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Al-Andalus (Arabic الأندلس) is the Arabic name given to the southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula by its Muslim conquerors; it refers to both the Emirate (ca 750-929) and Caliphate of Córdoba (929-1031) and its taifa successor kingdoms specifically, and in general to territories under Muslim rule (711-1492). As Iberia was slowly regained by Christians fighting from northern enclaves, in the long process known as the Reconquista, the name "al-Andalus" came to refer the Muslim-dominated lands of the former Roman Hispania Baetica, Hispania Lusitania and Hispania Tarraconensis, within an ever-southward-moving frontier. See also Andalusia and Andalusia (disambiguation)



see also Timeline of the Muslim Occupation of Spain

Conquest and early years

In 711 CE, a Moorish Islamic army from North Africa invaded Visigoth Hispania. Under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, a small force landed at Gibraltar on April 30, 711. After a decisive victory at the Battle of Guadalete on July 19, 711, Tariq ibn-Ziyad brought most of the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic rule in a seven-year campaign. They moved northeast across the Pyrenees but were defeated by the Frank Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. The Iberian peninsula, except for small areas in the northwest and largely Basque regions in the Pyrenees, became part of the expanding Umayyad empire, under the name of Al-Andalus. In the Archaeological Museum in Madrid, a dinar dating from five years after the conquest (716), has the Arabic "Al-Andalus" on one side and the Iberian Latin "Span(ica)" on the other — apparently the first mention known.

At first, Al-Andalus was ruled by governors appointed by the Caliph, most ruling for three years or less. However, from 740, a series of civil wars between various Muslim groups in Spain resulted in the breakdown of Caliphal control, with Yusuf al-Fihri, who emerged as the main winner, being effectively an independent ruler.

The Emirate and Caliphate of Córdoba

The interior of the Great Mosque in Córdoba, built on the site of the Saint Vicente Visigoth Christian basilica was restored to a Christian cathedral. The mosque, known as the Mezquita in Spanish, was one of the finest examples of Arab-Islamic architecture pioneered by the Umayyad dynasty.
The interior of the Great Mosque in Córdoba, built on the site of the Saint Vicente Visigoth Christian basilica was restored to a Christian cathedral. The mosque, known as the Mezquita in Spanish, was one of the finest examples of Arab-Islamic architecture pioneered by the Umayyad dynasty.

When the Umayyad dynasty gave way to the Abbasid in 750, Abd-ar-Rahman I (later titled Al-Dāakhil), an Umayyad exile, established himself as the Emir of Córdoba in 756, ousting Yusuf al-Fihri. Over a thirty-year reign, he established his rule over the whole of al-Andalus, overcoming partisans both of the al-Fihri family and of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, whose title he refused to acknowledge. For the next century and a half, his descendants continued as Emirs of Córdoba, with nominal control over the rest of al-Andalus (and sometimes parts of western North Africa) but with real control, particularly over the marches along the Christian border, varying greatly depending on the competence of the individual Emir. Indeed, Abdallah ibn Muhammad, who was Emir around 900, had very little control beyond the area immediately around Córdoba.

However, Abdallah's grandson Abd-ar-Rahman III, who succeeded him in 912, not only rapidly restored Ummayad power throughout al-Andalus but extended it into western North Africa as well. In 929 he proclaimed himself Caliph, elevating the emirate to a position competing in prestige not only with the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad but also the Shi'ite Caliph in Tunis — with whom he was competing for control of North Africa.

The period of the Caliphate can reasonably be regarded as the golden age of al-Andalus. Irrigation techniques and crops – for instance, rice, oranges and a variety of other citrus fruits – imported from the Middle East provided the area around Córdoba and some other Andalusi cities with an agricultural infrastructure well in advance of that of any other part of western Europe. Córdoba under the Caliphate, with a population of perhaps 100,000, was far larger and more prosperous than any other city of the time in Europe, with the exception of Constantinople, and competed on at least equal terms as a cultural centre with anywhere else in the Islamic world. The work of its philosophers and scientists would be a significant formative influence on the intellectual life of medieval western Europe.

Muslims and Non-Muslims often came from abroad to study in the famous libraries and universities of Al-Andalus. The most noted of these was Michael Scot, who took Ibn Rushds (Averroes') works, and his commentaries on many of Aristotle's works as well as the works of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to Italy. This event was to have a significant impact on the formation of the European Renaissance.

The First Taifa Period

The Córdoba Caliphate effectively collapsed during a ruinous civil war between 1009 and 1013, although it was not finally abolished until 1031. Al-Andalus now broke up into a number of mostly independent Islamic states called taifas. These were however militarily too weak to defend themselves against repeated raids and demands for tribute from the Christian states based in the north and west, which had already spread from their initial strongholds in Galicia, Asturias, the Basque country and the Carolingian Marca Hispanica to become the Kingdoms of Navarre, León, Castile and Aragon and the County of Barcelona. Eventually, raids turned into conquest; and in response, the taifa kings requested help from the Almoravids, the puritanical rulers of the Maghrib. However, the Almoravids conquered the taifa kingdoms after defeating the Castilian King Alfonso VI at the battles of Zallāqah and Uclés.

Almoravids, Almohads and Marīnids

The Almoravids were substantially less tolerant of Christians and Jews than the earlier Umayyads, and were succeeded in the 12th century by the even more fanatical Almohads, another Berber dynasty, after the defeat of the Castilian Alfonso VIII at the Battle of Alarcos. In 1212 a coalition of Christian kings under the leadership of the Castilian Alfonso VIII defeated the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. The Muslims were driven off from Central Spain in the next few decades (from 1212 to 1269) until only the kingdom of Granada remained. Finally, the Marīnids, the last Berber dynasty that attempted to retake control of Al-Andalus, were defeated by the Castilian Alfonso XI at the Battle of Salado in 1340.

The Emirate of Granada

A manuscript page of the Qur'an in the script developed in al-Andalus, 12th century
A manuscript page of the Qur'an in the script developed in al-Andalus, 12th century

Granada survived for three more centuries as a vassal state of Castile. It is known in modern time for architectural gems such as the Alhambra. On January 2, 1492, Boabdil, the leader of the Emirate of Gharnatah (Granada), the last Muslim stronghold in Iberia surrendered, in the "Capitulation of Granada," to armies of Christian Spain, recently united under the Catholic Monarchs Isabella I of Castile (Isabel La Católica) and Ferdinand II of Aragon (Fernando el Católico or Ferran el Catòlic). Al-Andalus ceased to exist.


In 1502, the Capitulation's extension of tolerance was rescinded, and the remaining Muslims were forced to leave Spain or convert to Christianity, as moriscos. They were an important portion of the peasants in some territories, like Aragon, Valencia or Andalusia, until their systematic expulsion in the years from 1609 to 1614. Henri Lapeyre has estimated that this affected 300,000 out of a total of 8 million inhabitants at the time.

The Moorish domination of the peninsula had a profound effect on language, art and culture, especially in the south. Examples include the many Arabic or Arabic-influenced words in Spanish, and architecture such as Granada's Alhambra.

The name of today's Andalusia (Spanish: Andalucía) comes from "Al-Andalus", as this southern province was among the last territories to pass from Moorish to Spanish Christian hands.


Non-Muslims (Dhimmi) under the Caliphate

See also: Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain

Tolerance or Repression

The treatment of non-Muslims (specifically Jews) in the Caliphate has been a subject of considerable interest from scholars and commentators, especially those interested in drawing parallels to the co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims in the modern world. Some argue that - for at least part of the history of Al-Andalus - Jews were treated significantly better in Muslim-controlled Spain than in Christian Northern Europe. However, the exact extent and nature of this period of tolerance (sometimes called a "Golden Age") has become a subject of debate and is often used to back personal or political agendas.

Princeton University Professor Mark Cohen, in his 1995 book on the subject, Under Cross and Crescent, discusses how the belief of a Golden Age of peaceful co-existence in Al-Andalus (especially between Muslim and Jew) was bolstered in the nineteenth and twentieth century by two sources. On one side, Jewish scholars like Heinrich Graetz used the story of tolerant Al-Andalus to draw contrasts to the increasing oppression of Jews in mainly Christian Eastern Europe, eventually leading to the Holocaust. On the other side, Arab scholars who wanted to show that modern State of Israel shattered a previously existing harmony between Jews and Arabs in Palestine under the Ottoman rule pointed to the supposed utopia of the Golden Age as an example of previous relationships. Cohen argues that the image is overstated, but that the "countermyth" of persecution is also an oversimplification.

The debate about the conditions of non-Muslims continues however. For example, María Rosa Menocal, a specialist in Iberian literature at Yale University, has argued that "Tolerance was an inherent aspect of Andalusian society"[1]. Menocal's 2003 book, The Ornament of the World, argues that the Jewish dhimmis living under the Caliphate, while allowed fewer rights than Muslims, were still better off than in other parts of Christian Europe. Jews from other parts of Europe made their way to El-Andalus, where they were tolerated - as were Christians of sects regarded as heretical by various European Christian states.

The work of Menocal and other such scholars has been the subject of criticism from commentators such as Robert Spencer and Andrew Bostom, who regard Menocal's description of El-Andalus as a myth that ignores the realities of dhimmi life. These critics cite Muslim restrictions on dhimmis: they could not build new churches or synagogues or repair old ones, they had to practice their faiths quietly and privately, and they were not to proselytize. Dhimmis were required to wear an identifying belt called the zunnar. The zunnar was easily recognized because of its color - blue for Christians and yellow for Jews. Dhimmi were also prohibited from employing Muslims and had to pay a poll tax (jizya). They were also forbidden from holding public office.

Proponents of the "tolerant Andalusia" theory respond that while these rules applied in theory, some of them were ignored in practice. They say there were many examples of dhimmi holding state offices, despite the technical prohibitation, but cite only some of them. One notable Andalusian example among these is that of Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915-990), a prominent Jew who controlled the customs (among other duties) in Córdoba, but other Jews served as Viziers or court physicians. Proponents argue that dhimmis enjoyed considerable autonomy within the Islamic state; in matters of family law and religious practice, they were governed by their own authorities. These authorities collected the poll tax and mediated between the state and the dhimmi community. Within their allotted bounds, the dhimmi had a certain freedom.

Rise and Fall of Tolerance

Image of a Jewish cantor reading the Passover story in Al-Andalus, from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah.
Image of a Jewish cantor reading the Passover story in Al-Andalus, from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah.

The Caliphate treated non-Muslims differently at different times. The longest period of tolerance began after 912, with the reign of Abd-ar-Rahman III and his son, Al-Hakam II where the Jews of Al-Andalus prospered, devoting themselves to the service of the Caliphate of Cordoba, to the study of the sciences, and to commerce and industry, especially to trading in silk and slaves, in this way promoting the prosperity of the country. Southern Spain became an asylum for the oppressed Jews of other countries.

Christians, braced by the example of their co-religionists across the borders of Al-Andalus, sometimes asserted the claims of Christianity and knowingly courted martyrdom, even during these tolerant periods. For example, forty-eight Christians of Córdoba were decapitated for religious offences against Islam. They became known as the Martyrs of Córdoba. Many of the Christians executed deliberately courted martyrdom by publicly declaiming against Islam inside mosques, insulting Muhammad and making declarations of Christian religious beliefs considered blasphemous in Islam. These deaths played out, not in a single spasm of religious unrest, but over an extended period of time; dissenters who were fully aware of the fates of their predecessors chose what amounted to suicide as a form of protest against the Islamic state[2].

With the death of Al-Hakam III in 976, however, the situation worsened for non-Muslims in general. The first major persecution occurred on December 30, 1066 when the Jews were expelled from Granada and fifteen hundred families were killed when they did not leave. Starting in 1090 with the invasion of the Almoravides, the situation worsened further. Even under the Almoravides, however some Jews prospered (although far more so under Ali III, than under his father Yusuf ibn Tashfin). With the defeat of the Almoravides in 1148 by the puritanical Almohades, the Jews were forced to accept the Islamic faith; the conquerors confiscated their property and sold many captives into slavery. The most famous Jewish educational institutions were closed, and synagogues everywhere destroyed.

During these successive waves of narrowly interpreted Islam, many Jewish and even Muslim scholars left the Muslim-controlled portion of Spain for the then still relatively tolerant city of Toledo, which had been reconquered in 1085 by Christian forces. Jews joined the armies of Alfonso VI of Castile and as many as 40,000 joined in the fight against the Almoravides, who also had large numbers of Jewish troops in their armies.


One of the most significant contributions made in Al-Andalus was to the advancement of theological philosophy.

From the earliest days, the Umayyads wanted to be seen as intellectual rivals to the Abbasids, and for Córdoba to have libraries and educational institutions to rival Baghdad. Although there was a clear rivalry between the two powers, freedom to travel between the two Caliphates was allowed, which helped spread new ideas and innovations over time. The historian Said Al-Andalusi wrote that the Caliph Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Rahman had collected libraries of books and patroned men to study medicine and "ancient sciences". Later Al-Mustansir (Al-Hakam II) vastly improved this by importing philosophical volumes as well as varying series of books on diverse subjects, including medicine and music from the East to his new university and libraries in Córdoba. Under his reign Córdoba had become one of the worlds most important cities for medicine and philosophical debate.

However, when his son Hisham II took over, his real power was ceded to the hajib, al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir. Al-Mansur was a distinctly religious man and disapproved of the sciences of astronomy, logic and especially astrology, so much so that many books on these subjects, which had been preserved and collected at great expense by Al-Hakam II, were burned publicly. It was not long, however, after the death of Al-Mansur (1002) that interest in philosophy sparked up again. Numerous scholars came to the forefront, including Abu Uthman Ibn Fathun, who wrote and taught extensively on a wide variety of subjects including Music and Grammar but whose masterwork was the philosophical treatise the Tree of Wisdom. Another outstanding scholar in astronomy and astrology was Maslamah Ibn Ahmad al-Majriti (died 1008), an intrepid traveller who journeyed all over the Islamic countries, and beyond, and who kept in touch with the Brethren of Purity. Indeed, it is said to have been him who brought the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity to al-Andalus and who added the compendium to these 51 books, although it is strongly possible that this was added later by another of the name al-Majriti. Another book believed to be his is the Ghayat al-Hakim (The aim of the Sage), a book which dealt with varying philosophical ideas including a synthesis of Platonism with Hermetic philosophy. Its use of incantations led the book to be widely dismissed in later years, although the Sufi communities did keep studies of it.

A prominent follower of al-Majriti was Abu al-Hakam al-Kirmani, who aside from the studies of philosophy was also a particularly keen scholar of Geometry. A follower of his was the great Abu Bakr Ibn al-Sayigh, known to most Arabic Speakers as Ibn Bajjah, known mostly to the west as Avempace.

Jewish philosophy and culture

With the relative tolerance of Al-Andalus, and the decline of the previous center of Jewish thought in Babylonia, Al-Andalus became the center of Jewish intellectual endeavors. Poets and commentators like Judah Halevi (1086-1145) and Dunash ben Labrat (920-990) contributed to the cultural life of Al-Andalus, but the area was even more important to the development of Jewish philosophy. A stream of Jewish philosophers, cross-fertilizing with Muslim philosophers, (see Joint Jewish and Islamic Philosophies) culminated in the most important Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, Maimonides (1135-1205), though he did not actually do any of his work in Al-Andalus, as, when he was 13, his family fled persecution by the Almohades.

Etymology of "al-Andalus"

The etymology of the word "al-Andalus" is uncertain. The word is popularly thought to be derived from the Vandals, the Germanic tribe who settled in southern Iberia and Northern Africa. However, scholars are by no means in agreement. The notion of it originating with the Vandals, who supposedly devastated southern Spain so severely in a mere twenty-two years of tenure (407-429) as to leave their name forever imprinted on it, gained in popularity over time and survives - but it is a theory put forth without much basis, bolstered perhaps by homophony. Three possible etymologies have been advanced in recent times. The first, the Vandal link, is largely disregarded now, and the question of the origin of the Arabic name, given to the entire peninsula, is still open to debate.


Reinhardt Dozy (1820-1883), Dutch author of the famous History of the Muslims of Spain (4 vols., Turner, Madrid, 1984), advanced the theory according to which the name of Al-Andalus is an Arabic rendition of Vandalicia or Vandalucía, on the assumption that the Roman province of Hispania Baetica (southern Spain) could have acquired and retained this name-association, not in Iberia itself, but among the Arabs of the Maghreb.


The Spanish philologist Joaquín Vallvé Bermejo, in his The Territorial Divisions of Muslim Spain (CSIC, Madrid, 1986), is of the opinion that Al-Andalus, as in Jazirat al-Andalus, translates pure and simply as "Atlantis" or "island of the Atlantic":

Arabic texts offering the first mentions of the island of al-Andalus and the sea of al-Andalus become extraordinarily clear if we substitute this expressions with "Atlántida" or "Atlantic". The same can be said with reference to Hercules and the Amazons whose island, according to Arabic commentaries of these Greek and Latin legends, was located in jauf al-Andalus — that is, to the north or interior of the Atlantic Ocean.


An etymology was advanced recently by H. Halm in "Al-Andalus und Gothica Sors", in Welt des Orients, vol. 66, 1989, pp 252-263, and drawn upon by Marianne Barrucand/Achim Bednorz in Arquitectura Islámica en Andalucía, Köln, Taschen, 1992, pp 12-13. Halm dismisses any links with the Vandals, an association he finds without foundation, and offers instead an interesting explanation. According to him the name "Al-Andalus" is simply an Arabic rendition of the Visigothic name given to the Roman province of Baetica. The Visigoths, following the custom of their Germanic predecessors, parcelled out the conquered territories by drawing lots, and the allotments to anyone, with their corresponding land, was called "Sortes Gothicae". Contemporary texts, still written in Latin, refer to the Gothic kingdom as a whole as "Gothica sors" (singular). It is reasonable to suppose then that the corresponding Gothic designation "Landahlauts" (allotted, inherited, drawn land), in its phonetic form — "landalos" — became easily and spontaneously, to Arabic ears, "Al-Andalus".

  • Lôt (Gothic hlauts): allotment, inheritance; cf. Old High German hlôz, modern German Los, which passed into French as lot and Castilian as lote; whence "lottery," "loterie," "lotería," etc.

See also


  • Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz, El Islam de España y el Occidente. Madrid, 1974.
  • Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal  : A Political History of al-Andalus, Longman, 1996 (ISBN: 0-582-49515-6)
  • Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710–797, Blackwell, 1989 (ISBN: 0-631-19405-3)
  • Mark Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages Princeton University Press, 1995 ISBN 069101082X
  • Joel Kraemer, "Comparing Crescent and Cross," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Jul., 1997), pp. 449-454. (Book review)

Further reading

  • Manuela Marin, et al. editors, The Formation of Al-Andalus: History and Society (inm series The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, Vol 46) 1999. ISBN 0860787087
  • David Luscombe, editor, et al. The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 4, c.1024-c.1198, Part 1 (in series The New Cambridge Medieval History)
  • Maria Rosa Menocal, "Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain", 2002. Black Bay Books. ISBN 0316168718
  • For an extensive bibliography see: Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz, (Wikipedia in Spanish)

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