Whether invaders, settlers or rulers, the builders of Islamic empires during Medieval times have often been viewed as a religious and cultural invasion of Europe by monarchs, authors, and historians alike. Many historians of the West have unjustly vilified Islam in Europe for centuries and cleansed its legacy from European history books. One of the most maligned European Islamic empires are the Moors of Spain who established Al-Andalus (now known as modern Andalucia) until 1492. The Moorish rule in Spain is referred to by many western historians as the “occupation,” and in 1492 when the 700-year Islamic rule came to an end it was hailed as the “reconquest. ”
My own Spanish-Moorish discovery began in 1987 when I visited Cordoba on a school exchange and stayed with a Spanish family. Andalucía was a fascinating place indeed, with its mixture of former mosques and crimson Moorish palaces overlooked by snow-capped mountains. I was intrigued by young Spaniards dancing the Sevillanas on table tops in the local bars and tourists who filled plazas. I was fascinated by a place where church bells and gypsy guitar gently fused with the sound of the call to prayer. It took me over 30 years to appreciate the significance of this cradle of Moorish civilization in Europe.
Before the arrival of the Berber Commander Tariq Ibn-Ziyad via the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa, Spain had been populated by a succession of invaders and settlers including the Phoenicians, Greek, Carthaginians, the Romans and Germanic tribes. In 711, the 700-year rule of the Moors began. It was an empire that expanded as far as the mountains of Asturias and ended in January 1492 in Granada. The last sultan of Spain, Abu `Abdallah Muhammad XII (Boabdil), handed over the keys of the city to Catholic powerhouse, Isabel of Castille and Fernando of Aragon.
Throughout the 700 years of Islamic and Moorish Spain, there was a series of dynasties and rulers.
- The Dependent Emirate (711-756)
- The Independent Emirate (756-929)
- The Caliphate (929-1031)
- The Almoravid Era (1031-1130)
- Decline of the Nasrids. 1130-1492)
The Richness of Cordoba
Many western historians seem determined on defaming the Moors and destroying the notion that during a period of history known as the “Golden age,” it was possible for three religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity live together and enjoyed hundreds of years of “La Convivencia” or “Co-existence.”
The heart of La Convivencia was Cordoba. Lying 150 km northwest of Granada, it was once celebrated as the most modern and advanced cities in Europe. From 929 – 1031 it was known as The Caliphate and a medieval Islamic superpower. There were paved pedestrian sidewalks and street lighting, centuries before the rest of Europe had cottoned on.
In contrast to Moorish Spain, where education was widely available, the vast majority in Christian lands were illiterate, monarchs included. While the rest of Europe had two universities, the Moors of Spain had 17 including Cordoba, Granada, Malaga, Sevilla, Toledo, and Almeria. The Moors boasted over 70 public libraries with over 600,000 manuscripts in Cordoba alone.
The Moors brought paper, algebra and a rediscovery of Greek philosophy to the shores and foothills of Europe. The founder of Algebra was Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi who lived in Baghdad ground 780. Algebra was much more efficient than the clumsy Roman numeral systeml; furthermore without algebra Newton, would not have been able to lay the foundations of calculus. The Moors also introduced new scientific techniques to Europe, such as the astrolabe, a device for measuring the position of the stars and planets; they pioneered scientific progress in astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography and philosophy flourished in Moorish Spain.
Music and Delights
Many early versions of instruments such as the guitar were brought by the Moors to Europe. Orange, lemon, peach, apricot, fig, sugar cane, dates, ginger, and pomegranate as well as saffron, sugar-cane, cotton, silk and rice were all brought to Europe via the Moors.
Peace, Coexistence and Civilization
By our modern standards, Christian and Jews did live under restriction, but for the period in history in which this took place, much of Europe was still suffering far worse barbarism, Viking raids and was under the superstitious hold of Pagan rule. Christians and Jews were treated far better in Muslim lands than Muslims and Jews in non-Islamic Spain or Europe. The golden age of La Convivencia was a fusion of cultures, where the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions managed to live together and benefit from each other’s knowledge and skills by working together. The Moors were said to have brought a level of civilization that can be compared to great historical movements and empires such as the Renaissance and the Romans.
The freedom enjoyed by Jews and Christians under Moorish rule included: not being forced to live in ghettoes; the freedom to follow their faith; no restriction on working; many were civil servants, and there was no policy of forced conversion (unlike the Spain post-1492). Many historians claim that the age of tolerance is a myth, but they make these statements through a Western, superior, 21st-century lens.
The End of the Era of La Convivencia
By the time of the Nasrid dynasty, the Moorish rule in Spain was in decline with the Nasrids on the defensive rather than the offensive. The Nasrids still enjoyed the legacy of previous Moorish dynasties in term of culture, literature, education, cuisine, farming, trade, and science.
Sultan Boabdil handed over the keys of his city to Ferdinand and Isabella to spare the citizens of Granada further suffering in exchange for a promise by the monarchs to respect the cultural and religious rights of Muslims ratified via the Treaty of Granada also known as the Capitulation of Granada. The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) had already seen the expulsion of 200,000 practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.
By 1499, long after the Islamic rulers had left the Iberian Peninsular, Muslims were being forced to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Muslim or Jews who had converted to Christianity, known as the Moriscos and Conversos, were subject to ridiculous tests of faith or burnt at stake in the famous Spanish Inquisition, carried out by Cardinal Jimenez de Cisnero which was ratified by the Catholic monarchs. Thousands of precious manuscripts and books in Greek and Arabic were burned at the orders of Cisneros and all the knowledge lost. So ended the era of La Convivencia.