An historical perspective on Muslim Andalus State

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from the print edition (October-December 2011)

Muslim Andalus State had a phenomenal rise and a phenomenal fall. Andalus is a glorious chapter in the development of Islamic Civilization. Its rise signifies the power of Islam in revolutionizing societies within no time and creating new horizons of civilization. Its fall signals the failure of its followers to apply it in its true spirit. Islam arose from Mecca, soon took the whole Arab world and within a few centuries Islamic World became the biggest power on the earth. But as the old adage goes, power corrupts. The Islamic caliphate soon virtually transformed into monarchy, and the monarchs, interested in their own aggrandizement rather than achieving the Islamic goals, lost the ideological drive that had made Islamic Revolution possible in its early days. However, several monarchs still pursued Islamic goals with devotion and Al Andalus in its golden period demonstrated the perseverance and integrity of character of some of such Muslim rulers.

The Andalus State flourished between 711 and 1492 in an area known as Iberia, which more or less comprised the territory of as Spain. The etymology of the word, “Al-Andalus” is unclear but it is largely taken as meaning “to become green at the end of the summer“.

The territory that formed Al-Andalus was mainly in Southern Spain, which included the cities of Almeria, Malaga, Cadiz, Huelva, Seville, Cordoba, Jaen and Granada.

As a political domain or domains, it did not represent the rule of a single dynasty. It successively constituted a province of the Umayyad Caliphate, initiated by the Caliph Al-Walid I (711–750); followed by the Emirate of Córdoba (c. 750–929) and the Caliphate of Córdoba (929–1031); and ending as the Caliphate of Córdoba’s taifa (successor) kingdoms. It was the Caliphate of Cordoba that was primarily responsible for the golden era of the Andalus Civilization with Muslims, Christians and Jews living in harmony and all contributing to the civilization in their own ways. It was in this period that Al Andalus became a beacon of learning, and the city of Córdoba came to be known as “one of the leading cultural and economic centres in both the Mediterranean Basin and the Islamic world.”

According to the popular versions, the rape of the daughter of Count Julian, the Governor of Ceuta, by King Roderick, the last Visigoth ruler, played a role in the Muslim march towards Iberia. Julian appealed to Musa bin Nusayr, the Umayyad Governor of North Africa for assisting him in avenging the disgrace. Musa bin Nusayr called upon his lieutenant to take charge and Tariq bin Ziyad, with an army of around 12000 marched against Roderick and defeated his army, which was about six times the Muslim army in strength.

Tariq Bin Ziyad is one of the most revered Muslim warriors of the history. Gibraltar or Jabl-e Tariq is named after him. He was a newly converted Berber slave determined to carry out the task assigned to him with the sincerity of conviction and nobility of purpose. When his soldiers asked him questions about his motives and plans, he said, “‘We have not come here to return. Either we shall conquer and establish ourselves here or we will perish.” These historical words would soon become a reality with Tariq destined to conquering Spain. This happened at a rare time in the history when Africa was teaching the lessons of civilisation to the world. Africa ruled by Muslims demonstrated tolerance, equality, justice and widespread prosperity. In contrast, like most of the other European states, Spain was known for its intolerance, bigotry, widespread chaos and turmoil. There was poverty all around while the rulers were immersed in lavishness, corruption and tyranny. No one’s honour was safe. Taxes were huge. Tariq’s army met Roderick’s army in a fierce battle which Tariq won despite huge difference in the strength; Roderick was drowned in the river and the public heaved a sigh of relief. They hailed Muslims as liberators. Tariq divided his army into four divisions that took control of Cordoba, Malaga, Granada and Toledo. Within two years the whole of Spain was taken. ‘This constituted the last and the most sensational of the major Arab campaigns’, writes Philip K. Hitti, “and resulted in the addition to the Moslem world of the largest European territory ever held by them… In its swiftness of execution and completeness of success, this expedition into Spain holds a unique place in the Mediaeval Military Annals.”

Golden Era of Society

Andalus proved to be a shining example of multiculturalism. The society of Al-Andalus was made up of three main religious groups: Christians, Muslims and Jews. Among Muslims, there were Berbers and the Arabs. These were mere ethnic divisions without any religious differences. Christians were known as Mozarabs. They had adopted many Arabic customs, art and words, while still maintaining their Christian rituals and their own languages. Each of these communities inhabited distinct neighbourhoods in the cities. In the 10th century a massive conversion of Christians into Islam took place, and muladies (Muslims of ethnic Iberian origin) plus Arabs and Berbers comprised eighty per cent of the population of Al-Andalus by around 1100…

The Berbers lived in the mountainous regions of what is now the north of Portugal and in the Meseta Central, while the Arabs in the south and in the Ebro Valley in the northeast. The Jews enjoyed freedom and respect and worked mainly as tax collectors, in trade, or as doctors or ambassadors. At the end of the fifteenth century there were about 50,000 Jews in Granada and roughly 100,000 in the whole of Islamic Iberia.

The treatment of non-Muslims is generally regarded well by historians compared to the treatment of minorities in Christian dominant countries. María Rosa Menocal, a specialist in Iberian literature, has argued that “tolerance was an inherent aspect of Andalusian society”. In her view, the Jewish and Christian dhimmis living under the Caliphate, while allowed fewer rights than Muslims, were much better off than minorities in Christian parts of Europe.


Bernard Lewis, in The Jews of Islam (1984), states: “Generally, the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion and live according to the laws and scriptures of their community. Furthermore, the restrictions to which they were subject “were social and symbolic rather than tangible and practical in character. That is to say, these regulations served to define the relationship between the two communities, and not to oppress the Jewish population.

“Andalusia when it was…” by Maryam Noor Beig states:

“Throughout the period of Islamic rule, Al-Andalus was a remarkable example and outstanding model of tolerance.” We fail to remember that the tolerance the Muslims, in accordance to their faith, displayed towards the Jews and Christians enabled them all to live together in relative peace and harmony, an indication of the greatness of Islam, without question. Nowhere else has there been so long and so close of a relationship between the three great faiths. All Jews and Christians were allowed to maintain their beliefs and live their lives as they desired as long as they respected their Muslim rulers… As a result of the compassion Islam displayed towards the non- Muslim inhabitants, many of them embraced Islam… Unfortunately, religious tolerance was never a virtue in Christian Europe, as in the example of Charlemagne. And so, the peace exhibited under Muslim rule did not continue after the last of the Muslim rulers was defeated in 1492. In a time of tranquillity and justice, the Christians have never been compelled to renounce the Gospel and to embrace the Qur’an.” As a result of the tolerance displayed by Islam, the incredibly rich language of the Muslims became the official language of literature and scholarship in Spain for all by the year 1000.

The Islamic civilization had reached its peak in the 10th century, and by 1100, the number of Muslims rose to 5.6 million. According to figures appearing in history, there existed in Cordoba alone 200,000 houses, 600 mosques, 900 public baths, 10,000 lamps, 50 hospitals, lighted and paved streets. Muslims introduced public baths because of their need to wash in preparation for prayer 5x a day. Libraries and research institutions grew rapidly in Muslim Spain, while the rest of Europe remained illiterate.

The Scientific and Cultural Legacy

Astronomy: “Andalusian Revolt”, which raised objections to Ptolemaic astronomy, with Ibn al- Haytham’s critique and the anonymous Andalusian work, al-Istidrak ala Batlamyus (Recapitulation regarding Ptolemy) being works of extraordinary importance.

Al-Zarqali (Arzachel) discovered that the orbits of the planets are elliptic orbits and not circular orbits. Averroes rejected the eccentric deferents introduced by Ptolemy. Ibn Bajjah also proposed the Milky Way galaxy to be made up of many stars but that it appears to be a continuous image due to the effect of refraction in the Earth’s atmosphere. Ibn Tufail and Nur Ed-Din Al Betrugi (Alpetragius) were the first to propose planetary models without any equant, epicycles or eccentrics.

Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Ma’udh wrote a work on optics and estimated the angle of depression of the sun at the beginning of the morning twilight and at the end of the evening twilight, calculating it as 18°, which comes close to the modern value.

Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati developed an early scientific method for botany, introducing empirical and experimental techniques in the testing, description and identification of numerous materia medica. Ibn al-Baitar published the Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada, which is considered one of the greatest botanical compilations in history, and was a botanical authority for centuries.

The baculus, used for nautical astronomy, originates from Islamic Iberia and was later used by Portuguese navigators for longdistance travel.

Major medical figures of this period included Abu al-Qasim al- Zahrawi (Abulcasis), author of the Kitab al-Tasrif (“Book of Concessions”), a 30-volume medical encyclopedia, and Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), who made advances in surgery.

Abu al-Qasim (Abulcasis), the father of modern surgery, developed material and technical designs which are still used in neurosurgery. Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) gave the first accurate descriptions on neurological disorders, including meningitis, intracranial thrombophlebitis, and mediastinal germ cell tumours, and made contributions to modern neuropharmacology. Averroes suggested the existence of Parkinson’s disease and attributed photoreceptor properties to the retina. Maimonides wrote about neuropsychiatric disorders and described rabies and belladonna intoxication.

Muslims developed an essentially modern agricultural system. Islamic Tax system of Zakat and Ushr (tax on land produce) were introduced which resulted in equitable distribution of agricultural resources and products. Cities of Moorish Spain were supported by extensive irrigation based on hydraulic and hydrostatic principles… Spain transmitted to the rest of Europe many new crops in addition to wheat including sugar cane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, and saffron.

Muslim rulers developed Arabic, Byzantine, and Visigoth architecture… Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Cordoban palace estate al-Rustafa are some of the shining examples of Muslim architecture. On the greatness of the Great Mosque, a poet remarked: ‘The gold shines in your domes like the lightening which flashes among the clouds.’ Madinat al-Zahra, the caliphate residence, was regarded as one of the “wonders of the age” until it was destroyed in the 11th century. Mozarabic architecture included the absence of exterior decoration, diversity of floor plans, the use of the horseshoe arch in the Islamic style, and the use of the column as support, with a capital decorated with vegetable elements. Even many Christian Cathedrals were built in the Moorish architectural style. The combination of Spanish and Moorish artistic styles was known as Mudejar style, exemplified by the Synagogue del Transito. The splendour of the Alhambra and its gardens has inspired many musicians, artists, and authors. Among them was renowned author, Washington Irving, who took up residence in the Alhambra and wrote Tales of the Alhambra.

Ibn Tufail (known as “Abubacer” in the West) first demonstrated Avicenna’s theory of tabula rasa as a thought experiment in his Arabic novel, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, in which he depicted the development of the mind of a feral child “from a tabula rasa to that of an adult, in complete isolation from society” on a desert island. And it went on to become one of the principal sources of empiricism in modern Western philosophy, and influenced many Enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume and George Berkeley. Hadith Bayad wa Riyad (The Story of Bayad and Riyad) was a 13th century Arabic love story written in Al-Andalus. One of the most productive translators in Castile was Gerard of Cremona, who translated 87 books from Arabic to Latin.

The world’s first vertical-axle windmills as well as industrial water mills, fulling mills, steel mills, and other mills were built by Muslim engineers.

The bridge mill was built as part of the superstructure of a bridge. Stamp mills were used by miners in Samarkand for crushing ore.

Many dams acequias, and qanat water supply systems, and “Tribunal of Waters” irrigation systems were built during the Islamic Golden Age. Córdoba had advanced domestic water systems with sanitary sewers, public baths, drinking fountains, piped drinking water supplies, and widespread private and public toilet and bathing facilities. The first street lamps were built especially in Córdoba.

In 9th century Al-Andalus, Abbas Ibn Firnas (Armen Firnas) invented a primitive version of the parachute. He was the first to make an attempt at controlled flight and his glider.

Muslim Spain produced philosophers, physicians, scientists, judges, artists, and the like. Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), Al- Kwarizmi (Algorizm) and Al-Razi (Razes), were all Muslims educated in Andalus. Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina were great Andalusian philosophers whose philosophies borrowed by renowned Christian men like St. Thomas Aquinas.

Fall of Andalus

The disintegration of Andalus began with the rise and fall of one dynasty after the other.

In succeeding centuries, Al Andalus became a province of the Berber Muslim dynasties of the Almoravids and Almohads. Tehir rule signalled the beginning of the downfall. The state fragmented into a number of minor states, most notably the Emirate of Granada. The mutual Muslim rivalries became the order of the day. Almoravids deposed of the taifa Muslim princes, with the support of local inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula after helping to repel Christian attacks on the region by Alfonso VI. The rule under the Almoravids and Almohads also was the beginning of cultural and social decline. The minorities too started losing confidence in the Muslim rulers.

Muhammad XII, known as Abu Abdullah (‘Father of Abdullah’) the last king of Granada, signed the treaty in November 1491 for the surrender of Granada in January of 1492. He was exiled while his people were left to be persecuted. A few centuries later, the Muslims and Islam entirely disappeared from Spain. Muslim prayers were forbidden and many mosques were destroyed and converted into churches.

Many Muslims and Jews left Andalusia because their rights were taken from them. However, many of them were ordered to convert or be killed. Those who resisted were burned at the stake. An estimated number of 3 million Muslims were banished from Spain, along with all of Spain’s skilled workers and masterminds. This caused Spain huge loss as its economy suffered massive decline. The final expulsion occurred in early 17th century when all the remaining ‘Moriscos,’ the people, who were forcibly baptized, were expelled in 1605. Later kings faltered in applying the teachings of Islam. Internal conflicts amongst the corrupt Muslim leaders ultimately led to the end of Islamic rule.