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Andalusia Spain: The Flower of Islamic Civilization

on September 13, 2021

When Tariq ibn Ziyad and his Berber troops crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into southern Spain in 711 to displace the Visigoths, little did he know that Spain would one day exemplify the Golden Age of Islamic civilization.  The Moorish invasion into Seville, Toledo, Cordoba, Granada, and other Spanish sites brought lasting influences onto Spanish culture, architecture, and knowledge that ultimately benefited Europe as a whole.

In 750, the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus was overthrown by the Abbasids. Abd al-Rahman, an Umayyad prince, escaped to Andalusian Spain.  “In 756, with barely a whimper of opposition from the man who believed himself the emir, the governor, Abd al-Rahman moved into the old city of Cordoba and declared it the new House of the Umayyads, the legitimate continuation of the ruling family that the Abbasids thought they had exterminated and replaced” (Menocal 4).

Al-Rahman set about replicating in Andalusia the splendid culture of the Umayyad caliphate that had existed in Damascus.  The Great Mosque in Cordoba, with its beautiful red arches and intricate ceilings, still stands intact —a lasting testimony to his work.  In 929, Abd al-Rahman III ascended to the throne, ushering in the great Golden Age of Islamic civilization in Spain.  In 1031 the Ummayad caliphate was abandoned in favor of small city-states.  “Seville, Cordoba, Toledo, Badajoz, Saragossa, Valencia, Granada, and others” (Esposito 34) competed with each other economically and militarily, which weakened Islamic Spain and helped the Christians in Northern Spain to reconquer Islamic territories in the south (Esposito 35).

According to Maria Rosa Menocal, Andalusia evolved into a great Islamic civilization because it incorporated three basic elements: “ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance, and a variety of important forms of what we could call cultural secularism—secular poetry and philosophy—that were not understood, by those who pursued them, to be un- or anti-Islamic”.  This tolerance and hunger for knowledge led to the Transmission Movement which would become so important to the preservation of ancient texts and the expansion of Christian Europe.

While Europe was enduring devastating invasions by barbaric hordes, “the widespread and rapid translation of Greek philosophical and scientific works into Arabic following the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries” (Turner 209) led to the widespread dissemination of this knowledge across the Muslim world.  In Andalusia, under the 10th century caliph Hakam II, “one royal library is said to have amassed four hundred thousand books” (Esposito 175) on a variety of sciences.  Later on, 12th century Andalusian theorists Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes), Ibn Bajja, Jabir ibn Aflah, Ibn Tufayl, and Abu Ishaq al-Bitruji debated the virtues and defects of Ptolemaic astronomy.   “Of these, al-Bitruji was the only one to formulate an alternative . . . proposed model” (Esposito 175).

Ethnically, the Andalusian population included Jews, Celts, Arabs, Visigoths, and Romans.  Religious groups included Muslims and the dhimmi or People of the Book: Jews and Christians.  Christians living under Arab rule were called Mozarabs (Melacon 5; Turner 209; Esposito 318).  Christians were often reluctant to assimilate into Islamic culture (Esposito 34).  Nonetheless, Jews and Christians were protected and welcomed into Andalusia by virtue of their belief in Abraham and the One God.

Jews thrived in Andalusia when they re-discovered Hebrew and used it in the same multipurpose ways “as the Arabic that was the native language of the Andalusian community” (Melacon 7).  Jews began to write poetry in Hebrew, inspired by Arab poets.  Maimonides, the well-remembered Jewish philosopher, wrote works in both Arabic and Hebrew (Esposito 33).

The Islamization of southern Spain was not without difficulties, however.  Under Abd al-Rahman III, Andalusia reached the height of its greatness.  Muslims, Jews, and Christians all contributed to increased knowledge in “the arts, literature, astronomy, medicine, and other cultural and scientific disciplines” (Esposito 318).  Although many Christians did convert or assimilate into Islamic culture, Muslim jurists sometimes felt threatened by this and warned against Christian influence as “contamination and a threat to the faith of  Muslim societies” (Esposito 318).  Jews and Christians were forced to learn Arabic, whether they wanted to or not.  And the loose morals of upper class Muslims often offended Jews, Christians, and Muslim clerics.  Jews and Christians were always regarded as infidels by Muslims, no matter how much they assimilated into Arabic culture.  When Abu Amir al Mansur (Almanzor) became ruler in the late 10th century, he began “a series of ruthless campaigns against Christians, including the plundering of churches and other Christian sites” (Esposito 320).  The gulf between Jews, Christians, and Muslims grew wider.  Muslim rulers, fearing the missionary zeal and influence of Christians, segregated them into isolated communities.  Christian military forces reconquered Cordoba, Valencia, and Seville in the early 13th century.  By the end of 1492 Granada fell, and that was the end of Moorish rule in Spain.

Some of the Moorish contributions which have had a lasting influence on Spanish culture include the importation and cultivation of citrus fruits; the production of paper and olive oil; the invention of the guitar; and “Arabic coffee culture” (Robert Thomas, 2011).  The tourist trade is boosted by the rich architectural heritage left by the Moors. 

The Alhambra in Granada, completed in the 14th century, was erected by the Nasrids.  “It comprises the most extensive remains of a medieval Islamic palace anywhere and is one of the most famous monuments in all Islamic art” (Blair and Bloom, 124).  The Great Mosque of Cordoba, remembered for its beautiful red arches, and completed in 965, boasts carved marble panels decorated with fragile arabesques, whose “popularity lasted until the fourteenth century . . .” (Esposito 239).  After the reconquista, “many mosques were changed into churches.  In Seville, for example, the top of the fifty-meter-high minaret of the Almohed mosque, built from 1184 to 1198, was remodeled and transformed into a cathedral bell tower” (Esposito 305).  The Great Mosque of Cordoba was converted into a Catholic church but still retains Qur’anic quotations and decorations on its interior designs.  Many mosques were demolished or stripped of all Islamic associations.  The distinctive Moorish architectural style remains on both secular and religious buildings, however, throughout southern Spain.    

Andalusian Spain perfected the art of making ceramics (called lusterware), glass mosaics, colorful tiles, and silk textiles (Esposito 254-256). Couscous, a traditional North African food staple, adds a flavorful diversity to Spanish cuisine.  Some experts even believe that flamenco, the exotic Spanish dance, was influenced by the Moors (Robert Thomas, 2011).

Andalusia Spain became a bridge between the Muslim world and Europe.  After the reconquista of southern Spain, Arabic texts were translated into Latin and exported to Europe.  The Muslim contributions to medicine, science, and philosophy were included in those texts and exerted a profound influence on European thought and development.

Modern Muslims are re-discovering their historic contributions to the arts and sciences and gaining a newfound pride in their accomplishments.  The Western world is now more open to giving them credit for those accomplishments.  The historic accomplishments and events of the Moors are celebrated throughout southern Spain with festivals, parades, and other special celebrations.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

February 4, 2019

Copyright 2019-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited

Blair, Sheila S., and Bloom, Jonathan. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800. New

       Haven: 1996.

Esposito, John L. The Oxford History of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Menocal, Maria Rosa. “Culture in the Time of Tolerance: Al-Andalus as a Model for Our Time.”

       Occasional Papers. 2000. Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository. 2000.

       <http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/ylsop_papers/1&gt;.

Thomas, Robert, Dir. Andalusia: The Legacy of the Moors. Perf. Robert Elms. Alpha Television

       Production, 2011.

Turner, Howard R. Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction. Austin: 1997.


6 responses to “Andalusia Spain: The Flower of Islamic Civilization

  1. A highly informative and well-researched article

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the art and architecture of the mosque in Cordoba and the Alhambra. My friend from Morocco feels that the word “moor” is pejorative. I sometimes use North African instead, but that isn’t broad enough to include all the Muslim rulers of Spain. Have any suggestions which other word I could use? Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Truthfully, I never head that the word “Moor” was insulting to anyone. I think it aptly describes the beautiful architecture and influence in southern Spain. The original invaders were Berbers, so maybe some form of that word? Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Andalusia Spain: The Flower of Islamic Civilization […]

    Liked by 1 person

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