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Al-Andalus

March 14, 2021

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain, Author Berthold Werner (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Muslims were a presence on the Iberian Peninsula (called Al-Andalus) from 711 AD to 1492 AD [1A].

A “Golden Age”

For much of its history, al-Andalus was in conflict with northern Christian kingdoms, in what is now known as the Reconquista (reconquest).  But the Muslim occupation of Spain is often described as a “golden age” during which literature, poetry, and architecture thrived [2A].

Religious Restrictions

Indeed, those who say, ‘Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary,’ have fallen into disbelief…”

-Quran, Sura 5:17

While ambitious nobles anxious to share in power embraced Islam and the Arabic language, the majority of the Spanish population remained Christian [3].

Islamic Spain was not, however, tolerant by modern standards [2B].

Non-Muslims had to acknowledge Islamic superiority; had to pay a “jizya” or tax; were disqualified from testifying in Islamic courts; and were limited to lower compensation than Muslims for the same injury [1B][2C].

Given the status of “ahl al-dhimma” (the people under protection), Christians and Jews were held in contempt by Muslims, but did have some rights [1C][2D]:

  • Christians and Jews were not forced to convert or die under Islamic rule.  Since Christians greatly outnumbered Muslims, mass conversion or mass execution was not a practical solution.
  • Christians and Jews were not prevented from following their faith, but had to wear special identifying badges and were prohibited from converting Muslims.  Construction of churches and synagogues was regulated by Muslim authorities.  Bell-ringing and chanting were looked on with disfavor.
  • Christians and Jews were not enslaved.
  • Christians and Jews were not banned from any particular way of earning a living (often taking on jobs shunned by Muslims, such as tanning and butchery).
  • Christians and Jews were permitted in the civil service.
  • Christians and Jews could contribute to culture.

Jewish Scholarship and Persecution

During the early Middle Ages, al-Andalus was home to important Jewish scholars and a wealthy Jewish community [1D].  A period of comparative tolerance began around 912 AD, with Jews serving the Caliphate of Cordoba while engaging in commerce, industry, and the study of science [1E].

For a time, Iberia actually became an asylum for the oppressed Jews of other regions [1F].  Unfortunately, persecution of the Jews resumed under the Almoravids and the Almohads.  In 1066 AD, much of the Jewish population of Granada was massacred at Muslim hands [4].

Decline

The position of non-Muslims in Spain deteriorated from the mid-11th Century onward, as Muslim rule grew more stringent [2E].

Christians could not display the symbols of their faith in public; were not permitted to carry Bibles; and had to give way to Muslims on the street.  They eventually faced persecution and death.

Tragically, this did not dissuade Christians, themselves, from persecuting Jews.  Over half of Spain’s Jews converted to Christianity as the result of such persecution in 1391 AD [5].  By 1415 AD, another 50,000 had converted.

In 1492 AD, the remaining Jews were expelled from Spain by the Alhambra Decree of Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile – the same Ferdinand and Isabella who sponsored Columbus (believed by a number of historians to be a Sephardic Jew) [6][7][8].

[1A – 1F]  Wikipedia, “Al-Andalus”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Andalus.

[2A – 2E]  BBC, “Muslim Spain”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/history/spain_1.shtml.

[3]  Wikipedia, “Umayyad conquest of Hispania”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umayyad_conquest_of_Hispania.

[4]  Wikipedia, “Granada Massacre”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1066_Granada_massacre.

[5]  Wikipedia, “Massacre of 1391”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_1391.

[6]  Wikipedia, “Alhambra Decree”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alhambra_Decree.

[7]  Biography, “What Was Christopher Columbus’ Heritage?” by Barbara Maranzani, 8/20/20 (originally 9/14/18), https://www.biography.com/news/christopher-columbus-heritage-nationality.

[8]  Times of Israel, “Christopher Columbus – the hidden Jew” by Amanda Borschel-Dan, 10/8/18,  https://www.timesofisrael.com/christopher-columbus-the-hidden-jew/.

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17 Comments
  1. Very interesting—and I had not heard that about Columbus

  2. It simply boggles the mind how “forced conversion” is seen as a victory for any belief system.

  3. Allan Halton permalink

    Thanks, Anna, this has been a “refresher course” for me. It’s been many years since I read The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal.

    Here are a few paragraphs from a letter I wrote to the person who lent me the book:

    Menocal writes of history’s “implacable cycles, the rise, decline, and fall of societies, and then the whole thing starting up all over again, in some different and yet resonant version.” Why is this so? Why is this the history of our world? Civilizations rise and fall, nations live out their allotted day; societies come and go. Thus it was with the ornament of the world. It was glorious for two or three hundred years—a little moment in time. Why?

    For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers and the flower thereof falls away. But the word of the Lord abides forever” (1 Peter 1:24,25).

    That’s actually why the ecumenical culture of Al-Andalus perished. Like the flower of the field, it withered and fell away. It was glorious for a season, but even apart from the destructive forces that brought it to an end, it was doomed to fail from its beginnings. Ecumenical unity, whether among the world’s religions, or among the sects and denominations of those individual religions, will inevitably disintegrate, because it does not have the One Thing necessary to hold it together—the living Word of God. [End of my extract from the letter.]

    There are so many dismal failures for lack of that One Thing. The encouraging thing is that God has an eternal purpose in mind– “…Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…” (Eph. 1:9,10 NKJV).

    That’s the apostle Paul’s eagle-eyed view of what God has in mind to do in Christ…”to the praise of His glory.” It’s speaking of a unity in the love of God in Christ in which things will never come unglued!

    • Thank you for your insightful comment, Allan. Without God, human beings cannot sustain whatever limited success they do manage to achieve. Those who believe America will be the exception are sadly mistaken.

  4. It’s interesting to follow the story of one group’s being oppressed, until they became the oppressors. Whoever doubts the self-centeredness of human nature doesn’t know much about history.

    • So true, Ann.

    • Absolutely. Seen that in my country, the oppressed becoming the oppressors.

      The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?‘ (Jer. 17:9/NLT) Jeremiah would be mocked and laughed at today, just as he was in his own time.

  5. Fascinating post.

    One clarification. True, the dhimmis who lived as second class citizens were not to be enslaved… but Christian slaves certainly existed, as they could still be captured in battle and conquest or purchased from existing slave stocks in other locales.

    I’ve never met a Christian who desired to live under Muslim rule. Not so, the reverse.

  6. Our King Jaume I liberated our Valencia from the Moors and re-established the Kingdom of Valencia expelling them and so we regained our lands. I don’t see it as intolerance on the part of Christians, it was a sign of the times and quite proper in those days. Of course now we see it differently. A very interesting post Anna,
    FBC

    • I did not mean to suggest that the Reconquista was intolerant, Francisco. As you say, reconquest was an attempt to regain lands previously in the possession of Christian kingdoms.

      My only concern was that Christians, who had themselves been persecuted under the Moors, then proceeded to persecute Jews.

      Tragically, of course, the Jews were persecuted elsewhere in Europe, as well. As you most likely know, they were expelled from southern Italy in 1288; expelled from England in 1290; and expelled from France multiple times during the 13th and 14th Centuries.

      All the best,

      A.

      • Yes, although that was an unfortunate decision that Queen Isabel was advised not to take, she did take it and expelled the Jews from Spain. But those were the actions of the time and not truly thought of as intolerant. We are judging from our own perspective. I do understand what you mean Anna. European history is very old and there are many twists and turns, good things and evil things but the actions belonged to the times. Take good care and all the best,
        FBC

      • I completely agree, Francisco. We view the world through our own time. Factors at play were as complex in the past as they are today. We can, however, learn from the past. This post was not meant so much as a historic judgment on the actions of a particular sovereign or nation as a comment on the fact individual Christians — who had themselves experienced religious bias — should have known better. Just as w/ American slavery, it is an error I hope we do not repeat. I expressed myself inartfully. Please, forgive me if I offended you.

      • No Anna, not at all. I did not take it as an offence but as an opportunity to engage in a discussion of history and how we each view it from our own perspective which depends a lot from where we come from. I hope you understand that I value greatly your posts, your knowledge, your understanding of issues and the much needed and important topics you bring and share and I would not want for a moment for you to think you’ve offended me. Take good care Anna and all the best to you,
        FBC

      • Thank you for your kindness, Francisco. You are a good friend. I always value your input. And I value the concept of discussion — something we are losing in our society, sad to say. If we cannot exchange ideas and even at times disagree, how are we to learn and grow?

      • Yes, a very good point Anna. Discussion, debate and civilised dialogue has been the bulwark of democracy and of society since the glory days of the Athenians. Thank you Anna and all the best,
        FBC

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