Representational image of Moors in Spain.   Source: Théodore Chassériau / Public domain

Deciphering the Truth Behind the Moors in Spain


Al-Andalus is the name given to the Iberian Peninsula when it was under Muslim rule. Islam arrived in that region with the arrival of the Moors during the 8 th century AD, and succeeded in conquering almost the entire peninsula in less than a decade. The rule of the Moors in Spain lasted until 1492, when the last surviving Muslim state in the Iberian Peninsula, the Emirate of Granada, was conquered by the Christians.

Between the beginning and the end of Moorish rule in the Iberian Peninsula, Al-Andalus underwent much political change, transforming from a province of the Umayyad Caliphate into an independent emirate, and then fragmenting into smaller independent principalities known as taifas. The period of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula is often described as La Convivencia (meaning ‘The Coexistence’), a time when Muslims, Christians and Jews were living peacefully side by side. The reality, however, may be a little more complicated than this.  

The Moors’ Very Own Conquista

Prior to the coming of Islam, Al-Andalus was known by its Roman name, Hispania. At the beginning of the 5 th century AD, much of the Iberian Peninsula had been conquered by the Visigoths. Only the westernmost and northernmost parts of the peninsula were not under their rule. By the beginning of the 8 th century AD, the Visigothic Kingdom had been weakened by disputed successions, rebellions, and problems with the nobility. As a consequence, the Visigoths were not in the best position to defend their kingdom when the Umayyads invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD.

With regards to the sources from the time of the Umayyad invasion, no Muslim accounts are available, whereas the only Christian source, the so-called Chronicle of 754 , is rather vague about the events that occurred. A 9 th century AD Muslim account, written by the historian Ibn Abd al-Hakam, provides a rather interesting story regarding the cause of the Umayyad invasion.

According to Ibn Abd al-Hakam, a Visigothic nobleman by the name of Count Julian had approached Tariq ibn Ziyad, an Umayyad commander for his help. One of the count’s daughters had been raped by Roderic, the Visigothic king. Since the count could do nothing to punish the king for his crime, he decided to invite the Umayyads to invade the kingdom. Therefore, Julian provided ships to carry the Umayyad army across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Engraving of King Roderic, the last Visigoth king of Hispania. (Public domain)

Engraving of King Roderic, the last Visigoth king of Hispania. ( Public domain )

Since Ibn Abd al-Hakam was writing more than a century after the Umayyad invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, it is quite likely that facts and legends were mixed up. It has been suggested that the story of Count Julian’s grudge against Roderic belongs to the latter. There are other legends about the Umayyad invasion as well. One of these alleges that the invaders received help from Jews living in the Visigothic Kingdom. In return for less restrictions under the Muslims, the Jews of certain Christian cities agreed to open the gates for them. This story has been used by Christians later on to blame the Jews for collaborating with the Muslims.

Even today, it is not entirely clear as to the nature of the Umayyad invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD, and historians have put forward a number of different hypotheses. The first view is that the Umayyads had sent troops into the Iberian Peninsula to aid one of the factions in a Visigothic civil war, with the hopes of plunder and a future alliance. The second is that the Umayyads had intended to use the invasion to test the military strength of the Visigoths. The third is that this was a an unusually large Umayyad raiding party, which did not have any strategic intention. The last is that it was the first wave of a full-scale invasion.

In any case, when Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed from North Africa into the Iberian Peninsula, he brought with him between 10,000 and 15,000 men, which was not a very large force. According to Ibn Abd al-Hakam, the Visigoths did not pay attention to the Umayyads, since they assumed that the vessels carrying them, which were crossing and re-crossing the strait, were merely trading vessels. In 711/2 AD, the Umayyads inflicted a crushing defeat on the Visigoths at the Battle of Guadalete.

Visigothic King Roderic haranguing his troops before the Battle of Guadalete, which was against the invading Moors in Spain. (Bernardo Blanco y Pérez / Public domain)

Visigothic King Roderic haranguing his troops before the Battle of Guadalete, which was against the invading Moors in Spain. (Bernardo Blanco y Pérez / Public domain )

In addition to Roderic, most of the Visigothic nobles lost their lives on the battlefield. As a consequence, the Visigothic Kingdom was left largely leaderless and disorganized, which greatly aided the Umayyads in their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Although 711/2 is commonly regarded as the year the Iberian Peninsula fell to the Moors, it has been suggested alternatively that the conquest took several years to accomplish.

Consolidation and Expansion

In any case, by 718 AD, the entire Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of the northernmost region, was under Moor rule. At this point of time, Al-Andalus was a province of the Umayyad Caliphate, and was therefore under the rule of governors. It has been pointed out that almost all of these governors, lasted no longer than two years. Although the governors were appointed either by the Governor of Ifriqiya, or by the caliph himself in Damascus, their authority was in fact undermined by local rulers, who were often the descendants of the initial conquerors. The local lords extended their control over different parts of the peninsula, which in turn enabled them to build up their wealth. As a result, they had the means to oppose the governor if necessary.

Although the Umayyad governors had little success in imposing their authority on the local lords of Al-Andalus, they were somewhat more successful in extending Moor rule beyond the peninsula. As an example, in 719 AD, Al-Samh ibn Malik crossed the Pyrenees, and conquered Septimania (in modern-day southern France). The Moors would remain in that region until 759 AD.

Muslim incursions into Western Europe lasted until 732 AD. In that year, an invading Muslim army, led by Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi, was defeated by the Franks under Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. Nevertheless, it was the great rebellion of the Berbers, which broke out in North Africa in 739 AD, and subsequently spread to Al-Andalus, that was largely responsible for preventing the Muslims from carrying on further campaigns into France.

Depiction of the Battle of Tours. (Charles de Steuben / Public domain)

Depiction of the Battle of Tours. (Charles de Steuben / Public domain )

The Fall of the Umayyad Dynasty and the Al-Rahmans’ Rise in Iberia

In 756 AD, Al-Andalus’ status changed from a province into an independent emirate. This was due to the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 AD. A year before that, Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah was proclaimed as caliph by his supporters, in opposition to the reigning Umayyad caliph, Marwan II. At the battle of the Great Zab River in 750 AD, Marwan was defeated, and the Abbasid Caliphate was established.

            Folio from a Tarikhnama (Book of history) by Balami, showing the proclamation of Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah as caliph. (Public domain)

Folio from a Tarikhnama (Book of history) by Balami, showing the proclamation of Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah as caliph. ( Public domain )

The Abbasids ruthlessly hunted down and killed the surviving members of the Umayyad Dynasty. One of them, Abd al-Rahman, however, managed to escape to Al-Andalus. At the time of Abd al-Rahman’s arrival, the former Umayyad province was divided between two rival factions, the Qays and the Yaman, which the fugitive Umayyad prince saw as an opportunity to exploit.

Abd al-Rahman skillfully navigated the politics of Al-Andalus, shifting his allegiance from one faction to another. In addition, he bolstered his position by hiring mercenaries to fight for him. By 755 AD, Abd al-Rahman felt that he had attained a strong enough position, and attacked the Governor of Al-Andalus. Abd al-Rahman emerged victorious, made Cordoba his capital, and established the independent Emirate of Cordoba.

Portrait of Abd al-Rahman I, who was one of the most historically significant Muslims in Spain during the Middle Ages. (Public domain)

Portrait of Abd al-Rahman I, who was one of the most historically significant Muslims in Spain during the Middle Ages. ( Public domain )

Abd al-Rahman ruled for about three decades, during which he had to face external threats, such as armies sent against him by the Abbasids and the Franks, as well as internal ones, such as rebellions. Still, Abd al-Rahman was a capable ruler, and successfully defended his realm from his enemies.

The successors of Abd al-Rahman continued his legacy, and the Emirate of Cordoba reached its zenith during the 10 th century. In 929 AD, Abd al-Rahman III, widely considered to be the greatest Umayyad ruler of Al-Andalus, adopted the title ‘caliph’, thereby turning the Emirate of Cordoba into the Caliphate of Cordoba. Abd al-Rahman had succeeded his grandfather, Abd Allah, as emir in 912 AD, when he was only 21 years old.

Muslim In-Fighting, While the Christians Seize Their Chance

The Emirate of Cordoba had, at times, only nominal rule over Al-Andalus, and depended on the loyalty of local Muslim rulers. As a result, there were often pockets of resistance to Cordoban hegemony. Abd al-Rahman was a competent military leader, and campaigned successfully against a rebellious lord, Umar ibn Hafsun, his greatest adversary. The rebellion largely collapsed after the death of Umar ibn Hafsun in 917 AD. Nevertheless, his capital, Bobastro, only fell to Abd al-Rahman in 928 AD.

Prior to 929 AD, the Umayyads of Al-Andalus recognized the Abbasid caliph as the rightful head of the Muslim community. Thus, when Abd al-Rahman declared himself caliph, it was, in a way, a declaration of independence from the Abbasids. At the same time, this declaration served as a response to the Fatimids, whose rulers also claimed the title ‘caliph’. Whilst the Abbasids would have perceived this as a challenge, they were not able to do anything about it.

The Fatimids, who were occupying the North African coast, on the other hand, were perceived by Abd al-Rahman as the greatest threat, as they challenged Umayyad influence in Northwest Africa. Abd al-Rahman was not able to crush the Fatimids, and the struggle between the two caliphates continued throughout the 10 th century.

Umayyad rule in Al-Andalus ended in 1031, when the caliphate fragmented into a number of independent principalities, or taifas. During this period, the various taifas fought against each other, weakening each other during the process. The Christian states to the north were aware of the state of affairs in Al-Andalus, and seized the opportunity to increase their own power. Whilst some taifas lost land to the Spanish Christians, others were forced to pay an annual tribute in exchange for peace.

In 1085, the conquest of Toledo, the key to Al-Andalus, by the Castilians alarmed the taifa chiefs, who requested the help of the Almoravids of Northwest Africa. The Almoravids managed to halt the Christian advance, but soon turned against the taifas, overthrew their rulers, and united Al-Andalus under their rule.

Depiction of Alfonso VI conquest of Toledo on May 25, 1085, shown on the bank of the Plaza de España in Seville. (CarlosVdeHabsburgo / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Depiction of Alfonso VI conquest of Toledo on May 25, 1085, shown on the bank of the Plaza de España in Seville. (CarlosVdeHabsburgo / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Almoravids, were deposed by a new power, the Almohads, in Northwest Africa, around 1145. Subsequently, the Almohads invaded Al-Andalus, and succeeded in conquering the territory of their predecessors. Although some taifas were formed as a result of the fall of the Almoravids, these too fell to the Almohads. The greatest threat to the Almohads were the Christian states, who were becoming increasingly powerful.

During the first half of the 13 th century, the Almohads were gradually pushed southwards. For instance, Beja fell to Portugal in 1234, Cordoba to Castile in 1236, and Seville, the Almohad capital, in 1248. Once again, some local Moor rulers saw the weakening of the Almohads as a chance to establish their own taifas. They were however, unable to defend them from the Christians.

Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba formerly the Great Mosque of Córdoba. The original mosque (742), since much enlarged, was built on the site of the Visigothic Christian 'Saint Vincent basilica' (600). (Pierre Violet / Adobe stock)

Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba formerly the Great Mosque of Córdoba. The original mosque (742), since much enlarged, was built on the site of the Visigothic Christian 'Saint Vincent basilica' (600). ( Pierre Violet / Adobe stock)

Collapse of Moorish Muslims in Spain and Their Legacy

The last Muslim stronghold in Al-Andalus was the Emirate of Granada, which was ruled by the Nasrid Dynasty. This emirate was established by Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar in 1238. Since the Christians did not perceive the Nasrids as a serious threat, they were content to collect tribute from them, and to attack them from time to time. Although Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar was a vassal of Castile, during the 14 th century, the Nasrids formed an alliance with the Marinids of Northwest Africa against the Christians.

The Nasrids and their allies suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of the Castilians and Portuguese at the Battle of Rio Salado in 1340, however, the Christians did not press their advantage after the death of Alfonso XI of Castile in 1350. The Nasrids remained in power until 1492, when Granada was conquered by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile . This marked the end of Al-Andalus.

Portrait of Ferdinand II of Aragon (Michel Sittow / Public domain) and Isabella I of Castile (Luis de Madrazo / Public domain) who conquered Granada.

Portrait of Ferdinand II of Aragon (Michel Sittow / Public domain ) and Isabella I of Castile (Luis de Madrazo / Public domain ) who conquered Granada.

Moorish rule of the Iberian Peninsula is best remembered today as La Convivencia , during which Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in harmony, contributing to Al-Andalus’ status as one of the most enlightened areas in medieval Europe. Under Moorish rule, Christians and Jews were not forced to convert, but were allowed to follow their faiths. Apart from that, they were not slaves, were allowed to work in the civil service of the Muslim rulers, and were not required to live in ghettos, or other special areas.

At the same time, however, this tolerance had its limits. For instance, Jews and Christians were treated as second-class citizens, proselytizing to Muslims was not allowed, and restrictions were placed on the building of synagogues and churches. Neither was this tolerance constant throughout the entire period of Muslim rule. The Almohads were fundamentalists, so many non-Muslims went into exile after Cordoba was conquered by them in 1148. Still, compared to the treatment of Muslims and Jews by the Christians following the Reconquista, the rule of Muslims in Spain would seem to have been comparatively tolerant.

Top image: Representational image of Moors in Spain.   Source: Théodore Chassériau / Public domain

By Wu Mingren


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I challenge the concept that 10-15,000 troops were a "small" army for the early 8thC. Actually, it was a rather large army for its time, especially one that had been transported across the sea. The Great Heathen Army of Vikings that attacked England two centuries later was a similar size, and typical armies of the time ranged from 3-5,000 troops. I think that the author hasn't recognised that some battles, such as the battle of Tours, had larger amounts, but these tended to be alliances formed from differing early medieval States.

T1bbst3r's picture

The 'christian wars' in Europe were to subdue rebellion against the Catholic church.
You seem to have a romantic 'disney' style view of events. The way I see it is the oppressed Christians became the oppressors after centuries of war. There is no legacy of Al Andalus, that's what the ethnic cleansing was about. You shouldn't let your liberal views cloud your judgement of history.

I won't answer directly to the other post in this thread but to equate the current wave of fanaticism with Islam in Al-Andalus shows what he knows about history. As if we didn't have wars in Europe driven by Christian conflict or the Crusades themselves... Anyways, as a Catholic-raised Spaniard I can say that the legacy of Al-Andalus lives on, it was an age of culture and discovery that happened while the Christians were still living in the Dark Ages. Excellent article btw.

T1bbst3r's picture

I guess you have a point, thinking about it, Muslim states have a long history of violently fragmenting and breaking away stretching all the way back to the death of Muhammed, with the Sunni and Shia. That's the root of modern day Uighur 'reeducaction', the current Syria situation and of course similar events stretching right across from West Africa to East Asia and Polynesia, where Muslim groups are struggling with themselves or non believers for dominance of land, wealth and power. The Muslim brotherhood NGO from Egypt has just got kicked out of Germany, for supporting extremist views...... You don't usually see this from the safety of Europe, it's generally fine.

My views are not extreme. The FACTS are extreme!

But I understand that is shocking to some kind hearted people...

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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