Military ranks in different countries mirror one another to a large degree: the various grades within individual armed forces are largely the same, from ‘private’ to ‘general’. The military in Spain, Argentina, Chile and several other Latin American countries, however, have a rank which is unique. This is an Alférez, sometimes translated as ‘second lieutenant’.
As the word itself suggests, alférez has an Arabic origin, coming from al-faris, meaning horseman, or knight. In Medieval Spanish courts, the Alférez was a powerful man in charge of the king’s personal retinue of knights. One holder of the post was Alvaro Núñez de Lara, who carried the standard for Alfonso VIII of Castile at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa – a decisive victory over the Spanish Moors in 1212 – and who later promoted the cult of St Thomas à Becket in Spain.
Becket himself is said by some authorities to have had a Moorish mother, a fact which highlights a curious quality to relations between Islam and Christendom at this time: that while they were often at war, there existed a simultaneous interchange of cultures and ideas – a social contact – between the two communities. A clear example of this is the area of horsemanship and knightly behaviour – activities of the medieval Alférez.
One could be forgiven for thinking of chivalry as a native Western concept. Embedded in our culture since the tales of Roland and King Arthur, books and stories of knightly deeds laid the foundations of European literature. Yet the Chanson de Roland, written in the eleventh century and one of the cornerstones of the chivalric movement, gives a clue – as does the word alférez – to the origins of the code: the historical Roland was killed at Roncesvalles by Basques; the author of the Chanson, however, turns the enemies of the literary Roland into Moors: the hero’s acts of selfless valour are carried out against a Muslim force. Though nominal enemies they were working together at another level.
The Arabic word for knight – al-faris – is derived from the word for horse, al-faras, and linked to al-furisiyya – the Arabic tradition of horsemanship and chivalry, also known as futuwwa, with strong ideas about honour, bravery, and a gallant and even romantic attitude to women involving the revolutionary concept of unrequited love. These were not new ideas in Medieval Islam, however. In fact by the Middle Ages they were already centuries old, originating in Pre-Islamic times with the legends of Antar and Abla.
Virtually unknown to this day in the West, Antar is the Arab national hero, a warrior-poet of the sixth century and a prototype for European knights. A King Arthur of the desert, he fights for justice and honour throughout Arabia and the Middle East, subduing the wicked and defending the weak with the aid of his magical sword and his fleet-footed jet-black steed Abjer. In all his exploits he is inspired to feats of incredible strength and daring by his love for the beautiful Abla, whose hand he seeks in marriage. Many are set against this match, however, for Antar, though fathered by a tribal nobleman, is also the son of a black slave woman, and as such can aspire to little more than the life of a camel-herder under the constraints of the strict desert hierarchy. He must pass through a lifetime of trials to prove his worth before Abla can be his.
Like Roland and Arthur, Antar is both mythological and historical. The historical Antar had the honour of seeing the best of his qasidas, or odes, chosen to be one of the mu’allaqat, seven poems that were embroidered and then ‘hung’ from the Kaaba in Mecca. He died as an old man in battle fighting the Tayy tribe.
The mythological Antar extends beyond this story, the various strands and tales about his exploits first being collected and compiled in Baghdad in the ninth century at the time of Harun al-Rashid. The Sirat Antar, the Romance of Antar, is one of the best loved and most re-told epics of the Arab world. And centuries after their conception, the myths continued to grow, Antar later encounters the Crusaders in the Holy Land and meets the very people – Western knights – for whom he had been a precursor. In a curious twist in East-West relations, the stories composed about him at this time include his secret affairs with two Christian women. One, with the sister of ‘the King of Rome’, produces, a son: Richard the Lion-Heart. Another relationship with a Frankish princess sees Antar father Godfrey of Bouillon, leader, nonetheless, of the First Crusade.
That Western Chivalry is inspired by Islamic futuwwa traditions is conceivable given the intense contact between Christians and Muslims throughout the Medieval period in the Holy Land, Sicily and principally in Spain. Knights from all over Europe – from France, England, Scotland, Germany and Italy – were involved in these encounters, taking the ideas they found back home to the far corners of the continent. The echoes between Arthur and Antar are obvious, from his noble yet complicated origins to his magical sword and final demise through treachery and poison (and here there is an additional echo of the Norse myth of Balder, Antar being killed by a javelin thrown by a blind man). Even as he is dying, Antar never ceases to be chivalrous, protecting his beloved Abla and their retinue and allowing them to escape while he holds back his enemies through a combination of strength and subterfuge.
It is probably no accident that just at the time when ideas of chivalry are seeping into Western consciousness from the Islamic world, the Courtly Love movement is also developing, likewise deriving inspiration from Islamic sources, not least the Ring of the Dove, a treatise on romantic love written in the Spanish city of Játiva during the eleventh century by Ibn Hazm. The musicians associated with the movement – the troubadours – derived their name, according to Idries Shah and others, from the Arabic word tariba – ‘to make music, to sing, to delight’. (Other etymologies point to the word trovar, from which comes the French trouver, ‘to find’; this draws an interesting parallel with the English word for street musician, ‘busker’ – a kind of modern troubadour – which comes from the Spanish buscar, ‘to seek’.). The instigator of the Courtly Love movement was none other than Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Richard the Lion-Heart, whose mythological father was the legendary Arab hero Antar… And so the circles continue to connect: Richard’s Spanish wife Berengaria of Navarre was sister to King Sancho, onetime ally of the Moors. Richard’s brother King John even sent an embassy to the Moors during is own reign proposing to convert to Islam.
Courtly Love, with its concept of the unattainable and perfect woman at its heart, brings us back to Antar and his lifelong quest to be worthy of the princess Abla. The mystical symbolism underlying it – the quest of the soul to be reunited with the divine, to see what cannot be seen – is evident, and one suspects that behind the interchange of chivalric ideas between Muslims and Christians at the time was a Sufic current, introducing much needed ideas to the West from a rich heritage in the East. Certainly Shah suggests as much in The Sufis by pointing out the link between the British knightly Order of the Garter and the hidden Sufi teacher Khidr.
Today, the word ‘chivalry’ conjures up images of a bygone age. The Spanish rank of alférez may merely be a relic from that ancient past, but chivalry itself has been a flexible concept since its conception. Perhaps its values of honour, gallantry, skill and selflessness are as necessary today as they ever have been. In one form or another they have existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They are adaptable, and can be adapted and used again in our own times.