Saturday, January 13, 2018

Meet the characters: Sultan Muhammad al-Zaghal

Muhammad al-Zaghal, whose sobriquet meant 'the brave' or 'the valiant' lived in the shadow of his elder brother, Sultan Abu'l-Hasan Ali for years. Then, palace intrigue and poor circumstances gave access to the power the younger man may have dreamt of all his life. Readers of Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree will discover more about his fate in Sultana: The White Mountains; if you don't want to know before you've read either book, this is your last warning - stop reading now. Spoilers for the last novel in the Sultana series lie ahead. 

Still with me? Prince Muhammad al-Zaghal was the second son of the Nasrid Sultan Abu Nasr Sa'd, who ruled Moorish Granada from summer 1454 to January 1455, then from late summer 1455 to 1464, when Abu'l-Hasan Ali usurped the throne. The prince has been portrayed most recently onscreen in the Spanish TV series, Isabel. It's uncertain where Muhammad al-Zaghal's birth occurred or when but he would have been born between 1437 and 1450, the respective dates at which his elder brother Abu'l-Hasan Ali and their younger sibling Yusuf entered the world. Whether the brothers had the same mother is also unknown, but their paternal heritage is clear. The links from their father and his father Prince Ali, a son of Sultan Abdul Hajjaj Yusuf connected them to Sultan Muhammad V and even beyond to the first Nasrid ruler. While Abu Nasr Sa'd did not have a legitimate claim to the throne, his family had founded a royal dynasty on the idea of usurpation.

From the beginning of their father's reign, there is some evidence of closeness between the two eldest sons. In late summer 1455, both chased the Sultan's rival for the throne into the region of Las Alpujarras, where they captured him along with his betrothed bride and cousin to all of the men, Sultana Aisha, whom Abu'l-Hasan Ali would later marry. As for Muhammad al-Zaghal, he also married a kinswoman whose name has come down through Spanish history transcribed as Esquivilia - certainly a non-Moorish name. Readers of Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree will recall her as Ashiqa, who had her own impressive lineage with links to her husband's clan.

She was the daughter of Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar, the governor of Almeria and Maryam bint Bannigash, one of the daughters of Granada's famed minister Ridwan ibn Bannigash who was born and ended his life as a Christian named Pedro Venegas. He once served as a slave before he converted to Islam and married the daughter of his former master. Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar's mother Fatima claimed descent from the murdered Sultan Ismail II, a brother of Muhammad V, and a concubine who might have been called Cirila. Like many things about the Nasrids, the true connection of his mother is uncertain, but Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar's father was definitely Sultan Yusuf IV, another usurper whose claim to the throne derived from a more precise maternal connection to an unnamed daughter of Sultan Muhammad VI, who seized the throne of his brother-in-law Ismail II in 1361.
Muhammad al-Zaghal may have had up to three daughters with his wife, but no sons. He supported his brother Abu'l-Hasan Ali's ouster of their father in 1464 and at some point, became the governor of the all-important coastal bastion at Malaka, seen above. In 1467, their brother Yusuf died of the plague, which some historians have concluded could have been a welcome boon to Abu'l-Hasan Ali. His foes in the clan of Abencerrage, whose chieftains his father had murdered in 1462, might have supported Yusuf as a claimant to rule. Even if they did not, they later approached Muhammad al-Zaghal with the same idea in 1470. He rebelled against his brother for a brief period until Abu'l-Hasan Ali brought him to heel. Thereafter, the brothers remained inseparable. Muhammad al-Zaghal even brought his brother's eventual second wife and beloved companion Sultana Soraya into his life with a raid on her Christian homeland.

It's believed Muhammad al-Zaghal earned his appellation for bravery and valor because of events that took place after summer 1482 when the overthrow of his brother occurred because of a conspiracy between Sultana Aisha and her Abencerrage supporters. But I'll admit some of the actions the prince undertook were infamous and destabilized a fragile territory, which left it vulnerable to invasions by the armies of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Muhammad al-Zaghal hosted Abu'l-Hasan Ali in his short exile at Malaga and the Sultan's son Muhammad XI claimed the throne, from where the siblings fought off Christian invaders in the Ajarquía region of Malaga, taking thousands of heads as trophies and even more captives. But the pair's marauding ways also undermined the kingdom as they attacked the homes of Moorish people who supported the rebellion in Granada. After his brother reclaimed the throne, Muhammad al-Zaghal went to his wife's birthplace at Almeria and tried to take the city from his younger nephew, Abu'l-Hasan Ali and Aisha's second son, Yusuf.

Readers of Sultana: The White Mountains will know how I portrayed the younger Nasrid siblings Muhammad XI and Yusuf as close relations, which parallels the bond between their father and uncle - the evident proof of loyalty between the elder men inspired me. But when Yusuf died at Almeria, likely murdered, his death possibly occurred at the command of Muhammad al-Zaghal. I've speculated in the novel that this was the first sign that he was not always a faithful adherent to his brother, because of later circumstances. In 1485, Abu'l-Hasan Ali either abdicated or lost power to his younger brother, who became Sultan Muhammad XII in his stead. At the death of his sibling, he expressed the desire to marry his sister-in-law Soraya; presumably, his first wife had not died and nothing in the Maliki interpretation of Sharia law seems to have prohibited the union. Had the new monarch long-coveted more than his brother's throne, but also his wife? More likely, the move would have allowed for greater control of Soraya's sons. But they escaped with their mother into Castile.

As the united Catholic sovereigns forced the surrender of several Moorish cities, uncle and nephew for control of Granada. In spring 1487 when the Christians threatened to take Malaga, the Sultan rallied to its defense, but the area fell after a bitter siege of several months. Muhammad al-Zaghal accepted the loss of Granada, too, and maintained control of key areas at Guadix and Almeria until December of 1489, when his wife's brother Yahya surrendered the city of Baza and took a Christian name, Pedro de Granada. By the following year, Muhammad al-Zaghal departed the Iberian Peninsula for the kingdom of Tlemcen, based at Oran, in modern-day northern Algeria. The record indicates at least one daughter and her husband remained in Spain whereas her father presumably died in Tlemcen around 1494.

Muhammad al-Zaghal is one of my favorite characters in Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree and Sultana: The White Mountains, because of his moral ambiguity. His devotion to family paired with personal ambitions makes him an intriguing figure. In studying him for years so that I could write both novels, I discovered a historical figure who was as strong a defender of Granada as his elder brother, but through his participation in the civil war, helped weaken his beloved Sultanate. I tried to be as true as possible to his history but am still uncertain about a few parts. For instance, was he in Granada as regent early in his brother's reign or did he spend his time predominantly at Malaga? Was the death of his nephew Yusuf planned or an unfortunate happenstance that occurred in Almeria? What explanation, if any, did he provide Abu'l-Hasan Ali for the murder, especially since they had long been so close? What would Muhammad al-Zaghal have done to Soraya's sons if he had married their mother - would he have supported the eventual reign of the eldest in his stead or would the boys have disappeared like the nephews of King Richard III, medieval Britain's princes in the tower? I hope readers will enjoy my portrayal of Muhammad al-Zaghal in both novels, available now.   

If you've missed any of the Meet the characters posts about this novel, find them HERE.   

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