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Dominio Árabe: A History of Arab Rule in Spain

posted on: May 10, 2021

Dominio árabe; a History of Arab Rule in Spain

By: Holly Johnson/Arab America Contributing Writer

Spain has long been considered a country brimming with culture, opportunity, and mystifying historical significance. Driven by its unique geographic borders, nestled in the Iberian Peninsula, it is the only European country to have a physical border with an African country. It maintains territory off of the Canary Islands, as well as pockets of land across the Strait of Gibraltar and the Atlantic Ocean. Home to a melting pot of cultures, it has a lengthy and colorful association with the Arab world.


Although archeological finds indicate that the first sign of life in Spain dates back almost 1.2 million years, the association with Arab culture began in the 8th century (A.D.). During this time, the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by the Romans by Moorish Muslim armies arriving from North Africa. Considered part of the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate (the second of the four major caliphates established after the death of Muhammed), all but a tiny parcel in the north-west mountainous range of the peninsula remained vulnerable.

As a result of such a successful take-over, Islamic Law permeated the once predominantly Christian and Jewish lands, bringing a period of marked uneasiness during the transition. Recognized by the newly minted Islamic rule, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religions; however, they were required to pay a special tax and were considered legally and socially inferior to Muslims, under the subordinate status of dhimmi.

“The richest, largest, and most sophisticated city in western Europe”

Dominio árabe; a History of Arab Rule in Spain
Alhambra/Granada, Spain

Cordoba, a southern city in present-day Andalusia, became a major Islamic center and gained notoriety as the richest, largest, and most sophisticated city in western Europe. While Mediterranean culture and exchange flourished within the city’s walls, the lands of rural Spain also acquiesced to the invasion of Arab culture, leading to considerable growth in Islamic followers.

Despite a period of remarkable growth with archeological and agricultural advancements, Muslim holdings in the region split into rival ‘Taifa’ states. This allowed the small remaining Christian groupings who were holding on vicariously to gain traction. The arrival of a more tolerant Islamic sect from Northern Africa signaled a widespread return to Islamic rule, however, expressed tolerance was given to those subscribing to the Christian faith.

Violence Begets Violence

Dominio árabe; a History of Arab Rule in Spain
Reconquista/Painting by Charles Auguste Guillaume Steuben

As with most cases in history, change is inevitable, regardless of the level of success found. Despite increased acceptance and more tolerant behavior in the Arab-controlled Spain, a marked period of turmoil (referred to as the Reconquista), was silently stewing in the background. Known as a period in which Christian rule was re-established over the Iberian Peninsula, the Reconquista reached a drastic head in 1492 through the fall of the Nasrid Kingdom in Granada, following 780 years of unrest.

As early as 739 (A.D.), Muslim forces were driven from remote regions in Spain, beginning with the Christian conquest of Galicia (eventual host of one of Europe’s holiest sites, Santiago de Compostela). Concurrently, the respective Kingdom of Leon and Kingdom of Castile remained independent sites of Christian rule that often tested the strength of Muslim armies and culture.

In an attempt to escape the brutality of conflict, Muslim forces moved north in 760 (A.D.), into what is considered now to be the southernmost region of France. Defeated by Frankish forces, this began a period of descent for the Muslim community, as they subtly lost their stronghold in Europe.

Steadfast in their courage and determination, Muslim forces protected Arab rule in Spain for almost 600 years but were ultimately ravaged by internal turmoil. With the fall of Cordoba, the epi-center of Muslim and Islamic culture in 1236, the majority of southern Spain fell under Christian control. This was followed closely by the subsequent decimations of Seville and Valencia. Having been captured in 801 (A.D.) by French King Louis the Pious of Aquitaine, the County of Barcelona entered into a dynastic union with the formidable Kingdom of Aragon in the mid-13th century. Their union produced considerable power and the acquisition of territory on the Mediterranean.

In the 14th century, the Arab-esque Marinid dynasty of Morocco was invaded, marking another considerable loss for Muslim forces. Despite gregarious attempts to preserve their formidable power, after 800 years of Muslim presence in Spain, the last tributary state surrendered to Catholic forces in 1492. Rule over Spain was put into the hands of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Arago.

Let the Books Burn

Dominio árabe; a History of Arab Rule in Spain
Islamic Calligraphy/Spain

Out of the nearly 800 years of turmoil known as the Reconquista, one of the most significant anecdotes of the period came from Queen Isabella herself, when she ordered the burning of Arabic books, following the surrender of the last tributary state to Catholic forces. Despite the momentous impact that Arabic literature and Muslim religion had on the evolution of Spain, no works of art were spared from her vengeful wrath.

Interestingly, Arabic literature was not the only type of art that Queen Isabella, spurred by her devoutly catholic court, sought to destroy. In 1490, a number of Hebrew Bibles and other Jewish books were burned at the request of the Spanish crown. Between 1499 and 1500, on the orders of Cardenal Ximenez de Cisneros (Archbishop of Toledo and head of the Spanish Inquisition) over 5000 Arabic manuscripts, including those housed in a school library, were consumed by flames in a public square in Granada, Spain. Similarly, Spanish forces conquered the Northern African city of Oran in 1509, resulting in the burning of every book and paper archive in town.

In spite of the tempestuous history of Muslim rule in Spain, the country is home to a vibrant Arab community in present times, which continues to enjoy rapid expansion. Although the intentional demolition of priceless Arabic (and Jewish) works of art cannot be forgotten, many works of historical significance have been preserved, and restored, passed down through generations thanks to the use of oral tradition. The burning of the books, while harsh could not remove the lasting impacts of Arab rule that can be seen in Spanish culture, food, architecture, and art today.


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