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Living on the Edge: The Manuscript of Ocaña and the Production of an Islamic Space in Early Modern Spain

Fersi, Haifa (2019) Living on the Edge: The Manuscript of Ocaña and the Production of an Islamic Space in Early Modern Spain. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent, Universidade do Porto (Portugal), Facultade de Letras. (KAR id:79142)


Before their expulsion from Spain in the early seventeenth century, Muslims would hide their books inside the walls of their houses to evade the castigation of the Christian Inquisition. The manuscript under study is an anonymous pocket-size Islamic compendium written in Arabic, excavated in Ocaña (Toledo) in 1969 from the wall of a house in restoration. More than five centuries old, this manuscript is a rare testimony of the survival of both Arabic and Islam until the early sixteenth century in Castile, despite the efforts of the Christian Crown to ban the language and eradicate the religion. The choice of this manuscript is driven by the recognition of its value as the epitome of the resistance of the Muslim minority in Spain at a transitional period of its history under Christian rule. It materialises their journey from the secluded Mudejar districts pushed to the outskirts of cities to the underground Morisco households lurking under surveillance.

Examined as both an artefact and a text, this codex proves to be a multi-layered manuscript matrix, carefully designed to produce a space of interstice between the ideal Islamic construction of the universe, at the centre of which stands the Muslim community, and the reality of their marginalisation and persecution in early modern Spain. This thesis is an endeavour to offer a comprehensive multi-disciplinary study of an invaluable historical token that belongs to a private collection, nowadays inaccessible to the researcher. Its first part offers a thick description of the text-object in an attempt to reconstruct its life-cycle, relying on the available historical data about the crypto-Muslim community and their secret manuscript culture. The manuscript of Ocaña, the practical sermon-guide, once used to instruct the audience, turned into a sacred inscribed relic that survived the fire of biblioclasm and outlived its owners. The second part then turns to an analysis of the features of the space created in the compilation. The construction of the universe, fragile as it might seem, proves to be sustained by a strong ethical system based on the fear of God and His retribution. Most of the spaces represented in the manuscript are liminal, suspended between the Here and the Hereafter to dramatise the reverberations between the macrocosm and the microcosm and constantly remind the believers of death and the Last Judgement. Life and Afterlife are portrayed as permeable spaces that have a synchronised existence at a time when the End is looming ahead.

The exploration of the spatial pattern that unfolds in the text and its ethical dimensions and rhetorical undertones is a lens to grasp the worldview of the marginalised community, the mechanisms of their momentary survival in a structured space-within-a space, and the reasons for their ultimate disappearance. It is argued that the denial of their right to publicly practise their religion in a space of their own led the crypto-Muslims who chose to remain in their land to gradually lose their language and religious rituals. When the ideal Islamic space of the manuscript could no longer be represented in everyday life, and the sense of a shared community vanished with the domestication of religion, the end of Islam in Spain was an inevitable consequence. Religion, unlike faith, is communal, public, performative, and material. It needs a physical space to survive or else will become, like this manuscript, a text that can no longer be read. In using a largely untapped primary source of documents written in Arabic, this project will contribute to the growing body of research on similar codices, to complicate the Inquisition records and other state archival documents in the recovery of the forgotten period in the history of Spanish Islam.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Richardson, Catherine T.
Thesis advisor: Santos, Zulmira
Uncontrolled keywords: Moriscos, Mudejars, Crypto-Islam, Early Modern Spain, Ocaña, Manuscript Studies, Manuscript Culture, Materiality of Texts, Ethics of Reading, Production of Space, Islamic Worldview, Rhetorics of Religious Discourse.
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
Funders: Organisations -1 not found.
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 04 Dec 2019 13:10 UTC
Last Modified: 01 Jun 2022 23:00 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Fersi, Haifa.

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