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The Truth About "Progressive" Islamic Spain

A controversial topic is Islamic Spain, as many people today often claim that it was very progressive, almost making it seem like it was a multicultural state by 21st century standards. But this claim is historically incorrect. Spain was once the Christian Visigoth kingdom before the Islamic conquest in the eighth century. Many people today often assume that this brought a golden period of mutual tolerance among the three Abrahamic faiths under Islamic rule. However, this is not historically correct, as according to some historians, it is wrong to assume that Al-Andalus was "tolerant" by 21st century standards.  The Islamic conquest of Hispania was filled with atrocities, created a state of constant warfare in the region, and Christians as well as Jews were "inferior" to Muslims.

Muslim Conquest of Spain

The history of Islamic Spain was launched with a very violent conquest. The Umayyad Caliphate conquered Hispania by taking advantage of the internal dissension among the Visigoths in 711 A.D. These Islamic warriors were fighting for jihad, or holy war against non-Muslims or "infidels." They would enter the Visigoth kingdom, slaughter the Visigothic king Roderick and conquer the land. These Muslim fighters were a mixture of North African Berbers, who made up the majority and Syrians, who were all then led by a small number of Arabs from the Arabian peninsula. The Caliphate was launching jihad, which is a holy war against Dar al-Harb, which literally means "house of war." Dar al-Harb refers to the part of the world that is ruled by non-Muslims. The caliphate is part of Dar al-Islam, which means "house of submission," which is the part of the world that submits to Islam. The purpose of this holy war is to conquer non-Muslim territory and annex it to Dar al Islam. Before conquering Hispania, the caliphate launched jihad against the then Christian Middle East in 634. Afterwards, they invaded North Africa and made it Islamic. For this reason, jihad was also launched against Christian Hispania. The conquest of Hispania in the 8th century was not without atrocities and without terror into the hearts of the Iberian inhabitants. Musa ibn-Nusayr, a ruler from North Africa under the Umayyad Caliphate, led the subjugation of Hispania under Islamic rule. According to the Latin Chronicle of 754, which is a primary source written by a Christian who witnessed the Arab conquest, states:

"Musa himself, approaching this wretched land across the straits of Cadiz and pressing on to the pillars of Hercules...entered the long plundered and godlessly invaded Spain to destroy it. After forcing his way to Toledo, the royal city, he imposed on the adjacent regions an evil and fraudulent peace. He decapitated on a scaffold those noble lords who had remained, arresting them in their flight from Toledo...Thus he devastated not only Hispania Ulterior, but Hispania Citerior up to and beyond the ancient and once flourishing city of Zaragoza, now by the judgment of God, openly exposed to sword, famine, and captivity. He ruined beautiful cities, burning them with fire; condemned lords and powerful men to the cross; and butchered youths and infants with the sword" (Constable, 30-31).

So, this invasion of Spain lead to widespread atrocities where there was burning of cities, mass decapitation of the nobles, enslavement, famine, and the murder of children. These children even included infants, and so even the children did not escape the brutality of Jihad. Also, another excerpt of the chronicle also states:

"While he [Musa] terrorized everyone in this way, some of the cities that remained sued for peace under duress and, after persuading and mocking them with a certain craftiness, the Saracens [Muslims] granted their requests without delay. When the citizens subsequently rejected what they had accepted out of fear and terror, they tried to flee to the mountains where they risked hunger and various forms of death. The Saracens set up their savage kingdom of Spain, specifically in Córdoba" (Constable, 31).

So in other words, many of the native Christians in Hispania were so terrified of the Muslim conquests that they rather risked death than being enslaved by them. The chronicle also refers to the kingdom as "savage," which debunks the notion that they set up a wonderful kingdom where people were not terrified.
The Moors subjugated the women of Hispania through rape and forced marriages. Abd al-Aziz, the first governor of newly established al-Andalus and son of Musa ibn-Nusayr, participated in the conquests. After Visigoth king Roderick was murdered in battle, Abd al-Aziz sexually abused and raped the wives of murdered Christian nobles. The medieval Islamic historian Ibn 'Abd al-Hakam, who died in 871, stated:

"He [Abd al-Aziz] had taken all the riches and positions of honor in Seville, as well as the queen of Spain, whom he joined in marriage, and the daughters of kings and princes, whom he treated as concubines..." (Constable, 31-32).

Abd al-Aziz raped many of the women of the royal family and even forcefully married Queen Egilona, who was the wife of King Roderick that he killed. The Queen practically married the murderer of her husband. Also, a well-known Spanish historian points out how the Moors had a deep preference for the women of Europe. He states:

"Everyone knows that the Moslems arrived in Spain [and Portugal] without women, and that their preference for beautiful and blonde Gallegas [women of Galicia] led to the occupation of the throne of Cordoba by caliphs with blue eyes and fair hair" (Crow, 149).

Since the Muslims arrived without women to conquer Hispania, they raped many of the women as they conquered Hispania. They lusted after these Christian women, due to their fair complexion and blonde hair. These rapes were part of the atrocities that were committed against Iberians during the Islamic conquest.
The Islamic conquests of Hispania also created chaos in the Iberian Peninsula. Rather than establishing an ordered, unified society, these conquests actually set into motion what would be battles after battles into a seemingly unending warfare. The historian Roger Collins writes in the introduction of his book, "Caliphs and Kings," the following:

"The Arab conquest created the conditions for a state of almost permanent warfare in the Iberian Peninsula that put special emphasis upon destruction and the display of dead enemies, with a lively slave trade as an additional incentive" (Collins, 1).

So, the Arab conquest actually brought a lot of destruction into the region, and the Muslims established a slave trade that would give them many profits. Of course, the slaves were the infidels, as it is prohibited for a Muslim to enslave their fellow Muslims. The Muslims also had an inhumane method of displaying the bodies of their enemies, which in turn showed their savagery. Such a conquest established the Umayyad Al-Andalus, and the Christian states in the north of the peninsula, which caused friction among them. Even Islamic Spain was much more violent than Western Europe in the same time period due to this constant warfare. The Moors also beheaded many infidels throughout this time period. The reason why the Moors never fully conquered the whole of Hispania, which would include the North, is because there was even infighting among the Muslims themselves, thus allowing the Christians to launch their reconquista (reconquest) from the north. Roger Collins also stated:

"Even in Córdoba at its cultural apogee it will have been hard to escape the reek of decomposing flesh from the decapitated heads displayed on the gates and the bodies of those publicly crucified, left to rot in front of the palace" (Collins, 2).

The Moors seemed to have a practice of decapitation and crucifixion of their enemies, which tended to be non-Muslims, and then displayed their bodies in public as a way to intimidate the general public to not rebel against their Moorish overlords. The number of infidels that they killed in battle were sent for display on the gates and the wall of Córdoba. Such a conquest definitely showed the brutality of the Moors against the Christian inhabitants, and the conditions that were caused as a result of their holy war. The conquest largely destabilized the Iberian Peninsula.

Muslim Persecution of Christians and Jews

Decapitation of St. Eulogius

It is now important to establish the fact that adherents of religious minorities constantly suffered under Islamic rule. Christians were viewed as "inferior" to Muslims and at times were persecuted for their religion. According to an article titled "The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise," by Darío Fernández-Morera, the author states:

"The fascinating cultural achievements of Islamic Spain cannot obscure the fact that it was never an example of peaceful convivencia [Spanish for co-existence]" (Fernández-Morera, 23).

While in Islamic Spain, both the Jews and the Christians lived under Muslim rule, they lived in the status of Dhimmitude, which is a status where religious minorities are severely restricted due to their faith. Dhimmitude, according to Islamic law, is an option available only for Christians and Jews. For pagans, Dhimmitude was an option not available, and pagans had the choice of either converting to Islam or of being slaughtered.

During the reign of Abd al-Rahman I (734?-788), who was the founder of the Emirate of Córdoba, and during the reign of Abd al-Rahman II (822-852), who was the conqueror of Barcelona, the Christians were grossly persecuted. Abd al-Rahman I demolished the ancient Catholic church of Cordoba in order to establish a mosque. Catholics under both reigns suffered confiscations of their private property, enslavement, and increase in the tribute that they must pay for protection, which in turn gave profits to their Moorish overlords. Also, under Abd al-Rahman II and Muhammad I (822-886), a number of Catholics were killed in Cordoba for preaching against Islam, while others were expelled from the city.

Saint Eulogio, along with other martyrs such as Saint Roderick and many others who are recognized by the Church today as martyrs due to their martyrdom, were beheaded by the Muslims since they either insulted Islam, converted to Christianity, or announced their faith publicly. Many of the martyrs were former Muslims who converted to Christianity, and were killed since the punishment for apostasy in Islam is death as according to the hadith, which is part of total Islamic doctrine and second to the Koran in Islam. There was practically no freedom of religion in Islamic Spain, and people who were already Christians must submit to the authority of the Islamic authorities and live a restrictive, humiliating life. Even Muhammad I ordered that "newly constructed churches be destroyed as well as anything in the way of refinements that might adorn the old churches added since the Arab conquest" (Fernández-Morera, 24). This emir (Muslim prince) practically destroyed many of the Christian places of worship in order to make the religion of Islam dominant in the land. This is how Christians lived under Islamic rule, and suffered a lot due to their faith.

Not only Christians suffered under Islamic rule. The Jews also faced restrictions under Islamic rule. Jews, like Christians, were also viewed as "inferior" to Muslims in Islamic society. Jewish historian Bernard Lewis said of their social standing in Al-Andalus:

“Second-class citizenship, though second-class, is a kind of citizenship. It involves some rights, though not all, and is surely better than no rights at all... A recognized status, albeit one of inferiority to the dominant group, which is established by law, recognized by tradition, and confirmed by popular assent, is not to be despised" (Lewis, 62).

He then said:

“…in contrast to Christian anti-Semitism, the Muslim attitude toward non-Muslims is one not of hate or fear or envy but simply of contempt" (Lewis, 33).

Another Jewish historian, Bat Ye’or, speaks more of the social status of Jews:

“Society was sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines, with the Arab tribes at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the Berbers who were never recognized as equals, despite their Islamization; lower in the scale came the mullawadun converts and, at the very bottom, the dhimmi Christians and Jews" (Bostom, 99).

A primary source from the 12th century written by Ibn ‘Abdun titled,"Regulations for the Market of Seville," stated:

“A Muslim must not massage a Jew or a Christian nor throw away his refuse nor clean his latrines. The Jew and the Christian are better fitted for such trades, since they are the trades of those who are vile" (Constable, 230).

In short, based on these quotes and this primary source, we can see that while Muslims tolerated Jews as long as they obeyed certain Islamic laws, the Jews were viewed as "inferior" to Muslims on a social scale, and they faced many restrictions. The Jews along with the Christians were part of the lowest social class in this hierarchy. It is also important to remember that in the year 1066, Muslims committed mass murder against Jews in Granada. The following is stated with the Haaretz article "1066: Massacre in Granada, Spain", by David B. Green:

“On December 30, 1066, the Jewish population of Granada, Spain, fell victim to a massacre by an angry Arab crowd -- with an estimated 4,000 killed. The pogrom followed the murder of Joseph Ibn Naghrela, the Jewish vizier to the Berber king of Andalusia" (Green).

Joseph was crucified by the Arabs and while it is unknown among historians the specific catalyst for the event, it is likely that the Jews were caught between the rivalry for power between Arabs and Berbers. Joseph Ibn Naghrela, the vizier, was crucified by the angry mob and then the mob proceeded to murder the rest of the Jews there. Even Leo Trepp mentioned how a famous Jew born in Al-Andalus had to flee with his family when the Almohads, the current Islamic rulers in that time period, made them flee due to religious persecution:

“When he [Maimonides] was born in Cordoba, a fanatic Islamic sect invaded Spain from North Africa to meet the Christian armies that were advancing from the North. The invaders were cruel to the Jews and forced them to migrate or accept Islam. Maimonides’ family chose to leave" (Trepp, 117).

With these facts, it is absurd to state that Al-Andalus was "tolerant" by 21st century standards. While Jews and Christians were at times allowed to practice their religion, it was permitted as long as they accept their inferior status and pay the Jizya.

Because of this conquest and the establishment of Al-Andalus, the Castilian language as well as the Portuguese language contains a lot of Arabic influence. While there is nothing wrong with being proud of the Arab influence in Iberian culture and accepting that Al-Andalus did bring good things to Iberian society, it was not at all like many people claim it was. Both Jews and Christians lived in a society under totalitarian precepts in Spain, and there is a reason why Christians fought Muslim rule for many centuries via the Reconquista. The purpose of this article is not to put down Al-Andalus nor negate the good that the Arabs brought to Spain, but rather to set the record straight.



Andrew G. Bostom. The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History. Prometheus Books, 2008. Print.

Bernard Lewis. The Jews of Islam. Princeton University Press, 1984. Print

Darío Fernández-Morera. "The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise." The Intercollegiate Review. Fall 2006: 23-31. Print.

David B. Green. 1066: Massacre in Granada, Spain. Haaretz, 30 Dec. 2012. Online.

Kenneth Baxter Wolf. Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain. Cambridge University Press. 1988. Print.

John A. Crow. The Epic of Latin America. University of California Press, 1992. Print.

John Glubb. Empire of the Arabs. Prentice-Hall, 1965. Print.

Joseph O' Callaghan. A History of Medieval Spain. Cornell University Press, 1983. Print.

Leo Trepp. A History of the Jewish Experience. Behrman Press, 2001. Print.

Olivia Remie Constable. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Print.

Roger Collins. Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. Print.