The Islamic Past and Present of Spain

Between its bullfighting, flamenco dancers, and sangria, Spain is considered a place of vibrant culture today. Mixed among these rather stereotypical and very Spanish aspects of the culture is an aspect that is often overlooked: that of Spain’s Islamic past. This past, consisting of a period of more than 700 years in which the Muslims held control of Spain, has been a powerful influence in the way Spain has been shaped today. Furthermore, it has a fascinating and complex history in regards to its politics, social structures, and achievements. Naturally, as it was nearly 500 years between the end of Islamic Spain and the beginning of the new, Islamic immigration to Spain, the modern dynamics are quite different and complicated. These complications lie in the modern viewpoints, both negative and positive, about Islam and the presence of its people. Linking these modern viewpoints of Islam to the past facts of Islam thus develop a strange environment for Muslims living in Spain currently that ranges from complete intolerance to complete acceptance.

The Islamic Past: the Glories of Al-Andalus

The term al-Andalus refers to Spain during the period of more than 700 years in which Spain was under Islamic, or Moorish, rule. This period began in 711 C.E. with the rise of Islamic power and ended in 1492 C.E. with its fall. This period, said to be a part of the Islamic Golden Age, brought forth numerous achievements as well as influences that can still be seen in modern Spain today. Furthermore, this period is also important and unique as it presented a dynamic between the three, monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) that had and have not been seen again.

Rise of Power

Islam’s rise to power in Spain is said to have taken place from 711-716. There are several theories that have emerged about what truly caused the first large-scale group of Muslims to enter Spain. The one most frequently offered is that Julian, a Christian chief living in Spain in 711, requested help from the North African (and also Muslim) governor in defeating Roderick, a tyrannical leader of the Visogoths, Spain’s ruling power at that time. To aid Julian, the governor sent 7,000 Berber Muslim troops into Spain led by a man called Tariq (Muslim Spain). Although some might argue that the Muslims did initially enter Spain with the intention of simply helping the Christians, others argue that, as this was a time of great expansion for Islam, they used this as both an opportunity and excuse to further this expansion (Watt 5).

Shortly after the arrival of Tariq’s army in an area near what is now Gibraltar, they met with and won a battle against the Visogothic army in a town called Algeciras. From here, Tariq and his army continued their expansion towards Cordova and found themselves to be met with surprisingly little resistance and nothing that could match the size and strength of their own army. This, no doubt, can be attributed to the state of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century before the arrival of the Muslims (Watts 10). During this time, the Iberian Peninsula was under the rule of the Visogoths and was headed by unfair, tyrannical kings. These kings were elected by the clergy and nobility and completely neglected the needs of the populace. Because of this neglect, those outside of the nobility were put in extreme, serf-like poverty which naturally amounted to a general displeasure with the monarchy. Therefore, the invasion of the Muslims was seen as something welcome and was supported by both the Christians and the Jews (Chejne 4). This, coupled with the unpreparedness of the Visogothic kingdom to ward off such a large attack, allowed the Muslims to continue on in their advancement of Spain and by 716, although not all of the Iberian Peninsula was conquered, they had managed to completely overthrow Visogothic power. In its place, they created their own Muslim network of administration and army which eventually allowed them to maintain more power than the Visogoths were ever able to have (Watts 21). By 720, nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim, or often called Moorish, control and would remain as such for nearly 800 years (Muslim Spain).

Government and Administration under the Umayyad Caliphate

Although al-Andalus went through several different ruling groups, by far the most stable and pleasing to the people was that of the re-establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain after its fall in the Eastern Islamic world. The initial roots of this Caliphate began in 661 in Mecca and eventually became centralized in Damascus, Syria. Eventually, due to the Caliphate’s inability to keep up with their Turkish and North African enemies, the Caliphate collapsed and its final ruler was killed in 750 (Muslim Spain). The remainder of the Umayyad family was then tracked down and killed. However, one member, Abd al-Rahman managed to escape and inaugurate himself as the Muslim ruler in Spain, thus re-establishing a version of the once great Umayyad Caliphate in Cordova (Watts 29).

With this Umayyad dynasty, lasting from 756-1031, it is said came stability and something close to unity in al-Andalus. In the Umayyad state of al-Andalus, the rule was essentially autocratic. The head of the Caliphate, either called the “caliph” or the “emir,” had complete power over his subjects as the spiritual leader, the commander of the army, and as the appointer of the next caliph or emir, thus leaving the masses with absolutely no say in their rulers. However, this also led to a peaceful transition between rulers (Watts 58-9). Although the emir or caliph ultimately had supreme power, it was quite normal of them to appoint a number of individuals to aid him. The most important among these was the hajib, or the chamberlain, who essentially served as an intermediary between the ruler and the rest of the courtiers and people, not unlike the role of a vizier in the East. Often, he was in charge of carrying out the ruler’s orders as well as making policies and decisions for him. As he oversaw nearly all the branches of administration, particularly the central administration, public security, and military and provincial affairs, he had a great amount of power. However, this amount of power varied from ruler to ruler. (Chejne 141).

Often, the ruler also appointed a number of viziers. Each of these viziers would then be in control of a specific branch of administration such as finance, foreign relations or justice. Furthermore, they formed a council over which the caliph or the hajib presided. Aside from these two most important positions, the emir would also have several secretaries, a postmaster, a treasurer, several judges, a director of religious foundations, and a collector of taxes (Chejne 145). Beyond these, each of al-Andalus’s twenty or so provinces had its own governor and non-muslims were often offered some autonomy as they were organized in groups and communities and allowed to have their own judges (Watts 59).

Fall of Power

Although throughout the time of al-Andalus there were always slight conflicts and power struggles between the Muslims and the Christians from whom they took power, it wasn’t until nearly 400 years after Muslim power had been established that al-Andalus really began to struggle to maintain its power. This struggle eventually led to a bloody civil war which would eventually bring about the eradication of the caliphate.

It is said that this struggle began with the death al-Hakim, the head of the caliphate from 961 to 976, as his heir was only an eleven-year-old named Hisham. Although Hisham did take the throne, because of his age he was manipulated by his “guardian,” Ibn Abi ‘Amir who worked to obtain power over al-Andalus and rule with a much firmer hand than the previous rulers had. Eventually, unhappiness with this new ruler threw the peninsula into a bloody civil war beginning in 1008 and ending with the extinguishment of the caliphate into a number of smaller entities in 1031. Ultimately, it is argued, that the breakdown of this caliphate is what marked the beginning of the end of the great al-Andalus (Chejne 45).

The time shortly after this breakdown is often referred to as the era of the “reyes de taifas” or “the party kings.” During this period, al-Andalus’s three main ethnic groups, the Berbers (Muslims of North African descent), the Saqaliba (Slavic and Eastern European people who had initially come as servants to the caliphate), and the Andalusians (Muslims of Arab or Iberian stock), each maintained something of their own, independent government in the areas in which their group was prominent (Watts 91). Naturally, this disunity left al-Andalus very vulnerable. Therefore, the Christian King Alfonso took advantage of this and made a move into Islamic territory by successfully capturing Toledo in 1085. This particular event served as the first great loss in Islamic power in the Iberian Peninsula.

However, this power was briefly regained. Growing desperate with their situation, the Muslims issued a plea for help to the Almoravid rule in North Africa. In response, a number of troops led by Yusuf bin Tashfin were sent in 1086. Yusuf, then, whether acting in his own interest or in the interest of the people of al-Andalus, worked to gain power and reunite al-Andalus under himself (Watts 94). Although Yusuf was quite successful and managed to recapture a large portion of the peninsula that had been lost to the Christians, utter chaos once again ensued upon his death in 1106 as debates about succession arose. From here, for the next 300 years Islamic power was slowly and violently being taken away as the Christians invaded their lands. Eventually, al-Andalus was had completely returned to Christian rule with the capture of Granada by the Christian monarch Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (Muslim Spain). For a period of time shortly afterwards, the Muslims were tolerated in the newly-Christian lands and even allowed to practice their own religion. However, as restrictions increased they were forced to either convert or leave Spain (Chejne 108).

Social Dynamics

The social dynamics of al-Andalus can essentially be broken up into two main groups:

  • the dynamics between the three monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)
  • the dynamics between culturally-different Muslims

Possibly, one of the reasons that made al-Andalus so unique and distinct from other great civilizations of the world falls under the first group dynamic; namely, the inclusion and interaction of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a single place. However, as is generally true with interactions between different groups, these relationships proved to be quite complex. Often, the reign of al-Andalus is called the “golden age” of religious tolerance and acceptance, although the amount to which the Muslims truly tolerated and accepted the Christians and the Jews has been much contested. Despite this, it is a generally established idea that, even if the Christians and Jews did face some degree of restriction and intolerance, it was still better than the under the harsh, serf-like conditions in which they lived during Spain’s previously Visigothic rule as well as better than the conditions in which the Muslims would live under Christian Spain in the 16th century (Chejne 110). For example, under Islamic rule the Christians and Jews were not forced to live in ghettos or special places, were allowed to practice their faith without converting to Islam, and were not prohibited from taking jobs. In fact, as Muslim rulers often didn’t trust Muslims to not work in their own self-interest, they employed Christians and Jews in their civil service (Chejne 115).

Despite these apparent views of tolerance, it has also been stated that the rights of the non-Muslims were severely diminished and they could only live if peace if they did the following: acknowledged Islamic superiority and accepted Islamic power, paid a tax (much higher than that of the Muslims) to the Muslim rulers, and did not practice one’s faith too blatantly or loudly with either processions or chants. As al-Andalus progressed, these restrictions became stricter and began to include things such as the need to wear a badge identifying oneself as non-Muslim, the inability to build new churches or synagogue, the inability to employ Muslim servants or receive an inheritance from a Muslim, and were eventually even expected to give way to Muslims on the street (Muslim Spain).

Although a large number of non-Muslims actually converted to Islam under Islamic rule, whether they truly believed in the faith or were simply doing so to avoid persecution, others rejected the Islamic religion but accepted the Islamic culture. Those who did this, in particular the Christians, were called “mozarabs” and adopted everything from the Arabic language, to Islamic dress, mannerisms, and food (Watts 32). Because of these adoptions, aside from the obvious and telling restrictions placed on the non-Muslims in the later history of al-Andalus, culturally, it became quite hard to actually distinguish between people of the three religions. This, therefore, allowed much interaction between the three religions that led to the flourishing of ideas for which al-Andalus is so famous.

The second important social group dynamic is that of the Muslims which consists of the following three groups: the Arabs from the Eastern Arabian Peninsula, the Muslims of Spanish stock born in the Iberian Peninsula, and the Berbers from North Africa. Although all three groups were Muslim, a hierarchy remained with Arabs at the top, the Berbers at the bottom, and the Iberian Muslims somewhere in the middle (Watts 55).

The Berbers, although they were absolutely the most important group in the initial conquest and establishment of al-Andalus, were treated as second-class Muslims. Coming from sedentary tribes in modern-day Morocco and Algeria, the Berbers greatly outnumbered the Arabs for the first several hundred years after the conquest (Chejne 112). Despite this, it was still the Arabs that held the power. It is argued that the Arabs were able to hold the power as, unlike the Berbers, they came from economically strong places and therefore had both the needed resources and funds to maintain power. Furthermore, it is argued that the Berbers were willing to accept the power and culture of the Arabs and become fully “Arabized” because the Arabs demonstrated the most “pure” form of Islam, the religion in which the Berbers worshipped (Watts 52). Despite this shared religion between the Arabs and the Berbers, the two groups didn’t integrate much as the Arabs claimed the fertile land of the peninsula and essentially shunned the Berbers to survive in the harsh, unfertile mountains. Because of this, revolts from the Berbers were frequent and often bloody. Eventually, after the fall of the caliphate, these revolts proved to be successful as several large and previously Arab-ruled cities adopted Berber rulers (Chejne 113).

Well above the Berbers and just below the Arabs were the Iberian Muslims, either called muwalladuns or musalimahs. This particular group would eventually make up the largest proportion of al-Andalus’s Islamic community and consisted of the children of Muslim men that had married Christian or Jewish women as well as those Christians and Jews that had converted. Although it has been argued that the Arabs may have displayed some signs of condescension toward this group, they overall seem to have been quite well accepted as there was little to no variance culturally as they wholeheartedly adopted Arabic customs and culture. Often, therefore, these Iberian Muslims often just identified themselves as “pure” or even “Arabic” Muslims (Chejne 114-15).

The group termed the Arab Muslims includes all those Muslims that came directly from what is currently considered the Middle East. Interestingly enough, although the Arabs held the most power in al-Andalus, they were the minority in relation to these other two groups for nearly the whole time in which they held power. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact cause for their ability to retain power. However, it is often argued that they were much more financially secure than the other possible groups as well as offered a more appealing culture to adopt.

The final social group to consider is the slaves. Admittedly, compared to the situations of other slaves throughout history, those of al-Andalus were treated fairly decently. The majority of these slaves were Slavic-speaking people from Eastern Europe but a number also came from France, Germany, and Northern Spain. They were most frequently used during the rulers of the Umayyad Caliphate who felt that they could not trust their fellow Muslims or anyone with ties to the empire. Often, they occupied positions in the caliph’s court. A number of the slaves managed to rise up to either advisor of the emir or as commander of the army which eventually earned them their freedom as well as more wealth that that of the masses. Because of this, the slaves were often resented by the populace, thus further increasing the tensions among the various groups (Chejne 115).


Cultural Achievements and Influence

Despite the tensions among these groups, it is no doubt the interaction between them, particularly that of the three religions, that allowed both the culture and achievements of al-Andalus to flourish and offer influences that can be seen today. One of the most obvious influences is the name Andalucía which is used modernly to refer to the region of southern Spain. Quite obviously, this name is simply an adaption of the name al-Andalus and is quite fitting of the south as that is where most of the Islamic power was concentrated and where many important architectural structures can still be and are seen today as modern tourist attractions. The two most significant and admired works of architecture from the era of al-Andalus seen today are the “great mosque” of Cordova and the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which are admired for their grandeur and beauty as well as serve as a testament to Spain’s Islamic past (Watts 76-7). Further influences seen today include a number of other Arabic words that are used in daily language as well as in a number of place or street names. In fact, the word “olé!,” a Spanish exclamation typically associated with bullfighting, is actually a distortion of the Arabic word “Allah,” meaning God (Abend).

Aside from these, al-Andalus also had a number of intellectual and technological achievements. For example, as a great portion of the Iberian Peninsula can be very hot and dry, they developed advanced irrigation techniques. Thanks to these irrigation techniques, they were also able to introduce a number of new crops to Spain such as rice, sugar-cane, cotton and oranges, the trees of which are seen in plenty in much of modern-day Southern Spain (Watts 49). In the sciences, al-Andalus was incredibly advanced in the medical field and its surgeons performed with surgical techniques that would be transferred to Western Europe and replicated for many years. In regards to technologies still used today, the people of al-Andalus developed the Arabic numeral system to replace the cumbersome Roman numeral system as well as named and made observations about stars that are still in use today (Imamuddin 40).

Interestingly enough, the advances of this “Islamic Golden Age” were coming during the time of the dark ages for the rest of Europe. Europe, on one hand, had dirty cities and disease-ridden people. Al-Andalus, on the other hand, had very clean and well-maintained cities and its people maintained very high levels of hygiene and unprecedented care for oneself and one’s body as called for by the Islamic religion and tradition. Furthermore, the Islamic Golden Age is also known for its huge emphasis on learning for all. Each principal city would have its own university or school and library and within it students from around the world would study disciplines of all kinds. It is said at one point, during the reign of Hakim II, who ruled from 915 to 976, that the majority of the populace could read and write, contrasting with only the privileged nobility and clergy being able to do so throughout the rest of Europe (Imamuddin 27-28).

The Islamic Present: the Tensions and Integrations into Modern Spanish Society

Despite its undeniable Islamic roots, the current Islamic population in Spain is estimated to only account for 1-3% of the whole population, a smaller proportion than most other European countries such as its neighbor, France, at around 9% and even Germany at 3.6%. It is argued that this is because mass immigration in Spain began later than that of many other countries as it did not begin until the middle of the 1970’s after the end of Franco’s dictatorship. This immigration increased even more in the 1980’s with Spain’s entrance into the European Union (Muslim Spain). In recent years, however, due to Spain’s severe economic crisis and unemployment of more than 25%, the levels of immigration have fallen significantly (Abend).

Of these Muslims in Spain, nearly all have come from Morocco and many have come illegally, often risking their lives in pursuit of what they expect to be a better life in Spain. In particular, many had come to try to find work. Although the Spanish state does recognize Islam and respects its teaching within religious schools as well as observes its holidays, the tolerance of Muslims in Spain is decidedly varied, further being complicated by the Islamic extremist terrorist attacks on the Madrid metro in 2004 as well as the plane crashes of September 11th.

The attacks on the Madrid metro, killing 191 people, is just one of many factors that have made it difficult for many Spaniards to appreciate and accept their Islamic past. Particularly, many are troubled by Spain’s Islamic past as the past seemed to be the cause for the attacks as the terrorists cited the loss of al-Andalus as a motive (Muslim Spain). Naturally, this has caused the people of Spain to fear both the Muslims of the past as well as the Muslims of the present. This fear has caused a number of negative stereotypes about Muslims to emerge which then make it difficult for many Spaniards to interpret and accept their Islamic past as they are unable to move beyond the stereotypes (Moreras 130). Unfortunately, this fear has been manifested in a number of hate crimes directed towards Muslims, in particular the Moroccans. A particularly upsetting case occurred in in El Ejido in 2000 in which there were large, violent riots against the city’s Moroccan workers (Moreras 132).

Furthermore, it is said that beyond this fear some Spaniards would also like to deny their Islamic past as it makes them seem more “European.” According to Antonio Rossique Muro, a 56 year-old native Spaniard and middle school teacher currently living just outside Madrid, because of Spain’s tie with Islam, it is often an assertion that Spain is more like Africa than Europe, implying something of a lack of civilization. Naturally, this is an image that many Spaniards would like to avoid and therefore do so by neglecting their Islamic past which would tie them to Africa. Interestingly enough, Antonio also notes that, although there seems to be something of a denial and fear of the Islamic past among the Spaniards, it is often used as an exotic “attraction” used to lure tourists to Spain. In fact, Toledo, Antonio’s hometown, proudly touts the title “La Ciudad de las Tres Culturas” or “the City of the Three Cultures,” thus referring to the three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Antonio also offered his refreshing and much more positive outlook on the current state of Muslims in Spain. To begin, he argued that yes, in fact the majority of society does believe that all of the Muslims come to Spain illegally, are lazy and refuse to find real jobs, and are therefore involved in the drug trade. In Antonio’s eyes, such negative opinions are caused more by ignorance in anything else. In his personal experience, all of the Muslims he knows, regardless of whether or not they came to the country illegally, were very hard-working and pleasant people who are just trying to make a better life for themselves and their family. When asked whether or not he believed that their illegality is a problem, he stated that, generally speaking, it is not a problem particularly as immigration has severely slowed down due to the financial crisis. Instead of believing that the immigration was a problem, he believes that the more pressing problem now is their integration and acceptance into society which can only be made easier if people are willing to be more open-minded. However, he states that he sees, although he does not agree with it, where much of the fear and negativity about Muslims comes from between the hype from the terrorist attacks and the images offered by the media. Regardless of the typical Spaniard’s fear of Islam, he also asserted that their influence from the past is impossible to deny and should be appreciated as it can be seen quite obviously in architecture, vocabulary, and even food. Finally, he joked that, thanks to al-Andalus, the Spaniards are very clean and bathe daily.

Overall, it seems that Spain’s Islamic influence is unavoidable, permeating things from daily life to word usage to contemporary viewpoints and perceptions on Islam. Clearly, the power of and fascination with al-Andalus has moved beyond its own time period into modern-day Spain. Admittedly, between its unique history, politics, and social structure, it’s hard to ignore. However, the status and prestige of Muslims from Spain’s past are nowhere near equal to that of its present as a number of negative stereotypes exist about Muslims and Islam currently in Spain. Unfortunately, these stereotypes often make a barrier in the acceptance and appreciation of the Islamic past. However, fortunately not everyone has been caught up in these stereotypes and as Antonio Rossique Muro, a true Spaniard, says that maybe all that’s needed to fix the problem is an open mind and willingness to accept difference.

Works Cited

Abend, Lisa. “Spain’s Identity Crisis.” Time Magazine Online. Time Magazine, 21 July 2011.

Web.17 April 2013.

Chejne, Anwar G. Muslim Spain: Its History and Culture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The

University of Minnesota Press, 1974. Print.

Imamuddin, S. M. Muslim Spain: Relation with other European Countries and Impact on

Europe. Karchi, Pakistan: Motamar Al-Alam Al-Islami (World Muslim Congress), 1989.


Moreras, Jordi. “Muslims in Spain: Between the Historical Heritage and the Minority

Construction.” The Muslim World 92 (2002): 129-142. Web. 16 April 2013.

Muro, Antonio Rossique. Personal interview. 21 April 2013.

“Muslim Spain (711-1492).” BBC Religions. BBC News Online, 4 Sept. 2009. Web. 15 April

Watt, Montgomery W. A History of Islamic Spain. Chicago: Edinburgh University Press, 1965.


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