Advertisement Close

When the Arabs Ruled Europe--At Least Parts of It--Imagine?!

posted on: Jul 11, 2018

Construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, a wonder of Islamic architecture, was begun by the ruler Abd al-Rahman I in the 8th century A.D.


By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Once, during the 8th-15th centuries A.D., parts of Europe were ruled by Arab Muslims. During the eighth century A.D., countries known today as Spain, Portugal, Sicily, France, even Switzerland fell under Arab rule. On the Iberian Peninsula, today’s Spain and Portugal, a mix of Arabs and North African Berbers ruled that region. Known as Moors, they created a flowering culture rooted in Islam and in science. The Moors also invaded France, all the way to the area of present-day Tours.

Today, many of the descendants of those long-ago Arab rulers have immigrated to European countries, where some experience Islamophobia among other indignities. Contributing writer, John Mason, brings us up to date on the history of Arab rule in parts of southern Europe and how Arabs incorporated Christians and Jews into the fabric of their society.  

Al-Hamra (“the red one”) palace (al-Hambra in Spanish) built in Granada, Andalusia during the time of Moorish rule; in 1492 it became the royal palace of Isabella and Ferdinand.

Arab Pre-eminence in Parts of Europe

The Moors (mix of Arabs and North African Berbers) ruled the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th century A.D. to 1492. They introduced an advanced level of philosophy, medicine, and architecture to the Peninsula. The palace of Al-Hambra (Al-Hamra in Arabic) is a particularly fine example of Islamic art, aesthetics, and architecture.

It wasn’t until eight centuries after the Arab-Berber/ Muslim invasion that the Spanish imperial powers were able to expel the Muslim rulers. By then, however, Islamic political, architectural, scientific, medical, and literary influences in that area of southern Europe were well-embedded.

The Arab-Berber occupiers of the Iberian Peninsula were defeated by Christian monarchs. However, the Moors were so powerful in some places that the King of Spain, Philip II, agreed to treaties with them, the most important of which was the Treaty of Granada in 1491. This was later rejected when the Moors refused to convert to Christianity. While many converted, they, in fact, continued to practice Islam. Known as “crypto-Muslims,” they also continued to speak Arabic.

The Moor’s invasion of present-day France was defeated early on. In 732 A.D., the Gaul leader Charles Martel threw off the Moors in the Battle of Tours. Yet, they persisted in several areas of southern France until 975 A.D.

Christian Spain was so adamant in rejecting Islam from the Peninsula that it forced Muslims to stop speaking Arabic, drop their Arab family names, and to be educated by Catholic priests. While some remained under those conditions, others returned to their North African roots. Important to note is that Jews were expelled from Spain with even greater force.

By 750 A.D., the Umayyad Dynasty had taken control of present-day Spain and parts of France.

Early European Christians under Moorish Rule

As in much of the rest of the Arab-dominated world in its earlier period, European Christians were given a special status if they did not convert to Islam. This is the opposite of the Spanish practice of barely tolerating Muslims under Christian rule. As elsewhere in the Islamic World, Christians were protected, partly through a tax on their special status.

There was a period in Moorish Spain when there was a degree of harmony among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. While interfaith relations were not perfect, there was at least a relative sense of harmony among the three faiths in the region of Al-Andalus, a name which the Arabs gave for the part of the Iberian Peninsula that is equivalent to Andalusia in today’s Spain.

The Decline of Muslim Power and Religious Intolerance under Spanish Rule

The situation in Moorish Spain, then, was not ideal. It paled, though, when juxtaposed to the Spanish Inquisition, when Christian powers reconquered Spain. Moorish power had declined in part because Arab military forces were needed elsewhere in the East during the Crusades. Furthermore, the powerful Umayyad Arab rulers in the East were in decline. Finally, civil war in much of the Arab Middle East used up the remaining military force. In the end, the Spaniards were highly intolerant of Jews and Muslims.

The Spanish Inquisition tried Jews (‘conversos’) and Moors (‘moriscos’) who converted to Christianity — many of whom were later expelled from Spain.


Some historians believe that the Arab World of the 11th-13th centuries represents golden years of cultural, technological, and military sophistication. These were times when Islamic rule was much more benevolent than the later Spanish rulers, who tolerated no religious dissent.

Turnabout is “unfair” play—Muslims under Christian rule in Spain after 1492.

Spanish Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s marriage united much of present-day Spain under one flag. 1492 was clearly the end of the Moorish rule. Jews expelled from the Kingdom were welcomed by the Muslim Ottoman Turks, in particular by a certain Sultan Bayezid. He even sent ships to bring the Jews to Turkey.

The effort of the Church to convert Muslims came to a head after the 1492 accession to power of Isabella and Ferdinand. In 1499, a Church Cardinal was sent to the south of Spain to hasten the conversion of Muslims. The only Arabic manuscripts not burned were those on medicine, because they were so advanced that the Spaniards found them invaluable. Muslims refusing to convert were jailed and bludgeoned into conformance. The “gift” of salvation was not sufficiently attractive to Muslims—they already had their own path to Heaven or Paradise—so they basically had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new religion.

To finally quell the continuation of the Islamic faith in Spain, especially in the city of Granada, the Cardinal threatened the Muslim rebellion by giving Muslims a choice: Convert Or die. Many “decided” to convert, but in fact, secretly returned to their true faith, Islam. A final insult to the Muslims of al-Andalus was the construction in Cordoba of a Christian cathedral in the interior of the magnificent mosque built by 8th century ruler Abd-al Rahman I. Today the mosque’s beauty is obscured by restorations of the city’s cathedral. On the other hand, when visitors at first see the Cordoba mosque, they become so amazed at its grandeur and by the fact that an entire Christian cathedral fits inside the mosque.

Arabs in Europe Today

Arabs, following World War II, began to trickle into Europe. Former French colonies were a particular source of immigrants. Thus, countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, and Syria provided large numbers. Civil uprisings across the Arab World, such as in Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria have triggered immigration to other European countries, including Germany, Netherlands, Spain, among others. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ created large numbers of disaffected youth, who thought there might have been a chance for democracy in their countries, but with their dreams shattered, many fled to Europe. Such immigration from the Arab World to Europe has created significant social and political dislocations on both ends of that process.

Arabs in Europe by Country*

France    6,000,000
Spain    1,600,000-1,800,000
Italy          680,000-1,400,000
Germany  1,000,000+
UK  500,000
Netherlands    480,000-613,800
Belgium    500,000
Sweden  424,981

* from Wikipedia


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing. Part of this entry was adapted from his book.