The Myth of the Golden Age of Tolerance in Medieval Muslim Spain

by  Norman Berdichevsky (Nov. 2006)

Apologists for Islam never tire of referring to the “Golden Age” of tolerance that supposedly characterized seven centuries of Muslim dominated Spain. This fundamentally flawed assessment draws the wrong conclusion based on fragmentary evidence and distorts the larger picture. It ignores the reality of enormous destruction wrought by the three Arab-Berber Muslim invasions that repeatedly sought to hold on to control and rule over the indigenous peoples of Spain who had been reduced to second class citizens in their own homeland.

The desire to restore “Al-Andalus”, an Arabic corruption of the land they conquered that had previously been ruled by the Germanic Vandals (hence alAndalus as “Land of the Vandals” in Arabic) and Visigoths has persisted to this day. Extremist support for the atrocious terrorist bombing of the Madrid Train Station on March 11, 2004 is viewed by some Muslims today not simply as just punishment for the pro-American government of former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar but as the first step in the re-conquest of what is still considered along with “Palestine” as land that must be returned to Muslim dominion.

Renewed Theological Debate

In Medieval Spain, numerous theological debates were held to discuss the relative merits and claims of the three monotheistic religions. Even though many centuries have passed, there is still a fundamental division among them. Jews who first discovered a path towards salvation, believed they were setting an example by serving God as a nation, demonstrating their way of life to other nations. This continued to be possible even after the destruction of the Temple and loss of Jewish independence in 70 AD. Christians, on the other hand, believed that this was possible on a purely individual level and could be achieved by anyone no matter what his or her nationality, race or sex.

For Islam, the world is divided between two hostile camps, and it is incumbent upon Muslims to subject the other camp to its will. More than a matter of personal submission to the will of Allah, subjugation (the deeper meaning of “Islam” usually confused with salaam meaning “peace”) requires the dominion over territory. The struggle for Islam requires a continual appraisal of a chess-board like map of what part of the world has been subdued and placed under Muslim rule FOREVER (no retreats or “do-overs” are allowed). The subdued territory is Dar-al-Islam while the remaining territories are ideologically still in the camp of the unbelievers. The other camp is labeled the “Camp of War” (Dar-Il-Harb) and must ultimately be conquered. In this regard, territories such as Israel, Spain, Chechnya, Kosovo or Albania, that were once submitted to Allah, cannot be allowed to return to the Camp of War.

Moderate Muslims may want to live in harmony with their neighbors, but this theological sword and the pressure it exerts suggest that the more militant strain will gain the upper hand. Now that Al-Qaeda has forced a change in Spain’s foreign policy with a terrorist bombing, it is questionable whether European domestic policies will be able to remain free from the aims and goals of Islamic radicals.

The Original Conquest of 711-716

The Islamic Civilization of medieval Al-Andalus endured in various parts of the Iberian peninsula from a few decades to 700 years. It left its mark primarily in Castile and Andalucia and provided Spain, and to a lesser degree Portugal, with a colorful and illustrious but also violent past that marked the history, language, architecture, art, music, food, place names and society of the country long after the last Muslim had departed.

The Muslims did not constitute anywhere near a majority of the population that numbered approximately 7 million Christians and Jews at the time of the first conquest in 711-716. By the beginning of the tenth century it has been estimated that the Muslim population of Berbers, Arabs and Muladies (Christians who had converted to Islam) was approximately 2.8 million out of a total of more than 7 million. By the beginning of the twelfth century, the number of Muslims had almost doubled but were just a bare majority of the total population of the peninsula. (source: “Judios, Moros y Cristianos; tres pueblos, ritos y costumbres” by Pastora Barahona, editorial Libsa, Madrid; 2004.) There was a hierarchical pecking order in spite of the lip service that all believers were equal.

Arabs stood at the top, Berbers provided the majority of the shock troops and hewers of wood and drawers of water followed by converts and at the very bottom were the infidel Jews and Christians no matter how significant their contribution to the arts and sciences.

The Muslim conquest of Spain was greatly aided by internal divisions among the Christians, especially the land-owning class of Visigoth nobles. The Muslim Conquest of Spain was accomplished in the short space of five years but society did not change abruptly. The newly won territory was given the name Al-Andalus with its capital in Cordoba and became a dependency of the Omayyid Caliphate of Damascus. Just prior to the conquest, much of the original Christian population demonstrated little stake in continued Visigothic rule and, even among the Visigoth ruling class, several clans found it expedient to cooperate with the Muslim rulers in order to preserve their property and privileges.

These Germanic rulers were still considered “foreigners” by many ordinary native Spaniards and their formal conversion to Catholicism from the Arian heresy that rejected the idea that Jesus was co-equal or co-eternal with God the Father (contesting the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity and that Christ was both human and divine). Their “conversion” had only been an initial step designed to appeal to the Catholic majority and integrate the different elements of the population into one society. The harsh anti-Jewish measures adopted by the last Visigothic king were made to appeal to Christians and unite the kingdom in the face of the Muslim invaders who were originally welcomed by the Jews, initially regarding them as liberators.

The tolerant Spain of The Three Great Monotheistic Religions (often referred to as Las Tres Culturas) gradually contracted and was eventually extinguished as a result of repeated invasions of the peninsula from North Africa by severe Muslim-Berber tribes people who brought with them a fanaticism reminiscent of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Only later did a resurgent Christian-Hispanic reaction begin to imitate this intolerance. The term “Golden Age” of Muslim Spain most correctly applies to a relatively short period from the eighth to the mid-eleventh century and is even more accurate when applied to the Christian North of the country for a period of more than three hundred years. (1050-1390).

The Berber-Arab Division

From the very beginning of the Muslim domination of Spain, a considerable antagonism existed between a minority of Arab overlords and their predominantly Berber followers who had joined the Muslim crusade after their conversion to Islam. The majority of these Berbers lived in Morocco and Mauretania and for this reason were referred to as Moros (Moors), a term that continues in use today and is more prevalent that muselmanes (Muslims) or árabes (Arabs) in contemporary Spanish.

Many of the Berbers had remained pagan or converted to Byzantine Christianity before accepting Islam and had long been in contact with the south-eastern corner of Spain separated from the Moroccan coastline by the narrow strait of Gibraltar. They provided the majority of the manpower for the invasion but were regarded with contempt by an Arab ruling class who felt a racial superiority and purity of faith connected with the Caliphs in Damascus and later in Baghdad

Collapse of Muslim Spain into Chaos

Muslim Spain, nominally subject to the rulers (caliphs) in Damascus and Baghdad, eventually broke free from any foreign subservience. Around the years 930-1000, Cordoba excelled as the most cultured city in Europe under a stable and prosperous rule, especially during the reign of Abd-al Rahman III (proclaimed Caliph in Cordoba in 929). This enlightened ruler built a sumptuous palace, Medina Azahara, named for his favorite wife Azahara. Its magnificence in ivory, jade, ebony and alabaster rivaled or exceeded that of the Taj Mahal and yet it was totally destroyed and sacked not by the “barbarian Christians” attacking from the North but by the fanatical Muslim Berber invaders in 1010. They left hardly a stone standing.

During a few months in 1009, five different rulers succeeded each other and lost control of much of the provincial territories. A rebellion against loyalty to the Omayyid dynasty led to civil war and the descent of Muslim Spain into chaos. Within a generation, approximately 40 independent Muslim mini-kingdoms or emirates called taifas proclaimed their independence and enabled the Christian kingdoms to organize and make major advances in the reconquest of the peninsula.

The Native Jewish population of Spain (many and perhaps most Sephardi Jews were native born converts rather than migrants), always a barometer of tolerance, quite clearly preferred the Christian North to the Muslim South from the beginning of the 11th century. Severe anti-Jewish disturbances began first in Granada and the Muslim South under the Almoravids and Almohades. The great palaces, artistic achievements and part of the sophisticated irrigation works of the Omayyids and Abbasids were largely destroyed by the new invaders. By the time of the final conquest of Granada – the last remaining Muslim kingdom in 1492, almost no Jews resided there whereas more than 225 Spanish towns had their distinctive Jewish quarters (juderías) still intact on the eve of the expulsion.

The Reconquest

The Reconquest by the Christian kingdoms eventually took on the dimensions of a religious crusade in which there could only be one winner. The Christians would have won and evicted Muslim rule much earlier had it not been for the arrival of fresh forces brought with the Berber incursions during the 11th and 12th centuries. The gains of territory achieved by the rival Christian kingdoms did not originally contribute to cementing a sense of religious unity or a crusade (“Christendom“). It was early beset by national, dynastic and linguistic rivalries (Castilian, Catalan, Leonese, Aragonese, Valencian, Portuguese and Navarran-Basque). Fortunately for them, the Muslim opposition was even more fragmented. The many small feuding taifas were to fall one by one to the conquering Christian princes and their armies.

Medieval Spain

Medieval Spain was the scene of a unique encounter among the three great civilizations of Roman Christianity. Arab-Berber Islam and Sephardi Jewry. The multi-cultural synthesis that emerged following the Muslim conquest left behind a stunning legacy, but one that was uneven, sporadic and marred due to political fragmentation, intermittent warfare, religious intolerance and eventual excessive religious zeal that ended in the eventual expulsion of the Jews (1492) and Muslims (1609) or their forced conversion as a step in the consolidation of political unity.

Only in Andalucia, was Muslim rule in Spain continuous for a long period of time. Elsewhere, it was limited and endured for a much shorter lengths of time, notably in Galicia, Asturias, the Basque country, Aragon and much of Catalonia. A good indicator of the Muslim presence is the large number of sites that bear Arabic place names (toponynms) starting with either the article “al” (the) or the prefix “Beni” (sons of). These sites show a strong concentration in the south of Andalucia and along the Mediterranean coasts of what are today the provinces of Murcia and Valencia.

Las Tres Culturas

There is abundant evidence of social coexistence and considerable cultural interchange between members of all three religions in the early period of Muslim rule in the south and later in the Christian North, participation in holidays (even Christmas) and celebrations such as weddings and baptisms across religious lines. Noted Spanish historian Antonio Dominguez Ortiz, in his classic essay Las Tres Culturas en la Historia de España, put it this way:

Conversion to Islam had not eroded the taste of many for good wines, the woman’s veil had not yet become a widespread custom (such a requirement does not appear in the Koran) and the happy sensual and cultivated environment that has always characterized the peoples of the South of Spain was not compatible with a rigid interpretation of the Koranic precepts. Centuries later, the dynamic Zionist leader and great poet, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, explained his support of the Sephardi (Judeo-Spanish) pronunciation of Hebrew as due, in part, to appreciation of the gayer, more carefree, less inhibited nature of the Sephardim and their Mediterranean traditions than the heritage of the more morose and somber Ashkenazi (East European Jewish) past.

The Cosmopolitan and Tolerant Christian North of Spain (1050-1390)

It is noteworthy that the most successful Christian rulers during the greatest advances made in the Christian re-conquest were also the most tolerant. Their kingdoms derived particular benefit from the active cooperation and participation of their Jewish communities. Alfonso VI, known as “The Brave” (1072-1090) appointed a Jewish minister and treasurer. The “philosopher king” Alfonso X (1252-1284) collaborated on many projects with Jewish scholars and translators and proclaimed them as valuable citizens, specifically forbidding the use of force to bring about conversions to Christianity. Jaime I, the conqueror of Valencia, was an enlightened king who promoted his Jewish subjects to positions of considerable prestige and influence. As a sign of special favor, he offered a distinct part of the town for Jewish residence in 1239 at their own request.

Under Muslim rule, especially following the arrival of the Almoravids and the Almohades, both Christianity and Judaism were scarcely tolerated and regarded as decidedly “inferior” religions. Their adherents were either forced at sword point to convert or paid exorbitant tribute to remain “protected peoples” (dhimmis), who possessed a divinely inspired book of revelation. They had to pay a “head tax” from which Muslims were exempt. The Jews, being more literate and whose Hebrew closely resembled Arabic, felt much more able to adapt to the new State at once and began to specialize in those activities and professions that Arabs regarded as “beneath them” (especially trade and tax collecting), administration, or onerous and “defiling” (working with leather).

The Three Sources of Hispanic Civilization

The arts, sciences, technology, literature, architecture, navigation, mapmaking, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and art that flourished in Medieval Spain are often credited to Islam but this is a distortion of the role played by adherents of all three religions. The United Visigothic kingdom of Spain prior to the Muslim invasions had inherited five centuries of Roman civilization and had made use of the achievements of the Greeks and earlier Carthaginians as well as the Assyrians in agriculture, irrigation, mathematics, time keeping, the calender, mining, architecture, road building, mosaic art, pottery, jewelry, law and civic responsibility. The Muslim conquerors who arrived in 711 had inherited these same arts and sciences on their path of conquest across the Byzantine empire, the Near East and Christian-Roman North Africa. Christian and Jewish artisans and scholars made major contributions enabling the Muslim conquerors to make use of these achievements. The Schools of Translation established in Granada and Toledo by Muslim and Christian rulers respectively relied heavily on Jewish scholarship.

Spain’s View of their troubled Past Relations with the Muslims

Due to a long troubled history, Spanish involvement in the affairs of Morocco and the religious fervor generated by the Re-conquest, the Crusades and the Counter-reformation, a problematic legacy has been inherited by many Spaniards who maintain a kind of love-hate relationship with their past and with their Muslim neighbors to the South. From the eighth century to the present day, stereotypes have dominated Spanish attitudes and relations with the Arab states and Muslim civilization no less than with Israel, Judaism and the Jewish Diaspora. Since the 1970s, Islam has re-emerged as a major factor in Spanish society and since then the continual flow of cheap migrant labor and illegal immigration from Morocco has resulted in the rapid growth of the Muslim community.

From the time of the expulsion of the last “Moors”, the term moros has been used in Spain and applied indiscriminately to everything connected with Islam. Due to Spain’s involvement in Morocco, a large Army of Africa was created. In the 1930s, it was commanded by General Francisco Franco and its troops came to play a major part in the suppression of a revolt by anarchist miners and other workers in the northern province of Asturias in 1934, and then in the uprising to overthrow the Republic that culminated in the Civil War (1936-39). In spite of General Franco’s frequent use of the theme of “rescuing” Spain’s Christian heritage from “barbarism”, the use of Muslim troops brought with him from Morocco earned him a reputation for brutality. They were hated and feared by ordinary Spaniards wherever they fought.

Spanish Civilization is indeed indebted to both its early Iberian-Carthaginian-Roman-Greek-Germanic-Celtic origins and the invaluable contributions of both Jews and Muslims in the Middle Ages. The “Golden Age” was due originally to a wise policy of coexistence but was short-lived and followed by centuries of chaotic condition of fanaticism and fratricidal conflict due to the extremist Berber sects who followed a policy similar to that of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda of today. The Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Christian Kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Portugal attracted Jews to these lands from the feuding Muslim taifas in the South and initially followed a policy of tolerance towards the remaining Muslims (known as Mudejars). Unfortunately, the bitterness of almost seven centuries of war between the Christians and Muslims for domination eventually resulted in Spain’s liberation and unification (1492) that was marred by the triumph of a religious crusade, fed by the excessive zeal of the Church bent on revenge and the consolidation of state power.


Nb- Readers interested to learn more about Spain today and its heritage are referred to my cultural guidebook – Spanish Vignettes; An Offbeat Look into Spain’s Culture, Society & History; Santana Books. 2nd edition. 2006 ISBN 64-89954-40-2.



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