Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Muslim Spain |
Muslim Spain: model of tolerance

Muslim Spain is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 246, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

For one hundred years Christians fared well–until one criticized Muhammad, setting off the ‘era of the martyrs,’ a purge some blame on the Christians themselves

Muslim Spain - Muslim Spain: model of tolerance

Muslim Spain - Muslim Spain: model of tolerance
One of the many schools that sprang up around Cordoba’s Great Mosque. Craftsmen, artists and scholars from Syria, North Africa and even Europe flocked to the Umayyad capital of al-Andalus. A nineteenth-century engraving from The Illustrated History of the World, published by Ward and Lock.

It was midwinter in the year 750, and two frightened brothers, aged about twenty and thirteen, were hiding on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. Of all the Umayyad dynasty that had ruled the Arab Empire for nearly a century, only they remained alive. The victorious Abbasid faction had slaughtered the rest of their kin, and now the straining ears of the fugitives caught the muffled tread of approaching soldiers. Desperately they plunged into the wide river, but the younger lad rapidly weakened in the current. Glancing over his shoulder, the older youth saw his brother turn back–then saw the Abbasid warriors seize him on the bank and lop off his head.

The survivor, Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu’awiya, reached the far bank, says the contemporary chronicle Akbar Majmu’a. He fled across the Arabian desert towards North Africa, the homeland of his Berber mother. He found no welcome among Muslim leaders in Egypt, Libya or the Maghreb.1 Across the Strait of Gibraltar, however, where the Iberian Peninsula had fallen to Arab and Berber invaders a generation earlier, Umayyad loyalties were still strong. Furthermore, the conquerors were vastly outnumbered by its eight million subjugated Visigoths and Romans.

They were also divided among themselves–Arabs against Berbers–a conflict that had begun in North Africa when Arab governors demanded tribute from Berber tribes, newly converted to Islam, and seized their lovelier daughters as concubines. The Berbers consequently embraced Islam’s puritanical Kharijite strain, based on simple virtues and equality of all believers, and rose in rebellion both in Morocco and across the strait. In fact, Iberia’s Arab masters had lately been saved only by the fortuitous arrival of seven thousand Umayyad troops, who like Abd al-Rahman had fled the Abbasid takeover.

So in 755, the Umayyad prince made his bid for control of al-Andalus, the Arabic name for the peninsula’s broad southern expanse. (Al-Andalus would later evolve into “Andalusia.”) He handily defeated the Abbasid governor outside his capital, Cordoba, because troops deserted in large numbers to join the new Umayyad champion. Even so, Abd al-Rahman is said to have narrowly escaped death at the hands of his own men, when he forbade them to ravage the palace and harem. But the last of the Umayyads survived this as well, and the grateful Cordobans acknowledged the tall young man as their emir.

When Abbasid sympathizers launched a counterattack, Abd al-Rahman successfully defeated them, too–and then sent an altogether instructive message back to Baghdad, the new Abbasid capital. He had the Abbasid leaders in Spain decapitated, and their pickled heads wrapped in the black Abbasid flag and packed in a bag. “Praise be to God,” the horrified Abbasid caliph reportedly cried, “for placing the sea between me and such a demon!” As for the tiny remnant of Christian Spain, driven by the original Muslim conquerors into the mountainous northwest, it posed no immediate threat.

Abd al-Rahman reigned thirty-two years, founding in al-Andalus an independent Umayyad caliphate that would dazzle the world with its material abundance, graceful architecture and impressive scholarship. It would also inadvertently aid in the defense of Christendom, since the Baghdad caliphs–although their empire still stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic–could no longer easily dispatch armies into western Europe through Spain. The Andalusian Umayyads themselves would make constant forays into the promising lands beyond the Pyrenees, but the Franks were able to block the limited forces of Iberian Islam.

Organized into twenty administrative provinces, al-Andalus enjoyed a revival of production and trade, which had languished under the Visigoths. Disused Roman mines were reactivated to produce gold, silver, copper, cinnabar (mercury sulfide), lead and iron. Roman irrigation systems were reclaimed and upgraded to allow the introduction of such semitropical crops as oranges, sugar cane, coconuts, dates, pomegranates and bananas. The Moorish waterwheel, its deep metal scoops gleaming like pearl as they revolved, fascinated Andalusian poets. “She sobs and weeps her streams of sparkling water. She weeps and the garden smiles with many a petal … ” wrote Mahbub the Grammarian in the eleventh century. Among the Umayyad sympathizers who thronged in from Syria were skilled craftsmen, artists and scholars. Around Cordoba’s Great Mosque and royal palace, with its schools and government offices, an immense bazaar of thousands of shops sprouted in a warren of noisy, narrow streets. The citizenry learned about fashion, wearing brilliant silk robes in spring, white in high summer and furred or quilted winter garments.

Neither Abd al-Rahman nor his immediate successors severely persecuted Christians and Jews. Assigned a second-class status, these “infidels” could discreetly practice their religions, so long as they paid the heavy taxes prescribed by the Qur’an for non-Muslims. They prospered along with the Muslims of al-Andalus, some achieved high office, and a hundred years later the Cordoba district would still have seven churches and four monasteries. But Christianity itself did not in fact thrive. To the contrary, the preferential taxes provided a strong incentive to embrace Islam, and many Visigoth landowners did so to keep their estates and titles. Before long, too, intermarriage blurred both religious and racial distinctions.

The Berber—Arab racial blend was known as Moro, after Mauritania in northwestern Africa (whose people are still called Moors). Over time, as most of the Andalusian population became Muslim in religion, such Christians as maintained their faith were called “Mozarabs,” because even they were heavily influenced by Islam. In the mid-ninth century, the Indiculus Luminosus (cited by T. W. Arnold in The Preaching of Islam) complained: “Our Christian young men, with their elegant airs and fluent speech, are showy in their dress and carriage, and are famed for the learning of the Gentiles; intoxicated with Arab eloquence, they greedily handle, eagerly devour and zealously discuss the books of the Chaldeans” (i.e., Muslims). Not one Mozarab in a hundred, the chronicler added, could write a simple letter in Latin, but “a countless rabble of all kinds of them” could compose Arabic poetry.

Even so, the Umayyad regime was never completely secure. Toledo, the former Visigoth capital, was especially suspected of revolutionary conspiracy, and in 797 the caliph al-Hakam took action against it. He summoned Toledo’s leading men to a feast. Accompanied by his very young son, the future Abd al-Rahman II, al-Hakam led his guests into one of the city’s deep defensive trenches. Once trapped there, say the early chronicles, seven hundred Toledans were butchered and buried on the spot. (The little prince, it was said, was consequently afflicted with a lifelong habit of nervous eye-blinking.) In 805, the relentless al-Hakam crucified seventy-two leading citizens of Cordoba for allegedly plotting against him. Later still, when harsh taxes sparked massive rebellion, he employed his Christian-led palace guard to crucify three hundred dissidents.

Al-Hakam’s son Abd al-Rahman II (832—852), while siring forty-five sons and forty-two daughters, found time and energy to consolidate his realm. When a Viking fleet attacked Lisbon and then Seville, his troops thoroughly thrashed the marauders, killing a thousand and enslaving four hundred. He also built a fleet to protect his coasts, and one Muslim historian reports that royal revenue rose more than fifty percent. During his reign, however, there occurred the “epoch of the martyrs.” It began about 850, when a group of Muslims asked a priest named Perfectus to share his views on Christ and Muhammad. Perfectus, fully aware that “showing disrespect for the Prophet” was a capital offense, declined. But when the Muslims persisted, promising to protect him, he told them that Muhammad was one of the false prophets foretold by Jesus, and a man whose marital activity had rendered him a moral reprobate. His questioners, deeply offended, reported him after all, and Perfectus, holding to his statements, was beheaded.

Much more worrisome to Muslim authorities was the case of Isaac, an educated Mozarab aristocrat of high government rank, who became a monk. In June 851, Isaac declared before a senior Islamic judge that Muhammad was languishing in hell for misleading the Arabs. That official, after anxious consultation with the caliph, condemned Isaac to death; his headless corpse was soon dangling upside down in public view. Sanctius, a young soldier, committed the same willful defiance two days later, and suffered the same fate. He was followed within forty-eight hours by six men with monastic connections. One chronicler records their words as: “We profess Christ to be truly God, and your prophet to be a precursor of antichrist and an author of profane doctrine.” When three more such individuals appeared a month later, Abd al-Rahman II ordered the arrest of all Christian priests in Cordoba, hoping to contain what must have seemed to him a suicidal contagion.

But more deaths followed. One martyr was Flora, whose Muslim father had died when she was a child. She was subsequently raised a Christian, but under Islamic law was considered Muslim, and therefore apostate. This too was a capital offense. Reported to the authorities by her influential Muslim brother, Flora was severely whipped and then, when she refused to abjure Christ, was executed. Details of nine more female martyrs and many men were recorded up to 859, when the scholar and historian Eulogius was himself beheaded.

The epoch of martyrs was controversial both then and later. This self-destructive defiance was unnecessary, some Mozarab leaders contended, and indeed wrong, since Islam did not forbid anyone to believe that Jesus Christ was God. Sympathetic Muslims also begged Christians to desist. One friendly courtier told Eulogius, “If stupid and idiotic individuals have been carried away to such lamentable ruin, what is it that compels you, who are outstanding in wisdom and illustrious in manner of life, to commit yourself to this deadly ruin, suppressing the natural love of life?” But the martyrs believed they were truly called to proclaim the divinity of Jesus Christ. “The order of preaching is enjoined upon us,” Eulogius wrote, “and it befits our faith that we extend its light.…”

The erudite nineteenth-century orientalist Reinhardt Dozy severely disapproves the Spanish martyrdoms. In his Histoire des musulmans d’Espagne he dismisses them as religious presumption and cultural resentment: “Feeling sanctified in their pride, exasperated at the outrages they received, and pushed by a feverish need to act, priests, monks, and a small number of like-minded laymen would not resign themselves to suffer in silence.…” But later Christian commentators agree with Eulogius. A complacent Mozarab population, they reason, was drifting into massive apostasy, and needed just such beacons of self-sacrifice.

The glory of Islamic Cordoba arguably climaxed under Abd al-Rahman III (921—961), the first Spanish Umayyad to officially declare himself caliph in al-Andalus. This red-haired ruler spoke the local language and reputedly ruled with exemplary tolerance–and lavish style. The chronicles describe his court as involving some fourteen thousand people. They were housed in four hundred buildings, which incorporated some forty-three hundred marble columns. The fish in his ornamental ponds were said to require twelve hundred loaves of bread daily. Another pool, filled with constantly moving quicksilver, reflected sunlight with dazzling purity.

For the reception of one Frankish embassy, Abd al-Rahman III had the very streets covered in costly carpets. Mail-clad warriors formed an archway with their upheld swords along the route. Entering the palace, the story goes, the Christians bowed to a silk-clothed dignitary on a brocade-draped throne, thinking him Abd al-Rahman. “Raise your heads,” their guide advised. “This is but a slave of his slaves.” They encountered several more equally august figures, only to hear the same message. Finally the Franks beheld a solitary man, simply dressed and seated on a bed of sand. Before him lay a small fire, a sword and a copy of the Qur’an. “Behold the ruler!” their guide announced.

Nevertheless, the Cordoban caliphate lasted only so long as it could keep its varied population in line. During the reign of the child-caliph Hisham II, a former royal tutor seized power. Best known as al-Mansur, “the Victorious,” he did so by bringing masses of fanatically loyal Berber troops from North Africa, supported by extremist Islamic clerics, which destroyed the fragile balance of al-Andalus. After the death of the ironfisted al-Mansur, the realm fragmented into small principalities known as “taifas,” whose leaders frequently blended cruel crudity with refined sensuality. For example, al-Mu’tatid, who ruled in Seville from 1042 to 1069, was capable of using his enemies’ skulls as flowerpots–and also of composing fine verse. One day, it was said, while watching a breeze on the Guadalquivir River, al-Mu’tatid improvised aloud: “The wind scuffs the river and makes it chain mail.…” A female serf, working nearby, replied with a couplet of her own: Chain mail for fighting, could water avail.” Al-Mu’tatid and the beautiful slave became lovers, and then loyal and lifelong mates.

The Christian Visigoth remnants in the northwest had meanwhile been merging with the native Basques and Cantabrian mountaineers of Asturias, people never subdued even by the Roman Empire. The result was a notably tough fighting breed. Since their first victory against the Muslim forces at Covadonga in 722, they had been expanding their domain with raid and counterraid, punctuated by larger-scale battles. The names of their new kingdoms–Castile, Leon, Navarre and Aragon–rang like battle cries across Western Christendom, awakening aspirations for “reconquest.” Northward, too, trickled streams of Mozarabs not content to live within the polity of al-Andalus. These refugees planted self-reliant settlements over the broad, high tableland of central Spain, fighting alongside the emerging Spanish feudal aristocracy. Slowly but inexorably the Muslim frontier was driven south.

Deeply inspiring to this resurgent North was devotion to St. James the Apostle. Popular belief held that he had preached in Roman Iberia, and that after his death, his body was returned there. Its reputed resting place at Compostela in Galicia became western Europe’s most popular pilgrimage destination, drawing tens of thousands. Furthermore, St. James (San Diego in Spanish) metamorphosed into a warrior. The chronicles maintain that his apparition participated in at least thirty-eight battles. Most notably, a blindingly bright figure, mounted on a pale horse and bearing a white banner, inspired the Christian forces at Simancas in 939, when King Ramiro II of Leon massively defeated the Cordoban army and Abd al-Rahman III himself barely escaped alive.2

Yet these northern kingdoms could not unite politically. Bound to the Visigoth custom of dividing a kingdom between sons, they continually split, and often fought each other. From this chaos in the eleventh century emerged one Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known as El Cid (Arabic for “the lord”), who would become the most famous of Spanish Christian champions. At twenty-two, he led the troops of Castile, and he married a niece of the king. When a disputed royal succession divided Castile, however, El Cid embroiled himself in the civil war that followed, and his unauthorized raid against the Muslim kingdom of Toledo prompted Alfonso VI of Castile—Leon to exile him. Although still devoted to his angry king, El Cid took service with the Muslim ruler of Saragossa. He subsequently defeated both Muslim and Christian armies, all the while protesting his unswerving loyalty to the implacable Alfonso.

Toledo fell to King Alfonso himself in 1085, after which he subdued some of the Muslim-ruled taifas, and demanded heavy tribute from them. This caused the rulers of these principalities to seek aid from a Muslim sect that had taken power in North Africa, the Almoravids, although they actually had little in common with that puritanical sect, formed among desert nomads who despised high taxes, vast harems and civilization in general. The Almoravids crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 1086, and their well-ordered infantry, supported by imported Turkish archers, quickly took over most of Muslim Spain.

El Cid, now master of Valencia in eastern Spain, achieved some remarkable victories against the newcomers. Ever the chivalrous knight, this Christian Spaniard reputedly never suffered defeat in battle, and insisted to the end on his fealty to his liege lord Alfonso VI. After El Cid’s death, when reinvigorated Muslim armies pressed Alfonso hard, he retreated back to the far North. The king’s only son–offspring, incidentally, of a Moorish mother–died in battle, and the Christian cause went into eclipse.

In centuries to come, the escalating clash with Spanish Christians would harden the originally generous spirit of al-Andalus. The Almoravids, and their equally puritanical North African successors, the Almohads, had no use for religious tolerance–an attitude, it must be said, shared by their Christian enemies. The stage was set for the long and bitter battle for the Iberian Peninsula.

This is the end of the Muslim Spain category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 246, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Muslim Spain from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at