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Spain: Historical Setting
Library of Congress Country Study

Al Andalus

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.

In 711 Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Berber governor of Tangier, crossed into Spain with an army of 12,000 (landing at a promontory that was later named, in his honor, Jabal Tariq, or Mount Tariq, from which the name, Gibraltar, is derived). They came at the invitation of a Visigothic clan to assist it in rising against King Roderic. Roderic died in battle, and Spain was left without a leader. Tariq returned to Morocco, but the next year (712) Musa ibn Nusair, the Muslim governor in North Africa, led the best of his Arab troops to Spain with the intention of staying. In three years he had subdued all but the mountainous region in the extreme north and had initiated forays into France, which were stemmed at Poitiers in 732.

Al Andalus, as Islamic Spain was called, 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.

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.

The Arab-dominated Umayyad dynasty at Damascus was overthrown in 756 by the Abbasids, who moved the caliphate to Baghdad. 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.

In 929 Abd al Rahman III (r. 912-61), who was half European-- as were many of the ruling caste, elevated the amirate to the status of a caliphate. This action cut Spain's last ties with Baghdad and established that thereafter Al Andalus's rulers would enjoy complete religious and political sovereignty.

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.

The caliphate of Cordoba did not long survive Al Mansur's dictatorship. Rival claimants to the throne, local aristocrats, and army commanders who staked out taifas (sing., taifa), or independent regional city-states, tore the caliphate apart. Some taifas, such as Seville (Spanish, Sevilla), Granada, Valencia, and Zaragoza, became strong amirates, but all faced frequent political upheavals, war among themselves, and long-term accommodations to emerging Christian states.

Peaceful relations among Arabs, Berbers, and Spanish converts to Islam were not easily maintained. To hold together such a heterogeneous population, Spanish Islam stressed ethics and legalism. Pressure from the puritanical Berbers also led to crackdowns on Mozarabs (name for Christians in Al Andalus: literally, Arab-like) and Jews.

Mozarabs were considered a separate caste even though there were no real differences between them and the converts to Islam except for religion and liability to taxation, which fell heavily on the Christian community. They were essentially urban merchants and artisans. Their church was permitted to exist with few restrictions, but it was prohibited from flourishing. The episcopal and monastic structure remained intact, but teaching was curbed and intellectual initiative was lost.

In the ninth century, Mozarabs in Cordoba, led by their bishop, invited martyrdom by publicly denouncing the Prophet Muhammad in public. Nevertheless, violence against the Mozarabs was rare until the eleventh century, when the Christian states became a serious threat to the security of Al Andalus. Many Mozarabs fled to the Christian north.

 

Spain: Historical Setting
Library of Congress Country Study

Hispania <<< Contents >>> Castile and Aragon

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