By the 10th Century the city of Cordoba, Spain boasted a population of over 500,000 people making it the largest city on earth.  Other cities like Paris only had 38,000 people and the world had never seen a city so big as Cordoba which had 700 mosques, 60,000 palaces, and 70 libraries.  It was reported at the time that one of Alhambrathose libraries contained over 500,000 manuscripts and employed a staff of book binders, researchers, librarians, and teachers (illuminators).  At its peak Cordoba had 900 public baths and boasted Europe’s first street lights.  The palace of the Islamic Caliph was located 5 miles outside the city and was known as the Madinat al-Zahra.  It was an ornate complex of marble, stucco, ivory, and onyx that took some 40 years to build costing about 1/3 of the city’s revenue.  It was destroyed in the 11th Century but prior to its destruction the Caliph’s Palace at Cordoba was one of the wonders of the world.  The ruins of the palace are being restored today, slowly.

The first notable Muslim to reach Spain was named Abd al-Rahman.   North African Arabs were already entrenched in Spain by the time of his arrival.  Their forays into France were halted by Charles Martel so the Muslims in Spain began to focus on what would be known as al-Andalus, southern Spain (Andalusia).  They began to build a civilization there that was superior to anything seen in Spain before.  The Spanish Muslims treated Christians and Jews with tolerance and many of them began to embrace Islam as their faith.  The Muslims improved trade and agriculture, patronized the arts, and made numerous and valuable contributions to science.  Cordoba quickly became the largest and most sophisticated city in all of Europe under Muslim rule.

By the eleventh century, however, a small pocket of Christian resistance had begun to grow, and under Alfonso VI Christian forces retook Toledo. It was the beginning of the period the Christians called the Reconquest, and it underlined a serious problem that marred this refined, graceful, and charming era: the inability of the numerous rulers of Islamic Spain to maintain their unity. This so weakened them that when the various Christian kingdoms began to pose a serious threat, the Muslim rulers in Spain had to ask the Almoravids, a North African Berber dynasty, to come to their aid. The Almoravids came and crushed the Christian uprising, but eventually seized control themselves. In 1147, the Almoravids were in turn defeated by another coalition of Berber tribes, the Almohads.

Internal conflict was not uncommon in these times and the Christian Kingdoms warred frequently among themselves.  This diverted Muslim strength at a time when the Christians were beginning to negotiate strong alliances and form powerful armies.  They eventually waged a campaign agaisnt the Muslims that would bring about the end of Muslim Arab rule in Spain.


The Arabs did not surrender easily; al-Andalus was their land too. But, bit by bit, they had to retreat, first from northern Spain, then from central Spain. By the thirteenth century their once extensive domains were reduced to a few scattered kingdoms deep in the mountains of Andalusia – where, for some two hundred years longer, they would not only survive but flourish.

It is both odd and poignant that it was then, in the last two centuries of their rule, that the Arabs created that extravagantly lovely kingdom for which they are most famous: Granada. It seems as if, in their slow retreat to the south, they suddenly realized that they were, as Washington Irving wrote, a people without a country, and set about building a memorial: the Alhambra, the citadel above Granada that one writer has called “the glory and the wonder of the civilized world.”

The Alhambra was begun in 1238 by Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar who, to buy safety for his people when King Ferdinand of Aragon laid siege to Granada, once rode to Ferdinand’s tent and humbly offered to become the king’s vassal in return for peace.

Over the years, what started as a fortress slowly evolved under Ibn al-Ahmar’s successors into a remarkable series of delicately lovely buildings, quiet courtyards, limpid pools, and hidden gardens. Later, after Ibn al-Ahmar’s death, Granada itself was rebuilt and became, as one Arab visitor wrote, “as a silver vase filled with emeralds.”

Meanwhile, outside Granada, the Christian kings waited. In relentless succession alhambra4they had retaken Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville. Only Granada survived. Then, in 1482, in a trivial quarrel, the Muslim kingdom split into two hostile factions and, simultaneously, two strong Christian sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, married and merged their kingdoms. As a result, Granada fell ten years later. On January 2, 1492 – the year they sent Columbus to America – Ferdinand and Isabella hoisted the banner of Christian Spain above the Alhambra and Boabdil, the last Muslim king, rode weeping into exile with the bitter envoi from his aged mother, “Weep like a woman for the city you would not defend like a man!”

In describing the fate of Islam in Spain, Irving suggested that the Muslims were then swiftly and thoroughly wiped out. Never, he wrote, was the annihilation of a people more complete. In fact, by emigration to North Africa and elsewhere, many Muslims carried remnants of the Spanish era with them and were thus able to make important contributions to the material and cultural life of their adopted lands.

Much of the emigration, however, came later. At first, most Muslims simply stayed in Spain; cut off from their original roots by time and distance they quite simply had no other place to go. Until the Inquisition, furthermore, conditions in Spain were not intolerable. The Christians permitted Muslims to work, serve in the army, own land, and even practice their religion – all concessions to the importance of Muslims in Spain’s still prosperous economy. But then, in the period of the Inquisition, all the rights of the Muslims were withdrawn, their lives became difficult, and more began to emigrate. Finally, in the early seventeenth century, most of the survivors were forcibly expelled.



MuezzinIslam has been a part of Spain’s history and culture for a long time.  It was brought to Spain by the Moors from North Africa in 711 AD and was paramount until the Moors were driven out of Spain by Christian armies in 1492 AD. Under the Arab Moors, Spain was known as “Al-Andalus” (meaning “Paradise”)  Today there are an estimated 1 million Muslims in Spain.  Most of them are recent immigrants from North Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East.  However, there are some Spanish converts to Islam and their numbers are estimated to be between 20,000 and 50,000.

Al-Andalus was also known as Moorish Iberia and Islamic Iberia.  It encompassed not only most of Spain but also parts of Portugal, Gibraltar, Andorra, and Southern France.  It was divided by the Muslim rulers into five administrative districts and it constituted the province of the Umayyad Caliphate founded by Caliph Al-Walid in 711 until 750.  From 750 to 929 it constituted the Emirate of Cordoba and from 929-1031 it constituted the Caliphate of Cordoba.  During Muslim rule of Spain there was much cooperation between Muslims and Christians for a long while and, as mentioned before, the City of Cordoba quickly grew to become the largest city in Europe and a leading cultural and economic center for not only the Mediterranean world but also for the Islamic world.

Over the centuries Spain would become the province of Berber Muslim dynasties who were known as the Almoravids and Almohads.  Later the country would fragment into several minor states.  Duriing this period Muslim even turned against Muslim.  The Almoravids, for example, deposed the Moorish princes after helping Christians to repel attacks on the Kingdom of Alfonso VI by Muslim attackers.  With the dawn of the Berber rule the nation went into a state of steady decline, sadly.



The period of the Caliphate is viewed by most historians as the Golden Age of al-Andalus.  Irrigation was employed to raise various farm crops and several Muslim controlled cities in Spain at the time were leading agricultural centers.  Some were the most advanced farming and economic centers in Europe at that time.  Cordoba became the capital of the Caliphate and at its peak had over half a million residents art1making it the largest city in Europe even overtaking Constantinople as the largest and most prosperous European city.  The city became the leading cultural center in the Muslim world and the people of Cordoba made many significant contributions to human civilization at the time.  Major philosphers and scientists such as Abulcasis and Averroes produced works that were to become major influences in the intellectual life of Europe.  Muslims as well as non-Muslims came from all over to study in the famous libraries and universities at Cordoba.  Famous works by the Muslim physician ibn Sina (Avicenna) and ibn Rushd (Averroes) were taken from Cordoba to Italy and other parts of Europe thus laying the very foundation for the European Renaissance that would drag Europe out of the Dark Ages.

Between 1009-1013 a major civil war engulfed Cordoba which essentially caused the great city to collapse in 1031.  Spain was broken up into weak states called “Taifas” which could not defend themselves against the growing Christian armies.  It is interesting to note that the Muslims called the Christian states to the north and west of Cordoba the “Galician nations.”  In the Bible during the days of the Apostles of Jesus there was a state near Palestine named Galacia and Paul even wrote a letter to them.  Historians believe the inhabitants of Galacia were Gauls from France.

War ensued throughout Spain and the Christian Kingdoms began their reconquest of Iberia and by 1492 the Muslims were effectively driven out of Spain.  The final Muslim threat to the Christians Kingdoms was the rise of the Marinids in Morocco in the 14th Century.  They retook Granada and occupied some of the provinces cities.  The Marinids were defeated at the Battle of Salado in 1340.  Peter of Castile made peace with the Muslims and thus began 150 years of civil war, rebellions, and wars in Spain between the Christian states and Muslim forces.  In 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castille and thus began the final Christian assault on the Emirate of Granada.  This royal couple convinced the Pope to declare a Holy Crusade agains the occupying Muslims and by January of 1492 the Moorish Sultan Muhammad XII surrendered his fortress palace to the Christian Crusaders.  That fortress palace was the Alhambra which still stands today.

alhambra garden


MosqueDuring the Muslim reign over al-Andalus (Spain) there were three primary religious groups which were the Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  Although the Muslims were united by their religious beliefs there were several ethnic divisions among them.  That primary division was between the Berbers and the Arabs.

Christians who had lived long under Muslim rule were known as “Mozarabs.”   These Christians had adopted many Arabic customs, art, and words yet still kept their religious rituals and languages.  Each of these people lived in their own communities and in segregated neighborhoods.  A massive Christian conversion took place in the 10th Century and the Muladies (Muslims of ethnic Iberian origins), along with many Arabs, Berbers, and others were converted.  By 1100 AD they composed about 80% of the population and the Muslims had become a ruling minority.  Berber tribesmen tended to inhabit the mountain areas of what is today the northern part of Portugal and in the Meseta Central area.  Arabs tended to mostly settle in the southern part of Spainand in the Ebro Valley region in the northeast.  Many Jews at the time were employed as tax collectors, doctors, ambassadors, and as merchants.  By the end of the 15th Century it’s estimated that the Jewish population in Muslim Spain was about 50,000 in Granada and about 100,000 in the whole of Muslim Spain.

Under Muslim rule in Spain non-Muslims were given the social and legal status of “ahl al-Dhimma” or simply “Dhimmis.”  This designated them as a people under Muslim protection and rule and set them apart as being non-Muslims.  Adult non-Muslims were required to pay a “Jizya” which was a tax equal to one Dinar per year with exemptions for the elderly, children, widows, women, and the disabled.  Pagans were given the status of “Majus” and were required to pay the Jizya tax as well.  There has been much debate over the treatment of non-Muslims by the Muslim rulers in Spain espeically during the time of the Caliphate in Cordoba.  Jews made up about 5% of the total population and Andalus actually became a major center for Jewish life during the early Middle Ages.  Jews produced brilliant and important scholars during that time and Spain boasted one of the most wealthy Jewish communities in the known world.  Jewish people were allowed to practice their faith and to live accordingly to their own religious laws and scriptures in their communities.  Many restrictions imposed on them by the Muslim rulers were symbolic or social restrictions.  Such regulations served mostly to define the relationship between Muslim and Jewish communities of the time and were NOT intended to oppress the Jews in Spain.

alhambra6People tend to think that the Muslims treated non-Muslims the same during their rule over Spain but this is NOT so.  The Caliphate treated non-Muslims differently at different times.  After 912 AD the longest period of tolerance began with the reign of Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III and his son Al-Hakam II.  It was during their reign that Jews in the region prospered greatly and many Jews served in the government of the Caliphate at various levels.  Others studied science while others prospered from commerce and trade espeically in the trading of silk and slaves.  Additionally, the southern part of Spain became a refuge for Jews fleeing other countries.

Under the rule of the Berber dynasties of the Almoravids and Almohads there were periodic persecutions of Jewish people in Spain.  However, historical accounts are few and we do not have a clear picture of what exactly this involved nnr why.  What we do know is that the relationship between the Jews and their Muslim rulers detiorated quickly after 1160 AD.  There were a few slaughters of non-Muslims by Berber Muslims but massacres of the Dhimmis in Islamic history are rare.  The Berber Muslims attempted to impose Islam on non-Muslims giving them the choice of converting or being executed.  Many Christians and Jews left Spain during that time.  Some fled east to more tolerant Muslim ruled lands while others went north into the Christian kingdoms there.

For a long while there were varied and many tribes, religions, and races coexisting in Spain under Muslim rule.  Literacy was widespread moreso than the rest of Europe.  The Muslim Umayyads wanted the world to view them as intellectuals.  They made Cordoba the rival of Baghdad which was the most sophisticated Muslim city at that time in the Middle East.  There was clearly competition and rivalry between the two cities.

Cordoba became one of the leading centers for medicine and philosophical debates.  It was home to many universities and libraries.  Under the rule of Hisham II the real power was held by the Vizier named al-Mansur ibn Abi Aamir or simply al-Mansur.  This Vizier was a devote Muslim and some said he was even fanatical.  He ordered library books burned that had been preserved for centuries by Muslim scholars as he did not support the sciences.  Al-Mansur died in 1002 AD and science and philosophical interests once again grew.  Many famous scholars emerged at this time including Averroes(1126-1198) the founder of the Averroism school of philosophy which had a profound impact on the rise of secular thought in Weatern Europe as well as the Muslim philosopher ibn Tufail.

For the most part the Muslim rulers of Spain were very tolerant of non-Muslims.  That great tolerance opened the way for Jewish philosophers to come into Andalus helping to make it the new center for Jewish intellectual pursuits.  Jewish poets and commentators also moved to Andalus such as Judah Halevi and Dunash ben Labrat.  A stream of Jewish philosophers mixed with Muslim philosophers of the era and this free mixture gave rise to Maimonides (1135-1205) who was a celebrated Jewish thinker in the Middle Ages.  He did not actually conduct any work in Andalus, however, as he and his family fled persecution by the Almohads when he was only 13 years old.

Muslim rule of Spain was part of what is known as the Islamic Golden Age which was an Abbasid historical period that began in the 8th Century and lasted until the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258.  Baghdad was the seat of the Arab Caliphate and became the new capital when it was moved from Damascus, Syria.  The Abbasids were influenced by Qur’anic injunctions and the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad pbuh) such as:


“The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.”


Clearly this wise saying stresses the value of KNOWLEDGE not ignorance.  It was during this period that the Arab world became the intellectual center for science, philosophy, medicine, and education.  The Abbasids loved knowledge and championed its cause and furtherence.  They established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, Iraq where both Muslims and non-Muslim scholars translated various works including those of the Greeks into Arabic and this was also a place where they could gather and converse and debate.



The goal of the House of Wisdom was to translate all of the world’s knowledge into Arabic for safekeeping by Muslim scholars.  Many classical works of antiquity might have been lost forever had they not been translated into Arabic and protected by the Muslim Empire which stetched from Spain to the borders of India.  Translated works included those from the ancient Romans, Chinese, Indians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Byzatines just to name a few.  Usage of the decimal system and Algebra began at this time as well so that complex mathematical problems might be solved with success.  No other people at the time could compete with the depth of the knowledge gained and secured by the Islamic Empire in this Golden Age of Islam.

Islamic philosophy grew by leaps and bounds during this Golden Era of Islam.  Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd played major roles in preserving the works of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.  His works came to dominate non-relgious thought in the Christian and Muslim worlds.  Further, Muslim philosophy works were translated into Latin from Arabic.  Many Muslim and non-Muslim scientists lived and practiced during this era as Muslim scholars developed Algebra, soap, public baths, trigonometry, and made advances in optics, astronomy, and medicine.

Medicine was a very important and central part of medieval Islamic culture.  Islamic physicians were some of the best in the world and they developed complex and large volumes of medical literature outlining the practice of medicine, cures, herbalism, surgery, and human anatomy.  Islamic medicine was built upon the foundations of medical science borrowed from the Persians, Greeks, and Romans of ancient times.  Muslim doctors and scholars considered such men as Hippocrates and Galen as pre-eminent authorities on medicine as well as Hellenic scholars in Alexandria, Egypt.  Muslim scholars translated medical texts from Greek into Arabic and then produced NEW medical knowledge themselves based on those texts.  They authored encyclopedias and summaries also.  In contrast “pagan” Latin and Greek writings such as these were deemed with suspicion by Christians in early Medieval Europe.  In contrast, it wasn’t until the 12th Century when Christian Europe finally took notice of Arabic translations of medical texts based on the ideas of men like Hippocrates and Galen.

Ibn Sina was a scholar, philospher, and physician.  He lived in Persia which is today Iran.  In Europe he came to be known as Avicenna.  He wrote a great work full of medical knowledge known as “The Canon of Medicine.”  His works were translated

Abu 'Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina

Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina

into Latin and printed throughout Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries more than 35 times which, in those days, made it a Best Seller.  Muslims built hospitals in major Islamic cities across the Middle East and trained physicians.  These hospitals included physicians, pharmacists and nurses as well as interns.  In Ibn Sina’s time only Muslims and Jews could attend the medical schools but not Christians.  In Europe the Barber Surgeon was the “doctor” of the Dark Ages and these were amateur surgeons (butchers mostly) whose main job was cutting hair!  There is a very excellent book entitled “The Physician” authored by Noah Gordon in 1986.  It traces the life of an 11th Century English boy who was taken under the wing of a crazed barber surgeon and journeyed across Europe.  He wanted to be a real doctor and since only Jews and Muslims could attend ibn Sina’s medical school in Iran/Persia he decided to pretend to be a Jew.  He accomplished this and was trained in medicine at the school.  The novel is fictional but based on factual history for the most part and it is well worth the read.

Commerce and trade played major roles in the Muslim workd during the golden age of Islam.  Muslim sailors mapped the known world and they were responsible for reintroducing the three masted merchant ships into the Mediterranean.  Muslim explorers sailed to distant lands and returned with new inventions like paper from China which arrived in Spain in the 10th Century after having been introduced into the Arab world in the 8th Century.  It was subsequently spread throughout Europe via Muslim Spain.  Islamic paper makers devised assembly lines of hand copied manuscripts turning out hundred of printed texts.  They also discovered how to make paper from linen and the rest of the world learned this from Muslim paper makers.  Muslims made great advances in architecture and engineering during this golden age.  Many of the grandest and greatest Mosques were built during this era including the Great Mosque at Cordoba in 785.

The Christian Crusades of the 11th and 12th Centuries put great pressure on the Muslim Empire but a far greater threat came in the 13th Century from the Far East in 1206.  The successors of Genghis Khan ruled a Mongol Empire east of the Islamic Empire.  They conquered most of Eurasia in the 13th Century and that included most of China and the old Islamic caliphate in the West.  Baghdad was sacked in 1258 by the Mongul Hordes and this is normally the agreed upon date for the end of the Islamic Golden Age.  Later Mongol rulers such as Timur destroyed many Muslim cities and slaughtered thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  Eventually most of the Mongols who settled in western Asia converted to Islam and became assimilated into various Turkic peoples.  Out of the ashes of this golden age arose the Ottoman Empire but the Golden Age was over for all practical purposes.


In these days when we see so much turmoil and oppression in the Middle East it is hard to imagine that once Islam held a Golden Age in its hands that was prosperous, beautiful, and intelligently serene.  Today we see tryants ruling the nations of the Middle East and foreign powers imposing their power on Muslim people unjustly.  AlhambraThe Muslim world is one made up of the very rich and the very poor.  Great wealth is held in Muslim hands from the sale of oil.  Sadly most of that wealth is held in the hands of the few not the many.  We see many atrocities carried out by both Muslim and non-Muslim today and we see a radical form of Islam that portrays Muslims as violent killers and haters of every one.  Today, Islam and the Arab World are going through their own Dark Ages I believe and sadly.  Perhaps soon that will change and God will once again shiine His light and blessing upon the Muslim Arab world so that once again their might be prosperity, knowledge, and wisdom contributed to the world for the betterment of the world.