The Moors in Spain

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis

Tim O'Neill

Life in the Harem

There was a period in Moorish Spain where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in relative harmony and co-operation.  Christians and Jews were considered dhimmis and were second class citizens who had to pay a tax and had some restrictions on worship, trade and interaction.  But these were often loosely applied or unenforced and there certainly was a period under the Caliphate of Córdoba where there was general inter-faith tolerance and which saw a flourishing of learning and culture in "Al-Andalus".

This has given rise to something of modern myth that Muslim Spain was some kind of paradise of inter-faith co-operation where wise and tolerant Muslim leaders presided over a wonderland of art and learning until the primitive Christians reconquered Spain, oppressed Jews and Muslims, forced their conversion and ushered in the horrors of the Inquisition.  This is a pretty story, but it is far from accurate.

Visigoth Spain was invaded by Muslim forces - mainly north African Berbers - in 711 and increasing numbers of Berbers pushed the remaining Christians in to the north and north-west of the peninsula, where they established small kingdoms.  The rest of Spain became part of the Umayyad Caliphate, which at its height stretched from Spain to the Caucasus and into central Asia.  Spain was dominated by the Emirate of Cordoba from 756 to 929, with the Emir in "Al-Andalus" owing at least nominal allegiance to the Caliph in far off Damascus.  But in 929  Abd-al-Rahman III declared himself Caliph of Cordoba in opposition to the Fatimids, who had risen to power in Egypt as the Umayyad Caliphate disintegrated.  Al-Rahman III and his successors ruled until 1031, when the Spanish caliphate disintegrated into small, warring states called the taifas.

It was this fairly brief period of 102 years that has given rise to the myth of Muslim Spain as an island of culture and tolerance.  The Spanish Caliphate did see some remarkable architecture, a flourishing of scholarship and, as noted above, some level of tolerance of Jews and Christians.  But this period was short-lived.

When the Caliphate of Cordoba collapsed in 1031, its disintegration into small warring states left the Iberian Peninsula open to invasion.  The Christian kingdoms of northern Spain began a relentless series of campaigns of reconquest that would eventually see all Muslim states on the peninsula subjugated.  This encroachment by the Christians saw some of the taifa rulers invite Berbers over from African to help them, which in turn saw the fundamentalist Almoravids (Al-Murābiṭūn) take over southern Spain and impose a new, far less tolerant rule.  The Almoravids ruled until 1147 when a new wave of even more hard-line fundamentalists, the Almohads (al-Muwaḥḥidun) invaded and replaced them.

Both the Almoravids and the Almohads brought the tolerance of non-Muslims and the rather lax enforcement of restrictions on them to an end.  Almoravid persecution and massacres of Jews saw the teenager who was to become the philosopher Moses Maimonides flee to the relative safety of Morocco.  There had been occasional and sporadic massacres of Jews and persecution of Christians in the taifas, but it was the arrival of the Almoravids and the Almohads that brought the brief window of relative religious tolerance to an end.  Many Jews and Christians fled Muslim Spain and those that stayed were either forced to convert to Islam (or pretend to) or were heavily oppressed by their fundamentalist conquerors.

The story of the tolerance and culture of the Caliphate of Cordoba is an interesting one, but it is often exaggerated.  Even in this period there were periodic crack downs on non-Muslims and the tolerance was in many ways more due to the lax way theoretical restrictions on dhimmis were applied than on any benign attitude of the Muslim rulers.  But the idea that Moorish Spain was a paradise of tolerance, culture and learning until the Christian reconquest is nonsense - it was a brief window of around a century followed by several centuries of fragmentation, civil war and then successive waves of intolerant fundamentalist Muslim conquerors.

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