The Greatness of Al-Andalus: Myth or Reality
By Dr Asif Javed
Williamsport , PA


Legend has it that Abu Abdullah -- the last Muslim ruler of Granada -- stood at a vantage point outside Granada before finally leaving the land of his proud ancestors for good while on his way to Africa. Tears in his eyes were noticed by his mother who scolded him:" If you were unable to defend your kingdom like a man, at least do not shed tears like a woman". Hours earlier, he had tamely surrendered his kingdom to the joint Christian forces of Ferdinand and Isabella finally bringing to an end the Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula.

Some seven centuries earlier, an expedition had moved in the opposite direction in 711, having crossed the strait that divides southern Europe from North Africa. It was led by a Berber by the name of Tariq ibn-Ziyad. Under his command was a force of seven thousand men, mostly Berbers, although the overall command remained in the hands of Musa ibn-Nusayr who was the Umayyad governor of North West Africa, a province of the Umayyad caliphate based in Damascus. Victory after victory followed and in a little over five years most -- but not all -- of the Iberian peninsula was securely in the hands of the Muslims. Tariq was joined by Musa himself the following year before the latter was recalled to Damascus. Musa was never to return. There are various legends about his ill treatment by the caliph and his difficult last days spent in extreme poverty or captivity. Not much is known of Tariq after his military mission was accomplished.

In 732, the Muslim army moved further north and kept going until it was defeated in the battle of Tours in central France. The battle of Tours is one of the most decisive battles in history since it represented the high water mark of the Muslim invasion of Europe. Never before or since have they gone so far into the western Europe. Perhaps this defeat was merely a reflection of the fact that Muslims were far from their base and the manpower may have been stretched to the very limit; the setback at Tours was the end of advance into Europe.

The Islamic rule in Spain -- renamed Al-Andalus by the Muslims — continued in one shape or form from 711 to 1492 but unlike the other long dynasties -- for instance the Ottoman Turks or Mughals -- it was far from a single dynasty. For the first forty years or so, Al-Andalus was a province of the Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus. In 750, there was a violent overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasids who moved the capital to Baghdad. The male Umayyads were massacred, all but one. The lone survivor was a young man of twenty who fled to Morocco -- in disguise -- to his mother's family. His name was Abd-ar-Rahman who was to found one of the great dynasties of its time a few years later. As was expected, the passing of the caliphate to the Abbasids merely changed the loyalty of the governor of Al-Andalus; it continued to be a province of the caliphate as before.

In 756, Abd-ar-Rahman moved north across the strait of Gibraltar and defeated the Abbasid governor of Al-Andalus in a battle and established the independent emirate of Al-Andalus. His triumph marked the second phase of Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula. Over the following 250 years, Abd-ar-Rahman and his able successors made Al- Andalus the envy of Europe. Islamic Spain was wealthy, culturally diverse, had an efficient government and a strong professional army. The population was a mixture of men of Iberian stock, Berbers and Arabs. Umayyad Spain seems to have reached its zenith in the 10th century. At the time, its prestige was such that many Christian states up north were its vassals and its influence extended even to northern Morocco.

The decline of Umayyad Spain was relatively sudden and unexpected. From the height of its glory, it fell into a civil war and by 1031, had 30 independent city states competing and fighting with one another. The Umayyad caliphate was effectively over. The reasons for the decline were many and are beyond the scope of this article.

This period of anarchy is referred to as the "era of party kings". The hostile Christian states in the North were watching the disintegration of Al-Andalus and made some threatening moves. At this juncture, Muslims looked to the south for help from a fellow Muslim. The powerful ruler of Morocco and Algeria of Almoravid dynasty was happy to oblige. His name was Yusuf ibn-Tashufin. Yusuf came to Spain in 1086, inflicted a crushing defeat on the Christians in the battle of Zallaqa and so began the next phase of Islamic rule in Spain known as the Almoravid period. It was the first Berber dynasty to rule Spain and lasted almost 50 years. Al-Andalus was effectively a province of the Almoravid empire based in North Africa.

In 1170, Almoravids were replaced by Almohads in Africa and Al Andalus became a province of their empire. By this time, however, the Christian forces were on the march and had started the reconquista. There was a decisive victory for the Christians over Almohads at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 that effectively restored Christian rule of Iberian peninsula. There was one exception to this in the south east of Spain; a small Muslim state that measured 240 by 70 miles. It was to last almost 250 years and was the Kingdom of Granada marking the very last phase of Muslim rule in Spain.

Founded in the year 1231 by Ibn-Nasr, an Arab from Medina, Granada managed to survive that long despite heavy odds, due to its mountainous terrain, proximity to Muslim Morocco and careful diplomacy that made it a vassal state of the Christian north at times. It was a prosperous kingdom with limited military resources that eventually became weak due to infighting, mostly quarrels over succession, among the ruling elite. It surrendered to the joint forces of Castile and Aragon in 1492.

Despite the end of Muslim rule in 1492, there were hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Spain who continued to live under the Christian rule. Initially they were treated well but by 1499, intolerance had set in; Muslims as well as Jews were given the option of baptism or forced exile. Historians report close to half a million moved to North Africa where to this day, there are small enclaves of Al-Andalus.

What is the legacy of Islamic Spain? It is ironic that most of the great cultural achievements belong to the later part of the Islamic rule when its political power was in decline. There is Alhambra -- a fortress-cum-palace in Granada -- constructed in the fourteenth century. The great mosque of Cordova and the palace city of Madinat az-Zahra -- recently excavated and partially restored -- are fine examples of Umayyad architecture. Ibn Zaydun's poetry in the 11th century was outstanding as was Ibn-Hazm's book on sects, widely believed to be the first-ever work on comparative religion.

There are many other scholars with significant contributions to the cultural greatness of Al-Andalus but one who towers above everyone else undoubtedly is Ibn-Rushd (1126-98), known as Averroes in the West. Ibn-Rushd was an outstanding jurist and his name is frequently mentioned among the greatest philosophers of all time. He was an Aristotelian scholar par excellence and with his deep penetration into the thought of Aristotle, wrote commentaries on his works which were subsequently translated in many European languages.

Maimonides, Ibn-al-Khatib, Ibn-Bajja, Ibn-Tufayl and many others were all scholars of merit. Ibn-Khaldun, the author of that remarkable historical work Muqaddima, though born and based in Tunis, came from an Arab family of Spain and spent years in Granada. Some critics believe that there is a major Andalusian influence on his work. Ibn-Juzzay, who helped Ibn-Battuta with the writing and editing of his travel book Rahla, also came from Granada. The list goes on and on.

Montgomery Watt in his excellent book, ‘A history of Islamic Spain’ quotes an economic historian: "If the north wanted the best in science, medicine, agriculture, industry or civilized living, it must go to Spain to learn". In the same book, he reports a Christian writer who complained that fellow-Christians were so influenced by the Arabic language and its literature that they used to neglect, and even express contempt for, Latin texts.

And what did the Christians see when they retook Seville in 1248? Here are the revealing words of Americo Castro: "Those victorious armies could not repress their astonishment upon beholding the grandeur of Seville; the Christians had never possessed anything similar in art, economic splendor, civil organization, technology and scientific and literary productivity". The intrinsic greatness of Al-Andalus is perhaps expressed best by that great Islamic scholar, late Montgomery Watt: "The life of Al-Andalus is indeed a noble facet of total experience of mankind".

(The writer is a physician residing in Williamsport, PA and welcomes comments at



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.