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Thematic Guide to Islam in Al-Andalus/Spain

Ronald Bruce St John, Independent Scholar, Albuquerque, NM


Al-Andalus was a medieval Muslim state in parts of what is today Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Andorra, and France. While the name is commonly applied to those parts of Spain under Muslim control between the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and the fall of Granada in 1492, the actual boundaries of Al-Andalus changed constantly over nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule due to constant warfare with the Christian kingdoms to the north.

Muslim Spain

The Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula followed the Muslim conquest of North Africa which was completed in the early 700s. Without consulting the Umayyad caliph in Damascus, North African governor Mūsā ibn Nuṣayr in 711 authorized the Berber commander Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād to lead a primarily Berber army into the Iberian Peninsula. Following a decisive victory over Visigothic King Roderic that same year, Mūsā followed with a larger army, laying the foundation for a new province centered in Córdoba. Eventually, most of the Iberian Peninsula became part of the expanding Umayyad Empire under the name of Al-Andalus. Military expeditions by early Andalusia governors reached across the Pyrenees Mountains before being repelled by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. Thereafter, small Christian kingdoms retained control of most of the lands north of the Duero River.

In 750, ʿAbbāsid in the east defeated the Umayyads and established their capital in Baghdad. In 756, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I (r. 756–788), a member of the Umayyad dynasty, fled west, establishing a new Umayyad emirate at Córdoba, independent of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. Torn by revolts and civil wars over the next century and a half, the eighth Umayyad amīr, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III (r. 912–961), finally unified the region, enjoying a long reign marked by economic prosperity and intellectual and artistic development. In 929, he proclaimed himself caliph, a move that symbolized the wealth and power of Córdoba and served as a countermeasure to the recently-established Shīʿī Fāṭimid caliphate in North Africa.

Reconquest of Spain

Following the fruitful reigns of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III and his son, the caliphate disintegrated as different contenders vied for control in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, and in 1031, the last caliph was deposed. Centralized authority was replaced by petty principalities known as ṭawāʿif (factions) ruled by rival kings whose complex, shifting alliances included strategic relationships with Christian kingdoms. In 1085, Alfonso VI captured Toledo, marking a significant advance in the ongoing Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain.

In response to Christian expansion, the ṭawāʿif kings appealed to the Almoravids, a North African Berber dynasty centered in Marrakesh. Led by their ruler Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn (r. 1061–1106), the Almoravid army crossed into Al-Andalus and won a major victory against Alfonso VI at al-Zallaka in 1086. Although the Almoravids were unable to retake Toledo, they reunified Muslim Spain by assuming control of the ṭawāʿif. By the mid-twelfth century, the Almohads, a Berber dynasty originating in southern Morocco, had replaced the Almoravids. The Almohads maintained Muslim control over much of the Iberian Peninsula until the early thirteenth century; nevertheless, the Reconquest gained ground, culminating in the defeat of the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.

Once again, Muslim political unity gave way to smaller states that were easily conquered by the Christian kingdoms over the next quarter century. After Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castile, known as the "Catholic Monarchs," unified their kingdoms at the end of the fifteenth century, they completed the Reconquest with the surrender of Granada in 1492, ending Al-Andalus as a political entity. Jews were expelled from Spain the same year and the forced conversion of Muslims followed in the first decade of the sixteenth century. By the early seventeenth century, these suspected crypto-Muslims, known as Moriscos, were expelled.


The population of Al-Andalus comprised a rich mixture of ethnic and religious groups. Berbers formed the majority of the initial conquering armies and continued to migrate to Al-Andalus in later centuries. Originally, Arabs were a small minority, but their numbers increased as a result of intermarriage with the local population as well as through patron-client relationships. Under Visigothic rule, the local population had been primarily Christian, with a small Jewish minority, and Muslim rule permitted these groups to retain their religious identities as dhimmīs (protected peoples) provided they submitted to Muslim authority and paid a special tax. The local population was not forced to convert to Islam, but it had ample political and socio-economic incentives to do so, and by the mid-tenth century, Muslims were a majority in Al-Andalus. By the twelfth century, Arabic had also replaced Latin and the Romance languages as the dominant spoken language.

The term convivencia (coexistence) is used to describe the interrelationship of the three religious communities in Muslim Spain. Traditionally, this concept referred to mutual cultural influence alongside a competitive rivalry, but more recently, it has become a romanticized vision of a uniquely tolerant and symbiotic pluralism attractive to those striving to improve relations between the Islamic world and the West. The supporters of a romanticized convivencia highlight the flowering of a Hebrew Golden Age among Jewish intellectuals and poets living under Muslim rule, the influential positions held by Christians and Jews within Muslim administrations, and culturally hybrid forms of architecture and poetry. Critics of this romantic view of interreligious relations stress that conflict and violence were an integral part of ethnic and religious coexistence in Al-Andalus.

Islamic Scholarship and Thought

Islamic scholarship in Al-Andalus centered on the development of legal literature in general, and the Mālikī school of Islamic law in particular. Following the Muslim conquest, judicial practice initially was based on the Syrian jurist al-Awzāʿī (d. 774). Later, the doctrines of Medina's Mālik ibn Anas (d. 795) were introduced during the reign of al-Hishām I (r. 788–796), supplanting those of al-Awzāʿī and becoming the dominant legal school from the reign of al-Hishām's son al-Ḥakam I (r. 796–822) forward. By the tenth century the Mālikī school had been further solidified as the official caliphal school and was followed by most Andalusian jurists. The Andalusian Mālikī school thereafter faced only two significant competing systems: the strictly literalist and now-defunct Ẓāhirī school and the reformist creed of the Almohad dynasty. Both challenges were overcome, and prominent Mālikī scholars from this region continued to make important contributions to the elaboration of school doctrine throughout Andalusian history. In the twelfth century, a number of prominent masters also aided the spread of Sufism although it was never embraced as widely in Al-Andalus as it was in North Africa.

Cultural Heritage

Al-Andalus was a thriving cultural center, celebrated for the brilliant literary, artistic, and scientific accomplishments of its poets, scholars, and craftsmen. This was particularly true of tenth-century Córdoba which boasted a caliphal library estimated to have contained 400,000 volumes, including Persian and Indian astronomical and mathematical treatises and Arabic translations of Greek philosophical and scientific works. Córdoba's caliphs also collected Arabic religious and scientific works drawn from local sources and the greater Muslim world.

Much of the accumulated intellectual wealth of Al-Andalus was later transferred to Christian Europe. Toledo's school of translators, especially active in the twelfth century, translated Arabic texts into Latin, Hebrew, and the Romance languages. Their efforts were motivated by a belief that an understanding of Muslim religious texts would facilitate conversions to Islam while the translation of scientific and philosophical texts also would advance less-developed European knowledge in these areas. One of the most influential works translated from Arabic into Latin in the thirteenth century was an extensive set of commentaries on the works of Aristotle, composed by the Córdoban jurist and philosopher, Ibn Rushd al-Ḥafīd (1126-1198), known as Averroës.

The legacy of Al-Andalus remains tangible in the form of unique architectural monuments. The Great Mosque of Córdoba, built in 784-786 and expanded three times, incorporated local Roman and Visigothic elements while evoking the Great Mosque of Damascus. It remains largely intact despite the insertion of a cathedral in the sixteenth century. La Giralda, the beautiful minaret of the former Great Mosque of Seville, is the most important remaining Almohad monument. Granada's Alhambra, a magnificent complex of richly decorated palaces, fountains, and gardens dating primarily from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, remains one of the most celebrated architectural monuments in the world.

Further Reading

  • Carr, Raymond (ed.). Spain: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Clarke, Nicola. The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives. London and New York: Routledge, 2011.
  • Harvey, L. P. Islamic Spain: 1250 to 1500. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • —. Muslims in Spain, 1500 to 1614. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Jayyusi, Salma Khadra (ed.). The Legacy of Muslim Spain. 2d ed. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1992 and 1994.
  • Lowney, Chris. A Vanished World: Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment. New York: Free Press, 2005.
  • Mann, Vivian B., Glick, Thomas F., and Dodds, Jerrilynn D. (eds.). Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain. New York: George Braziller, 2007.
  • Menocal, María Rosa, Scheindlin, Raymond P., and Sells, Michael (eds). The Literature of Al-Andalus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Reilly, Bernard F. The Medieval Spains. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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