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June 23, 2017

Al Andalus | History of Islam in Spain

Andalus, Al-Andalus

ANDALUS, Al-Andalus is the geographic term used to denote those areas of modern Spain that came under Muslim control in the Middle Ages. Today, the term (Spanish, Andalucía) refers to a particular territory located in southern Spain. Al-Andalus or  Muslim Spain (both terms will be used interchangeably), with its famous mosques, irrigated gardens, developments in poetry, philosophy, and science, is often referred to as the cultural golden age of Islam. The actual Muslim presence there lasted 781 years (711–1492 C.E.) and its influence on everything from architecture to science is still palpable. For the sake of convenience, what follows is divided into three parts: history and main developments, cultural achievements, and the Jews of al-Andalus.

History and Main Developments

Prior to the arrival of the Muslims, Spain was under the control of the Visigoths, who maintained firm control of the region with the help of a rigid church hierarchy. In 711, Arab and Berber forces, under the leadership of Tariq b. Ziyad, defeated the Visigothic King Rodrigo at the River Barbate. The Arab armies tried to move as far as France but were eventually repelled in 732 by Charles Martel. During the first decades after 711, al-Andalus functioned as a frontier outpost with the Umayyad caliph in Damascus appointing its governor. Around the year 750, however, a dynastic struggle in the East led to change in rule from the Umayyads to the Abbasids. Significantly, in 756, an Umayyad prince by the name of Abd al-Rahman I arrived in Spain. He was able to gain sufficient political support there, thereby creating an independent and sovereign state, referred to as the Marwanid dynasty, based in Cordoba.

The high point of the Marwanid dynasty occurred during the rule of Abd al-Rahman III, who reigned for fifty years (912–961). This coincided with a period of stability after he had subdued revolting factions and stopped the advances of the neighboring Christians—something his predecessors had been unable to accomplish. He was also responsible for the construction of the monumental royal city, Madinat alZahra, just outside of Cordoba. Under his rule, Cordoba became a true cosmopolitan center, rivaling the great cities of the Islamic East and far surpassing the capitals of Western Europe. After the death of Abd al-Rahman III, the central caliphate gradually fragmented into a number of smaller kingdoms ruled by various “party kings” (muluk al-tawaif). The history of al-Andalus in the eleventh-century is one of gradual diminishment as various Christian monarchs attempted to encroach upon the area held by the Muslims, an area that they felt compromised the national and religious unity of Spain. This re-conquering (Spanish, Reconquista) became so vigorous that the various Muslim kingdoms had no choice but to seek help from the Almoravids, a dynasty based in North Africa. The result was that al-Andalus, for all intents and purposes, lost its independence, becoming little more than an annex of a government situated in North Africa.

Al Andalus Islamic Spain pic

In 1147, the puritanical Almohades, another dynasty based in North Africa, invaded Spain. This dynasty was determined to put an end to the religious laxity that they witnessed among the Andalusian intellectual and courtier classes. They demanded, inter alia, the conversion of all Christians and Jews to Islam. It was during this period that many Jews left Spain: the majority went north to Christian territories. According to some modern commentators, the Almohade invasion signaled the end of one of the most fascinating and eclectic eras of world history.

By the thirteenth century, al-Andalus was essentially comprised of Granada and its immediate environs. Here the Nasrid dynasty, with its royal palace in the al-Hamra (Alhambra), ruled as quasi-vassals of the Christian king. The Alhambra, with its open courts, fountains, and irrigated gardens, is today one of the best preserved medieval castles in Europe. In 1492, under the leadership of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, the Reconquista was completed. All those who were not Christian (i.e., Muslims and Jews) were expelled from Spain.

Cultural Achievements

From a cultural and philosophical perspective, the achievements associated with the inhabitants of al-Andalus are unrivalled. The Marwanid capital, Cordoba, alone had over seventy libraries, which encouraged many great architects and scientists to settle there. The caliphs and rich patrons, in turn, established schools to translate classical philosophic and scientific texts into Arabic. Although the center at Cordoba gradually fragmented into a number of kingdoms, there nevertheless ensued a rich intellectual, cultural, and social landscape that was grounded on the notion of adab, the polite ideal of cultured living that developed in the courts of medieval Islam. The adab (pl., udaba) was an individual defined by his social graces, literary tastes, and ingenuity in manipulating language.

One of the main developments within Andalusian literature  was the muwashshah. The muwashshah, which seems to have originated in the ninth century, is a genre of stanzaic poetry whose main body is composed in classical Arabic with its ending written in vernacular, often in the form of a quotation (kharja). The main themes were devoted to love, wine, and panegyric; eventually, this genre proved popular among Sufis (e.g., ibn Arabi). The muwashshah was also a popular genre among non-Muslims, especially among Hebrew poets.

Al-Andalus is also associated with some of the most famous names of Islamic intellectual history. Unlike the great majority of philosophers in the Muslim East, the overarching concern of Andalusian Islamic thinkers was political science. Questions that they entertained were: What constitutes the perfect state? How can such a state be realized? What is the relationship between religion and the politics? And, what should the philosopher, who finds himself in an unjust state, do? Another important feature of Islamic philosophy in alAndalus was an overwhelming interest in intellectual mysticism, which stressed that the true end of the individual was the contact (ittisal) between the human intellect and the Divine Intellect.

Philosophy in al-Andalus reached a high-point with Ibn Bajja (d. 1139). His Tadbir al-mutawahhid (Governance of the solitary) examines the fate of a lone individual who seeks truth in the midst of a city that is concerned primarily with financial gain and carnal pleasures. Such an individual must, according to Ibn Bajja, seek out other like-minded individuals and avoid discussing philosophy with non-philosophers. Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) picks up this theme in his philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan. The goal of this work is to show that the unaided human intellect is capable of discovering Truth without the aid of divine revelation. Ibn Tufayl, according to tradition, was also responsible for encouraging the young Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) to write his commentaries on the works of Aristotle. Within this context, Ibn Rushd wrote not one but three commentaries to virtually the entire Aristotelian corpus. These commentaries, in their Latin translations, were the staple of the European curriculum until relatively recently.

Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, was also a prominent feature of the intellectual and cultural life of al-Andalus. In fact, one of the most important Sufis, Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), was born in Murcia in southeastern Spain. After a mystical conversion as a teenager, he set out on a life of asceticism and wanderings. Ibn Arabi essentially interpreted the entire Islamic tradition (jurisprudence, the Quran, hadith, philosophy) through a mystical prism.

The Jews of al-Andalus

The culture of al-Andalus would also have a tremendous impact on non-Muslim communities living there. The adab ideal (mentioned in the previous section) proved to be very attractive to the local population (both Jewish and Christian), who adopted the cosmopolitan ideals of Islamicate culture, including the use of Arabic. Within the history of Jewish civilization, al-Andalus (Hebrew, ha-Sefarad) holds a special place. Legend has it that the Jews not only welcomed, but also physically helped, the Muslims conquer the oppressive Visigoth rulers. The cooperativeness of the Jews and their ability to  integrate into Andalusian Arab society subsequently createdan environment in which Jews flourished. Arabic gradually replaced Aramaic as the language of communication among Jews: By adopting Arabic (although they would write it in Hebrew characters, and today this is called Judeo-Arabic), Jews inherited a rich cultural and scientific vocabulary. It was during the tenth century, for example, that Jews first began to write secular poetry (although written in Hebrew, it employed Arabic prosody, form, and style).

The names of famous Jews who lived in al-Andalus reads  like a “who’s who” list of Jewish civilization. Shmuel haNagid (993–1055), for example, became the prime minister (wazir) of Granada. His responsibilities included being in charge of the army (i.e., having control over Muslim soldiers), in effect becoming one of the most powerful Jews between Biblical times and the present day. His poetry recounting battles is among the most expressive of the tradition. The fact that a Jew could attain such a prominent position within Muslim society reveals much about Jewish-Muslim relations  in Spain. Other famous Hebrew poets included Moshe ibn Ezra (d.1138) and Judah Halevi (d.1141), whose sacred poetry is still part of the Jewish liturgy. Al-Andalus was also the birthplace of the most famous Jewish philosopher: Moses Maimonides (d.1204), who attempted to show the compatibility between religion and philosophy by arguing that the former was based not on superstition, but rational principles. In sum, al-Andalus was not only a region, but also represented a way of life that Muslims and Jews look back at with fondness. With its rich contributions to science, literature, architecture, and interfaith relations, al-Andalus played a prominent role in Islamic history.

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