The Muslim civilisation of medieval Spain

gold and beige interior of the mosque

In the year 711, only decades after the death of the prophet Mohammed, the Iberian peninsula was invaded right up to the Pyrenees and beyond. The Visigoths, who had ruled the region since the end of the western Roman Empire, were completely vanquished. This gave rise to a stunning medieval Muslim civilisation in Spain where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together.

The Muslim civilisation of medieval Spain

The Islamic wave seemed unstoppable in the 8th century CE. In fact, the Muslim army got as far as the city of Tours in France before it was repelled. But from then until the 12th century AD, most of what we now call Spain and Portugal was under Islamic rule. And it’s a fact that the majority of the population – based in the southern half of the peninsula – became or was Muslim.

In fact, without widespread conversion, it’s unlikely that Islamic rule would have endured in Spain. Take for example the legendary caliph of Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman III. The builder of that city’s mosque, which you can still marvel at today. But his ancestry included Basque Christian royalty. His grandmother as the daughter of the King of Pamplona: Iñiga Fortúnez. Abd al-Rahman’s natural hair colour was a reddish blonde and he had to dye his hair black in order not to resemble a Visigoth. This was not exceptional.

The high point of the caliphate’s rule was from the 800s to the 1000s when the emirs of Cordoba oversaw the creation of great cities, places of learning and a flourishing culture. Their libraries would transmit lost portions of Greek and Roman literature and learning to the rest of Europe.

However, it’s important we have a balanced view of Iberian history. In recent years, there have been some corrective histories making the valid point that Visigoth-ruled Spain was not primitive or backward. And that Islamic-ruled Spain experienced varying degrees of tolerance towards other religions and intellectual inquiry. Often this depended on the temperament of the ruler of external and internal political factors.

There was a high degree of ‘convivencia’ (live and let live) between the three faiths in Spain – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – but equally, Jews and Christians who did not convert to Islam were legally second-class citizens and had to pay a special tax – the jizya. Many ambitious families converted to Islam to forego the tax and to advance within the ruling class. Swapping the Bible for the Qur’an was an expedient move.

And now for a pet moan. I’m forever dismayed by attempts from different sides to racialise the medieval history of Spain. From the extreme-Right, we get the Muslim rule of Spain presented as something entirely alien and the Christian reconquest seen as something that needs to be emulated today. While from Islamists and others, there is the wrong-headed argument that Muslim Spain was either an Islam-only caliphate – sort of thing ISIS or Al Qaeda would like today – or an African invasion of Europe. Neither of these hypotheses are relevant or true.

The Christian ‘Reconquista’ creates a different Spain

The Christian fight back started from 711 and continued until 1492 when the last Islamic foothold in Grenada was dislodged.  It was a slow process called the ‘Reconquista’ and the kingdoms that emerged were hugely different from the Visigoth, Germanic rooted Christian Spain that that had been overrun in the 8th century.

For a start, the Islamic influence was everywhere – particularly in the buildings. And if you go to Toledo, Cordoba and Seville – you just can’t avoid it….as my photos from my visits below prove!

Outside the mosque/church
Started as a Visigoth church, became a mosque, then back to a church
A church then a mosque and back to a church
Formerly a synagogue in Toledo - a city of three Abrahamic faiths in the Middle Ages
A door in Toledo
A sea of arches inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba - converted later to a cathedral
The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century
A door in Cordoba - the city was once the largest in western Europe
The Alcazar in Seville - remodelled by Christian rulers who used Moorish builders
The Alcazar in Seville
The Alcazar or ruler's home in Seville
A Moorish tower in Seville
The walls of medieval Seville
Now a restaurant but once a Moorish dwelling

9 thoughts on “The Muslim civilisation of medieval Spain

  1. As someone who traces much of his ancestry to medieval Spain, this piece is of particular interest to me. One of my father’s maternal ancestors was Queen Isabella who funded Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. My father has done extensive genealogical research and has traced our roots to before Isabella’s time. Thanks for the photos! Those structures are truly magnificent.

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