A morisco (Spanish "Moor-like") or mourisco (Portuguese) was any Muslim of Spain or Portugal who converted to Catholicism during the reconquista of Spain. The term also became a pejorative regarding those who had converted, but were suspected of secretly practicing Islam. Converted Jews, or conversos, who secretly held to Judaism were called marranos.


Beginning in the early 1500's Spanish Muslims were forced to adopt Catholicism or leave Spain. Muslims who refused to convert faced penalties such as death, exile or imprisonment for adhering to Islam. Muslim converts were known as Moriscos. However, many Moriscos continued to remain crypto-Muslims. Furthermore, adherent Muslims were experiencing a revitalization of their culture and religion among the Moriscos. This became a matter of concern to the Spanish crown, which sought to expel Muslims and Jews from newly reconquered Spanish lands. The Spanish crown finally expelled the remaining Muslim population in the decree of 1610; most of whom made their way to lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire, or to North Africa.

The exact status of Mudéjars depended on the capitulation pacts and later royal decrees. After the fall of the city of Granada in 1492, the Muslim population was granted religious freedom by the Treaty of Granada, but that promise was short-lived. When peaceful conversion efforts on the part of Granada's first archbishop, Hernando de Talavera, brought subversive opposition, Cardinal Cisneros took more forceful measures: forced conversions, burning Islamic texts and the prosecution of some of Granada's Muslims. In response to these and other violations of the treaty, Granada's Muslim/Morisco population rebelled in 1499. The revolt, which lasted until early 1501, gave the Spanish authorities an excuse to void the remaining terms in the treaty of surrender. In 1501, Granada's Muslims were given the ultimatum of either converting to Christianity or leaving. Most did convert, but usually only superficially, continuing to dress and speak as they had before and to secretly practice Islam and using the aljamiado writing system, i.e., Castilian or Aragonese texts in Arabic writing with scattered Arabic expressions. In 1502, however, the ultimatums were extended to the Mudéjars of Castile and Leon and in 1508, authorities banned traditional fashion. The Mudéjars of Navarre had to convert or leave by 1515 and those of Aragon by 1525.

More restrictive legislation was introduced in 1526 and 1527 under Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

Moriscos could buy a 40-year suspension of the laws, but in 1567, Philip II of Spain issued an order requiring Moriscos to give up their Muslim names, their traditional Muslim dress, and prohibited the speaking of Arabic. They were even told that they would have to give up their children to be educated by Christian priests. This led to another uprising in the Alpujarras from 1568 to 1571, resulting in the forced resettlement of the Moriscos of Granada upon its defeat - especially to the kingdom of Valencia. Only a few Moriscos, who had collaborated with the royal forces, were permitted to remain in the city and territory of Granada. The relocation affected not only the Arabized Granadines but also the Moriscos of Castile, quite assimilated by that time.

The Moriscos, whose Christianity was often dubious, were suspected of being in contact with the Turkish Empire and the Barbary pirates, conspiring against Spain. Spies reported that the Ottoman Emperor, Selim II was planning to attack Malta; and from there move on to Spain - with the idea of inciting an uprising among Spanish Muslims and Moriscos. Thus persuaded, Philip enacted restrictive measures against them. However, many of the Muslims had risen to positions of wealth and prominence, and wielded considerable counteracting influence, which further incensed the catholic crown's resolve to deal with them. Aragonese and Valencian nobles in particular appreciated their work ethic and tried to protect them from expulsion, advocating a line of patience and religious instruction. Moorish businessmen and workers were especially important to the agriculture of Valencia and Murcia.

Towards the end of the 16th Century, Morisco writers sought to challenge the perception of their culture as alien to Spain, with literary works purporting to present a version of early Spanish history in which Arabic-speaking Spaniards played a positive role. In fact, what is Portugal and Spain today was wholly settled and civilized by the Moriscos. Chief among these is Miguel de Luna's Verdadera historia del rey don Rodrigo (c. 1545-1615).

The Moriscos were ultimately forcibly expelled from Spain between 1609 (Castile) and 1614 (rest of Spain), by Philip III, at the instigation of the Duke of Lerma. Estimates for this second wave of expulsion have varied on the number of expelled although contemporary accounts set the number at around 300,000 (about 4% of the Spanish population), a majority of which were expelled from the Crown of Aragon (modern day Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia), in contrast with the majority of Andalusian origin of the first wave that took place shortly after the events of 1492. Some historians have blamed the subsequent crisis of the Spanish Mediterranean on the replacement of Morisco workers by Christian newcomers, who were fewer and less familiar with the local techniques.

Adult Moriscos were often assumed to be covert Muslims (i.e. crypto-muslims), but the arrangements for expulsion of their children presented Catholic Spain with a dilemma, as they had all been baptized, and consequently could not legally or morally be transported to Muslim lands. Some authorities proposed that children should be forcibly separated from their parents, but sheer numbers showed this to be impractical. Consequently, the official destination of the expellees was generally stated to be France (more specifically Marseille); and, after the assassination of Henry IV in 1610 about 150,000 went there. Most of them then went back to Africa from France and about 40,000 settled in France permanently.

Those Moriscos who wished to remain Catholic were generally able to find new homes in Italy (especially Livorno) but the overwhelming majority settled in Muslim held lands, either within the Ottoman Empire or Morocco.

Some communities fought as corsairs based at Algiers,Cherchell and Salé, against Christians, and some Morisco mercenaries (in the service of the Moroccan sultan) armed with European-style guns, crossed the Sahara and conquered Timbuktu and the Niger Curve in 1591, and it is recorded that a Morisco worked as military advisor for Sultan Al-Ashraf Tumanbay II of Egypt (the last Egyptian Mamluk Sultan) during his struggle against Ottoman invasion of Egypt in 1517 led by Sultan Selim I, Morisco military advisor asked Sultan Tomanbey to use guns instead of depending mainly on cavalries.

A large number of Moriscos did remain in Spain, camouflaged among the Christian population, some stayed on for genuine religious reasons, some for merely economic reasons. It is estimated that, in the kingdom of Granada alone, between 10,000 and 15,000 Moriscos remained after the general expulsion of 1609. It has been suggested that the Mercheros (also Quinquis), a group of nomadic tinkerers traditionally based in the northern half of Spain, may have their origin from vagrant Moriscos.

In literature

Miguel de Cervantes' writings, such as Don Quixote and Conversation of the Two Dogs, offer interesting views of Moriscos and put them in a favorable light. In the first part of Don Quixote (before the expulsion), a Morisco translates a found document containing the Arabic "history" that Cervantes is merely "publishing". In the second part, after the expulsion, Ricote is a Morisco and a good mate of Sancho Panza. He cares more about money than religion, and left for Germany, from where he returned as a false pilgrim to unbury his treasure. He however admits the righteousness of their expulsion. His daughter María Félix is brought to Berbery but suffers since she is a sincere Christian.

Extended meaning

In historical studies of minoritisation, Morisco is sometimes applied to other historical crypto-Muslims, in places such as Norman Sicily, 9th century Crete, and other areas along the medieval Christian-Muslim frontier.

In the racial classification of colonial Spanish America, morisco was used for a certain combination of European and African ancestry.

Morisco descendants and Spanish citizenship

In October 2006, the Andalusian Parliament asked the three parliamentary groups that form the majority to support an amendment that would grant Morisco descendants facilities in access to Spanish citizenship. The proposal was originally made by IULV-CA, the Andalusian branch of the United Left. Spanish Civil Code Art. 22.1, in its current form, provides facilities to nationals of several countries historically linked with Spain and Sephardic Jews.

This measure could benefit about five million Moroccan citizens, who are considered to be descendants of Moriscos. It could also benefit an indeterminate number of people in Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania,Libya, Egypt and Turkey.

This decision was a consequence of calls by some Spanish and Moroccan historians and academics since 1992 demanding similar treatment for Moriscos and Sephardic Jews. The bid was welcomed by Mansur Escudero, the chairman of Islamic Council of Spain.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Chejne, Anwar G. (1983). Islam and the West: The Moriscos, a Cultural and Social History. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-87395-603-6. (read the book)
  • Harvey, L. P. Muslims in Spain, 1500 to 1614. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Perry, M. E. The Handless Maiden: Moriscos and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Spain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.


  • Moriscos of Spain: Their Conversion and Expulsion, by H. C. Lea, (London 1901)


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