” of the New World led to genocide, and that its history is as enmeshed with violence as any other part of the world (perhaps more so). And yet the platonic ideal of this idea, this desire for a better world, must still lie at the heart of the American project if we’re to have any hope of surviving the twenty-first century. To weld shut the gate of America for Muslims, a country that they have inhabited before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, to even consider such an abomination, is to be tempted by the howling cries of the worse demons of our nature.

Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Quartz, The Revealer, theJournal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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