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An Introduction to Islamic Spain

By Anke Halner - Hebrew and Spanish Student @ St Anne's College, Oxford


This article aims to offer a brief historical overview of Muslim civilisation in Spain (711-1492), widely regarded as a Golden Age for intellectual and technological development within the Jewish and Islamic worlds at a time when, unlike Muslim Sain, Western Europe was suffering from stagnation on many levels during their ‘Dark Ages’.

Prior to the presence of the Umayyads (the second of four major caliphates that were established after Muhammed’s death) in Spain, the Germanic tribe of the Visigoths had occupied the vacuum left by the decline of the Roman civilisation. Despite the position of rulership that they held, there was not a lot of integration between themselves and the variety of religious voices which existed in Spain including paganism, Catholicism, and Judaism. Within fifty years of the Umayyad arrival in Spain in 711 AD, almost all the former Visigoth territories as far as the Pyrenees were under Muslim control. Over the following 300 years Spain, known as Al Andalusia, experienced unrivalled economic growth, increases in the population and a complete reinvigoration of a country that had been left desolate since the waning of the Roman empire.

One of the key reasons for their success in taking over Spain was the keenness on the part of the newcomers to intermarry. Abd Al Rahman himself (a member of the Umayyad dynasty) was mixed race, half Middle Eastern and half Berber (Black African). Equally, the Umayyad empire had a real desire to spread Islam and offer benefits to all who converted to this new faith, irrespective of their previous status. There was also a preparedness of the Umayyads to protect the ‘dhimmi’ – the Arabic word for the ‘People of the Book’ – the Christians and Jews who shared the rulers’ Abrahamic monotheism. Therefore, Jews and Christians could benefit from a protected status of sorts, which Jews had not previously experienced under Visigoth rule. However, the ‘dhimmi’ were still subject to some restrictions. For instance, ‘Dhimmis’ were not permitted to convert Muslims to their religions whilst Muslims were permitted and encouraged to convert ‘Dhimmis’. Also, a Muslim man could marry a ‘Dhimmi’ woman without the need of her conversion to Islam, but a Muslim woman could not marry a ‘Dhimmi’ male unless he converted.

Still, certain periods of Muslim rule in Spain could be described as meritocratic. For example, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, although Jewish, became the foreign secretary of the caliph Ibn Al Rahman III between 912-961 AD. This was because he was an eloquent Arabic speaker and possessed profound knowledge of both Islamic and Andalusian culture. In addition to his role of foreign secretary, he was a physician and a devout Jewish Scholar. A further example is that of Maimonides who was a Jewish philosopher, astronomer, physician, and rabbi, born in Córdoba in 1135 during the Almoravid empire in Morocco and Egypt. In addition to being held in high esteem by Jewish historians, Maimonides also figured very prominently in the history of Islamic and Hebraic sciences and is mentioned extensively in studies. Having been influenced by the great thinkers Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and his contemporary Averroes, he in turn influenced other prominent Muslim philosophers and scientists. He became a renowned philosopher and polymath in both the Jewish and Islamic worlds. It should be noted that various periods of Muslim rule in Spain are in fact regarded as the Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain.

Another key feature distinguishing the Al Andalusian Umayyad civilisation from those preceding it was their desire to fully understand the world through the translation of predominantly Greek texts into Arabic. Spain was able to generate large numbers of publications through paper manufacturing knowledge developed through trade and ‘proselyting’ contact with the Chinese. Paper manufacturing flourished in Játiva, a town near Valencia. Spain became the centre of European civilisation since the Islamic culture actively encouraged intercultural learning. The libraries in Córdoba were unrivalled and ‘‘represented a near-perfect crossroads of the material and intellectual’’ in the words of scholar María Rosa Menocal.

The beginning of the fall of Islamic civilisation in Al Andalusia can be seen in the destruction of Madinat al Zahra, ‘‘the Versailles of Cordoba’’ (Menocal, see further reading), not by Goths but rather by Islamic in-fighting which was rooted in diverging understandings of what it meant to be Muslim. When the Christian forces succeeded in their conquest of Spain in a long undertaking known as the ‘Reconquista’, Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella became king and queen of Spain free of Muslim political and military presence.

From 1478, Muslims and Jews lived under the shadow of the Spanish inquisition and the decimation of their cultures in Spain; Arabic and Jewish publications were burned, regardless of content and the use of Hebrew and Arabic was not permitted be it for the purpose of translation or other. The Alhambra Decree in 1492 meant that Jews were expelled from Spain or forced to convert to Catholicism. Both Muslims and Jews were continuous victims of mob violence. Islamic rule in Spain had come to an end. Nevertheless, their immense influence on western civilisation is irrefutable. Whilst western Europe was experiencing their ‘Dark Ages’, Islamic Spain was experiencing something very different: a Golden Age, which opened the doors to a new and advanced form of civilisation, both technologically and intellectually.

Further reading:

  1. 'The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain' by María Rosa Menocal

  2. Britannica Article on Ferdinand II:

  3. Museum Articles and Resources pertaining to Muslim Spain:

  4. 'Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery' by Bernard Lewis


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