Tariq ibn Ziyad's legacy stands as a reminder to reject failure

A fine eve-of-battle speech and a potent image are the legacy of one of the great coups of Islamic history. They are myths, sadly. Yet the victory itself stands alone.

Sign board showing Tariq bin Zeyad Street between 26th and 24th streets off Corniche Road in Abu Dhabi.
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One morning, riding in a taxi along Abu Dhabi's Corniche, I saw a sign for "Tariq Bin Zeyad St". I assumed the sign painters had made a mistake and transposed the vowels in the father of the nation's name. But the mistake was mine: the sign was in fact intended to honour a great and long-ago Muslim warrior, the son of a slave and conqueror of Hispania.

The glory days of Tariq ibn Ziyad (his name can be rendered several ways but this seems the most common) would last less than half a decade. His ending would be as obscure as his beginning. And yet, in his prime, he was the conqueror of all he beheld.

Tariq is credited with one of the boldest measures in military history: he's the man who burnt his boats.

Thirteen hundred years ago today, on April 29, 711, Tariq's army landed near the site of the modern Gibraltar. It was called Mons Calpe at the time, although it would be renamed Mount Tariq in his honour (or, in Arabic, Jebel Tariq, which the centuries would elide into Gibraltar).

While the year was 711 on the Christian calendar, on the Islamic calendar it was 92, and the Mohammedan armies of the Umayyad caliphate were in the full flower of early, confident expansion. The Berbers of the Maghreb, led by a prophetess, had fallen to the Muslim forces in 703. As part of the truce, 12,000 Berbers, presumably including Tariq, were conscripted to the Umayyad army. Tariq must have been a remarkable man to have risen so far in only eight years; but his rise demonstrates the social mobility that characterised the Islamic societies of that era.

In the spring of 711 Tariq's assignment was to drive the Visigoths out of Hispania, aka Spain and Portugal, which was ruled by the Visigoth King Roderick. Tariq's forces were outnumbered by the Visigoths, and on their home turf to boot, obstacles which would make his victory all the more famous.

The Visigoths were not barbarians - they were accomplished in metalworking and jurisprudence - but had, three centuries after the sack of Rome, fallen prey to infighting, and dissenters in their ranks had beseeched the Muslims to step in.

And yet imagine the surprise of the Visigoth thousands, slavering for the battle against their outnumbered foe to begin, when this sacrificial lamb burnt his boats.

If only it had happened that way. Tariq's grand gesture is, alas, one of those "based on a true story" liberties in which a writer turns history into hyperbole.

The late-on-the-scene source for the "burning the boats" yarn was the well-travelled Algerian writer Ahmed Mohammed al Maqqari, who lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, making him a contemporary of Shakespeare's. And like Shakespeare, his version of history was, well, his version of history. As professor Charles F Horne of City College of New York observed in 1917 in The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East:

"In Al Maggari's day the older Arabic traditions of exact service had quite faded. The Moors had become poets and dreamers instead of scientists and critical historians. The very name of Al Maggari's history may be accepted as typifying its character. He called it Breath of Perfumes."

The full title hardly disproves Horne's point: The Breath of Perfume from the Branch of Green Andalusia and Memorials of its Vizier Lisan ud-Din ibn ul-Khattib.

Florid though he was, al Maqqari gave us one of the great battlefield speeches, an Arabic bookend to Shakespeare's St Crispin's Day monologue. He wrote:

"When Tariq had been informed of the approach of the enemy, he rose in the midst of his companions and, after having glorified God in the highest, he spoke to his soldiers thus:

'Oh my warriors, whither would you flee? Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy. Remember that in this country you are more unfortunate than the orphan seated at the table of the avaricious master. Your enemy is before you, protected by an innumerable army; he has men in abundance, but you, as your only aid, have your own swords, and, as your only chance for life, such chance as you can snatch from the hands of your enemy. If the absolute want to which you are reduced is prolonged ever so little, if you delay to seize immediate success, your good fortune will vanish, and your enemies, whom your very presence has filled with fear, will take courage. Put far from you the disgrace from which you flee in dreams, and attack this monarch who has left his strongly fortified city to meet you. Here is a splendid opportunity to defeat him, if you will consent to expose yourselves freely to death. Do not believe that I desire to incite you to face dangers which I shall refuse to share with you. In the attack I myself will be in the fore, where the chance of life is always least.'"

The strange thing is, this stratagem of burning the boats had also been ascribed to Hernando Cortes, the Spaniard who conquered the Aztecs, in 1519. But he didn't do it either. While he is believed to have sunk most of his ships or run them aground to deter any thoughts of mutiny or surrender, the idea that he torched them did not arise until later, perhaps because a chronicler misread quebrando (smashing) as quemando (burning).

Arsonist or not, Tariq had subdued Hispania within about a year. Though the history is sketchy, it must have helped that the Visigoths were a minority and had alienated the masses, in particular by persecuting Jews and slaves.

Tariq did not squander this goodwill. As the British Arabist Sir Thomas Walker Arnold wrote in 1896, in The Preaching of Islam:

"Of forced conversion or anything like persecution in the early days of the Arab conquest, we hear nothing. Indeed, it was probably in a great measure their tolerant attitude towards the Christian religion that facilitated their rapid acquisition of the country."

The culminating moment came in either 711 or 712 at the Battle of Guadalete, location uncertain, and there King Roderick died.

The Muslims' rule of Hispania, which they called Al-Andalus, would extend over almost eight centuries. At its peak under the remarkable Cordoba caliphate the reign was one of cultural harmony and flourishing arts and sciences.

But just as the politics of the Visigoths provided Tariq with his way into Al-Andalus, the politics of the Umayyads sent him on his way out. Amid squabbling over spoils and a difficult succession to the throne, Tariq was recalled to Damascus to provide his version of events. From there Tariq fades into the background. He died in 720.

And then, nearer our time than his, he was resurrected by al Maqqari, and fine words were put in his mouth, and a dramatic action imputed to him that carried the power of metaphor - the burning of boats is a timeless expression of commitment, of fearlessness, of believing so much in something that we deny the possibility of failure. Fittingly, given the intellectual eruption that followed the Moorish conquest, in the afterlife of Tariq himself we see that the pen is, if not mightier than the sword, certainly more enduring.