The Muslim Rule in Spain
Weekly Pulse
February 3-9, 2006
During 780 years of the Muslim rule in Spain, 712-1492 AD, followers of the three Abrahamnic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—coexisted under an Islamic government that recognized their common biblical foundations. The Islamic system protected and gave each a place in the society as a whole—a place more tolerant by far than that accorded to Jews and Muslims in the succeeding Christian era, dominated by the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

In 712, Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula, conquering it within seven years and facing minimal resistance from the Spaniards who were subjugated under the Christian rule. Under the Muslim rule, the whole of Iberian Peninsula became a center of civilization, reaching its climax under the Umayyad caliphate of Cordovain in the 10th century.

The heartland of Muslim rule was Southern Spain or Andalusia. The Muslim rule in Spain was not confined to a single period, but a succession of different rules: The Dependent Emirate (711-756), the Independent Emirate (756-929), the Caliphate (929-1031), the Almoravid Era (1031-1145); and decline under the Almohads (1145-1492).

Islamic Spain was a multi-cultural mix of the people of three great monotheistic religions: For much of the time, Muslims, Christians, and Jews managed to get along together, and to benefit from the presence of each other. It brought a degree of civilization to Europe that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance.

“This was the chapter of Europe’s culture when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side and, despite their intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a complex culture of found expression in the often unconscious acceptance that contradictions...could be positive and productive,” writes Maria Rosa Menocal in The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

Rightly so, therefore, Jewish history depicts the Muslim rule in Spain as the Golden Age of the Jews. “Starting especially after 912, with the reign of Abd-ar-Rahman III and his son, Al-Hakam II, the Jews prospered, devoting themselves to the service of the Caliphate of Cordoba, to the study of science, and to commerce and industry, especially to trading in silk and slaves, in this way promoting the prosperity of the country. Southern Spain became an asylum for the oppressed Jews of other parts.

Greg Noakes, in an article, titled “The Other 1492” and published in January-February 1993 issue of Saudi Aramco World, writes: “Despite the passage of 500 years, Al-Andalus continues to cast its spell. As the birthplace of some of the world’s outstanding scholars and artisans, home of dazzling architectural masterpieces, and setting of a brilliant society notable for both the height of its achievements and the depths of its decadence, Al-Andalus retains its emotional impact and its privileged place in Muslim historical memory.”

Islamic Spain was an immensely fertile ground for learning, producing a long series of intellectual, esthetic and scientific advances attributable to Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers and the atmosphere they created. The mixing of cultures on the Iberian Peninsula was partly the result of a moderate form of Islam practiced by the first ruling dynasty of the Umayyads.

Within two centuries, Andalusia reached the peak of its cultural and political development, prosperity and power. Its capital Cordoba had some 200-thousand homes, 600 mosques, 900 public baths, 50 hospitals, and lighted and paved streets. Libraries and research institutions flourished in Muslim Spain, while the rest of Europe remained largely illiterate.

It was not in material terms alone that Andalusia flourished, but in music and the arts, and, more importantly, in all branches of education. Schools and academic institutions overflowed with students and scholars from all quarters of the Islamic world. From these academies there emerged intellectual luminaries in every branch of science: Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in philosophy, Ibn Zahr in medicine, Ibn Fernas in mathematics, Ibn Zeidun in literature, Ibn Abi Amer in architecture, and Ibn Mahah in jurisprudence.”

The vibrant institutions of education also drew many Europeans who later rose to positions of power and distinction. Particularly notable among these was a graduate of the University of Cordoba who eventually became Pope Sylvester II. Cordoba in the western Mediterranean was like the University of Alexandria in the east. At its prime, it attracted students from everywhere, even from Italy and Greece.

The works of many of the most prominent thinkers and practitioners of al-Andalus, along with writings from the eastern Muslim world, were translated from Arabic into Latin by Spaniards. Through these translations, philosophical and scientific thought from the Greek and Roman worlds, preserved and expanded upon by Muslim scholars, passed into European consciousness to fuel both the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.

Also known as the Golden Age of Muslims/Arabs in al-Andalus, the era finally ended in 1492, with the Spanish Christian monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand conquering the Alhambra, the last Muslim stronghold, and also expelling the Jews from Spain. However, a succession of internal developments, characterized by intra-Muslim rivalries and the growing of extremist Muslim beliefs and practices, formed the backdrop of the eventual end of the glorious Muslim civilization in Europe.

The primary cause of the Muslim decline in al-Andalus was the increasingly hostile rivalries over the caliphate. This fragmentation began under Al-Hakam Ibn Al-Nasser, who brought over many Moroccan Berbers and conferred upon them high government offices, leading them to the conviction that the caliphs were weak and encouraging them to establish independent mini states. It was not just this splintering that made these mini kingdoms vulnerable, but also the fact that they were constantly invading one another in order to satisfy their territorial ambitions.

The small states of 11th century al-Andalus—centered around cities such as Seville, Granada, Malaga and Cordoba—were individually small and vulnerable. They could only survive among their predatory neighbors by adroit diplomacy and warfare. Thus, when they found themselves exposed to encroachment from the Christian forces of the north, they appealed to the Almoravid kingdom in Morocco. In 1085, as the city of Toledo came under Christian control, the Muslim rulers asked the king of Almoravids, Yusuf ibn Tashufin, to intervene.

The Almoravids were a puritanical dynasty that had arisen among the Berbers of far southern Morocco, and for a time they were content to assist the Moorish rulers militarily—but in 1090 Yusuf decided that his erstwhile hosts had to go, and the Moorish rulers were swept aside. The Almoravids at first imposed their puritanical practices and rigid religious orthodoxy, visible even in their art, on Spain, but in the end, though their faith remained pure, they themselves succumbed to the luxury and ease of al-Andalus.

During these successive waves of narrowly interpreted Islam, many Jewish and even Muslim scholars left the Muslim-controlled portion of Spain for the then still relatively tolerant city of Toledo, even though it had come under Christian control in 1085. Several of these Muslim and Jewish scholars were involved in what became known as the ‘School of Toledo,’ which produced some of the first translations into Latin of works from the Arab world, notably the works of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes) and of the Jewish poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol, known in Spain as Avicebrón.

“The Almoravids’ faltering strength,” writes Greg Noakes, “provided the Christian kingdoms with opportunities for re-conquest, and by 1145 Almoravid Spain was reeling. The Muslim population rose in revolt and a new group of Muslim monarchs asked the Almohads —another puritanical movement from southern Morocco, which supplanted the Almoravids in North Africa—to intervene.”

Precariously balanced between hostile Christian powers to the north and rival Muslim rulers in Morocco to the south, Granada survived for almost two centuries more. Although they gradually ceded territory to the Spanish Christian forces, the Nasrid rulers of Granada, afraid of being swallowed by their rescuers, refused to turn to the Moroccans for assistance. Isolated politically, the Granadines lived on, on borrowed time—until 1492, when the last Muslim city fell to the Christians.

According to Greg Noakes, “In the Islamic world today, Muslim Spain is invoked at two levels. First, there is the memory of the land itself: the flowing rivers and green fields of southern Spain, the magnificent mosques and palaces, the flourishing culture. Al-Andalus is remembered at another level as the one area that was once—but is no longer—part of the Muslim world. The fact that the rest of the Muslim world has retained its religious identity over some 14 centuries rife with political, social, cultural and technological change makes the exception of Spain that much more painful to Muslims.

“And though, over the years, lost Muslim Spain has been much idealized in the Islamic world, there remains an appreciation of the factors behind its downfall. Some of these were external, such as the unification and expansion of the Christian kingdoms of Spain and the geographic and political isolation of al-Andalus from the rest of the Muslim world. There were also internal factors that contributed to the decline of al-Andalus, particularly the rivalries that weakened and divided Muslim Spain, the greed and self-indulgence that gripped its elites, the loss of a unifying religious vision, and, above all, the end of religious tolerance under the successive reigns of Almoravids and Almohades.”

The legacy of the Golden Age of al-Andalus is widespread and lasting, from advances in agriculture and science to music and poetry. The Islamic world flourished through contact and cooperation with other cultures and its creativity declined with the onset of religious bigotry among Muslims, leading to the end of the glorious Muslim rule in Spain.

Islamic Spain offers important lessons for Muslim nations today. It is about time we in the Muslim world started emulating the Andalusian emphasis on the universal aspects of Islam, rather than pursuing a sectarian, reactionary and confrontational path.