If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from all my travels is that you should know the history of your upcoming destination. I can hear some of you say “omg, History is so boring”. I was just like that till I started solo traveling and seeing beautiful landmarks without knowing the stories behind them. Looking at these landmarks was like marveling at a gem and unaware of its true value. When I moved to Spain, I saw many Islamic and Arabic influences in its architecture, food, language, and sometimes culture. They were so apparent that it was hard to ignore. “But why didn’t anyone talk about this?” During my trips to Spain’s south, the region with the most Islamic influence, my curiosity grew stronger. I had to know Spain’s relationship with Islam. I gathered resources from both Spanish and English publications. I also paired up with Felipe Vidales, a Spanish Historian. The goal is to provide you with quality information about a story usually untold. In this intensive post, I start with how it all began, with the history of Moors in Spain.
Islam in Spain: The Past
Spain, pre-Islam, was ruled by the Visigoths, a German gothic tribe who invaded France, Italy, and Spain. The Visigoth’s reign at the time of the Islamic invasion, was weak, making it fast and easy for the Moors to conquer the Iberian peninsula and the south of France. The Islamic rule in Spain lasted for 781 years (711- 1492). During this time, the parts conquered by the Moors was referred to as Al Andalus
The Moors of the Andalusian era consisted of the Arabs from the middle east (Syria), the Amazigh people of North Africa and the indigenous Iberian tribes who converted to Islam during that era. However, the majority of the Moors were from the Amazigh tribe.
The Islamic rule in Spain nearly covered the entire country except for some regions in Northwestern Spain.
The green shaded areas had little to no Moorish influence.
The greatest Islamic influence was in the southern and central regions of Spain, like Granada (Gharnatah), Cordoba (Qurtubah), Malaga, and Seville (Ishbiliyah). However, not often mentioned are how cities like Madrid (Al Majreet), Zaragoza, Toledo (Tulaytulah), and Valencia also played a huge role in Spain’s Islamic history. p.s. the words in the bracket were their Arabic names during the time of Al Andalus. See Islamic Spain for more information about each city’s role. Below is a video by Spanish Historian, Felipe Vidales on Toledo’s Islamic past.
Note: The video is in Spanish
Fun fact: Madrid (Al Majreet) was the only European capital funded by Muslims
Fun fact: Toledo (Tulaytulah) was used as a strategic location for both the Muslims and the Christians. It enjoyed a brief Independent Islamic kingdom (Taifa) in 1031.
Although the Moors contributed to the development of the country, their reign wasn’t always filled with prosperous times. Below are significant time periods worth discussing.
- 711- 756: was the beginning of Islam in Spain. The Amazigh Muslims led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad crossed from Tangier to the Strait of Gibraltar. His mission was to defeat Don Rodrigo, a Visigoth king in Algeciras. Islam grew rapidly from this moment. Despite leading the conquest, Tariq Ibn Ziyad still reported to the Caliph of Damascus in Syria Tariq Ibn Ziyad
Fun fact: When the Muslims first stepped foot in Spain, they came across a rock and called it Jab al Tariq in honor of their leader Tariq Ibn Ziyad. This rock is called Gibraltar (iq) today.
- 756- 929: was known as the Umayyad Dynasty, which originally stemmed from the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. They had spread to many regions in the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, and North Africa. They had great power and influence. But due to tribal and political conflicts, the dynasty weakened and every family member from the Umayyad dynasty was hunted down and killed. Only one family member escaped. His name was Abd al Rahman. Abd al Rahman fleed to Spain and became the Emir of Al- Andalus near Cordoba. This was the beginning of an Independent Spanish Islamic kingdom. He created an organized and prosperous state that reported to no one for 200 years . See more about the origins of the Umayyad Dynasty.
- 929- 1013: The Umayyad dynasty continued and was led by Abd-al Rahman III. He considered himself the caliph and prince of believers. Thereby establishing a caliphate. Cordoba was the highlight during his reign with Granada in the background, submissive to the caliphate .
- 1013-1090: was the beginning of the declination of Islamic Spain. The Umayyad dynasty and the Cordoban Caliphate collapsed. It led to divisions of kingdoms, each of which was called the Taifa Kingdom. The Taifa Kingdoms were ruled by a single family or dynasty. These families often fought bitterly with each other .
- 1090- 1231: was the period of the Almoravids and Almohads dynasty. These group of recent Muslim converts were also Amazighs from the deserts of North Africa. Their entrance to Spain was easy because of the consistent fighting between the Taifa kingdoms. They took over the kingdoms and created theirs. However, their time did not last long. There were also internal conflicts caused by their ruler’s personal agendas. It was a period of the decline of the Muslim’s presence in Spain. Partly from the internal conflicts and from the powerful actions of the Kingdom of Castile and Aragon .
- 1238- 1492: The Nasrid Dynasty lead the last reigning years of Moorish rule. Muhammad aka al Ahmar, the magnificent made his entrance to Granada during the holy month of Ramadan in 1238. This marked the beginning of the Nasrid Dynasty. It was easy for the Spanish Muslims to accept Muhammad Al Ahmar as their leader. The time of his entrance consisted of turmoil from the previous dynasty and the Spanish Muslims had just lost Cordoba to Kind Ferdinand’s Christian troops. During Al Ahmar’s rule, he became allies with King Ferdinand III of Castile. They made a vassalage agreement, consisting of 150,000 gold maravedis paid in annual tax and receiving help for military campaigns. Granada flourished economically. Islamic arts and sciences were promoted. It was a brief golden age of Al- Andalus. Muhammad Al Ahmar knew that Islamic Spain was coming to an end. He wanted to make an ever lasting final impression. As a result, the Alhambra was created. Muhammad Al Ahmar started with its construction and his successors finished it.
Fun Fact: Part of the lasting impressions made by the Nasrid Kingdom is the Arabic and Quranic inscriptions on the walls and doors of the Alhambra, which can still be seen today.
History of Moors in Spain: Significant Islamic monuments and contributions
The beginning of the golden age in Spain started with Abd al-Rahman II of Cordoba. He was interested in religious and secular science. Because of that, he would recruit scholars, poets, philosophers, historians and musicians to Al Andalus. At that time, there were infrastructures set in place to make education, research, and discussion, easy to conduct. The court of Cordoba was open to Muslims, Jews and Christians to share their ideas and findings. People would come from far and wide to this seat of wisdom. Arabic had become the international language of science. The Moors had an advantage over the rest of Europe because of their connections to the East. The Chinese had just created paper. A great invention at that time. However, they wanted to keep it a secret amongst themselves. Prisoners taken from the Battle of Talas discovered their secret and spread it to Baghdad, Iraq. From Baghdad, this “secret” spread to Morocco and then to Spain (Islamic History) See more information.
The Moors constructed many outstanding infrastructures that can still be seen today, such as the Cordoba Mosque, The Alhambra, The Real Alcazar of Seville, The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz in Toledo, Al Jaferia of Zaragoza etc. Every one of these architectures had a touch of intricate Islamic art, science, and mathematics.
Fun fact: It is the said that the water spouting from the mouths of the ceramic Lions in the Alhambra, was used as a clock. There are 12 lions in the Patio de Leones and each lion represented an hour of the time. Water would spit out of one lion at a certain hour and when that hour was over, the water would stop from that ceramic lion and then spit out of the next lion. Today the water spits out randomly due to meddling after the fall of Andalusia.
The Moors also contributed to the development of Astronomy, Medicine, and Agriculture. Some notable Inventors during this enlightened era were Abbas Ibn Firnas, who constructed the first planetarium and evolved a formula for manufacturing artificial crystals; Al Khawrizmi, a mathematician and the author of The Calculation of Integration and Equation; Maslama Al Majriti, enlarged and corrected astronomical tables; Alzarqalic (Arzachel), excelled in the construction of precision instruments for astronomical use; Ibn Nafis, discovered the lesser circulation of blood in the body; Ibn al Awam, listed 584 plant species and created a guideline for their use and cultivation; and Ibn Wafid, scientist and author of the book of simple medicine. These are only a few mentioned. See Science in Al Andalus and also Islamic golden age for more.
History of Moors in Spain: Rulings and relationships between Moors and other locals
When the Moors conquered Spain, they met Christians, Jews, and other Iberian tribes, who were previously living there. The Moors granted them special status as they were seen as their brothers of faith. All the faiths lived together in peace and harmony. This can be seen from the diverse religious influence in Spanish cities today. Fewer taxes were imposed on the Jews. The Jews and Christians held government positions. With that being said, The relationship between the Spanish Muslims and other faiths wasn’t always peaceful. There were times of conflict between the Christians and the Muslims and even conflicts among the Muslims.
History of Moors in Spain: End of the Moorish rule:
After 1492, Islamic Spain ended with the Nasrid Dynasty. Boabdil, the last Nasrid King handed over the keys of the city of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, on January 2, 1492 . The captivating T.V. series Isabel gives you a great deal of information about the history of Spain. The series can be found online with English Subtitles. When the Christian Monarchs arrived in Granada, they were dumbfounded at how beautiful the Alhambra and the Nasrid Royal residence was. They couldn’t bring themselves to take the grandeur palace down. The Alhambra and Nasrid Residence was kept and maintained with little modifications made by the monarchs . During the Christian conquest of Spain, some of the Moors left to North Africa while others stayed. Those who stayed became Baptised Christians. They were called the Moriscos . Although Moriscos were legally recognized as Christians, many of them pretended to practice Christianity outwardly (for fear of persecution) but actually practiced Islam in the secretive confines of their homes. Eventually, the Moriscos were exiled to North Africa.
Spanish series Isabel
Source: Drama Fever
Islam in Spain: The Present
Spain has two major distinguished influences that can still be seen today (1) The religion of Islam (2) The Arabic language. You can see these influences in the Spanish language, food, culture, architecture etc.
- Language: Thousands of Spanish words have Arabic origins. Words like Ojala used to express a hope of something (insha’Allah) or other words like Aceite (Azzayt), Paella (Baqayya), Aceitunas (Al-zaytuna), Almohaddas (Al-Muhadda). Spanish names like Corbacho, Benjumea, Alameda, Baez, Cid, Benavidez, Guadalupe, Ventura, all have Arabic origins. This also includes Spanish places like Alpujarras, Albufera, Alcala de Henares, Benalmadena, Benissa, El Raval etc.
- Food: The Moors brought some products like Oranges, Lemon, Garbanzo beans, Eggplants, Artichokes etc that are now a huge part of the Spanish cuisine. Even the popular Spanish dish, paella had origins in the Andalusian era. Check out this cool video below about Paella and its origin.
There is a high possibility that the making of Toledo’s popular sweet, Mazapan (Marzipan), was influenced during the Spanish Muslim’s presence in Toledo. It used to be called Picmat بسمة in Arabic
Regions with the most Muslim population in Spain
The regions in Spain with the most Muslim population are Cataluña (515,482), Andalusia (309,586), Madrid (283,063), and the Community of Valencia (204,4799) (Euro Press).
History of Moors in Spain: Contributions
- Science and maths: Perhaps less notable but most valuable to much of Spain, Europe, and the World is the Moor’s contribution to science and maths.They developed astronomy, navigation, algebra, and chemistry. Notable scientists during the Andalusian era are Ibn Jalaf & Azarquiel.
- Medicine: Doctors in the Andalusian era didn’t just have the medical knowledge, they also practiced professional conduct. Ibn Hazm, a respected Moorish scholar, would often say, “doctors must be kind, friendly, good, able to endure insults and adverse criticism; he must keep his hair short and his fingernails as well..” (Islamic Spain) These practices from the 11th century are basic procedures used by doctors today.
- Agriculture: Moorish scientists made huge agricultural and medical contributions to present Spain. They helped with the cultivation of fruits and vegetables still used today. They created the first agricultural infrastructures such as the wind mill, Irrigations systems(regadios), Ditches(acequias), etc that are still functioning in Valencia, Spain (where it started) and the rest of world.
Current Muslim presence in Spain
The number of Muslims living in Spain today is 1.9 million, making up 4% of the Spanish population. According to the General State Administration and the UCIDE, Muslims in Spain consists of 42% Spanish nationals and 58% with foreign origins (Europa Press). From those 58% foreign nationals, 39% are Moroccans and the remaining 19% are from other nationalities (Hispano Muslim).
Source: Hispano Muslim
I lived in Spain for two years and generally didn’t experience any major event that made me feel uncomfortable. However, Muslim women wearing the hijab often face challenges when trying to find a job. In response to this, Spanish Muslim women like Yasmin create their own companies. Others, like the women in this interview with Cronica Cuatro, make concerted efforts to be resilient despite the challenges they have against them. The interview gets the points of view from two Spanish Muslim women-one with a hijab and the other without one- about oppression and feminism in Islam. “Being made to work without the hijab, would be as if I were forced to work without pants”, one of the women states.
This was my experience in Spain:
So there you have it! Researching for this post was a self-learning process for me. It gave me a whole new perspective and even a greater feeling to know that I was standing in places with thousands of years of history.
I would like to thank Felipe Vidales and Rafael Martinez for the contribution of this post. Feel free to check out their projects.
Rafael Martinez: http://madridarabe.es/ (Islamic tours in Madrid)
What are your thoughts? Did you learn something new?
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Enjoyed reading that. I would’ve loved an English version of the videos but no big deal! We are in Madrid at the moment but have been totally put off going to the centre after the Barcelona attack yesterday.
Hi! yeah. unfortunately, there weren’t many references I wanted to emphasis in English. Especially the Paella one. Stay safe iA Are you going to other Spanish cities?