By Andrew Bieszad
This article will be a series of ongoing pieces about the role of St. Mary in the defeat of Islam.
Islam was born from a conglomeration of Christian heresies mixed with pagan lore that abounded in the Arabian peninsula of his time. One of the most obsitant and dangerous of those heresies was called Arianism, named after the rogue priest Arius who denied Jesus’ divinity. Arianism reached the zenith of its influence in the early 4th century, but persisted in many areas of the Roman Empire for centuries.
One of those pockets was among the Visigothic peoples, who migrated from northern Europe and settled in Spain. Due to the danger of their beliefs, much effort was invested in converting them to the Faith.
There were many great men in the fight against Arianism within Spain.
One of those men was Leander of Seville (534 –600 ). His efforts were so notable that as a gesture of thanks, Pope Gregory “The Great” (540 –604) gave him a statue of Mary as a gift. This was not just any mere statue, as it has been sculpted by Luke the Gospel writer himself. Leander took it back to his native Spain and installed it in an unnamed church, where it stayed for the next century and a half until the armies of Islam invaded.
Muslim general Tariq ibn Ziyad, acting under the command of Musa ibn Nusayr crossed from Morocco to the “mountain” at Spain’s southernmost point, which he renamed “Tariq’s mountain,” or Jabal Tariq (from whence the name“Gibraltar” comes) in 711.
The Muslim armies began a reign of terror against the inhabitants of southern Spain, gradually moving their way up the eastern Iberian coastline as they conquered and either converted or subjugated the native Christians in the area. The churches which the Muslims did not destroy were converted into mosques, and word arrived soon that the Muslims would be upon the church.
The priests knew that it was unlikely that Islam’s armies could be stopped at this time, and that the church would meet the same fate as those in other parts of Spain. Acting quickly, the priests took the statue and rushed it away to the arid Spanish heartland of Extremadura and buried it at a bank on a tributary of the Guadiana River, known locally as the Wolf River. Their timing could not have been better, since the church was soon after desecrated into a mosque. However, the statue remained hidden.
In the midst of the chaos, the statue’s location was forgotten. Within a few generations story became legend, and it passed into the memory of future generations who wondered where Leander’s Virgin lay. For six centuries, the statue rested under the ground below the burning Spanish sun, waiting to be recovered and restored to its rightful place.
One day in 1326, a pious shepherd named Gil Cordero was tending his sheep when Mary appeared to him. She told him to go to a certain location she would show him on the Wolf River with the local priest and dig, and there they would find the statue.
Gil obeyed, and having told the local priest, the men went and upon digging found the statue as she spoke. The finding of the statue was an immediate succor to the Spanish, who were in the midst of fierce fighting in Extremadura against Islamic armies from Seville. A shrine and monastery were immediately constructed, and her statue became a place of pilgrimage for the Spanish. They called it wadi lupe, which is a construct from the Arabic and Latin meaning “Our Lady of the Wolf River,” and was soon reformulated into a new Spanish word, Guadalupe.
Fourteen years later, a report came that the Muslim marinids from Morocco were attempting another mass invasion into Spain to try and overthrow the Catholic resistance from the north. King Alfonso XI of Castile and King Alfonso IV of Portugal allied and made pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe and petitioned her intercession for victory as Christians have done throughout the ages with Islam.
As sure as Providence would will it, the Battle of Rio Salado on October 4th, 1340 was a decisive victory that not only crushed the Muslims but marked the end of attempts at mass invasion by Musilm armies up until the end of the Reconquista in 1492.
It was after the power of Islam was stripped from the Muslims and the Andalusian Caliphate abolished in 1492 that the Spanish then sailed west to colonize and Christianize the recently discovered Americas. The memory of Our Lady of Guadalupe from Extremadura and the victory she won them over the Muslims came with them as they conquered Mexico in 1520.
The sought her intercession as they subdued the bestial Aztec culture and its demonic human sacrifice rituals to their false sun god Quetzacoatl, as well as for the conversion of the native American peoples to the Faith. One of these new converts was a peasant who, following his conversion, took the name Juan Diego.
One day in 1531 when Juan was walking home, Our Lady appeared to him. She asked Juan to tell the archbishop, Juan de Zumarrága, to build a church to her honor on Tepeyac Hill. He obeyed, but the bishop did not believe him and requested a sign. Juan returned and after a series of subsequent apparitions, she told him to pick all of the roses he would find on the hill and bring them to this bishop in his tilma, a robe used by the Aztecs for carrying goods, and she would perform a miracle.
When Juan showed his tilma to Archbishop Zumarrága, there appeared with the rose pedals emblazoned on it an image of Mary standing upon the crescent moon. Amazed, he immediately acted upon her request and built the church to her. He named the apparition Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) due to the fact that she is standing upon a crescent moon, which is a traditional symbol of Islam carried on the flags of Muslim invaders throughout history.
The image of La Guadalupana, as she is sometimes called, was later carried by the Italian Holy League Command Gianandrea Doria into victorious battle against the Ottoman navy at Lepanto in 1571.
Christians today need to remember that the spiritual and material battle are of equal importance. It is within the union of these two domains that Islam can be defeated. Our Lady of Guadalupe is an example of this, and as Islam rises in America, it would be wise to remember the victories she assisted in gaining for the glory of Christ over Islam throughout the centuries.
Andrew Bieszad has an MA in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary with concentration in the Islamic equivalent of Dogmatic Theology. He is the author of Lions of the Faith: Saints, Blesseds, and Heroes of the Catholic Faith in the Struggle with Islam. He is a sought after writer and speaker on Islamic topics.