July 19, 2024

Pluritopic Hermeneutics, Polycentricity And Islamic Diplomacy – Rethinking The Praxis Of Modern Diplomacy In Light Of Al-Ghazzal’s Embassy To 18th Century Spain, 1766-1767 (Achraf Idrissi)


The aim of this article is to foreground a praxis of non-Western diplomacy within a rubric of interplay among international relations, cultural representation and intellectual thought. The 18th century Moroccan ambassador Ahmad al-Ghazzal’s diplomatic travelogue The Fruits of Struggle in Diplomacy and War (1776-1777) uncovers a certain segment of the diplomatic universe that has been heretofore overlooked, yet one could argue it is more than ever pertinent to the effort aimed at understanding geopolitical and cultural impacts on governance in contemporary diplomacy.

Such an endeavour challenges the prevailing tendency in diplomatic studies scholarship to interpret ‘non-Western’ practices through a predominantly Western lens. Thus, it lays bare the way in which the formation of modern diplomacy within the rubric of Western Enlightenment — as a systemic component of the professionalization of state-craftsmanship — dehumanized the praxis of diplomacy and denuded it of the cultural and historical specificity necessary for the understanding of ‘non-Western’ diplomatic ventures. Such critical advent conjoins the concepts of pluritopic hermeneutics and polycentricity to carve out a space where we can think (penser) a polycentric world and shift the geography of reason to penser local forms of state-craftsmanship.


The early modern period (16th-18th) witnessed a proliferation of journeys and delegations from the Maghreb to European Christendom leaving behind an inventory of travelogues documenting the encounters between Enlightenment Europe and the Islamic world. Here, European Christendom refers to the Middle Ages and to the Early Modern period during which the Christian world represented a geopolitical power that was juxtaposed with both the pagan and especially the Muslim world.

These travel writings included some of the first non-European accounts of Europe in the early modern period, and they were fraught with ambivalences between admiration and unfathomability, wonder and opprobria. By the time Ottoman or Indian writers started recording their travelogues, Maghrebian Arab ambassadors had already produced their own accounts of Western Christendom. One of the missions which has been neglected within diplomatic studies as well as literature is Ahmad Ibn al-Mahdi al-Ghazzal’s travel account to Spain titled The Fruit of Struggle in Diplomacy and War (1776).

The Moroccan ambassador al-Ghazzal was appointed by the Sultan Moulay Mohammad bin Abdallah (r. 1757–1790) to negotiate the conditions of a peace treaty and the release of Muslim captives held in Spain. Al-Ghazzal had arrived in Spain a year earlier, in 1766, to negotiate either a lasting truce or a permanent peace between the two countries.  Finally, in 1767 Jorge Juan went as ambassador to Marrakesh together with the Moroccan ambassador, Sidi Ahmed al-Gazzal,15 and the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Commerce was signed. He was also commanded to salvage as many Islamic books as possible.

This article foregrounds a praxis of non-Western diplomacy within a rubric of interplay among international relations, cultural representation and intellectual thought. This will not only allow us to flesh out an image of 18th-century Enlightenment Spain through the eyes of a “cultural stranger,” as Nabil Mattar refers to the Ambassador al-Ghazzal (486), but to approach a certain segment of the diplomatic universe that has been heretofore overlooked. Yet one could argue, as Noé Cornago has in Plural Diplomacies, that it is also more than ever pertinent to the effort aimed at understanding geopolitical and cultural impacts on governance in contemporary diplomacy. 

Such an endeavour challenges the prevailing tendency in diplomatic studies scholarship to interpret ‘non-Western’ practices through a predominantly Western lens, and hence lays bare the way in which the formation of modern diplomacy within the rubric of Western Enlightenment, as a systemic component of the professionalization of state-craftsmanship, dehumanized the praxis of diplomacy and denuded it of the cultural and historical specificity necessary for the understanding of ‘non-Western’ diplomatic ventures. To be clear, I am not using the historical category of ‘the Enlightenment’ only to designate a particular geography and history but also in terms of its historical significance as the grand narrative through which European and American manufacture their own historical self-image in the service of ‘Western history,’ and where the centrality of reason overrides the ‘unreason,’ the ‘distinct,’ the different,’ the so-called ‘Other’.

Particularly in this respect, I examine an Arab Muslim ambassador from the Islamic world in 18th-century Spain. Understanding the history of diplomacy as a European-based continuum of diplomatic development until it culminated in a global encompassment in the 20th century, Jeremy Black tells us, is “an insufficient guiding principle of analysis,” as it overlooks the way diplomacy was thought about in the ‘non-Western’ cosmologies, particularly in this case study in Morocco’ (8). Additionally, within the context of al-Ghazzal’s account this essay marries the concepts of polycentricity with pluritopic hermeneutics to critique the underlying bifurcational structure that underpins Western teleological histories of ‘lumping’ diversities of cultures and civilizations into the past under the banner of pre-modern.

The polycentricity of the world that I situate myself in is not one that only recognizes the plurality of centres beyond metaphysical binaries but, more importantly, one that understands that any discussion of Islam necessitates a recognition of the contingencies and differences inherent in regions and continents, schools of jurisprudence, ethnicities, times ascendancy or decline, moments of independence or colonial domination (as with the Ottoman and later Western domination of the Mediterranean), ascendant Islam or Islam in minority, ignores the problematizations that have been historically decisive and divisive (Black 35).  In this article, I attempt to support that thesis by focusing on one historical case study in the eighteenth century.

I will focus on one region in the Arab Islamic world—Morocco—because that region alone remained outside the hegemony of the Turkish/Ottoman Empire while enjoying extensive economic, diplomatic, and military engagement with Europeans. This is of major importance because it entangles two cardinal acuities. First, the geopolitics of Moroccan proximity to Europe as an Islamic country and its impact upon unavoidable Christian-Muslim relations. Second, it exhibits the exegetic polycentricity intrinsic to the ways in which Islam has been interpreted and practiced by different countries with different agendas and global impact.

Both of these points are embodied in the local concept of Mahaba (the Arabic word for loving, friendship or amity) which oriented Morocco in its praxis of international affairs. The complexity of the concept of Mahaba abides in its ability to nurture a cross-cultural climate where political realities outweigh cultural and religious adversity. Otherwise stated, it does not entertain retrospective indulgences as much as it engrosses in as well as expedites contemporary political actualities.

The very idea that I am using the terms ‘Western’/‘non-Western’ to talk about what is, in essence, a global practice should give pause. Rather than having one ‘diplomacy’, a global perspective might suggest a multiplicity of ‘diplomacies’, as some have suggested (Cornago). Al-Ghazzal’s voice needs to be injected into these multiplicities as a diplomatic adventure that by endeavouring to make sense of Western protocols and forms of state-craftsmanship in 18th -century Spain, re-configures and inter-fuses them with (at the time) a newly emerging, progressively Islamic, cultural economy and political praxis.

In other words, it confers upon Western diplomatic praxis a cultural aura which escapes the logocentric modalities undergirding the formation of Western diplomacy within the context of the Enlightenment. As Jeremy Black articulates, “the challenge of the ‘worldwide’ includes not only the need to discuss non-Western notions of diplomacy, but also to consider encounters with Western concepts” (Cornago 9).

 Naaem Inayatullah and David Blaney rightfully warned that moving ‘beyond the West’ does not mean to reject, but to open up established canons in scholarship for a ‘rediscovery and reimagination (16).  Instead, this article engages with the existing academic literature as an important point of departure. It builds upon the relevant scholarship to establish a space for exploratory research to conceptualise alternative forms and structures of international encounters that have previously been unexposed in academic enquiry. Such advent is going to be materialized by retrieving the agency to al-Ghazzal’s travelogue as a paramount historical document recording the international climate and foreign affairs in the late 18th century.

Theorizing beyond Western lines of Recognizability: Pluritopic Hermeneutics, Polycentricity and Globalizing Locale Narratives

Here I offer a theoretical account indebted to the work of a number of postcolonial and decolonial scholars in English and Latin American studies. Particularly, I resolve to utilize what Walter D. Mignolo has conceptualized as “pluritopic hermeneutics,” a comparativist study of temporalities and geographies, which reverberates Edward Said’s emphasis upon the “intertwined histories” and “overlapping territories” of colonial rule in his critical formulation of “contrapuntal reading.”

Such marriage of critical concepts is intended to carve out a space where we can “think (penser) a polycentric world …—a mosaic of cultures and traditions, sharing the same planet and implementing progressive visions to mend injuries and unveil the political economy of prejudice and hatred” (Majid 4).  To embed polycentricity in a state of full potentiality, particular histories need to be vocalized and inserted into history’s grands récits.  In other words, initially polycentricity must be predicated upon the writing of counter-histories which in so long as they dismantle historical ‘mono-centricity,’ the linear understanding of history as an ever-progressing grand narrative, simultaneously cultivate the material conditions for the possibility of a polycentric discourse, for counter-histories to become parallel histories, for difference to escape the logic of alterity. 

To elucidate, in The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Bernard Lewis writes that “the Renaissance, the Reformation, even the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment passed unnoticed in the Muslim world” (184). Undoubtedly, Lewis references the Enlightenment as a signifier to the totality of European intellectual history as synonymous with the development of public reason, secular liberalism, democracy, professionalization of state-craftsmanship and the seat of modernity. To dismantle the audacious insularity with which he designates Western civilization and escape the Eurocentric logic through which he views the world, local histories of international affairs and cross-cultural encounter must be written not only to showcase how the Muslim world did notice the historical leap of Europe into Modernity but also interacted, adapted, inter-fused and reformulated some of its aspects.

In doing so, the Muslim world as a historical category will be unhomogenized and set free from vulgar parochialist essentialism. Transcending historical reductionism mandates forefronting with the writing of parallel local histories to disclose the polyphony of voices that have been overlooked by teleological histories and consequently fertilize a soil to cultivate a polycentric world where the discourse of alterity disintegrates and will be replaced by difference. As P.C. Ingham posits, “contrapuntal ‘difference’ demands a kind of conceptual/methodological polyphony, a field in which…the “historical thickness” of the colonial encounter opens up into a variety of “distinct” particulars (54).  It is one of these particulars that this article aspires to bring forward, especially in relation the local, cultural and religious elements with which al-Ghazzal inter-fused diplomatic practice, thus carrying out a local ‘way of doing’ that evades the protocolary of Western Modernity. 

Walter Mignolo’s pluritopic hermeneutics “implies the existence of interactions among and cultural production by members of radically different cultural traditions”(9).  When dealing with early modern narratives of cross-cultural encounters between the Islamic world and Christendom, the radicality of difference does not as much stem from religion as it does from the disparity generated by the European leap into modernity which in its gradual rise to power undermined the dominion of the Church instigating revolutionary developments in art, culture, philosophy, technology and politics.

Bernard Lewis claims that such development did not ignite any curiosity in the Islamic world. He writes that “[t]he Muslim world, proud and confident of its superiority, and possessing its own internal communication by land and sea, could afford to despise the barbarous impoverished infidel in the cold and miserable lands of the North”(4).  Lewis seems to have excelled at imagining the world as consisting of insular civilizational blocs that are not only impenetrable but oppositional. The religious incommensurability that Lewis rants about when he posits that “the world was divided into two, the Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam, in which Islamic government and Islamic law prevailed, and the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, in which infidel rulers for the time being remained in power,” (47) implies that even when Muslims did cross into the other side of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, religions hindered the processing of the so-called House of War. 

The polycentricity of pluritopic hermeneutics which very much utilizes Foucauldian methodologies constructs a space where such dichotomies do not have any critical weight anymore. The extrapolation of these binaries from specific contexts into universal teleological histories which characterizes historians such as Lewis, will be dissolved through writing the “overlapping histories” as will be exemplified in the narrative of al-Ghazzal.  Moroccan accounts to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries show that attitudes toward the Europeans were underpinned by flexibility and variability.

They were not dictated by structural polarity stemming from doctrinal difference between Islam and Christianity, nor from the division of the world between the two absolutes of Dar al-Harb and the Dar al-Islam. Rather, the Maghrebian Arab Islamic attitude was a product of historical interaction, cooperation, and encounter, and transcended the rigidity of belief.

The marriage of pluritopic hermeneutics with polycentricity within the larger framework of Foucauldian methodologies attempt to undo great chains of historical continuity and their teleological destinations and to historicizewhat is thought to be immutable. It seeks to unpack historical identities by pluralizing the field of discourse, to purge historical writing of humanist assumptions by decentering the subject, and to critically analyse the epistemic violence exercised by ‘Reason’ through denominating the difference as the deviant, and the distinct as the other.

It is also a contribution to the prominent work of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s formulation of alternative centres. In Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, the African writer and literary critic analyses Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and George Lamming’s the Castle of My Skin, concluding that while Conrad critiqued the empire from within its expansionist centre, Lamming launched his onslaught from the centre of resistance. Thus, establishing a plurality of centres where Manicheanism is structurally disentangled.

Wa Thiong’o states that the problem arises from the tendency to see the local and the universal in mechanical opposition; and the relativity of cultures in a temporal ground of equality almost as if cultures within a nation and between nations have developed on parallel bars towards parallel ends that never meet, or if they meet, they do so in infinity (44).

In the same spirit of Wa Thiong’o’s pluri-centrism, it is my contention that shedding light on al-Ghazzal’s travelogue to Spain in the 18th century conceptualizes knowledge and aesthetic norms as not universally established by a transcendent subject but as universally established by historical subjects in diverse cultural centres.   And my use of Mignolo’s pluritopic hermeneutics bestow upon this critical inquiry a political and ethical dimension.

In the process of constructing a narrative or formulating a theory to vocalize a silent voice in the history of cross-cultural crossings and international affairs, I understand that my loci of enunciation as an understanding subject problematizes my position and my assumption to the truth. However, such problematisation is the primal catalyst for my belief that other narratives, theories, and critical formulations have the right to claim that very truth. As Mignolo puts it, “for pluritopic understanding implies that while the understanding subject has to assume the truth of what is known and understood, he or she also has to assume the existence of alternative politics of location with equal rights to claim the truth” (15).

Nobody can deny the centrality of Edward Said when it comes to the discussion of East/West Relations. However, Orientalism is concerned with the study of the colonial machinery, particularly the epistemological basis through which the colonial enterprise produced the East, and in so doing was able to manage it, control it, and establish an ontological distinction between the West and the East. In other words, the so-called East had to be unhomogenized and studied from within to shed light on the diversity that such categorization as the ‘East’ smooths out.

One of the major Arab-Islamic critics of Edward Said’s theory of Western Orientalism, Anouar Majid, theorized an Islamic paradigm that undercuts the East/West dichotomy. He called for the formation of a space where a progressively interpreted Islam might open the possibility of hybridity and syncretism which he considers to be the “best available models to dismantle the unproductive polarizations inherent in the totalizing narratives of difference” (98). 

In the polycentric world of the twenty-first century, a place should be made for a discourse that is syncretic, non-Western, non-nationalistic, non-secular, and non-capitalistic to articulate how the prison of discursivity need not lead necessarily to oppositionality and incompatibility. His vision of a polycentric world bares within it the pluritopic hermeneutic emphasis on carving out interpretive spaces and centres of exegesis where knowledge is not envisioned along an axis of centre/periphery but rather through a multiplicity of centres in infinite interaction with each other.    

The Art of Travel and the Localization of Diplomacy

In Morocco, the art of travel, or Rihla, as it is known in Arabic, shifted paradigmatically from mainly revolving around travelogues to holy sites (mainly within the dominion of the House of Islam, e.g., travelling to Mecca for pilgrimage) to narratives about cross-cultural encounters. Such alteration took place due to the shift in power relations that characterized the international climate of the eighteenth century. This was also a period in which the solidification of Morocco as a sovereign state took place on multiple levels.

The coming of the Moroccan Sultan Sidi Mohamed ben Abdullah (1748, 1757 – 1790) to the throne marked the burgeoning of a progressive worldview that aspired to carve out a space for Morocco on an international level, and simultaneously crystallize the state internally. This explains why diplomacy and international affairs represented a priority.

Additionally, the Moroccans drove the Portuguese from their coastal cities consolidating the power of their military vis-s-vis any Western encroachment on their lands taking control of ports which facilitated trade with Europe. The Moroccan Sultan Ben Abdullah was aware of the international atmosphere and the colonial aspirations of European states. This awareness is reflected even in the titles of the travelogues that were written during the 18th century. 

For the first time, the word diplomacy was used as in the title of al-Ghazzal’s account The Fruits of Struggle in Diplomacy and War indicating the need as well as the urgency to keep up with the language as well as the new world order that the global scene was ushering into back then. The vigorous interest in diplomacy and state-craftsmanship steered away from the overarching nostalgic tincture that characterized for instance all prior diplomatic missions to Spain. Moroccan forms of statecraft and diplomacy inhibited an ethos, a specificity that developed in parallel to European international relations and foreign policies.

However, dissimilarly to European diplomacy, I postulate that Moroccan diplomacy embodied two complimentary tendencies. First one was the humanism of the actual travel, and the spontaneity of the encounter with all ranks of people (state and non-state actors), working through issues and problems that come up in the process of trying to make sense of a new environment. Second, a form of statecraft which is culturally specific as it escapes the prescription of rigid bureaucracy where a state subject is sent to fulfil a mission where he or she as a subject has no real say in how it unfolds.

Additionally, Maghrebian diplomatic praxis as it is exemplified by al-Ghazzal, does not assume political separateness. Rather, it assumes relatedness and envisages the world in a constant state of relationality which would explain why most of the captives that were ransomed were not even Moroccan but rather from different Muslim countries.

Prior to al-Ghazzal’s embassy, Sultan Abdullah imparted his view of world politics in a letter sent to Carlos III (1759-1788) prior to the embassy informing  the Spanish king that “in this interest is further proof of what we initially communicated to the tyrant [referring to the king Carlos III], that a Muslim with us one of kind, whether he be from our nation or a country of strangers” (al-Ghazzal 55).  In this framework, individuality or one’s uniqueness is not predicated on separation from others, as it is in individualism. In fact, one’s individual identity derives from a connection to others. Relations are physical and emotional, even if not always strategic.

Al-Ghazzal’s use of words such as “brothers,” “sisters,” “dignitaries,” “our daughters” as well as “infidel,” “tyrant,” and “unbelievers,” are not merely strategic forms of addressing the Spanish. They carry within their usage relational loads that are framed within the political mission intended to be executed as well as the realization that oppositionality that had characterized Muslim/Christian relations before was beginning to give way to a new world order of international affairs. We see assumptions of commonality and mediating diversity in ‘everyday diplomacies’ (Marsden et al. 22-22) which build relations even if the participants are not aware of the diplomatic repercussions.

We see these assumptions in ‘other diplomacies’ (Henders et al. 331-35), ‘indigenous diplomacies’ (De Costa 13-28, Beier) and ‘sustainable diplomacies’, which view diplomacy as part of a larger, interconnected, relational universe. And we see such assumptions in ‘cosmopolitan diplomacy’ and ‘humanity-centred diplomacies’, which aim to respond to the needs of the whole of humankind. Al-Ghazzal’s diplomacy enriches to the diversity of border crossing and speaks to the value of adding relational and cultural perspectives to the diplomatic praxis. 

Nabil Matar tells us that religion, which so far has been assumed to be the pivotal epithet of oppositionality between Europe and the Islamic world, actually contributed to the solidification of Muslim Christian relations during the early modern period. There was a certain degree of familiarity on the Muslim Maghrebian end that facilitated relations, treaties, trades, alliances, and numerous other relational forms which took place across the Mediterranean Sea. Matar states that the first and foundational factor that prevented such an oppositional discourse in Arab-Islamic thought of the Maghreb is Muslim respect for the “Prophet” of the Christians. No Muslim writer ever described Jesus in the vilifying manner that Christian writers described Mohammed (158).

The prophet Mohammed’s teaching is held as a source of inspiration and guidance to Muslims. Tarif Khalidi tells us in his book The Muslim Jesus that since the beginning of Islamic revelation in the 7th century until the 15th century the figure of Jesus was embraced as the prophet of piety and devotion.  Likewise, Matar advances the argument to include the writings of the following centuries where Maghrebian scholarship “redefined, and co-opted the central figures of Christian revelations,” which to my mind set the tone for Muslim-Christian international relations, and most importantly debilitated the potential rise of any fundamentalist exegesis that might have casted Muslim-Christian relations as Haram.

From this perspective, as Said commented on Khalidi’s book cover, the idea of a clash of religious civilizations between Christendom and Islam, at least from the Islamic side, fades away (Matar 158).  The regularity with which Moroccans encountered Euro-Christians diversified their relations and subjugated them to the contemporary state of affairs. They met as enemies and partners, friends and foes depending on the situation vis-à-vis trade, diplomacy, or battle (159).  It is in this framework that we can utilize pluritopic hermeneutics to foster a polycentric world where axes operate from a position of difference not alterity.

Moroccan Diplomacy Between Western Theorization and Muslim Unmetaphoricity 

Unlike various other Muslim countries in the early modern period, Morocco did not establish permanent consular offices or embassies in Europe. Moroccan Sultans sent ambassadors to the West depending on the contemporary state of affairs. In comparison to other European countries, many delegations and embassies set their direction towards Spain because of its geographical proximity to Morocco.

Between the 16th and the 20th centuries nineteen embassies were sent only to Spain.  However, only four authors left written accounts.  As far as other travel accounts to other European countries prior to the 19th century, four important written accounts survived: Ahmad bin Qasim on France and Holland (1612-13), Ibn Aisha’s Letters (1699-1700) to France, Muhammad bin ‘Uthman al-Miknasi Malta, Naples, and Sicily (1781-3). These writings included some of the first non-European accounts of Europe in the early modern period.

In fact, the practice of sending ambassadors rather than maintaining permanent representatives or establishing residential embassies constitutes a distinctive feature of these exchanges, which has consistently been viewed as the sign of a distinctly Muslim incapacity to integrate the diplomatic protocols that predominated in Europe from the seventeenth century onward (Burcak 147-151). 

The account to be discussed here, Ahmad al-Ghazzal’s The Fruit of Struggle in Diplomacy and War, attests to such a historical generalization. It is particularly important not only because it showcases the way in which Maghrebian Arab Muslims view Europe at a crucial period of historical transformations but also because it articulates a narrative that developed in parallel with, as well as in interaction with, those crucial historical changes which most of Western Europe witnessed in the 18th century. 

As I have alluded above, Ahmed bin Mahdi Al-Ghazzal, a Moroccan jurist, politician, diplomat and writer. He worked as a scribe for Sultan Mohammad ben Abdullah, and he was his ambassador to the King of Spain between the years 1766 – 1767 AD. The success of al-Ghazzal’s diplomacy made the King of Spain Carlos III ask him to mediate for him between the Sultan of Morocco and the governor of Algeria to exchange prisoners with him. al-Ghazzal succeeded materializing such an exchange and supervised the exchange process of 1600 prison between the two countries.

Al-Ghazzal was ordered by Sultan Abdullah not only “to record what [he] heard, saw, apprehended and learned on this fortunate expedition,” but also “to narrate all that [he] witnessed of the cities and villages; and to make sense of all that [he] observed during [his] stay and journey” (57).  In other words, while the ransoming of the captives, and retrieving as much Islamic books as possible was very important, contemporary information about the state of the cities and peoples were diplomatically and militarily critical. And to emphasize his distinctiveness from earlier travellers to Spain as well as to corroborate the contemporaneity of his account, he stated that he will not fall into “the pitfall of chronicles, which is the inflation of their works with repetitions of the reports of those who preceded them.”  

He relied on personal observations and inquiry about the measurement of distances, historical information, the number of churches and plazas, and the travel time between one location and another. A degree of pragmatism emerges throughout his account when he criticized those who “rely on transmission, and they bring news of that which is impossible—what the mind will not credit as possible.” He stressed “what one has experienced first-hand” instead of “redundant retelling of matters word for word, and a parroting which he saw as bringing no benefit.”

At each city or even village the embassy passed through, Al-Ghazzal made sure that he described the people and the geography, distinguishing between urban and rural people, and keeping an eye for the people he suspects as “descendants of the people of al-Andalus” (78).  The itinerary embarked from the Spanish presidios of tangier and Ceuta passing across the whole Iberian Peninsula.

From Algeciras, al-Ghazzal and his retinue passed through several small towns and villages all the way to Seville, Cordoba, heading to Madrid where he was supposed to meet the King Carlos III at La Granja de San Ildefonso, located in the province of Segovia north of Madrid. His account encapsulated everything that his eye rested on describing hospitals and gardens, maritime schools and royal entertainments, fiestas and monuments. He inquired about political establishments and military industry, art and revelry, song, dance, and bullfights.

Al-Ghazzal wrote with accuracy and in detail. At each stop, he was attentive to include a description of the huge crowds that came out along the way to cheer the entourage and the generous celebrations that were held in honour of the embassy as well as a sign of reverence to the Sultan. Al-Ghazzal’s account significantly commentates on Spain during the second half of the eighteenth century “through the eyes of a cultural stranger who described what Spaniards and other Europeans took for granted” (Matar 487).

Apart from this, al-Ghazzal’s mind for diplomacy illustrates the interplay of the international climate of the 18thcentury with Nabil Matar’s concept of ‘Mahaba’ which was the Arabic term for loving, friendship or amity that undergirded Moroccan thought in foreign affairs. There are hundreds of examples. The 1767 peace treaty between Spain and Morocco refers to “the most reciprocal and true amity,” while that of 1799 alludes to “the greatest harmony, peace, and good friendship” (Cantillo 681-85).

It has been assumed that the Mediterranean countries – the Northern Christian shore and the Southern Muslim shore – perpended the political, strategic, eco­nomic, or cultural considerations to be inconsequential and beneath the gravitas of upholding the Crusade/Jihad Weltanschauung. Historians claim that the notions of crusade and jihad framed the attitudes governing any relations between the two Mediterranean shores, between Christendom and the Islamic world. Bernard Lewis writes that “[b]etween the two there is a morally necessary, legally and religiously obligatory state of war, until the final and inevitable triumph of Islam over unbelief” (73).  

Such incommensurability portrays relations between Muslims and non-Muslims as being based on a constant state of war that will only cease to be in the (unlikely) event that Muslims eventually achieve global domination. As Lewis does not provide any historical context for this assertion, he gives the impression that this dichotomy is to be understood as a stagnant, unalterable paradigm, unaffected by historical developments. 

Beyond Christian-Muslim conflicts in the Mediterranean, relational networks connected the two sides and were essential for ransoming captives or negotiating peace treaties. The Sultan of Morocco was aware that the solidification as well as the security of those relational networks were predicated upon maintaining trust which is why before commissioning al-Ghazzal to travel to Spain, he took the initiative in a gesture of good freeing two distinguished Carmelite friars, Simon Hidalgo Penafiel and Antonion Ortiz, and sent them in the company of a delegate from Tangier Abdelsadiq bin Ahmad, with a letter from Marrakech dated April 13. 1765 stating a possibility of an exchange of captives on both sides (Landry in al-Ghazzal 5).

In Western historiography the Jihad/Crusade duality governs the language through which Spanish/Muslim relations are framed. Tediously long volumes are permeated with antagonistic words to foster a climate of generalized hostility almost wholly lacking in political pragmatism or defence of commer­cial interests. Martín Corrales has an extended critique of this thesis in “Decolonising and denationalising the historiography   on the relationship between Europe and Maghrebian and Near East   countries in the Early Modern Age (16th ‐ 18th Centuries).”

It is worth mentioning that when Sidi Mohamed ben Abdullah ascended to the throne, the country was in political and economic disarray. He understood that if Morocco were to realign itself on the global political scene, it had to establish solid internal foundations such as the reorganization of the military, the modernization of the administrative and financial governance, and the founding of a centralized religious apparatus under Islam that unify the state politically (Landry in al-Ghazzal 3). 

On the other side of the Mediterranean shore, the monarch Carlos III came to the throne finding Spain in dire conditions as well. He had to face increasing national debt, crop shortages, soaring prices on basic goods, the church’s unchecked authority and the domination of the French and the English on the global scene (Landry in al-Ghazzal 4).  On both sides, strategically fostering good international relations that would facilitate trade and political alliances was inevitable if both countries were to get back on track again. 

Given the paramountcy of the mission, the first gesture we get of al-Ghazzal’s mind for diplomacy was the way in which he got himself chosen to preside the ambassadorial journey to Spain. The Moroccan sultan chose his uncle Abu Yaala Amara bin Musa and Mohamed bin Nasir, one of his high-ranking military officials. Al-Ghazzal was to be the scribe of the embassy. Al-Ghazzal observed them and he was apprehensive that their unfamiliarity with Christian laws and customs might hurdle the success of the mission. Consequently, he wrote to one of the ministers of the Sultan to inform him of his apprehension, and in so doing he was appointed to preside the journey (9). 

Such attentiveness to details, intellectual savvy, and the urgency to take action was necessary for the success of the mission. Inherent in the idea of action is the assumption that diplomacy is purposeful, strategic and even measurable. We see this idea in one of the earliest works in the field of diplomatic studies, Jarol Manheim’s Strategic Public Diplomacy and American Foreign Policy.  Emphasizing individuality and self-interest suggests another layer of preconceived notions about the relational nature of diplomacy.

Relations are largely viewed as instrumental, or a means to an end for maximising one’s interests. The idea of cultivating relations for their own sake in what is perceived as a competitive political arena was taken to be as naïve and gullible vis-à-vis the position which power occupies in the relational paradigm.

However, Al-Ghazzal emphasises the centrality of cultivating a salubrious relational environment with various levels of state as well as non-state actors. In one of his communications, the Franciscan Bartolmé Giron who was elected by the monarch Carlos III to meet the Moroccan Sultan wrote about al-Ghazzal that “his dignified manner, that captivates those that see him, and even more those who speak with him, clearly indicates the nobility of his origin” (Landry in Al-Ghazzal 7).  Al-Ghazzal materialized Matar’s concept of Mahaba, and after he delivered his speech to the Spanish monarch, he said to him “god requite you with good for this fair speech of yours. Our hearts have been eased and our minds have grown comfortable because of your pleasing talk, which is born from a wise and unerring mind” (127). 

After all, al-Ghazzal was able to negotiate a treaty with Spain, the most difficult country because of the large number of Muslim captives held there (Matar 27). My emphasis on instances which display the decrepitude of the notion of cultural incommensurability should not simplistically obscure the fact that there were instances where al-Ghazzal expressed his vituperation or dislike, especially in relation to what the Spanish had done with what he called ‘the remnants of Islam’ such as turning mosques into cathedrals and churches or not taking care of sites that still bear the marks of Quranic verses.  When the Spanish were seen by al-Ghazzal to be hostile to Muslims, and to had destroyed their culture and usurped their possessions, al-Ghazzal poured on them his vituperation.

However, when they were helpful and generous, he praised them with sincere gratitude. He showcased that his view of the European Other was dictated by history not doctrine. The particularity of the concept of Mahaba resides in its capacity to cultivate a space inspired by religion but driven by politics. Al-Ghazzal associated such a concept with the Prophet’s Mohamed saying “there is in kindness to every soft kidney a good deed and a reward from God.”[51] 

Even when he was in Ceuta which was under Spanish occupation, he interfered on the behalf of the Spanish to soften the Moroccan fighter’s heart not to attack the Spanish herdsman and cattle brazing close to the Moroccan pastures (Al-Ghazzal 64).  Evidently, in Spain al-Ghazzal took pride in describing the “graciousness,” “kindness,” “generosity,” “amity” and the “love” with which hordes of people as well as high state officials welcomed and greeted them. He made sure to converse with everyday workers and non-state people, inquire into their life, businesses and craftsmanship. And whenever he was taken by an amicable gesture, he would say “God…may guide them to Islam” (77).

Overwhelmed by the constant amounts of great crowds that came out to meet them at each stop “on horses, in carriages, and on foot” he always made sure to describe them, and most importantly to ponder at the significance of such instances showcasing his appreciation as well as inflating the reverence that he had been associating with the love of the Spanish for the Moroccan Sultan. After seeing huge groups of people coming out to meet them, he wrote “we can conclude from that phenomenon that the Spanish people are of the heart of one man, their tyrant [meaning Carlos III] and that this man is absorbed in every way in our Master, may God aid him, with his heart and with his being. The seen can indicate that which is inside, unseen” (Al-Ghazzal 83).

There is a tendency to think of ‘cultural incommensurability’ as particularly acute at moments of encounter and cultural crossings, when two politico-cultural entities come into contact. Wishing away the idea of absolute incommensurability itself necessities an integration of contemporary parallel narratives that had developed around the moment of its inception and contemporary Western and Muslim societies where the knowledge about these exchanges is either non-existent, sketchy, or considered irrelevant.

As Sanjay Subrahmanyam writes, “The roots of such ideas can be traced back at least to the later eighteenth century, when writers such as Denis Diderot and above all Johann Gottfried Herder produced powerful, and in the case of Herder, rather dangerous, arguments on this subject” ( 32, 3). The issue of incommensurability is not particularly a folly of pastimes, rather it hides in plain sight in contemporary discourses about foreign policy and international relations.

Al-Ghazzal was writing at a critical juncture of history. Coming from a conservative Muslim society regulated by the Maliki School of Islamic law which is a strict jurisprudence desiring to resuscitate Medinan practices that are deemed uncorrupted and seen as remaining as they were in the Prophet Muhammad’s days, al-Ghazzal would be expected to pour his utmost opprobrium and denounce the Christian particularly the Spanish because of what they did to the Moriscos just two centuries ago from the time when al-Ghazzal travelled to Spain. Additionally, as of that time Spain was Morocco’s archenemy especially because of its military encroachment and occupation of coastal cities and strategic ports.

Nevertheless, al-Ghazzal’s account abounds in gratitude and due praise of the Spanish people’s hospitality and generosity. And whenever he saw sites, people, buildings, or inventions that did not recall the usurped past, he was fulsome in his praise and “wonder.” When the retinue reach Seville, and al-Ghazzal observed the people and the festivities upon their arrival, he broodingly pens: 

These strange displays are an indication of the inner love of Islam, despite the fact that these kind of people appear to be, on the surface, the fiercest in their enmity toward and hate for Muslims, even to the point that Islam is called the blue enemy. But here love and goodwill took the place of enmity. (Al-Ghazzal 84)

Not all Spaniards were reprehensible just because they were Christian. Al-Ghazzal understood clearly that the present realpolitik which he referred to by “here” does not dwell in the patina of history and the incommensurability of faith. Although al-Ghazzal treasured the Islamic past, he did not neglect the Spanish present nor use it to trivialize it to inflate the grandeur of his master. Contrarily, he marvelled at the “innovative construction, sophisticated engravings, and enormous structures,” which he did not see as moribund, as European historians marked the period after the death of Philip II.

Al-Ghazzal was impressed with what he observed and documented everything that was different or absent from his own country: from Spanish agricultural innovation which was “a sight to behold” (88), to descriptions of the canonry which “exceed our expectation,” magnificent architectures which were “a very wonderous matter” (146), hospitals, the military institution and the ethnography of urban and rural people.

One of the pivotal moments in the account that reflects the new political outlook with which the Moroccan ambassador approach international affairs was when al-Ghazzal observed Spain’s military fortification of the cities against any external attack. A sense of inferiority seemed to have befallen him in front of such military technology which was absent in his country. He stated that all the Spanish could do was “shoot canons and bombs, employ tricks, and things of that sort” (113). As for battle on horses in the open field, “100,000 of them can be resisted by 10,000 Muslims.” 

Al-Ghazzal understood the foundational discrepancy between Spain and Morocco at the time, yet to admit weakness outrightly was a move he could not and would not advance because his account was to be read and circulated within the Sultan’s palace as well as to be copied by the scribes and circulated in manuscripts. Nabil Matar reminds us that

the fact that these texts were not published does not mean that they were not known or used. While print was central to European travel culture, Arab society had a rich oral tradition that transmitted news, episodes, histories, and biographies across the Arabic-speaking community from Fez to Jerusalem and from Aleppo to Mecca. There was also a vast trade in manuscripts.…meanwhile, attached to every major mosque were the nasakheen or kataba (scribes), who copied books in preparation for sale in the market…. The absence of print did not diminish the importance of books, nor did it prevent the circulation of manuscripts in Arabic society. (Matar, in the lands of the Christians, xxiii-xxiv).

Consequently, aware of the cruciality and the danger of his words, in a very diplomatic style Al-Ghazzal wrote

if an Islamic state were to try to fight them for Andalusia and the mastery of the Iberian Peninsula, it would be barred from that by reality and Sharia; as for reality the verdict of God is surely decreed by fate, and he is far above the possibility that anything in his realm could cross his will. As for Sharia,… the multitude of rulers among the Muslims, the vying of some of them with others, and the pursuit of mere greed and fancy, all this leads to ruin,  annihilation and defeat in war. (113)

He drew a weighty distinction between reality and religion insinuating unequivocally that realpolitik is the language of the new world order where the success of diplomacy is predicated upon fostering commonalities not opposition. Al-Ghazzal wavered between being a diplomat, an ethnographer, a chronicler and even an artisan when he explained to the Spanish workers how to lay gold on receptacles, marble, wood and other materials as well” (Matar 113), but he never took the role of the victorious religious hero as did al-Ghassini almost one century before him to denounce the Christians (120).

His critique of other Muslim rulers is subtly wheedled to distinguish Moroccan diplomatic praxis from them, where the so-called clash of civilization is relegated to the background, and a new register emerges to explain the contemporary order of dealing with Europe. The Christian in this context is not merely a person with a religious identity, but he-she is also a European whose contemporary modern state of affairs and civilizational standing is not a sheer product of religious history. 

Al-Ghazzal ascertained to engage with the Spanish and inquire into their various social classes.  He makes sure to attend to and act diplomatically towards all official and non-official actors even at the expanse of his own comfort and out of fostering the Mahaba ties. After a very ‘tiresome’ and ‘wearisome’ excursion to entertain al-Ghazzal and his retinue and show them historical sites which were populated by Andalusian Muslims (himself being their descendant as indicated by his last name (al-Andalusi), they were exhausted, however, upon their way back “all the people who were present there gathered around us, and we did not get rid of them without much effort fatigue because of their excitement and eagerness to meet us, to exchange greetings with us, and to welcome us” (Matar 91).  

The figure of the state subject who is commissioned to fulfil a mission, which he or she as a subject has no real influence on in terms of how it turns out does not figure out in al-Ghazzal’s character.  Additionally, what seem potently recurrent in al-Ghazzal’s travelogue are relational dynamics that may constrain actors or usurp agency. They are represented in a way that displays leniency, malleability and serenity in situations that may encroach upon the religious and cultural background of the ambassador.

For instance, the latitude accommodated to European women at the time rattled Muslim travellers to the West. However, none of the Muslim travellers in the early modern period described and engaged with European women so openly as al-Ghazzal did. He marvelled at their demeanour where “beauty ruled their features” (al-Ghazzal 79), applauded men and women dancing together as “the height of chivalry, and a way to fulfil the duty of honouring guests who are respected” (71), enjoyed the plaza where their “seating was unmatched for its beautiful women and girls” (76), and unapologetically commented on two girls’ singing and beauty saying “I have never heard or seen better than these two in voice and in appearance” (77), and “the girl began to sing in a voice that stunned the minds of those present” (149).

It is important to keep in mind the conservative society al-Ghazzal was coming from, and the authority he represented. He was sent by the Sultan Sidi Mohamed ben Abdullah who was not only a king but also a Commander of the Faithful, a leader who claims lineage from the Prophet Mohamed, who rules by the Divine’s Will and who falls upon his shoulder upholding the values of Islam. It seems to me that in a period interpreted by many historians as characterized by religious conservatism, cross-cultural crossing and international affairs were facilitated by politics and respect of difference.

These instances where women mingled with different men freely, sat next to them, sang in front of them, were taken by Muslim travellers to Europe to be immoral but al-Ghazzal understood that he was in a different society with particular social norms, and that such a “practice is a forgone conclusion and unquestioned” (63).  When the retinue reached Algeciras, high ranking officials as well as many people came to visit them at their dwelling. It was a custom of the Spanish to introduce their ladies and beautiful daughters to the visitors.

One of the judges asked al-Ghazzal “which lady among those gathered here pleases you? And which one among them is finer and more beautiful than the rest?” al-Ghazzal, in such an unenvied situation, answered poetically and diplomatically “this gathering, or divan, is a garden, and the women that are within are different forms of roses—and people have, in what they love, a variety of preferences” (66). Diplomacy in the al-Ghazzalian sense understands that the art of advancing a cause without unnecessarily inflaming passions involves an understanding of the many facets that characterize societies different from our own, elements that if not handled from within the host culture‘s perspective might undermine agreement and stoke conflict. Hence, he engages in what David Wellman conceptualizes as the politicization of “religious culture” which comes into play “in the use of religious symbols or language by a national government or other actors to convey particular meaning or justify supposedly secular actions to its own general populace or other international actors” (1). 

Diplomacy is an element of representation of an authority, of its values, its monarch or Sultan and its culture and the diplomat is a pivotal actor in this process. The great value attached to reputation, protocol, decorum and the relational dynamism of al-Ghazzal need to be read within the context of a slowly evolving modus vivendi of diplomatic relations wherein new regulations and modes of conduct acquire a new cultural tincture and reveal a newly emerging political outlook vis-à-vis diplomacy and international affairs. His political praxis also unfurls insights into what Wellman identifies as the hermeneutic of the land or the “Ecological Location” (2) where the countries in dialogue both operate from an axis of communication and bridge-building.

In so doing, al-Ghazzal could identify common ground for cooperation that translates across differences of nationality, religion, and culture while at the same time catering to the shadow of the Sultan over the mission. Such perspective articulates a local specificity, a cultural ‘way of doing,’ living and interacting which stemmed from his belief that “there is no doubt that the tongue of a man will be a clue to his mind” (Al-Ghazzal 63).  This approach which underscores the importance of observation and communication    cultivated   and made al-Ghazzal aware of his positionality vis-à-vis the Spanish.

On an endnote, he wrote “we are your guests, with no say in anything. Therefore, what you see appropriate, and what is custom of yours, we will not ask you to forgo. It will not be onerous of us. They smiled at our answer, with smiles exceedingly wide” (66).


The recent shift from a political to cultural history of early modern diplomacy, as Christian Windler notes, has opened new and fertile venues of investigation.  Particularly in relation to Muslim missions to Europe which has long been overlooked by Western historiography.  One might Consider Jocelyne Dakhlia and Bernard Vincent’s “Les musulmans en Europe occidentale au Moyen Age et a l’epoque moderne: une integration invisible,” for example. Such negligence, Nabil Matar tells us, stems from the traditional representations of “the Muslim world” in terms of backwardness and timelessness which have long made Western historians indifferent to historical evidence (xiii-xiv). 

This article has tried to recover one of the historical narratives that developed in relation to as well as in interaction with European modernity, specifically in relation to the practice of diplomacy as emblematic to one form in which such modernity figured out in cross-cultural diplomatic encounters and critical affairs. Furthermore, al-Ghazzal’s account, I argue, compels us to rethink the agency of actors in encounters and to reject the topos often implicit in Western historiography that religious affiliation conditioned political loyalty.

On his route to Cadiz, al-Ghazzal often thought of his political duties but it did not distract him from describing, wondering at, and criticizing Spanish society. For him, Spain oscillates between being “the country of impiety” and a place of “hospitality and magnanimity.” He felt nostalgic when he was in the presence of Islamic sites. He disliked the bullfight because “humans are not allowed, neither by Islamic law nor by nature, to torture animals.” Yet, when asked about it he “spoke words of approval… for the sake of their sensibilities” (Al-Ghazzal 73). 

He admired other things including many aspects of the administration, the economy (such as factories and shipyards), science, and social life. He understood that Spain and Morocco were different, and that while such difference may shock at some instances, the present political business takes precedence. His emotional withholding adumbrates the rise of an international prism from which he engages with the complexities of the world where he battles with the necessity to withstand adaptation that may be irreconcilable with his inner world. 

I aspired also to locate the centrality of al-Ghazzal, as an active and flexible actor in the success of the signing of the Peace Treaty of 1776 between Morocco and Spain within a pluritopic hermeneutic approach that, as it sheds light on multiple aspects of al-Ghazzal’s diplomacy, establishes the travelogue as a centre, and al-Ghazzal as a protagonist, deserving of critical exploration and integration into the history of Muslim-Christian relations, diplomatic history and international affairs in the 18th century. Al-Ghazzal’s insights were significant in the success of the treaty. He succeeded in ransoming 300 captives as well as acquiring 300 Islamic manuscript “works of hadith, Islamic jurisprudence, and other subjects.” His role as a diplomat, as Eloy Martin-Corrales reminds us, extended to establish peace treaty negotiations even between the Spanish monarchy and the rulers of Algiers and Tripoli which would lead to similar treaties of peace, something considered paramount if the friendly relations between Spain and Morocco were to last (220).

The fact that Mahaba undergirded the praxis of Moroccan diplomacy and international affairs is not emphasized to undermine the magnitude of the chronic hostility that characterized the Muslim-Spanish relations prior to the signing the treaty. The repeated assaults on Spanish fortifications of el-Huceima and Ceuta and the burning, killing and expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain were always lingering in the background. Nonetheless, in Morocco of the Sultan Sidi Mohamed ben Abdullah and in al-Ghazzal’s diplomacy such background was not regarded with retrospective artlessness but with a realpolitik responding to the international climate of the 18th century where political motives and reasons of state favoured negotiations to a much greater extent than has previously been acknowledged. Therefore, we must not underestimate the flowing correspondences and the desire for negotiation that developed between Morocco and Spain.

My simple ambition in this article was to shed light on an individual who has been forgotten or ignored, particularly a Maghrebi Arab Muslim who visited Spain in the second half of the 18th century. I stressed that diplomacy as it is understood today is detached from the cultural and historical acuities needed for a proper understanding and appreciation of al-Ghazzal’s undertaking in an environment different from his own. I focused on various elements of his travelogue related to diplomacy, negotiations, and his constant attempts at making sense of a machinated European society to map out the trajectory of diplomacy at that historical juncture.

In this I hope to have enriched the historical rubric of the Mediterranean by integrating al-Ghazzal’s voice as an actor driven by a willingness to negotiate, not to fight. He has demonstrated that the negotiation of cultural difference to further the cause of diplomacy is predicated upon the diplomat’s competence to translate beyond this difference. In this sense I would like to end with a quote from the Algerian philosopher Mohammed Arkoun positing that the clash is not between two insular civilizations, but “between collective imaginaries constructed and maintained on both sides through the ‘unthinkable’ and ‘unthoughts’ cultivated by the educational systems, the discourse of political and academic establishments, and the media” (18).

Achraf Idrissi, Ph.D. student at the doctoral school of literary and cultural studies in the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Debrecen, Hungary, obtained his MA in Cultural Studies from the University of Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdullah, Morocco. His doctoral research explores the circulation of ideas and images of Europe across borders in Arab Islamic literature and history, particularly the representations of Western cultural and social life, gender, and various aspects of modernity such as technology, political institutions, etc….His  research interests include Decolonial Studies, Decoloniality, Memory Studies, Diplomatic History, Early Modern Period, Cross-Cultural Encounters, Travel Writing, History, Orientalism, Occidentalism, Postcolonial Studies and Captivity Narratives. He is also affiliated the Moroccan Cultural Studies Center where as a Ph.D. student he took part in a joint program with Rutgers University in the department of cultural anthropology. His research project was an ethnographic study of encounters between the ville nouvelle and the countryside, and how it affects identity formation as well as economic integration. [Achraf-idrissi@outlook.com]

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