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Once Upon a Time in Andalusia- PART I


By: Dr. Abdellatif Charafi


This article is intended to be a trip in time to a very special period in world history: from the ninth to the thirteenth century in Andalusia, and more specifically in Cَrdoba, where a million people lived in Europe's largest city, the cultural center of that period. There existed no separation between rigorous scientific study, wisdom and faith. Nor was East separated from West; nor was the Muslim from the Jew or the Christian. It was there that the European Renaissance actually began, and from where it grew.


By examining the trajectory of Islam in Andalusia, the objective is not to praise an illustrious dead, but to reintroduce in our life the affirmation of absolute and universal values of Islam without which our society will inevitably disintegrate.


The Myth of the Muslim Conquest of Spain


More than five hundreds years have elapsed since Islam was irradicated from Spain. The event was celebrated in grandeur at Expo '92 in Seville, during which the organizers tried to make us believe that Spain was formed by over seven centuries of continuous struggle against Islam. But was the defeat of the Muslims on 2 January 1492 a liberation for the Spaniards? Was the reign of the Muslims a colonization of the Iberian Peninsula?


When looking at the Muslim expansion in Spain one is struck by its speed, its generally peaceful aspect and civilizational component. It took the Muslims less than three years (from 711 to 714) and one battle (at Guadalete, near Cadiz) to spread throughout the whole of Spain. In contrast to this, it took the Prophet Muhammad twenty-two years (from 610 to 632) and nineteen expeditions to get Arabia to accept Islam. This difference in both time and effort, to gain Arabia and Spain to Islam, is due to theological affinities as well as socio-cultural and politico-economical reasons which appealed to the Spaniards.


Pre-Islamic Arabia was predominantly polytheist, with small Jewish and Christian communities. There, Islam had to fight against a 'world without law' (Jahiliyya) to make monotheism prevail. Pre-Islamic Spain was Christian with important Jewish communities. This difference, according to Roger Garaudy, not only explains the speed of the expansion, but also its type.


W. Montgomery Watt in A History of Islamic Spain states:


"It is a common misapprehension that the holy war meant that the Muslims gave their opponents a choice "between Islam and the sword". This was sometimes the case, but only when the opponents were polytheist and idol-worshippers. For Jews, Christians and other "People of the Book", that is, monotheists with written scriptures - a phrase that was very liberally interpreted - there was a third possibility, they might become a "protected group", paying a tax or tribute to the Muslims but enjoying internal autonomy"



The case of Spain is therefore not exceptional and that is due to the very essence of Islam.


The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) never pretended to create a new religion:

'Say: I am no bringer of a new-fangled doctrine among the Messenger' (Quran 45:9); and 'Nothing is said to thee that was not said to the messengers before thee' (Quran 41:43).


He came to remind the people of the Primordial Religion:

'Say ye: We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all the Prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them: and we bow to God (in Islam).' (Quran 2:136).


Islam came to confirm the previous messages, to purify them from historical alterations to which they were subjected and to complete them. The Qur'an says:

'If thou wert in doubt as to what We have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee.' (Quran 10:94).


The Muslim community was then opened, without distinction to all those who believe in the unity and transcendence of God.


Besides, in the Iberian Peninsula there raged a civil war between Trinitarian Christians, who accepted the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Arian Christians, who saw Jesus not as God but as a Prophet inspired by God. The Council of Nicea in 325, invoked by the emperor Constantine in order to unify ideologically his empire, imposed the dogma of Trinity and condemned the teachings of Anus of Alexandria who refused these dogmas. The conflict erupted, when in 709, the Trinitarian Christians declared Roderick as king. The archbishop of Seville opposed him and the inhabitants of present Andalusia (Bétique) revolted against his rule. When Roderick invaded Andalusia, the inhabitant of the latter looked south help. The able Berber General Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed to Algeciras and a battle in Guadalete, near Cadiz took place. The Bishop of Seville as well as that of Toledo rallied to the Muslim army.


The peasants had a very difficult time, were ill-treated and reduced to the status of slaves. Poverty, corruption, ignorance and instability were the order of the day. Even the free men felt themselves to be underprivileged. There was much discontent, and many ordinary people looked on the Muslims as liberators and gave them all the assistance they could. The Jews who have been persecuted for a long time under the Visigoth rule (e.g. a special decree in 694 enslaved all those who did not accept baptism), opened the gates of many cities. So deep and widespread was the satisfaction given to all classes that during the whole of the eight century there was not a single revolt of the subjects.


It is difficult to understand how a small army could cross the whole of Spain in less than three years if one imagines a military invasion. The historian Dozy, in Histoire des Musulmans d'Espagne, describes the event as 'a good thing for Spain' which produced an important social revolution, setting the country free from the chains it was groaning under for centuries. Taxes were much less compared to those imposed by previous governments. The Muslims introduced land reforms by taking land from the rich and distributing it equally among serf-peasants and slaves. The new owners worked it with zeal. Commerce was liberated from the limitations and high taxes that caused its demise. Slaves could set themselves free in return for a fair compensation, something which threw in new energies. All these measures, says Dozy, created a state of well-being which was the reason behind the welcoming of the Muslims.


The great Spanish writer Blasco Ibanez in Dans l'ombrc de la cathédrale talks about a 'civilizational expedition' coming from the south rather than a conquest. To Ibanez, it was not an invasion imposing itself by arms, it was a new society whose vigorous roots were sprouting from everywhere. Describing the conquering Muslims, he says: 'The principle of freedom of conscience, cornerstone of the greatness of nations, was dear to them. In the cities they ruled, they accepted the church of the Christian and the synagogue of the Jew.'


History, therefore makes it clear that the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through Spain and forcing Islam at the point of the sword is an absurd myth. The expansion of Islam in Spain was not a military conquest, but a liberation.



In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.


Allah! There is no God but He,

the Living, the Self-subsisting, the Eternal.

No slumber can seize Him, nor sleep.

All things in heaven and earth are His.

Who could intercede in His presence without His permission?

He knows what appears in front of and behind His creatures.

Nor can they encompass any knowledge of Him except what he wills.

His throne extends over the heavens and the earth,

and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them,

for He is the Highest and Most Exalted.

[Quran 2: 255]


Islam Guide: A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam



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