May 24, 2016

Brief History of Muslims in Peru

Written by Sister Pauline Rivera


Cusco Peru

Prior to the re-discovery of the Americas by European explorers and conquistadors in 1492, a series of events across the Atlantic in Europe lead to the fall of Granada during the times of the Spanish inquisition. As a result, Muslim and Jewish minorities were coerced into fleeing Spain and migrating to other countries in North and South America in search of refuge and religious freedom.

In 1478, a papal decree authorized the Spanish inquisition to eradicate heretics and apostates, in the quest to maintain catholic orthodoxy and hegemony. Jews and Muslims were punished severely by means of torture for secretly practicing their faiths. Thirteen years later, the Catholic church established the city of Santa Fe as a base from which to permanently besiege the Muslim city of Granada. The next day keys are given to the Catholic monarchs in a ceremony attended by Christopher Columbus himself, and within a few short weeks the catholic monarchs issue a decree expelling all Jews from their domains and issued an order for the burning of thousands of Arabic books in Granada’s public square. For them, Islamic texts were considered worthless and heretical.

Many Muslims who were living in Granada at that time became known as mudejars. The mudejars were struggling to preserve their Muslim faith and culture, so they began writing in Spanish but retained the Arabic scripts, a form known as al-jamaido. Due to the pressures and hardships they were facing, many Muslims and Jews in Spain migrated to the Americas, including Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

The Christianization of the indigenous people of Peru, and other parts of North and South America didn’t necessarily make the life of Muslim refugees much easier. Muslims were called the morros (which means black or dark, since most Muslims were ethnically from Northern Africa), and practiced their faith in secret in the Americas out of fear of being persecuted.

Despite practicing their faith in secret, many Muslims held important positions of leadership in their new communities and had a strong influence on the local way of life in social and political systems, the style of food, and even the design of architecture and dress.

Today in Lima, the “Balcones Limenos” or “the balconies of Lima” are crafted in the Arabescos style which is comprised of painted or carved geometric figures intertwined or carved into constructions originally used in Arab ornaments. These wooden balconies protrude from the building’s facade and offered the women of Lima views of the city with privacy and modestly that is encouraged in the Islamic faith. Walking through the streets of Lima is almost like walking through the streets of Muslim Spain due to the presence of Islamic architecture. These balconies can be found in many parts of this city.

Many of the Muslim women who emigrated from Spain were the social elite of Lima, Peru. These women were known as las tapadas Limeñas, or the covered ones from Lima. They dressed in a traditional fashion of the early Viceregal Period. Women wore a saya which was on overskirt, worn fitted at the waist and raised to show off the feet and ankles. They also wore the manto, which was a thick veil fastened to the back of the waist and brought over the shoulders and head, drawn over the face and closed so that all that was left uncovered of the Limeñan woman was a single eye that was seen through a small triangular space she peeped through.

This style of clothing allowed Peruvian women to go out into the street without being recognized and was a similar to the form of dress that was adhered to by the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The women would dress in this modest fashion in order to go out and move around and about freely without the inconvenience of being pestered while they ran their errands and moved about the city. The Catholic church argued that the saya and manto brought about too much anonymity amongst the women and brought out a cunning side of the Peruvian women and made them “mischievous”, “flirtatious” and that they were becoming an “intriguing” temptation for the men.

It was then that the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown attempted to ban it on more than one occasion. In 1601, the Third Council of Lima declared that women wearing the saya and manto were committing the offense of “anonymous flirting” facilitated by their style of dress.

The Limeñan women continued to wear their saya and manto with pride, and although many attempted to ban their style of dress, the attempts had always failed. The women were able to successfully resist the bans on the saya and manto the best way they knew how; by simply neglecting to do any traditional women’s housework. Incredibly, this turned the city completely upside down. Whenever a ban was reintroduced, the Peruvian women would band together and vow to keep unkempt homes, make tasteless food, leave their children snot-nosed and dirty, refused to wash their husbands’ clothes or sew their clothing, all in an effort to maintain their style of dress.

Each time the ban was reintroduced, the women would protest and neglect their duties at home, and each time the ban was successfully dropped. So you may be wondering, how did the saya and manto eventually phase out of Peruvian culture? The answer is easy, through the introduction of fashionable European clothing into Peruvian society.

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