The ‘guru’ who made the first suicide attack

In 1487, two simultaneous dramas were being developed on the lands of the Kingdom of Granada. On the one hand, there was the civil war which for five years had been feuding between two sides of the reigning dynasty, each supported by the main lineages of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada. One side was formed by King Muley Hacen, supported by his brother El Zagal and the powerful clan of the Zegríes. Meanwhile the other was formed by the young Boabdil (later called “the boy”), who was the son of Muley Hacen, and who had proclaimed himself King with the support of his powerful father-in-law, General Aliatar (see his story), as well as by the clan of Abencerrages.

On the other hand, there was the intermittent offensive of the Christian army under the command of the Catholic Monarchs, who sought to conquer the Kingdom of Granada.

In 1483 the Christians had captured Boabdil during the Battle of Lucena (see this story); and since then they maintained an alliance with him against his father and uncle. According to the agreement, the Christians had the right to incorporate into their kingdom the territories that they captivated from the side of his father.

The city of Malaga was a key piece in the war. It was one of the main bastions of the deposed King Muley Hacen; for which reason he had left his defence in the hands of his main General, his brother El Zagal. In addition, it was a strategic port for any arrival of Muslim reinforcements from Africa, thus the Catholic Monarchs had a great interest in the conquest of Malaga. In the summer of 1497, the Christian army prepared for its assault. The city had a numerous garrison, commanded by the Governor, the valiant General Hamet the Zegrí.

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The attacks unfolded throughout the summer, but those three months of siege failed to surrender Malaga. It was in a situation of impasse that the retinue of Queen Elizabeth of Castile arrived at the Christian camp, surrounded by all its pomp. At the sight of the desolated battlefield, the Queen ordered to immediately cease the hostilities, and then sent an emissary to Malaga’s Governor. In her letter, she offered very advantageous conditions for his surrender but also warned him that if he did not accept surrender she would expose the whole city to the most terrible consequences.

The Zegrí interpreted the offer as a sign of weakness. The Muslim leader knew that the Christian squadron lacked a refuge port and that, with the arrival of autumn and storms, the Queen may be obliged to withdraw, which would allow El Zegrí to receive support again from Africa and to continue the fight until Christians, weakened by so many months in the open, would drop the siege. Thus, the Governor did not even answer the offer of capitulation. Meanwhile, El Zagal made an attempt to rescue the besieged city, but failed in his efforts. The news of the defeat of the aid troops caused a great demoralisation among the people of Malaga who resigned themselves to the continuation of their great sufferings. Not only the besieged remained anguished by the long duration of the siege, the loyal town to El Zagal lived the drama of the besieged as they themselves were aware that his surrender could lead to the loss of the entire Kingdom of Granada.

One morning, the town of Guadix, more than 200 kilometres from the city of Malaga – in the eastern part of the territory personally controlled by El Zagal – was startled by the proclamations of an old man who said he had had a divine vision the night before. Ibrahim the Guerbi was a dervish that had settled himself in the area for many years. Coming from the island of Djerba (near the city of Tunis), he was a very old man who lavished fasting, so he was literally all bones. His kind behaviour and his reputation for holiness had made him an extremely popular character among his fellow countrymen, who attributed him prophetic gifts.

primer atentado suicida

Ibrahim gathered together the inhabitants of Guadix, their rulers, and the military garrison, stating out rightly that Allah had revealed to him in his dreams how to save Malaga from the Christians. His eloquence and enthusiasm persuaded them of the veracity of his proclamation and put them all at his entire disposal. The dervish told them that he needed to get to Malaga as soon as possible and enter the city, where he would put into practice what God had revealed to him. Although the army of El Zagal had recently failed with a powerful army, the garrison of Guadix relied on his visions and offered to accompany him on his project.

The old Saint went to Malaga together with about 400 companions, undertaking the long and rough journey through the Sierra Nevada mountains, to the outskirts of Malaga. As he scanned the city from afar, Ibrahim checked the great number of troops and ships that attacked the city on every side, and he understood the reason why El Zagal had failed in his attempt. Suddenly, the Saint was inspired and quickly developed a very intrepid plan to cross the lines of the Christian besiegers. It was necessary to try to break the siege across the plain, where the tents of the Christian chiefs were planted. The place, garrisoned in troops, lacked trenches and walls to protect the besiegers from the exits of the besieged.

That same night, when the Christians withdrew to rest, the small troops of Ibrahim launched at a gallop through the Christian camp. After a brief struggle, half of the warriors who accompanied him managed to reach the walls of Malaga; there they were received with as much surprise as joy. All the Muslims agreed that this achievement represented an excellent omen and the Malaga population regained hope.

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While the combat was taking place, the Saint took advantage of the confusion to hide inside the camp of the besiegers. The next morning, Ibrahim sat on a stone and meditated until some soldiers detained him, leading him to the tent of the Marquis of Cadiz, one of the chiefs of the army. Don Diego Ponce of León questioned the elderly about his identity and presence in the place, to which Ibrahim responded by speaking of his Tunisian origin and claimed to have divinatory gifts provided by his holiness. The Marquis, sceptical in this matter, asked mockingly about the date on which the city would surrender; and the dervish replied that the answer was a secret that only the Kings could reveal personally. In the event that a conversation between the Saint and the Kings could bring something useful, Don Diego Ponce of León decided to discuss this suggestion with the Monarchs, and that it would be them who would decide on the desirability of receiving him. Meanwhile, the Marquis of Cadiz took the prisoner to a tent.

So, leading Ibrahim to a luxurious tent nearby the Kings, where there were the Marquise of Moya and Don Alvaro of Portugal were resting; accompanied by their own retinue of knights, who escorted them. As he was in such a luxurious place and in front of two dignitaries, the Saint thought he was facing the Catholic Monarchs. At a certain moment, the dervish approached Don Alvaro by surprise and with all his strength struck him with a scimitar that he had hidden in his clothes; thinking he was dead, he tried to kill the Marquise of Moya. She was lucky enough to get away from him and was saved by the members of the escort, who quickly took away the life of Ibrahim.

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The Malaga’s ‘guru’ died with the conviction that he had killed the King Ferdinand of Aragon and that this would have avoided the conquest of Malaga. The King, informed of what had happened, ordered that the remains of the holy man be thrown to the besieged by a catapult. The remnants of the dervish were collected and revered by the people of Malaga. Furious, the besieged tied the corpse of a Christian prisoner to the tail of a donkey, and frightened the beast with the body being dragged towards the field of besiegers.

From this moment on, the King refused any kind of pact with the besieged, whom lacking in provisions had no choice but to surrender unconditionallys. Queen Elizabeth got her husband King Ferdinand to break his decision to annihilate the entire town but could not alleviate the repression that was unleashed against the Muslims of Malaga. The Moorish warriors were executed with spears, while the Muladis (the Christians that had converted to Islam) who had collaborated in the defence of the city were burned alive. The rest of the town (including the women and children) were given as slaves to the besieging soldiers, forming part of their booty.

The victim Don Alvaro of Portugal managed to survive the attack and years later became an important support for the trips of Christopher Columbus. Possibly the attack of Ibrahim could have played a role in the harshness of the repression unleashed by King Ferdinand, although at that time those kinds of punishment in a war were quite common everywhere.

What is clear is that if the ‘guru’ had succeeded in this suicide attack, the history of the world would have changed considerably, since the Muslims of Granada could have hold out longer, and could have received help from the emerging Turkish Empire? It is also very probable that without Queen Elizabeth, Columbus could not have made his voyage to the “Indias” (América).

Text by Ignacio Suárez-Zuloaga and illustrations by Ximena Maier

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