Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Portugal and the Prophet

Many months ago this column commenced suggesting that it was perhaps not necessary for us, as Goans and South Asians, to look solely to a reliving of the colonial past to forge a relationship with Portugal. While acknowledging the colonial past that ties us together, one can explore the contours of a contemporary relationship by looking at features of Portugal that speak to a common experiences and circumstances.

One of these circumstances it appears, is the rather unlikely counter of Islam. True we are all aware that Portugal once had Moorish sovereigns and has imbibed a substantial Arab heritage that lies under the surface of the Portuguese cultural tapestry. We are perhaps less aware that in recent times, Iran has ‘discovered’ the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. Connecting the names of the location (Fatima), and the miraculous appearance of a Lady; to the Islamic and specifically Shia history, of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet; Iran encourages pilgrimages to the same site normally venerated by Catholics alone. In Her own right however, Mary as the mother of Christ, enjoys reverence in the Islamic tradition.

Another thread in this Islamicate link however emerged in conversation with a young monarchist in Lisbon. Portugal, he believed, should cease to be a republic, and return to being a monarchy. Elaborating why a return to the monarchy was a good idea, he suggested that having the head of the House of Bragança as Head of State would allow Portugal a special relationship with Muslim countries, given the Duke of Bragança’s claim, apparently recognized in North Africa, of descent from the Prophet Mohammed. This claim would make the Duke of Bragança, like groups of Muslims across the world, a Sayyid.

As per the telling of this claim to Sayyid status, Dom Duarte is descended, as are a small number of other Portuguese, including the young monarchist recounting this tale to me, from Saint Queen Isabel. Queen Isabel, one of the early Queens of Portugal, was elevated to Sainthood, thanks to her leading a virtuous and prayerful life, being a peacemaker, and doing so consistently enough to be a model to others. The process of canonizing Rainha Isabel, however took an undue amount of time, given the serious obstacle her lineage provided. Queen Isabel was said to have descended from the Prophet. Happily however, these obstacles were resolved, allowing us to claim a descendant of the Prophet among the pantheon of Catholic saints, and continuing a happy give and take among Father Abraham’s spiritual family.

There are a number of problems with this story. The claims to Sayyid status, even among those who have been Muslims a long time, is merely that, a claim, that may not possibly stand up to scientific scrutiny. Furthermore, it appears that Queen Isabel’s lineage derives from the Moorish sultans of Iberia, none of whom (save the Fatimid Caliph) were apparently descended from the Prophet. Nonetheless, claims, stories and myths are the basis of what allow us to see strangers as brothers, and foreign lands as (also) home(s). Take the Saraswat migration, and conversion from Hinduism, myths that allow so many Goan Hindu and Catholics to see themselves as brothers, despite existence of scientific facts to the contrary.

Our common Islamicate heritage it appears, allows us to formulate alternate bases for the manner in which we in South Asia forge a relationship with Portugal, as well as the manner in which the Portuguese can imagine themselves.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 24 July 2011)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Scientific facts to the contrary"?

oskeladden said...

To change the subject completely, am I going to get to see you at all on this trip?

Jason said...
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