If the term ‘Moorish’ sounds familiar but confusing, there is a reason: although the term can be found in literature, art, and history books, it does not actually describe an ethnicity or race. specific. Instead, the concept of Moors has been used to alternately describe the rule of Muslims in Spain, Europeans of African descent, and others for centuries.
Derived from the Latin word “Maurus”, the term was originally used to describe the Berbers and other peoples of the ancient Roman province of Mauretania in what is now North Africa. Over time, it has been applied more and more to Muslims living in Europe. From the Renaissance on, “Moor” and “Blackamoor” were also used to describe anyone with dark skin.
In 711 AD, a group of North African Muslims led by the Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad seized the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal). Known as al-Andalus, the territory has become a thriving cultural and economic center where education, arts and sciences have flourished.
Over time, the strength of the Muslim state waned, creating inroads for Christians who resented Moorish rule. For centuries, Christian groups contested Muslim territorial rule in al-Andalus and slowly expanded their territory. This culminated in 1492, when Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I won the Granada War and completed Spain’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Eventually the Moors were expelled from Spain.
By this time, the idea of the Moors had spread throughout Western Europe. “Moor” has come to refer to anyone who is Muslim or has dark skin; sometimes Europeans distinguished between “black Moors” and “white Moors”.
One of the most famous mentions of the Moors is in Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Its titular character is a Moor who serves as a general in the Venetian army. (In Shakespeare’s day, the port city of Venice was ethnically diverse, and the Moors represented a growing exchange between Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.) Despite his military prowess, Othello is also described as exotic, hypersexual and untrustworthy. “a lascivious Moor” who secretly marries a white woman, reflecting historical stereotypes of blacks.
More recently, the term has been co-opted by the Sovereign Citizen movement in the United States. Members of Moorish Sovereign Citizen Groups claim that they are descended from Moors who predated white settlers in North America, and that they are part of a sovereign nation and not subject to US laws. This is proof of the continued appeal of ‘Moor’ as a seemingly legitimate ethnic designation, even though its meaning has never been clear.