The Conquest of Spain

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The conquest of Spain was the beginning of a new era in world history. It was the first interaction of Islamic civilization with the Latin West. For centuries, Muslim Spain was a beacon of knowledge to a European continent that was shrouded in the stupor of the Dark Ages. It was Spain, along with southern Italy, that was destined to act as a conduit for learning to the West. It played a central role in the reawakening of Europe.

The very name Andalus conjures up images of a bygone golden age of a brilliant civilization. Spain, as Andalus is known today, is situated in the northwestern corner of the Mediterranean. It is a peninsula, bound to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the east by the Mediterranean Sea. To the north the Pyrenees Mountains separate it from France and the rest of Europe. To the south the narrow Straits of Gibraltar connect the waters of the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. Geographically, it is a part of the Mediterranean world, although topographically, the rugged mountains of the Peninsula make it more a part of North Africa than southern Europe.

The Atlantic Ocean had arrested the westward advance of Muslim armies. But the narrow straits separating Morocco from Spain were not wide enough to stop their inexorable march northward into Europe. They were propelled by the vision of a world order wherein tyranny was abolished and freedom of religion guaranteed. The early Muslims considered Tawhid (meaning, a God-centered civilization) to be a Divine trust and the establishment of Divine patterns on earth, a mission. Neither the ocean nor the desert was an insurmountable barrier in their drive to establish a just order on the globe.

Faith was the driver for centralization of power during the first centuries of Islamic rule, just as today economics is the driver for centralization of power in the world. Faith cements civilization, advances knowledge and brings prosperity. Absence of faith destroys civilization, fosters ignorance and invites poverty. When the human soul is motivated by faith, nothing in this world—not greed, nor passion nor even glory—can detract it from the single-minded pursuit of a higher goal. People with faith work together and create civilizations. It is only when faith is weak that greed and passion win, co-operative struggle becomes impossible and civilization crumbles.

In the 5th century, the Visigoths conquered Spain and established a kingdom there with Toledo as their capital. Not noted for their skills in administration and statecraft, the Visigoth monarchs invited the Latin Church in 565 to manage the affairs of state. In return, the church obtained official sanction to propagate its faith. The economic condition of the Spanish peasant improved little under this arrangement because he was now subject to double taxation, one from the despotic monarchs and the other from the local monasteries. The rich lived in opulence while the farmers suffered abject poverty. The condition of the Jews was even worse. They were precluded from owning land and prohibited from openly practicing their religion. When they protested, the Church came down hard on them. In 707, when the Visigoth king Vietza slackened in the persecution of the Jews, the clergy promptly deposed him and installed a playboy army officer, Rodriguez, as the new king. The Jews were forced into slave labor and their women condemned to servitude.

The contrast between Spain and North Africa at the beginning of the 8th century was as marked as it can be between two geographically adjacent areas. The Muslims had arrived on the scene with a new creed and a new mission, preaching the freedom of man and justice before the law. The openness of the Muslims was not unknown in Spain and many of the serfs and the Jews had escaped and found a new home in Maghrib al Aqsa (Morocco).

North Africa was seething with vibrant energy. The Berber revolts had been overcome. The Berbers were enlisting in the Muslim armies with the newfound zeal of faith. In Damascus, Waleed I had ascended the Omayyad throne. A skillful administrator and shrewd statesman, he had successfully crushed a rebellion in far-away Khorasan and had even outmaneuvered the Chinese emperor into a stalemate in Sinkiang. Waleed is known in history as the Emir who gathered around himself the most capable generals of any Omayyad. Noteworthy among these generals were Muhammed bin Qasim (the conqueror of Sindh and Multan), Qutaiba bin Muslim (the conqueror of Sinkiang), Musa bin Nusair and Tariq bin Ziyad (conquerors of Spain). The Omayyad governor of the Maghrib, Musa bin Nusair, waged a constant struggle with the Visigoths for the control of Maghrib al Aqsa (The western frontier, today’s Morocco). One by one, the Visigoth strongholds on the Mediterranean had been captured. Only Ceuta remained under Visigoth control and Count Julian, a Visigoth deputy, governed it.

It was customary among the Visigoth nobles to send their daughters to the royal palace so they could learn the etiquette of the court. In accordance with this custom, Count Julian sent his daughter Florinda to the court in Toledo. There, the profligate Rodriguez raped her. Julian was outraged and sought to take revenge on Rodriguez for this act of dishonor. Besides, Julian’s wife was the daughter of Vietza, whose throne Rodriguez had usurped. At this time, the area around Ceuta was governed by Tariq bin Ziyad, a deputy of Musa bin Nusair. Julian traveled to Kairouan to confer with Musa and ask him to invade Spain and humble Rodriguez. The timing was right. Musa ordered Tariq to cross the straits with a contingent of troops.

According to Ibn Khaldun, there were three hundred Arab and 10,000 Berber troops in the army of Tariq bin Ziyad. The towering rock near which Tariq landed is called Jabl al Tariq, the mountain of Tariq ( in English Gibraltar), and the straits separating North Africa from Spain are called the Straits of Gibraltar. Tariq was an outstanding soldier, a brilliant general, a man of faith and determination. He burned the boats that had brought his forces across the straits and extolled his men to march forward in the name of Tawhid or perish in the struggle. A skirmish ensued with the local Visigoth lord, Theodore Meier, in which the latter was soundly defeated. The year was 711.

Rodriguez heard of the invasion and collecting a force of 80,000, advanced to meet the Muslim force. Tariq called for reinforcements and received an additional contingent of 7,000 cavalrymen under the command of Tarif bin Malik Naqi (after whom Tarifa inSpain is named). The two armies met at the battlefield of Guadalupe. The Muslims were fighting to establish a just political order whereas the Visigoths were fighting to protect and preserve an oppressive scheme. The Arabs were superior in the art of mobile warfare. They were superb horsemen and had mastered the art of rapid enveloping movements in their advance from the desert across Asia and . The Visigoths were accustomed to fighting in static, fixed positions. There was no contest. Even though the Muslims were outnumbered, the Visigoths were cut to pieces. Rodriguez was slain in battle.

The defeated Visigoths retreated towards Toledo, the ancient capital of Spain. Tariq divided his troops into four regiments. One regiment advanced towards Cordoba and subdued it. A second regiment captured Murcia. A third advanced north towards Saragossa. Tariq himself moved swiftly towards Toledo. The city surrendered without a fight. Visigoth rule in Spain came to an end.

Meanwhile, Musa bin Nusair landed in Spain with a fresh contingent of Berber troops. His first advance was towards Seville. The defenders closed the city gates and a long siege ensued. The offensive capability of the Arabs, backed by military engineering and technology, was superior to the defensive capabilities of the Visigoths. Musa had brought his Minjaniques (machines) with him, which threw heavy projectiles at the city ramparts demolishing them. After a month, the city surrendered. The Umayyad armies now fanned out across the Spanish peninsula. In rapid succession, Saragossa, Barcelona and Portugal fell one after another. The Pyrenees was crossed and Lyons France was occupied. The year was 712.

Musa was ready to continue his drive into France and Italy. But in the meantime, CaliphWaleed I fell ill in Damascus. In the power struggle that ensued, Musa was called back to take his oath to the next Caliph Sulaiman. Musa appointed his son Abdel Aziz as the Emir of Spain, left another son Abdallah in charge of North Africa and hastened to the Umayyad Capital. During their conquest of Spain, the Muslims had captured an enormous amount of booty. Musa was eager to hurry up and bring the conquered booty to Walid I so that the dying Emir would appreciate the services rendered by Musa. Meanwhile, Sulaiman, the heir-apparent, wrote to Musa to slow down his return so that by the time the war booty arrived in Damascus, Walid I would be dead and the booty would belong to Sulaiman. However, Musa, out of courtesy to the dying Emir, did not oblige Sulaiman. He arrived before Walid died. Sulaiman was very upset at losing his chance to claim the war booty. So, when he ascended the throne, he stripped Musa of all rank, accused him of misappropriating war funds and reduced him to stark poverty. Musa lived the rest of his life as a beggar, half blind and at the mercy of public charity.

The Jews and the peasants in Spain received the Muslim armies with open arms. The serfdoms were abolished and fair wages were instituted. Taxes were reduced to a fifth of the produce. Anyone who accepted Islam was relieved of his servitude. A large number of Spaniards became Muslim to escape the oppression of their former masters. The religious minorities, the Jews and the Christians, received the protection of the state and were allowed participation at the highest levels of the government.

Spain, under Muslim rule, became a beacon of art, science and culture for Europe. Mosques, palaces, gardens, hospitals and libraries were built. Canals were repaired and new ones were dug. New crops were introduced from other parts of the Muslim empire and agricultural production increased. Andalus became the granary of the Maghrib. Manufacturing was encouraged and the silk and brocade work of the peninsula became well known in the trading centers of the world. Andalus was divided into four provinces and efficient administration was established. Cities increased in size and prosperity. Cordoba, the capital, became the premier city of Europe and by the 10th century had over one million inhabitants.

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