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Essay About Islamic Culture In Spain

It remains evident today that the period of Moorish rule, particularly in the region of Andalucía, has profoundly impacted Spain as a nation. The Moors, who derived largely from Arabia and Northern Africa, ruled huge swathes of Southern Spain for seven centuries, and had a widening impact on Spanish culture. The Muslim rule of Medieval Iberia (modern-day Spain) has heavily influenced Spain’s language, intellectual culture, and architecture. Although, the peace which existed at the beginning of the reign became increasingly challenged by the crusading Christian invaders. This blog will go on to demonstrate the lasting elements of the Islamic culture on Medieval Spain.

Religious tolerance
During their long reign over a large part of medieval Iberia, the Muslims were known to be a rather accepting group, tolerating and welcoming Jews who had been made outcasts by the ‘…northern invaders…’ of Spain. Indeed, one source suggests that the Jews were so highly valued by the Moors that they became ‘…merchants and ambassadors and were often taken into the leaders’ confidence.’ Islamic rule in Spain from the early eighth to the late fifteenth century featured ‘…a multi-cultural mix of the people of three great monotheistic religions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews.’ Furthermore, it is implied, that despite the restrictions imposed on Jews and Christians, such as higher taxes, this overall unity of the three faiths became an immensely successful settlement, ‘…that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance.’ What is more, Blockmans argues that ‘…of course, there was a shrinking Christian majority who, like the Jews, were also treated with reasonable tolerance by the new rulers.’ It is not clear why the Christians were treated so well by the Muslim settlers, but Blockmans suggests that the Jews welcomed Islamic rule after being oppressed by the Christian Visigoth settlers. However, the centuries leading up to the taking over of Spain by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, were not free from wars, even, it seems, amongst the Moors themselves. Although, the events of post 1492, when the last of the Muslim kingdoms in Spain was claimed by the Christian crusaders, certainly highlight the acceptance of the Muslim leaders, as opposed to the persecution of the Christian Inquisition.

Although it is often assumed that the language of Spain derives from Latin alone, closer inspection of many words also reveals Arabic roots. Indeed, it has been argued that; ‘More than 4,000 words of Arabic origin are used in modern Spanish.’ Examples include words beginning with al, such as álgebra (algebra) or Allá (Allah) and other words relating to scientific or mathematical knowledge, as well as exotic words like azúcar (sugar). MacKay also points out that: ‘In the late 1940s …poetic fragments were discovered which, dating back to the tenth century, were composed in Mozarabic – that is, the dialect of Spanish which was spoken in al-Andalus.’ and goes on to emphasise the significance of Arabic poetry in al-Andalus during the Middle Ages. The effect on modern-day Spain is that even some existing place names also derive from Arabic.

The architectural influence of the Moors remains perhaps the most recognisable in modern-day Spain, since it has remained largely untouched for several hundred years. MacKay argues that; ‘…the fact that the Mudejars virtually monopolised the crafts associated with building and ornamentation meant that they left their imprint on buildings all over Christian Spain.’ Indeed: ‘Moorish architecture can be found throughout Spain, with its slender columns, horseshoe arches, cupolas, and airy, colorful buildings.’ An example of a Moorish building (later altered after the Reconquista) is the Alcázar (palace) of Seville, which is believed to date back to the tenth century.

The following book review by Titus Burckhardt entitled ‘Moorish Culture in Spain’ is a great demonstration of just how brilliantly influential the Moorish reign of medieval Iberia was upon the nation:
‘The Arab contribution to human progress—astronomy, mathematics, cosmology, the variety and magnificent wealth of architectural form—is a remarkable legacy of a people who entered the land as conquerors and became peaceful masters. From the establishment of the first mosque in Cordova in 785 until the time of their expulsion by the Catholic kings in 1492, the Moors dominated the intellectual life of the area and had a profound impact on European civilization, which assimilated many of their ideas.’ Indeed, it seems that MacKay is more than justified in saying that ‘…the Islamic world improved a scientific tradition of which Latin Europe was largely ignorant.’ Therefore, it can be argued that without the Islamic conquest of Spain, Europe may have remained ignorant of a great many things.
Overall, it is clear that ‘Islam was a bridging civilisation.’ and became ‘…a transmitter of culture to Europe. Islam also provided a cultural bridge linking Latin Europe with certain aspects of its Greco-Roman past…’ and can even be linked to the argument about the impact of the Islamic language. As MacKay explains how the majority of the scholarship supplied by the Moorish leaders, such as the learning of Greek science and philosophy, was ‘…within an Islamic and Arabic-language setting.’

In conclusion, for the majority of their period of rule, the Moors profoundly impacted the culture of Medieval Spain much of which remains recognisable today. However, this is, to some extent, overshadowed by the gradual process of the Christian Reconquista. Although, it can be argued that Muslim influence was good for Spain as it modernised knowledge/learning in Europe and encouraged a wider cultural awareness through its introduction of different architectural designs, style of religion and language structure. Finally, although the Moorish leaders no longer rule over Spain, the fact that they did so for seven hundred years is, alone, sufficient grounds for their success. Indeed the end was only an inevitable part of their rule, as it is for the existence of any Empire or regime.


Angus MacKay, Spain in the Middle Ages: From Frontier to Empire, 1000-1500 (Hampshire, 1977), pp 82, 83, 91 & 201

W.I. M. Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers, Introduction to Medieval Europe 300-

1550 (Abingdon, Oxon, 2010), p 102

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Islamic Spain (711-1492)

The Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Spain ©

Islamic Spain was a multi-cultural mix of the people of three great monotheistic religions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Although Christians and Jews lived under restrictions, for much of the time the three groups managed to get along together, and to some extent, to benefit from the presence of each other.

It brought a degree of civilisation to Europe that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance.


In 711 Muslim forces invaded and in seven years conquered the Iberian peninsula.

It became one of the great Muslim civilisations; reaching its summit with the Umayyad caliphate of Cordovain the tenth century.

Muslim rule declined after that and ended in 1492 when Granada was conquered.

The heartland of Muslim rule was Southern Spain or Andulusia.


Muslim Spain was not a single period, but a succession of different rules.

  • The Dependent Emirate (711-756)
  • The Independent Emirate (756-929)
  • The Caliphate (929-1031)
  • The Almoravid Era (1031-1130)
  • Decline (1130-1492)

Audio journey

The Alhambra Palace, the finest surviving palace of Muslim Spain, is the beginning of a historical journey in this audio feature, In the Footsteps of Muhammad: Granada.

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The conquest

The traditional story is that in the year 711, an oppressed Christian chief, Julian, went to Musa ibn Nusair, the governor of North Africa, with a plea for help against the tyrannical Visigoth ruler of Spain, Roderick.

Musa responded by sending the young general Tariq bin Ziyad with an army of 7000 troops. The name Gibraltar is derived from Jabal At-Tariq which is Arabic for 'Rock of Tariq' named after the place where the Muslim army landed.

The story of the appeal for help is not universally accepted. There is no doubt that Tariq invaded Spain, but the reason for it may have more to do with the Muslim drive to enlarge their territory.

The Muslim army defeated the Visigoth army easily, and Roderick was killed in battle.

After the first victory, the Muslims conquered most of Spain and Portugal with little difficulty, and in fact with little opposition. By 720 Spain was largely under Muslim (or Moorish, as it was called) control.


One reason for the rapid Muslim success was the generous surrender terms that they offered the people, which contrasted with the harsh conditions imposed by the previous Visigoth rulers.

The ruling Islamic forces were made up of different nationalities, and many of the forces were converts with uncertain motivation, so the establishment of a coherent Muslim state was not easy.


The heartland of Muslim rule was Southern Spain or Andulusia. The name Andalusia comes from the term Al-Andalus used by the Arabs, derived from the Vandals who had been settled in the region.


A Golden Age


Stability in Muslim Spain came with the establishment of the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty, which lasted from 756 to 1031.

The credit goes to Amir Abd al-Rahman, who founded the Emirate of Cordoba, and was able to get the various different Muslim groups who had conquered Spain to pull together in ruling it.

The Golden Age

The Muslim period in Spain is often described as a 'golden age' of learning where libraries, colleges, public baths were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished. Both Muslims and non-Muslims made major contributions to this flowering of culture.

A Golden Age of religious tolerance?

Islamic Spain is sometimes described as a 'golden age' of religious and ethnic tolerance and interfaith harmony between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Some historians believe this idea of a golden age is false and might lead modern readers to believe, wrongly, that Muslim Spain was tolerant by the standards of 21st century Britain.

The true position is more complicated. The distinguished historian Bernard Lewis wrote that the status of non-Muslims in Islamic Spain was a sort of second-class citizenship but he went on to say:

Life for non-Muslims in Islamic Spain

Jews and Christians did retain some freedom under Muslim rule, providing they obeyed certain rules. Although these rules would now be considered completely unacceptable, they were not much of a burden by the standards of the time, and in many ways the non-Muslims of Islamic Spain (at least before 1050) were treated better than conquered peoples might have expected during that period of history.

  • they were not forced to live in ghettoes or other special locations
  • they were not slaves
  • they were not prevented from following their faith
  • they were not forced to convert or die under Muslim rule
  • they were not banned from any particular ways of earning a living; they often took on jobs shunned by Muslims;
    • these included unpleasant work such as tanning and butchery
    • but also pleasant jobs such as banking and dealing in gold and silver
  • they could work in the civil service of the Islamic rulers
  • Jews and Christians were able to contribute to society and culture

The alternative view to the Golden Age of Tolerance is that Jews and Christians were severely restricted in Muslim Spain, by being forced to live in a state of 'dhimmitude'. (A dhimmi is a non-Muslim living in an Islamic state who is not a slave, but does not have the same rights as a Muslim living in the same state.)

In Islamic Spain, Jews and Christians were tolerated if they:

  • acknowledged Islamic superiority
  • accepted Islamic power
  • paid a tax called Jizya to the Muslim rulers and sometimes paid higher rates of other taxes
  • avoided blasphemy
  • did not try to convert Muslims
  • complied with the rules laid down by the authorities. These included:
    • restrictions on clothing and the need to wear a special badge
    • restrictions on building synagogues and churches
    • not allowed to carry weapons
    • could not receive an inheritance from a Muslim
    • could not bequeath anything to a Muslim
    • could not own a Muslim slave
    • a dhimmi man could not marry a Muslim woman (but the reverse was acceptable)
    • a dhimmi could not give evidence in an Islamic court
    • dhimmis would get lower compensation than Muslims for the same injury

At times there were restrictions on practicing one's faith too obviously. Bell-ringing or chanting too loudly were frowned on and public processions were restricted.

Many Christians in Spain assimilated parts of the Muslim culture. Some learned Arabic, some adopted the same clothes as their rulers (some Christian women even started wearing the veil); some took Arabic names. Christians who did this were known as Mozarabs.

The Muslim rulers didn't give their non-Muslim subjects equal status; as Bat Ye'or has stated, the non-Muslims came definitely at the bottom of society.

The Muslims did not explicitly hate or persecute the non-Muslims. As Bernard Lewis puts it:

An example of this contempt is found in this 12th century ruling:

Why were non-Muslims tolerated in Islamic Spain?

There were several reasons why the Muslim rulers tolerated rival faiths:

  • Judaism and Christianity were monotheistic faiths, so arguably their members were worshipping the same God
    • despite having some wayward beliefs and practices, such as the failure to accept the significance of Muhammad and the Qur'an
  • The Christians outnumbered the Muslims
    • so mass conversion or mass execution was not practical
    • outlawing or controlling the beliefs of so many people would have been massively expensive
  • Bringing non-Muslims into government provided the rulers with administrators
    • who were loyal (because not attached to any of the various Muslim groups)
    • who could be easily disciplined or removed if the need arose. (One Emir went so far as to have a Christian as the head of his bodyguard.)
  • Passages in the Qur'an said that Christians and Jews should be tolerated if they obeyed certain rules

Oppression in later Islamic Spain

Not all the Muslim rulers of Spain were tolerant. Almanzor looted churches and imposed strict restrictions.

The position of non-Muslims in Spain deteriorated substantially from the middle of the 11th century as the rulers became more strict and Islam came under greater pressure from outside.

Christians were not allowed taller houses than Muslims, could not employ Muslim servants, and had to give way to Muslims on the street.

Christians could not display any sign of their faith outside, not even carrying a Bible. There were persecutions and executions.

One notorious event was a pogrom in Granada in 1066, and this was followed by further violence and discrimination as the Islamic empire itself came under pressure.

As the Islamic empire declined, and more territory was taken back by Christian rulers, Muslims in Christian areas found themselves facing similar restrictions to those they had formerly imposed on others.

But, on the whole, the lot of minority faith groups was to become worse after Islam was replaced in Spain by Christianity.

The Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Spain ©

There were also cultural alliances, particularly in the architecture - the 12 lions in the court of Alhambra are heralds of Christian influences.

The mosque at Cordoba, now converted to a cathedral is still, somewhat ironically, known as La Mezquita or literally, the mosque.

The mosque was begun at the end of the 8th century by the Ummayyad prince Abd al Rahman ibn Muawiyah.

Under the reign of Abd al Rahman III (r. 912-961) Spanish Islam reached its greatest power as, every May, campaigns were launched towards the Christian frontier, this was also the cultural peak of Islamic civilisation in Spain.




Mezquita mosque in Cordoba ©

In the 10th century, Cordoba, the capital of Umayyad Spain, was unrivalled in both East and the West for its wealth and civilisation. One author wrote about Cordoba:

Muslim scholars served as a major link in bringing Greek philosophy, of which the Muslims had previously been the main custodians, to Western Europe.

There were interchanges and alliances between Muslim and Christian rulers such as the legendary Spanish warrior El-Cid, who fought both against and alongside Muslims.

Muslim, Jewish and Christian interaction

How did Muslims, Jews and Christians interact in practice? Was this period of apparent tolerance underpinned by a respect for each other's sacred texts? What led to the eventual collapse of Cordoba and Islamic Spain? And are we guilty of over-romanticising this period as a golden age of co-existence?

Three contributors discuss these questions with Melvyn Bragg. They are: Tim Winter, a convert to Islam and lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University; Martin Palmer, an Anglican lay preacher and theologian and author of The Sacred History of Britain; and Mehri Niknam, Executive Director of the Maimonides Foundation, a joint Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Foundation in London.


Decline and fall

Decline and fall

Toledo fell to Christianity in 1085 ©

The collapse of Islamic rule in Spain was due not only to increasing aggression on the part of Christian states, but to divisions among the Muslim rulers. The rot came from both the centre and the extremities.

Early in the eleventh century, the single Islamic Caliphate had shattered into a score of small kingdoms, ripe for picking-off. The first big Islamic centre to fall to Christianity was Toledo in 1085.

The Muslims replied with forces from Africa which under the general Yusuf bin Tashfin defeated the Christians resoundingly in 1086, and by 1102 had recaptured most of Andalusia. The general was able to reunite much of Muslim Spain.


It didn't last. Yusuf died in 1106, and, as one historian puts it, the "rulers of Muslim states began cutting each other's throats again".

Internal rebellions in 1144 and 1145 further shattered Islamic unity, and despite intermittent military successes, Islam's domination of Spain was ended for good.

The Muslims finally lost all power in Spain in 1492. By 1502 the Christian rulers issued an order requiring all Muslims to convert to Christianity, and when this didn't work, they imposed brutal restrictions on the remaining Spanish Muslims.