Muslim Rule in Spain Was a Crucial Part of Europe’s History

For half a millennium, modern-day Spain was mostly ruled by Muslim kingdoms that presided over an extraordinary cultural experiment. The key to understanding Al-Andalus lies in its unorthodox social structure and its political location between two worlds.

Engraving of Abd al-Rahman II (788-852), Umayyad emir of Córdoba in the Al-Andalus region of Spain, receiving Basque ambassadors. (Prisma / UIG / Getty Images)

A century after its birth in the western Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the seventh century, Islam had conquered the Middle East, Africa, and part of Southern Europe. This vibrant, expanding religion had established its western outpost in what is today most of Spain and Portugal.

What followed may be surprising to those familiar with the history of medieval religious polities on both sides of the Mediterranean. Here more than elsewhere in the Muslim world — not to mention the Christian states of Europe — minority faiths enjoyed a degree of toleration. Christians and Jews were able, at least during certain times, to continue to practice their faith, sometimes even alongside Muslims.

The Koran advocated acceptance of what Mohammed called other “religions of the Book,” such as Christianity and Judaism. However, such acceptance was generally accompanied, in practice, by certain forms of discrimination against the followers of these faiths — notably the requirement to pay additional taxes.

Yet in this region called Al-Andalus, this fluctuating tolerance — sometimes quite exceptional in its scope, sometimes reduced to nothing, depending on the period — was combined with extensive mutual cultural borrowings over a long period. Some authors have gone so far as to speak of a genuine Andalusian Enlightenment.

In a Europe where the role of Islam, past and present, is a matter of bitter political controversy, the experience of Al-Andalus continues to fascinate those who have studied its history. But what were the conditions that made this experience possible?

Pluralism by Necessity

The circumstances in which Al-Andalus took shape and developed provide some initial answers to these questions. For half a millennium, the Iberian Peninsula represented a significant part of the Muslim world — of its population, economy, political power, and culture. From the beginning in the early eighth century, the new Muslim-ruled kingdom had inextricably mixed the Arab element, a tiny minority of the population, with the Berber and Iberian elements, which were a large majority.

Muslim Andalusia soon found itself locked in a cul-de-sac, blocked in its progression northward by the resistance of the Franks while simultaneously being threatened in the south by the insubordination of the Maghreb’s Berber populations. For this reason, it had to compromise between the socioeconomic order that was dependent on the power of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and the protofeudal system of Iberia’s defeated Visigothic Christian elites.

Iberian Islam was thus born under the sign of a social, political, and cultural hybridization, since it could not benefit durably from the spoils of new conquests, unlike its Middle Eastern counterpart. This specificity was the starting point for the relative religious tolerance that it displayed at first, in a period during which the Umayyad Empire of Damascus tended on the contrary to restrict the prerogatives of other religions.

In the middle of the eighth century, Al-Andalus had to reinvent itself, confronted with the fall of the Umayyad caliphate and the emergence of small Berber states in the Maghreb, enriched by the trans-Saharan trade in gold and enslaved people and governed by a dissident and culturally open Islam. The formation of an independent Muslim emirate combined the conservative rigor of the state with the openness of a very heterogeneous civil society to diversity.

This renewed compromise favored the rise of centrifugal political forces that the emirs of Cordoba later had to deal with. From the middle of the ninth century, at the cost of a long civil war, they gradually overcame the caudillos and rebel cities, one by one.

In 929, Abd al-Rahman III, victorious over all his enemies, set himself up as caliph, defying his Abbasid and Fatimid counterparts. He built a wonderful palatial city and promoted the cultural development of his court. From then on, his reign sought to fascinate and co-opt its opponents more than to annihilate them.

This uncontested hegemony gave a particular gloss to the cultural diversity of Al-Andalus. The country was also experiencing a spectacular economic boom in agriculture, industry, and trade, encouraging urbanization and a steady increase in tax revenues. An Islamic tributary social formation had thus triumphed over the feudal vestiges of old Hispania.

By the beginning of the eleventh century, however, the territorial base of the caliphate was proving too narrow. It was not large enough to withstand the military pressure of the Christian kingdoms in the north and the control of trans-Saharan trade by the Ghanaian empire in the south. The caliphate broke up into rival principalities known as taifas.

From the middle of the eleventh to the first decades of the thirteenth century, the two North African dynasties of the Almoravids and the Almohads reversed this tendency toward fragmentation. They were strong enough to regain control of trans-Saharan trade, the Maghreb, and Al-Andalus. Despite their own religious fundamentalism, they also went on to preside over a new rise in science and the arts, making the Hispano-Moorish Enlightenment burn with its last fires.

Conquest and Consolidation

From the first victories of Tariq ibn Ziyad, who gave his name to Gibraltar (Djebel Tariq) after crossing the straits in 711, the Arabs and Berbers who had invaded the Iberian Peninsula needed to conclude a truce with its former Visigothic masters. The precise number of those who came in the early decades of the eighth century remains a matter of debate among historians: Eduardo Manzano Moreno suggests a figure of approximately fifty thousand Arabs and one hundred twenty thousand Berbers.

Reaching an accommodation with those they had conquered allowed the peninsula’s new rulers to do without large concentrations of troops. In the absence of fresh territorial expansion, the renumeration received by such armies would not have been sufficient to feed the growth of new cities.

The garrison cities (Alcalá in Castilian) did not last long, unlike those in Egypt or Iraq. The conquerors quickly established themselves in the rural areas to collect the tribute. This meant that a copper currency of little intrinsic value played a crucial role during the first decades of the conquest as the means by which tribute was paid and trade carried out.

From 721 to 732, the governors of Al-Andalus launched a series of raids beyond the Pyrenees against the episcopal sees of Narbonne, Toulouse, Nîmes, Carcassonne, Bordeaux, or Autun before finding themselves stopped by Frankish, Burgundian, and Aquitanian forces. From then on, they allied themselves with the Provençals in the region, while a Berber uprising against the tax and slave levies of the Umayyad Empire (739–743) weakened their rear.

Future historians would attach great significance to the victory of Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, over the Muslim forces at the battle of Tours in 732, presenting it as a decisive turning point in the history of Europe. Far-right, Islamophobic political groups have constructed a veritable cult of Martel.

Yet it was the resistance of the Berber tribes rather than that of the Franks that really stopped the Muslim advance in Europe. Significantly for the future of Iberia, a number of small Christian kingdoms also survived in what is today Northern Spain, Catalonia, and the Basque Country.

Emboldened by religious dissent, the semi-nomadic tribes of North Africa founded several independent states in the Maghreb and became masters of the gold and slave trade with the southern Sahara. Adherents of Kharijism, the oldest dissident current of Islam, but also of a primitive form of Shiʽism, they aspired to return to the “tribal democracy” of the prophet’s time. They rejected the growing influence of Byzantine and Persian monarchical traditions on Middle Eastern Islam.

The French Marxist anthropologist Pierre-Philippe Rey has identified an ongoing tension between the contractual ideology of tribal confederations, open to debate, empirical research, and rational thought, and that of territorial empires, based on the principle of authority. For a century and a half, from the middle of the eighth to the beginning of the tenth century, these small Berber states developed a rich and variegated civilization.

It was open to difference, linking an Islam that was barely codified to the democratic clan element and resistant to any authoritarian central power. According to Rey, this civilization continued to influence the Hispano-Moorish civilization and African Soninke Islam until the sixteenth century.

The Economy of Al-Andalus

In the middle of the eighth century, Iberian Islam, cut off from the Syrian metropolis, adopted a survivor of the Umayyad dynasty, Abd al-Rahman I, as its leader. Al-Andalus could now claim political independence from the new Abbasid Empire with its center in Baghdad that had supplanted the Umayyads.

It continued to belong to the world of the Abbasids in economic and cultural terms. However, it was separated geographically from their domain by the western and central Maghreb, which was emancipated from the control of the Baghdad caliphate. It was also distinguished from it as a social formation that was still hybrid, retaining certain protofeudal traits.

The Islamized dominant classes of the peninsula, deprived of real possibilities of expansion, had to count on their interior agricultural territories as a source of wealth from then on. To this end, they could take advantage of the bonds of personal dependence established by the Visigothic nobility, which ensured the attachment of the peasants to the soil.

In return, the Christian necropolises and churches were allowed to remain. Muslims prayed and were buried alongside Christians, as evidenced by the discovery of remains lying on their right side, with their faces turned toward Mecca, next to the native burials.

Al-Andalus became the first laboratory for a form of Arab-Muslim domination which had renounced conquest to bet on the economic development of its territory. This evolution tended to gradually win over the natives to the language, culture, and beliefs of the Arabs without excessive pressure.

The court of the emirs also welcomed many oriental jurists, scientists, and artists. The famous Ziryab (d. 857), a musician, writer, and philosopher from Mosul, introduced the ancestor of the guitar (oud) to Andalusia, adding a fifth string to it and developing its play with a plectrum. Zyriab, a novel by Jesus Greus, recreates the tumultuous cultural life of the court of Abd al-Rahman II in Córdoba during the second quarter of the ninth century.

Meanwhile, the Levantine coast in the east and the central-western part of the peninsula continued to decline. In contrast, the south and east of Andalusia and the Ebro Valley grew, two regions where Islamization had been rapid and massive.

The basins of the Guadiana and Guadalquivir Rivers and the five major cities of Córdoba, Seville, Mérida, Toledo, and Zaragoza, whose suburbs expanded, were the emirate’s center of gravity. The country’s administrative network relied upon a network of secondary cities in the Tagus and the Ebro basins, as well as in the southeast.

A Tributary Social Formation

In the middle of the eighth century, there were still profound economic, cultural, and religious disparities in the Emirate of Córdoba. This heterogeneity encouraged centrifugal dynamics that became increasingly threatening. The central state risked sinking if it failed to contain them by force.

This inevitable confrontation plunged the country into a long civil war. In the shelter of their fortifications, cities and local caudillos, often recently Islamized, fiercely resisted the centralization efforts of the emirs. In the end, the triumph of Abd al-Rahman III at the beginning of the tenth century enabled him to proclaim himself caliph in 929.

In the second half of the tenth century, the Muslim world represented almost a fifth of the world’s population, according to the best estimates we can make. Its eastern part, from Iraq to Tajikistan, was populated by fifteen to twenty million inhabitants, subject to the spiritual authority of the Sunni Abbasid caliphs.

Its central part, from Syria to the eastern Maghreb, possessed a similar demographic weight, and lay under the domination of the Shiʽite Fatimid caliphs. Finally, its western, Hispanic part, with a population of seven to nine million, formed a third caliphate led by the descendants of the Damascus Umayyads.

The new state had liquidated the personal dependency relationships of Visigothic society and now ruled over a typical Islamic tributary social formation. In tributary social formations, the position of the dominant class was confused with that of the state. In the Islamic variant, two kinds of social actors, semi-nomadic tribespeople and urban merchants, played a specific role, as the Spanish historian Manuel Acién Almansa has shown in his work.

The colonization of previously uncultivated lands contributed to the development of new villages. Sophisticated irrigation systems were needed for the cultivation of cotton and silkworms. The Caliphate of Córdoba thus became a crucial partner in Mediterranean trade, with links to North Africa, the trans-Saharan gold trade, and Southern Italy, Byzantium, and Egypt. Its resources had grown enormously.

The new commander of the believers demonstrated his undisputed leadership by building the luxurious palatial city of Madinat al-Zahra, on the outskirts of Córdoba, with a combined population of up to three hundred fifty thousand. He now ruled over the Maliki school of law, working on what Manzano Moreno has dubbed “a vast program of ideological legitimization.”

His successor, Al-Hakam II, came more and more to delegate his political prerogatives to his ministers, establishing himself as a symbol of power rather than a hands-on administrator. He no longer left his capital, where he presided over an unprecedented cultural boom, as evinced by a library that was reputed to contain four hundred thousand volumes.

Conquerors From the Maghreb

The death of Al-Hakam II in 976 at the age of sixty-one was followed by a rapid decline of the Córdoba Umayyads. Their territorial base was insufficient to resist the northern Christian kingdoms, which began to push their domain southward, or to extend their control over the turbulent Maghrebian tribes.

In the middle of the eleventh century, a tribal confederation of camel herders from the North African desert, the Almoravids, took advantage of this political vacuum to build a new Hispano-Moorish state. A century later, the Almoravids in turn gave way to a fresh group of conquerors at the head of a social protest movement led by the Berber sect of the Almohads.

These two dynasties laid the foundations of a new civilization for a century and a half. Their rise inspired the fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun to construct one of the first theories of historical change that stressed the importance of the social environment in shaping religious and political transformations.

The strength of the Almoravids laid in the tribal confederation of the Lamtuna, who adhered to a matrilineal kinship system: the women did not wear headscarves, and men wore veils that covered their mouths. During the eleventh century, they managed to regain control of the gold and slave trade from the kingdom of Ghana. They founded Marrakech and subdued the surrounding agricultural regions, as well as taking Fez, Tangier, Ceuta, Tlemcen, Oran, and Algiers.

The Almoravids restored unity to Al-Andalus. They minted gold coinage and maintained a profitable trade with Mediterranean Christian merchants from Almería. However, their wealth depended mainly on the spoils of conquests. When those conquests came to a halt, it was necessary to increase taxation, fueling new forms of political-religious dissidence.

The Almohads then supplanted the Almoravids as the ruling group. The newcomers drew their warlike power from the Atlas tribal confederation of the Masmuda, and the charisma of their preacher Ibn Tumart. Ibn Tumart presented himself as the redeemer of his community and blended his faith in the oneness of God with the unity of the mountain tribes.

Late Efflorescence

Ibn Tumart’s eclectic doctrine drew on four distinct sources from the history of Islam to that point: Kharijism, with its faith in the collective power of councils; Shiʽism, with its millenarianism; Zahirism, with its textual literalism; and Mutazilism, with its appeal to reason. The mixture aroused the enthusiasm of the young Ibn Rushd, who later became known to the world as the philosopher Averroes.

In the middle of the twelfth century, the Almohads seized Marrakech, the Atlantic coast of North Africa, and Al-Andalus. They forced Jews and Christians to convert or go into exile and subjected the central and eastern Maghreb Muslim territories to the same land tax as the infidels.

However, the pugnacity of Iberia’s Christian kingdoms and the insubordination of the eastern Maghreb eventually undermined their new caliphate, proclaimed in 1195. Like the Almoravids, the Almohads failed to take root in the societies over which they exercised their authority. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the military tide had decisively turned in favor of Iberia’s Christian rulers.

Despite their own commitment to religious fundamentalism and growing dependence on Maliki jurists, it was a rising wave of social protest that initially brought the Almohads to power, putting forward spiritual and intellectual demands that found fulfillment in the refinement of Sufism and the progress of rational philosophy. Their reign thus saw the development of the most advanced expressions of Arab-Muslim culture: the self-taught philosophy of Ibn Tufayl (1110–1185), the critical realism of Ibn Rushd (1126–1198), and the creative imagination of Ibn Arabi (1165–1240).

These authoritarian regimes, which initially sought to impose their religious conceptions on everyone, ended up offering an unexpected space of freedom to dissident mysticism and rational thought. In 1197, Ibn Rushd, the great qadi of Córdoba and personal physician of the caliph Abu Yakub Yusuf al-Mansur, was exiled and his books burned under pressure from the guardians of religious law. However, he was recalled to his master in Marrakech and pardoned eighteen months later.

Why was this possible? Firstly, because the most rigorous forms of Islam have always been much more concerned with orthopraxy (observance of practices) than with orthodoxy (observance of beliefs). Secondly, the vigorous development of trade, to which the two Berber empires contributed so much, gave new life to the contractual conceptions of the “people of gold,” at the expense of the monarchical ones of the Eastern caliphates.

A Unique Space

The Andalusian and Hispano-Moorish “Enlightenment” therefore arose from several distinct, even contradictory, realities. It first established a kind of “negative liberty” due to the fragility of a conquest that was stopped by Christian resistance in the north and Berber dissent in the south. This prompted Andalusian Islam to make concessions.

The next phase saw the triumph of a new tributary social formation backed by a central power that was capable of promoting the spectacular economic growth of a new caliphate. From that time, the princes of Córdoba felt powerful enough to pose as ambitious promoters of an open-minded culture, like the masters of Baghdad in the late eight and early ninth centuries, or their own Fatimid contemporaries.

In any case, throughout this period, the Kharijite and Shiʽite religious dissidents of the neighboring Maghreb never stopped cleaving to a contractual vision of social relations that resisted the monarchical conception of power. Their particular brand of antiauthoritarianism reflected the position of ruling classes that derived most of their profits from the trans-Saharan trade rather than from agriculture.

They drew on the sources of early anti-Umayyad philosophical thought, which was born among Arab-Muslim fighters who had been deprived of the main economic and political benefits of conquest. Some of these figures had found refuge in the Maghreb and influenced Andalusia directly.

From this point of view, we can see the Hispano-Moorish Enlightenment, despite its uneven and contradictory character, as the more abstract reworking of a worldview that had been initially born in the Iraqi city of Basra, at the crossroads of Greek, Persian, Indian, and Malay influences, before gaining a foothold in western Maghreb, where it was brought in by refugees. From there, Berber and Soninke Kharijism took this worldview and developed it, advocating reasoned action on nature and the consensual government of men.

Its lasting influence may also have contributed to the philosophy of Ibn Rushd. Soon after the Andalusian philosopher’s death, the cultural enterprise launched by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s in Southern Italy made him a well-known figure, alongside many Greek, Muslim, or Jewish thinkers whose works appeared in Latin translation. This enterprise was one of the streams that fed into the European Renaissance.

After 1492

Pierre-Philippe Rey has suggested that a shared cultural space could have emerged in thirteenth-century Europe and the Mediterranean, transcending the conflicts between Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately, popes and princes fought successfully against the potential for such a fascinating encounter. When the Christian monarchies of Castile and Aragon evicted the last Muslim kingdom from Granada in 1492, they soon imposed a monolithic religious culture, compelling Jews and Muslims to convert or leave the country.

There is a contemporary debate about the degree of ideological “tolerance” that Al-Andalus may have shown in the Middle Ages. Perceptions of Islam in the contemporary Western world, whether positive or negative, profoundly influence this debate. It is unquestionably true that the Muslim world, especially its Hispano-Moorish part, did not experience the same repression of critical thought as European Christendom, especially after the birth of the Inquisition toward the end of the twelfth century.

However, one should not attribute an anachronistic concept of religious and intellectual freedom to it, either. Such freedom simply did not exist at the time, whether in Europe, North Africa, or the Near East. Neither of the simplistic opposing views of Al-Andalus can withstand serious historical research.

The more complex analysis set out above will certainly disappoint those looking for simple answers. But the same can surely be said of any serious investigation into a period of history as important as this one.