Islamic Spain was a multi-cultural mix of the people of three great monotheistic religions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews. For much of the time, the three groups managed to get along together, and to benefit from the presence of each other. It brought a degree of civilisation to Europe that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance.
In 711 Muslim forces invaded and in seven years conquered the Iberian peninsula. It became one of the great Muslim civilisations; reaching its summit with the Umayyad caliphate of Cordovain the tenth century. Muslim rule declined after that and ended in 1492 when Granada was conquered. The heartland of Muslim rule was Southern Spain or Andulusia.
Muslim Spain was not 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 (1031-1130) Decline (1130-1492)
The traditional story is that in the year 711, an oppressed Christian chief, Julian, went to Musa ibn Nusair, the governor of North Africa, with a plea for help against the tyrannical Visigoth ruler of Spain, Roderick.
Musa responded by sending the young general Tariq bin Ziyad with an army of 7000 troops. The name Gibraltar is derived from Jabal At-Tariq which is Arabic for ‘Rock of Tariq’ named after the place where the Muslim army landed.
The story of the appeal for help is not universally accepted. There is no doubt that Tariq invaded Spain, but the reason for it may have more to do with the Muslim drive to enlarge their territory. The Muslim army defeated the Visigoth army easily, and Roderick was killed in battle. After the first victory, the Muslims conquered most of Spain and Portugal with little difficulty, and in fact with little opposition. By 720 Spain was largely under Muslim -- Moorish, as it was called -- control.
One reason for the rapid Muslim success was the generous surrender terms that they offered the people, which contrasted with the harsh conditions imposed by the previous Visigoth rulers. The ruling Islamic forces were made up of different nationalities, and many of the forces were converts with uncertain motivation, so the establishment of a coherent Muslim state was not easy.
The heartland of Muslim rule was Southern Spain or Andulusia. The name Andalusia comes from the term Al-Andalus used by the Arabs which is derived from the Vandals who had been settled in the region.
Stability in Muslim Spain came with the establishment of the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty, which lasted from 756 to 1031. The credit goes to Amir Abd al-Rahman, who founded the Emirate of Cordoba, and was able to get the various different Muslim groups who had conquered Spain to pull together in ruling it.
The Golden Age
This was a Golden Age of learning where civilisation, religious and ethnic tolerance, interfaith harmony, discovery and free debate were the norm. Libraries, colleges, public baths were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished.
In the 10th century, Cordoba, the capital of Umayyad Spain, was unrivalled in both East and the West for its wealth and civilisation. One author wrote about Cordoba:
"there were half a million inhabitants, living in 113,000 houses. There were 700 mosques and 300 public baths spread throughout the city and its twenty-one suburbs. The streets were paved and lit... There were bookshops and more than seventy libraries."
Muslim scholars served as a major link in bringing Greek philosophy, of which the Muslims had previously been the main custodians, to Western Europe. There were interchanges and alliances between Muslim and Christian rulers such as the legendary Spanish warrior El-Cid, who fought both against and alongside Muslims. There were also cultural alliances, particularly in the architecture - the 12 lions in the court of Alhambra are heralds of Christian influences. The mosque at Cordoba, now converted to a cathedral is still, somewhat ironically, known as La Mezquita or literally, the mosque.
The mosque was begun at the end of the 8th century by the Ummayyad prince Abd al Rahman ibn Muawiyah.
Under the reign of Abd al Rahman III (r. 912-961) Spanish Islam reached its greatest power as every May campaigns were launched towards the Christian frontier, this was also the cultural peak of Islamic civilisation in Spain.
Decline and Fall
The collapse of Islamic rule in Spain was due not only to increasing aggression on the part of Christian states, but to divisions among the Muslim rulers. The rot came from both the centre and the extremities. Early in the eleventh century, the single Islamic Caliphate had shattered into a score of small kingdoms, ripe for picking-off. The first big Islamic centre to fall to Christianity was Toledo in 1085.
The Muslims replied with forces from Africa which under the general Yusuf bin Tashfin defeated the Christians resoundingly in 1086, and by 1102 had recaptured most of Andalusia. The general was able to reunite much of Muslim Spain.
It didn't last. Yusuf died in 1106, and, as one historian puts it, the "rulers of Muslim states began cutting each other's throats again". Internal rebellions in 1144 and 1145 further shattered Islamic unity, and despite intermittent military successes, Islam's domination of Spain was ended for good.
By the eleventh century, however, a small pocket of Christian resistance had begun to grow, and under Alfonso VI Christian forces retook Toledo. It was the beginning of the period the Christians called the Reconquest, and it underlined a serious problem that marred this refined, graceful, and charming era: the inability of the numerous rulers of Islamic Spain to maintain their unity.
This so weakened them that when the various Christian kingdoms began to pose a serious threat, the Muslim rulers in Spain had to ask the Almoravids, a North African Berber dynasty, to come to their aid. The Almoravids came and crushed the Christian uprising, but eventually seized control themselves. In 1147, the Almoravids were in turn defeated by another coalition of Berber tribes, the Almohads
On January 2, 1492 - the year they sent Columbus to America - Ferdinand and Isabella hoisted the banner of Christian Spain above the Alhambra, Grenada last Muslim city to fall. Boabdil, the last Muslim king, rode weeping into exile with the bitter envoi from his aged mother, "Weep like a woman for the city you would not defend like a man!"
The Muslims had finally lost all power in Spain in 1492. By 1502 the Christian rulers issued an order requiring all Muslims to convert to Christianity, and when this didn't work, they imposed brutal restrictions on the remaining Spanish Muslims.
Other Religions in Muslim Spain
Jews and Christians were able to thrive under Muslim rule, providing they obeyed certain rules. These rules were not much of a burden by the standards of the time, although they would now be considered completely unacceptable. There were several reasons why the Muslim rulers tolerated these rival faiths: They were monotheistic faiths - so arguably their members were worshipping the same God - despite having some wayward beliefs and practices: most notably the failure to accept the significance of Muhammad (pbuh) and the Qur'an.
Some Emirs even took Christians as bodyguards.
There was clear guidance in the Qur'an that Christians and Jews should be tolerated if they obeyed certain rules. The Muslim rulers allowed Jews and Christians to live according to their faiths and customs. They were given the status of Dhimmis -- or Zimmis -- which allowed them some power to organise themselves and freedom of religion. In return the dhimmis had to pay a tax called jizya. If they didn't want to pay it, they could convert to Islam or be executed. This was not as oppressive as it sounds, in that the dhimmis got the full protection of the state in return for their money.
In describing the fate of Islam in Spain, Irving suggested that the Muslims were then swiftly and thoroughly wiped out. Never, he wrote, was the annihilation of a people more complete.