Muslims in Spain

In 711, Muslim forces invaded Spain. In seven years they conquered much of the Iberian peninsula. Under Muslim rule, Spain became one of the great Muslim civilzsations. It reached its peak under the 10th-century, Cordoba-based Umayyad caliphate. Muslim rule declined after that and ended in 1492 when Christian Spaniards completed their Reconquista and claimed Granada, the last Muslim territory in Spain. The heartland of Muslim rule was in Andulusia in southern and southeastern Spain. [Source: BBC |::|]

Spain seceded from the Abbasid caliphate in A.D. 756, six years after the Abbasid dynasty was founded. An independent kingdom was set up under the leadership of an Umayyad family member. Muslim Spain was not a single period, but a succession of different rules. 1) The Dependent Emirate (711-756); 2) The Independent Emirate (756-929); 3) The Caliphate (929-1031); 4) The Almoravid Era (1031-1130); 5) Decline (1130-1492). |::|

Spain is the only western European nation to be controlled by Muslims, which segregated it from the rest of Europe during much of the Middle Ages. Under the Muslim Umayyad dynasty, Spain was the richest part of Europe and Muslim cities such as Grenada and Cordoba were much more advanced in science, medicine and the arts than their counterparts in Christian Europe.

The Muslim period in Spain is often described as a 'golden age' of learning where libraries, colleges, public baths were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished. Both Muslims and non-Muslims made major contributions to this flowering of culture. 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.”

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam

Umayyads in Spain

In the early 8th century, with the help of Berber forces from North Africa, the Umayyads, an Arab kingdom based in Damascus, Syria, moved into Iberia and conquered the fractured kingdom of the Visigoths, who had taken control there about a century earlier, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. After that, much of the Iberian Peninsula became the Islamic territory of al-Andalus, which endured under the Umayyads even after the Umayyads lost Damascus and most of their empire in the Middle East and North Africa to the Abbasids in A.D. 750. [Source: Archaeology magazine, March 2023]

After ruling for Middle East and North Africa for nearly a century, the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown in A.D. 750 by the rival Abbasid family from Baghdad, who claimed descent from one of Muhammad’s uncles. Those members of the Umayyad clan who were not executed by the Abbasids fled to Córdoba, the capital city of al-Andalus. [Source: Archaeology magazine, March 2023]

In the decades after the Muslim conquest, al-Andalus had experienced a continuous state of conflict under its governors. By mustering support from political allies loyal to his family, the only Umayyad prince who had survived their ouster from Damascus, ‘Abd al-Rahman I (reigned A.D. 756–788), gained control of the entire territory of al-Andalus, which ranged from Barcelona to Cadiz. He proclaimed himself the emir, or political leader, of this westernmost corner of the Islamic world, a region whose population was overwhelmingly Christian.

The Abbasid conquest of the central Umayyad empire did not affect the existence of the Spanish Umayyad empire in Andalusia (modern-day Spain and Portugal). There, where Muslims were called Moors, Muslim rule ushered in a period of coexistence and culture developed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews in major urban centers. The Spanish Umayyad empire was less a threat to the Abbasids than was the Fatimid (Shiite) empire in the tenth century, carved out in North Africa and with its capital in Cairo. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,].

Reasons for Muslim Success in Spain

Muslims stayed in Spain for seven centuries and ruled there unchallenged for three centuries. Sometimes the Muslims controlled nearly all the Iberian peninsula. Other times they controlled only the southern half. They ruled mostly with great tolerance towards non-Muslims.

According to the BBC: “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. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

“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. |::|

People in Muslim Spain

Morisco woman

Cordoba and surrounding Andalusia were a polyglot world inhabited by Moors, Arabs, Jews, Berbers from North Africa, black Africans, Christians, Jews, Mozarabs (Arabized Christians), and traders and mercenaries from Europe.

There were fairly large waves of Arab immigrants to Spain in the early stages but after a while most of the newly arriving Muslims were Berbers. Muslims initially ruled over a non-Muslim majority. Over time many people accepted Islam and some even began speaking Arabic. It is estimated that by the 10th century, majority of the inhabitants in Spain were Muslims. For the most part they lived peacefully with Christians and Jews.

According to the BBC: Islamic Spain was a multi-cultural mix of the people of three great monotheistic religions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Although Christians and Jews lived under restrictions, for much of the time the three groups managed to get along together, and to some extent, to benefit from the presence of each other. The Muslim presence in Spain also brought a degree of civilisation to Europe that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

“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.” |::|

Moors and the Spread of Islam to Spain

The first Arabs arrived in Spain in 710. Although the conquerors were made up of Arabs originally from the Middle East, Berbers from North Africa and mixed Arab-Berbers, the Spanish lumped them all together and called them “Moors” (Moros in Spanish) or Arabs. The Muslims called Spain “al-Andalus” (a name which has survived as "Anadulusia," the southern part of Spain).

The Muslim expansion after Muhammad’s death claimed most of the Middle East in the seventh century. Early in the eighth century, armies from North Africa began probing the Visigothic defenses of Spain and ultimately they initiated the Moorish epoch that would last for centuries. The people who became known to West Europeans as Moors were the Arabs, who had swept across North Africa from their Middle Eastern homeland, and the Berbers, inhabitants of Morocco who had been conquered by the Arabs and converted to Islam. [Source: Library of Congress]

Mooris warrior

In 711 the Berber Tarik invaded and rapidly conquered Visigothic Spain. According to the BBC: “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 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 (or Moorish, as it was called) control. | [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009]

Introduction of Islam to Spain

Ibn Said wrote in “Book of the Maghrib” in the 13th century: “During the first years after the conquest the government of Andalus was vested in the hands of military commanders appointed by the Viceroys of Africa, who were themselves named by the Khalifs of Damascus. These governors united in their hands the command of the armies and the civil power, but, being either removed as soon as named, or deposed by military insurrections, much confusion and disorder reigned at all times in the state, and the establishment and consolidation of the Muslim power in Andalus were thwarted in their progress at the very onset. It was not until the arrival of the Beni Umeyyah in Andalus that the fabric of Islam may be said to have rested on a solid foundation. [Source: Ibn Said, “Book of the Maghrib,” in “Ahmed ibm Muhammad al-Makkari, The History of the Muhammadan Dynasties in Spain,” translated by Pascuual de Gayangos s, (London: Oriental Translation Fund, 1840), 1, 95-102. Ibn Said was a 13th century Spanish Muslim writer who describes the richness of Moorish culture of Spain and the divisions within that culture which were to allow the Christian conquest of the areas. =|=]

“When 'Abdur rahman lbn Mu'awiyeh had conquered the country, when every rebel had submitted to him, when all his opponents had sworn allegiance to him, and his authority had been universally acknowledged, then his importance increased, his ambition spread wider, and both he and his successors displayed the greatest magnificence in their court, and about their persons and retinue, as likewise in the number of officers and great functionaries of the state. At first they contented themselves with the title of Benti-l-khaliyif (sons of the Khalifs), but in process of time, when the limits of their empire had been considerably extended by their conquests on the opposite land of Africa, they took the appellation of Khalifs and Omara-l-mumenin (Princes of the believers). =|=

Islamic prayer book from Spain

“It is generally known that the strength and solidity of their empire consisted principally in the policy pursued by these princes, the magnificence and splendour with which they surrounded their court, the reverential awe with which they inspired their subjects, the inexorable rigour with which they chastised every aggression on their rights, the impartiality of their judgments, their anxious solicitude in the observance of the civil law, their regard and attention to the learned, whose opinions they respected and followed, calling them to their sittings and admitting them to their councils, and many other brilliant qualities; in proof of which frequent anecdotes occur in the works of Ibnu Hayyan and other writers; as, for instance, that whenever a judge summoned the Khalif, his son, or any of his most beloved favourites, to appear in his presence as a witness in a judicial case, whoever was the individual summoned would attend in person-if the Khalif, out of respect for the law-and if a subject, for fear of incurring his master's displeasure.” =|=

Al Andalus — Early Islamic Spain

The heartland of Muslim rule was Southern Spain or Andulusia. The name Andalusia comes from the term Al-Andalus used by the Arabs, derived from the Vandals who had been settled in the region. Al Andalus was organized under the civil and religious leadership of the caliph of Damascus. Governors in Spain were generally Syrians, whose political frame of reference was deeply influenced by Byzantine practices. [Source: BBC, Library of Congress *]

Nevertheless, the largest contingent of Moors in Spain consisted of the North African Berbers, recent converts to Islam, who were hostile to the sophisticated Arab governors and bureaucrats and were given to a religious enthusiasm and fundamentalism that were to set the standard for the Islamic community in Spain. Berber settlers fanned out through the country and made up as much as 20 percent of the population of the occupied territory. The Arabs constituted an aristocracy in the revived cities and on the latifundios that they had inherited from the Romans and the Visigoths. *

Most members of the Visigothic nobility converted to Islam, and they retained their privileged position in the new society. The countryside, only nominally Christian, was also successfully Islamized. Nevertheless, an Hispano-Roman Christian community survived in the cities. Moreover, Jews, who constituted more than 5 percent of the population, continued to play an important role in commerce, scholarship, and the professions. *

Moorish Andalusia


Andalusia is home of the culture and traditions that people associate most with Spain: bullfights, flamenco music, poet-troubadours, Moorish architecture, white-washed hilltop villages, gypsy folklore, sangria and British tourists. Situated to the east and west of Gibraltar, bordering both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Andalusia is broken into three main parts: 1) Seville, 2) the Moorish towns of Granada and Cordoba and beach resorts of the Costa del Sol.

Arab and Moorish culture has had a profound impact on making Spain what it is today and nowhere is this more apparent than in Andalucia, where Islamic art and architecture grace many of the regions most famous buildings and sad Arabic melodies guide the music. The Moors were a Muslim people whose leaders were Arabs who originated from the Middle East and migrated to Morocco during the spread of Islam during the end of the first millennium. The Moorish people were mix of Arabs and Berbers, a desert and mountain people indigenous to Morocco and recruited by the Arabs to fight against the Spanish.

Andalusia was described by the poet as Federico Gracia Lorca as "Dry land, quiet land of immense night." Andalucia's hot, sunny and dry climate has earned Andalucia the nickname of the California of Europe. In addition to its long history, Andalucia is also famous for its beach resorts and package-tour tourists. Around 20 million visitors, mostly from Britain, Germany and Russia, come to Andalucia ever year to soak up the sun and good times and see sites like the Alhambra in Granada and the Mezquita in Córdoba, ski in the Sierra Nevadas and take the ferries to Morocco.

Spanish Muslim Description of Andalus in the 13th Century

Ibn Said wrote in “Book of the Maghrib” in the 13th century: “Andalus [the Iberian peninsula], which was conquered in the year 92 of the Hijra, continued for many years to be a dependency of the Eastern Khalifate, until it was snatched away from their hands by one of the surviving members of the family of Umeyyah (Umayyad), who, crossing over from Barbary, subdued the country, and formed therein an independent kingdom, which he transmitted to his posterity. During three centuries and a half, Andalus, governed by the princes of this dynasty, reached the utmost degree of power and prosperity, until civil war breaking out among its inhabitants, the Muslims, weakened by internal discord, became every where the prey of the artful Christians, and the territory of Islam was considerably reduced, so much so that at the present moment the worshippers of the crucified hold the greatest part of Andalus in their hands, and their country is divided into various powerful kingdoms, whose rulers assist each other whenever the Muslims attack their territories. This brings to my recollection the words of an eastern geographer who visited Andalus in the fourth century of the Hijra (tenth century A.D.), and during the prosperous times of the Cordovan Khalifate, I mean Ibnu Haukal Annassibi, who, describing Andalus, speaks in very unfavourable terms of its inhabitants. As his words require refutation I shall transcribe here the whole of the passage. [Source: Ibn Said, “Book of the Maghrib,” in “Ahmed ibm Muhammad al-Makkari, The History of the Muhammadan Dynasties in Spain,” translated by Pascuual de Gayangos s, (London: Oriental Translation Fund, 1840), 1, 95-102. =|=]

mosque of Cordoba

“"Andalus," he says, "is an extensive island, a little less than a month's march in length, and twenty and odd days in width. It abounds in rivers and springs, is covered with trees and plants of every description, and is amply provided with every article which adds to the comforts of life; slaves are very fine, and may be procured for a small price on account of their abundance; owing, too, to the fertility of the land, which yields all sorts of grain, vegetables, and fruit, as well as to the number and goodness of its pastures in which innumerable flocks of cattle graze, food is exceedingly abundant and cheap, and the inhabitants are thereby plunged into indolence and sloth, letting mechanics and men of the lowest ranks of society overpower them and conduct their affairs. Owing to this it is really astonishing how the Island (i.e., peninsula) of Andalus still remains in the hands of the Muslims, being, as they are, people of vicious habits and low inclinations, narrow-minded, and entirely devoid of fortitude, courage, and the military accomplishments necessary to meet face to face the formidable nations of Christians who surround them on every side, and by whom they are continually assailed."

Caliphate of Cordoba: Umayyads Live on in Spain

The Arab-dominated Umayyad dynasty at Damascus in present-day Syria was overthrown in 756 by the Abbasids, who moved the caliphate to Baghdad. Spain and Morocco seceded from the Abbasid caliphate in A.D. 756, six years after the Abbasid dynasty was founded. An independent kingdom was set up under the leadership of an Umayyad family member, claiming "closer descent to Muhammad." .

One Umayyad prince fled to Spain and, under the name of Abd al Rahman (r. 756-88), founded a politically independent amirate (the Caliphate of Cordoba), which was then the farthest extremity of the Islamic world. His dynasty flourished for 250 years. Nothing in Europe compared with the wealth, the power, and the sheer brilliance of Al Andalus during this period.

The Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba existed from 756 to 929. .From 969 to 1027 Cordoba was the capital of Moorish Spain. By that time it was a thriving metropolis and a great center of leanings with over 70 libraries, 700 mosques, 3,000 public baths, sumptuous palaces on the Guad and paved streets lit by oil lanterns.

Muslim Rulers of the Kingdom of al-Andalus

Abdul al-Rahman

Abd al-Rahman III (ruled 912-61) proclaimed himself a caliph (a successor to the Prophet Muhammad) in A,D. 929, elevating himself to the same level as the rulers of Baghdad, the other great Muslim capital at that time. Abd al-Rahman III made Cordoba the great capital of his caliphate. Abd al Rahman III was half European as were many of the ruling caste By making the amirate of Cordoba a caliphate he cut Spain's last ties with Baghdad and established that thereafter Al Andalus's rulers would enjoy complete religious and political sovereignty.

Cordoba's most powerful ruler, Al Mansur (Almanzor) was not even a caliph but the first minister of he court in the closing decades of the 10th century. The descendant of early Arab conquerors, he lead an estimated 50 military campaigns against Christian states in Spain. His greatest conquest was the sacking of the major pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela, in A.D. 997. He destroyed the church and took the church bells back to Great Mosque in Cordoba.

When Hisham II, grandson of Abd al Rahman, inherited the throne in 976 at age twelve, the royal vizier, Ibn Abi Amir (known as Al Mansur), became regent (981-1002) and established himself as virtual dictator. For the next twenty-six years, the caliph was no more than a figurehead, and Al Mansur was the actual ruler. Al Mansur wanted the caliphate to symbolize the ideal of religious and political unity as insurance against any renewal of civil strife. Notwithstanding his employment of Christian mercenaries, Al Mansur preached jihad, or holy war, against the Christian states on the frontier, undertaking annual summer campaigns against them, which served not only to unite Spanish Muslims in a common cause but also to extend temporary Muslim control in the north. [Source: Library of Congress]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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