Category: Iberian Peninsula

by Firas Alkhateeb

9 March, 2013

Few wars in Islamic history have been as decisive or as influential as the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 710s. A small Muslim army arrived on the southern shores of Iberia in the year 711 and by 720, almost the entire peninsula was under Muslim control. Some people like to frame this conquest as one of imperialistic and aggressive Muslims conquering and subjecting a Christian populace with terror and force.

The truth, however, is far from that. It is a very complex conflict that cannot be easily framed in “Islam vs. Christianity” or “East vs. West” terms. The story of the Muslim invasion of Spain is one of justice, freedom, and religious toleration. Understanding the truth behind the Muslim invasion of Iberia is critical to understanding the subsequent history of religious pluralism seen throughout the history of Muslim Spain – al-Andalus.

Christian Unitarians

To fully understand the conflict, we must go back hundreds of years before the birth of Prophet Muhammad ? in 570. We must understand a vital split within the Christian community in the years after the Prophet Jesus (‘Isa).

While today almost all Christians believe in a concept called the Trinity, this was not always the case. The Trinity is a belief that God has three parts – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is depicted as being the Son of God, and thus part of God himself. This belief began to emerge during the time of Paul, a missionary who introduced the idea to make Christianity more popular among the polytheistic Roman Empire in the 40s-60s AD.

This new innovation in beliefs was highly disturbing to many who followed Jesus’s true message of monotheism and devotion to God. There soon emerged two groups in the early Christian Church – those who accepted Jesus as the Son of God (the Trinitarians), and those who simply accepted him as a prophet (the Unitarians).

To the Roman government, the distinction between the two groups was not important. Both the Trinitarians and the Unitarians were oppressed in the early decades of the AD era. That all changed in the late 200s and early 300s, AD. During this time, a Unitarian preacher, Arius, began to accumulate a large following among people in North Africa. He preached the Oneness of God, and the fact that Jesus was a prophet of God, not His son. As such, he was fiercely opposed by the proponents of the Trinity, who attacked and tried to marginalize him as a crazed madman. Despite their opposition, his beliefs took hold in his native Libya, and across North Africa.

At this time, the Roman Emperor was a man by the name of Constantine. He is best remembered for his transformation of the declining Roman Empire. He moved the capital to Constantinople (modern Istanbul), and managed to defeat some of the barbarian tribes that had been attacking Rome from the north.

When Constantine moved to Constantinople (which he named after himself), he became aware of the Trinitarian Christian Church, which informed him that if he converted to Christianity, he could have all of his previous sins forgiven. Having done so, he realized he could use the Christian Church to strengthen himself politically. As such, he began to promote the Trinitarian view of Christianity, and violently oppress Unitarians, such as Arius. During this time, the Council of Nicaea was convened in 325. The purpose was to settle at last whether or not Jesus was the son of God.

Naturally, the conclusion of the Council was that Jesus was a part of God and His son, and anyone who denies this is to be excommunicated from the Christian Church. The Unitarians, who were by now a strong majority of the population in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, were thus officially banned and forced to practice their beliefs in hiding. Constantine even ordered that all Unitarian documents be burned and Arius himself be exiled.

The Entrance of Islam into Spain

This oppression of Unitarians continued into the 600s, when a new force, Islam, became known in the Arabian Peninsula. When Muslim armies began to appear on the edges of the Roman Empire, the Unitarians of North Africa realized they shared much in common with this new religion. Both believed in the Oneness of God. Both believed Jesus was a prophet. Both believed that the official Trinitarian stance of the Church was an innovation that should be opposed. As such, they realized Islam was simply the conclusion of the original teachings of Jesus, and most of North Africa converted to Islam within the 600s.

The new Muslim empire, which was run by the Umayyad Dynasty from 661-750, stretched from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the borders of India in the east, less than 100 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad ?. Stories of the justice and equity that the Muslims ruled with quickly spread beyond the Muslim borders, particularly into the Iberian Peninsula.

In the early 700s, Iberia was controlled by a Visigothic king, Roderic, who was seen as a tyrant by his people. He continued the Roman policy of the Trinity, and attempted to impose his beliefs on the populace, which was mostly Unitarian. Muslim historians, such as Ibn Khaldun, tell the legend of an Iberian nobleman based in North Africa, Julian, who went to one of the Muslim military leaders in North Africa, Tariq ibn Ziyad, and asked for help overthrowing Roderic. In addition to being an oppressive tyrant, Roderic had kidnapped and raped Julian’s daughter.

Thus, in 711, Tariq led an army of a few thousand to the southern shore of the Iberian Peninsula. After a few minor skirmishes, he met the bulk of Roderic’s army at the Battle of Guadalete on July 19, 711. The result was a decisive victory for Tariq, and the death of Roderic. With the Visigothic threat gone, the Muslim armies were able to conquer the rest of the peninsula within the next 7 years.

Unitarians and Muslims

The story described above of how the Muslims managed to conquer Spain seems very simplistic highly unlikely. An army of a few thousand can hardly hope to conquer and entire country of 582,000 km2 in just 7 years. However, taking into account the Unitarian presence, it makes much more sense.

When the Muslims arrived in Iberia in 711, the Unitarians were very happy to help their brothers in monotheism against the oppressive Trinitarian government. For this reason, after the main battle against Roderic, most of the cities and towns of Spain opened their doors to Tariq without a fight. The Muslims offered a just legal system, freedom to practice religion, and the removal of oppressive and unjust taxes. It is no wonder that Tariq’s army was able to conquer the entire peninsula with a small army in a few years.

The Muslim conquest of Spain should not be seen as a foreign conquest and subjugation of a native population. Instead, it is an uprising of Unitarian Christians (aided by Muslims) against an oppressive Trinitarian government. The Muslim armies were specifically invited into Spain to remove oppression and establish justice, which they managed to do with the support of the locals. With such a just and moral reign, the Muslims won over hundreds of thousands of converts to Islam. Of course, the similarity in beliefs between the Muslims and Unitarians also contributed greatly the conversion of Iberia’s population to Islam. Within 200-300 years of the initial invasion, over 80% of Spain’s population was Muslim, numbering over 5 million people, most of them people originally from Spain whose ancestors had converted, not immigrants.

Source: Lost Islamic History.


June 20, 2013

GRANADA, Spain (AP) — For the third time in a week, I’m touring the Alhambra, one of the most popular sites in the world’s fourth most-visited country, and finally I have it all for myself.

Not a pushy guide but a bullfrog in one of the fountains is the loudest sound on a late May night in this hilltop Islamic palace complex in southern Spain. I linger to stick my nose into the cabbage-size roses lining the pathways and to gaze over the floodlit red-tinged ramparts. Their massive simplicity belies the infinite intricacy of the palaces inside, and I can easily believe the legend that the last Muslim ruler wept as he left Granada. Centuries later, we can be grateful that the conquering Christian royalty left this masterpiece nearly intact.

Nowhere in Europe is the complex coexistence between Islam and Christianity more etched in historical landscapes and current customs than here, in Spain’s Andalusia, a vast region of snowy mountains, olive-studded valleys and desert coasts whose tip sits less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Morocco.

For nearly 800 years, caliphs ruled Andalusia. In 1492, the Catholic king and queen (and ultimate power couple), Fernando and Isabel, ended the last Islamic stronghold in Europe —a few months before signing off on Christopher Columbus’ trip to the new world, which also started here.

I’ve traveled through the region in fall, winter and spring to admire the Muslim-Christian monuments in the major cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville. But this year, on a longer trip, I found the mingling of cultures in everyday life. In Granada, I bought almond cookies and orange wine through a wooden rotating tray from an unseen cloistered Catholic nun in a convent near re-created Arab baths, where I sipped mint tea and spent a silent hour steaming and soaking feet sore from climbing cobblestone alleys.

And it turns out that tapas are a classic example of the region’s cultural fusion, having originated in Andalusia centuries ago, even though internationally they have come to symbolize trendy modern Spanish cuisine.

Of course, Andalusia also offers all the other experiences that draw tourists to Spain: Channeling Hemingway at a bullfight, getting goose bumps from a wailing flamenco singer, mingling sacred and profane at the Eastertide processions and fairs, gorging on jamon iberico and whole fish baked in sea salt, and joining throngs of sunburned Northern Europeans on Mediterranean beaches.

But what’s unique about Andalusia is the trail of Islamic conquerors who arrived in the eighth century, and the Catholic monarchs who imposed their reconquista (reconquering) centuries later — vanquishing not just Islam but also eventually the Jews who had flourished under the Muslims’ tolerant rule.

CORDOBA Begin your visit with the earliest masterpiece, the bizarrely repurposed great mosque, now a cathedral, of Cordoba. From its massive size and horseshoe arches, the Mezquita’s exterior gives some hints that this is not your usual medieval cathedral, but walking in still stuns. Out of the darkness pierced by low-hanging lights is a multiplication of two-tiered arches in all directions, disorienting like a house of mirrors.

This forest of shiny columns and red-and-white arches, together with the kaleidoscope of golden mosaics, Arabic inscriptions, and carvings, show off what I see as the hallmarks of Andalusian Islamic art. Geometry and repetition play with light to create flowing motifs that both overwhelm with their richness and seem weightless.

Smack in the midst sits an unremarkable church, built in the 16th century. A much nicer reconquista touch is a few blocks away, in the 14th-century Alcazar, a fortress whose gardens lined by pools and rippling fountains mirror the centrality that water has in Islamic architecture.

The whitewashed homes around both monuments, covered by decorative iron grilles and bright potted plants, were part of Cordoba’s Jewish quarter, called the Juderia, a center of Jewish intellectuals before the Catholic takeover. The great philosopher Maimonides was born in Cordoba in the 12th century, and a modern statue of him is located in the quarter near a 14th century synagogue. But Maimonides did not die here; he fled to Egypt as the persecution of Jews began under the Catholic regime. Digging deeper into cultural fusion: The Roman philosopher Seneca was also born in Cordoba, and a restored bridge from around his time still crosses the wide river behind the Mezquita.

SEVILLE Less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the southwest, Seville’s grand cathedral also incorporated a Muslim element: La Giralda, the former 12th-century minaret, now bell tower, nearly identical to towers still standing in Rabat and Marrakech.

Next door is another much embellished Alcazar fortress, this one too visited by Fernando and Isabel as well as Columbus. Its style, called mudejar, is all about fusion, reflecting the taste and workmanship of Muslim artists in Catholic Spain. Around it is the former Jewish neighborhood, the barrio de Santa Cruz, centered on small, orange-tree lined squares with homes and palaces whose doors and windows are often bordered in blue and gold.

GRANADA Seville is the region’s largest, most cosmopolitan city. But my Andalusian favorite is Granada, framed by the improbably snowy Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s a university city that is small enough for the tradition of free tapas with each drink (think giant chorizo sausage and heaping plates of fried whitebait for the price of a 2-euro frosted glass of beer). But its attractions are outsized — not only the Alhambra, arguably the most impressive secular medieval monument from the Muslim world, but its ideological counterpart, a triumphant cathedral with its royal chapel preserving the marble funeral monuments of, who else, Fernando and Isabel.

I most enjoyed my night visits to the Alhambra’s Nasrid Palaces, where every inch is covered in Koran and poetry inscriptions, star-patterned tiles, and gravity-defying ceilings decorated with pointed ornamentation called muqarnas, all deflecting light with a soothing, awe-inspiring effect that plays on the motto written all over: “Only Allah is victor.”

In the many marbled patios and sprawling Generalife gardens farther uphill, water fountains seem to trace in the air the same curves as Arabic script, bubbling and flowing with precise patterns. On the opposite hill is the Albaicin, the much restored Muslim quarter of whitewashed homes hiding scented gardens, or carmenes, watered by medieval cisterns, whose only outside signs are overflowing purple bougainvillea and austere cypress spires.

Nearby, two more churches show off Roman-inspired triumphalism, the convent of San Jeronimo with its giant altarpiece and the Cartuja’s small Baroque sagrario, which theatrically swirls with chubby angels and saints in a profusion of red marble and gold.

That Christian humanism sitting next to Islamic intellectualism is Andalusia’s own enchantment. Back in the Generalife, a guard watched me linger by water jets arching into a long pool. She was the daughter of a watchman there who raised his eight kids in a house on its property, and she’s worked in the Alhambra for 31 years.

“Magico, no?” she whispered. Three days later, I got back for visit number four.