There is a famous letter from the English King of the time to Hisham Ibn Abdul Rahman who was the ruler of Cordoba from 788 to 796 in Al Andalus.
The English King, in the letter, sought permission for his daughter and members of his royal court to study in the University of Cordoba – the most advanced university in the West – rival only to the Baghdad University in the East under the Abbasid Rule.
Cordoba was an intellectual hub in the West and a peaceful country where the King’s daughter would be safe. And the letter was signed, as the historians mention: Your loyal subject, the King of England.
The most prosperous advanced Muslim rule and civilization of Muslim Spain was a stark contrast to the Christian Europe as it was passing through the dark ages of its history. The Europeans were constantly at loggerhead with each other and fighting unending wars. They were living in the most unhygienic and pathetic conditions.
It was customary for the aristocrat and ruling families of the European countries to send their wards and noblemen to learn modern sciences like chemistry, physics, medicine, history, geography, astronomy and philosophy in Cordoba, Tolerado and many other Muslim Universities of Al Andalus.
Charles Marie Gustave Le Bon, a French Social Psychologist said, “If only Muslims would have conquered Paris as well. Because if they would have, it would have been like Cordoba. For 600 years we depended on the Muslims to translate for us Great Greek Philosophy.” Le Bon goes on, “You walk through the streets of Cordoba, you find that the people can read and they can write and some of them even know poetry. In an age, when the Kings and Princes of Europe could not spell their names in their own languages. 700 years before Paris had its first hospital, Cordoba had fifty hospitals.”
Islamic Spain (711-1492)
In 711 Muslim forces invaded Spain and in seven years conquered the whole of Iberian peninsula.
The traditional story is that in the year 711, an oppressed Christian chief, Julian, went to Musa ibn Nusair, the governor of North Africa, with a plea for help against the tyrannical Visigoth ruler of Spain, Roderick.
Musa responded by sending the young general Tariq bin Ziyad with an army of 7000 troops. The name Gibraltar is derived from Jabal At-Tariq which is Arabic for ‘Rock of Tariq’ named after the place where the Muslim army landed.
The Muslim army defeated the Visigoth army easily, and Roderick was killed in the battle.
After the first victory, the Muslims conquered most of Spain and Portugal with little difficulty, and in fact with little opposition. By 720 Spain was largely under Muslim control.
One reason for the rapid Muslim success was the generous surrender terms that Muslims offered to the conquered people, which contrasted with the harsh conditions imposed by the previous Visigoth rulers.
Islamic Spain became one of the great Muslim civilizations, reaching its zenith with the Umayyad caliphate of Cordova in the tenth century. It rivaled the great Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad in the East in terms of cultural and economic prosperity and educational pursuits.
Islamic Spain was a multi-cultural mix of the people of three great monotheistic religions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The three groups managed to get along together and benefited from the presence of each other. “It brought a degree of civilization to Europe that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance,” Le Bon wrote.
Stability in Muslim Spain came with the establishment of the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty, which lasted from 756 to 1031.
The credit goes to Amir Abd al-Rahman, who founded the Emirate of Cordoba, and was able to get various different Muslim groups who had conquered Spain to pull together in ruling it.
The Golden Age
The Muslim period in Spain is often described as a ‘golden age’ of learning where libraries, colleges, public baths were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished.
The Islamic Spain was also described as a ‘golden age’ of religious and ethnic tolerance and interfaith harmony between Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Jews and Christians retained freedom under Muslim rule and they were treated far better than the conquered peoples might have expected during that period of history as they were not forced to live in ghettoes or other special locations. They were neither enslaved nor prevented from following their faith. Jews and Christians were given full freedom to contribute to society and culture.
As Bernard Lewis puts it, “There were several reasons why the Muslim rulers tolerated rival faiths and the main reason being that the Judaism and Christianity were monotheistic faiths, so arguably their members were worshipping the same God.
Many Christians in Spain assimilated parts of the Muslim culture. Some learned Arabic, other adopted the same clothes as their Muslim rulers and some Christian women even started wearing the veil and some took Arabic names.
There were also cultural alliances, particularly in the architecture – the 12 lions in the court of Alhambra are heralds of Christian influences. The mosque at Cordoba, now converted to a cathedral is still, somewhat ironically, known as La Mezquita or literally, the mosque. The construction of the Cordoba mosque, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, was begun at the end of the 8th century by the Ummayyad prince Abd al Rahman ibn Muawiyah.
Under the reign of Abd al Rahman III (rule 912-961) Spanish Islam reached its greatest power as this was also the cultural peak of Islamic civilisation in Spain.
In the 10th century, Cordoba, the capital of Umayyad Spain, was a great rival in the West to the great Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in terms of wealth, education and civilization. One Western author wrote about Cordoba, “There were half a million inhabitants, living in 113,000 houses. There were 700 mosques and 300 public baths spread throughout the city and its twenty-one suburbs. The streets were paved and lit.. There were bookshops and more than seventy libraries.”
Muslim scholars served as a major link in bringing Greek philosophy, of which the Muslims had previously been the main custodians, to Western Europe. There were interchanges and alliances between Muslim and Christian rulers such as the legendary Spanish warrior El-Cid, who fought both against and alongside Muslims. This period was a golden age of religious co-existence.
Decline and fall
The collapse of Islamic rule in Spain was due not only to increasing aggression on the part of Christian states, but to divisions among the Muslim rulers.
Early in the eleventh century, the single Islamic Caliphate had shattered into a score of small kingdoms. The first big Islamic centre to fall to Christianity was Toledo in 1085.
The Muslims replied with forces from Africa which under the famous general Yusuf bin Tashfin who defeated the Christians resoundingly in 1086, and by 1102 had recaptured most of Andalusia. The general was able to reunite much of Muslim Spain.
Unfortunately, it did not last long as Yusuf died in 1106
The internal rebellions in 1144 and 1145 further shattered Islamic unity, and despite intermittent military successes, Islam’s domination of Spain was ended for good in Spain in 1492.