Hints of past glory The Puento Romano with the Mezquita-Catedral of Cordova in the background. Image Credit: Rabia Alavi

One thousand years ago, Muslims, Christians and Jews sauntered down the same cobbled pathways in the sun-drenched cities of southern Spain, living, flourishing and contributing to Andalusia’s fashionable society and culture.

The Moors ruled the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years — a long, glorious period of eminence and prosperity, with a vibrant economy, splendid architecture and a growing body of knowledge that made it the centre of the world for centuries.

But all this changed, once a growing strain of intolerance took hold of the Muslim rulers. Add to this the fear that religious movements such as the Crusades had of a Muslim society flourishing as a beacon of learning for the rest of the world, and glorious Spain was soon swept away.

Iyad Al Baghdadi, a researcher based in the UAE, says that “the fact that the downfall of Andalusia can be attributed to intolerance and fanaticism, holds important lessons for us”.

Eventually, Islam disappeared from the Peninsula, with the Muslim population dwindling to zero once the expulsion orders came. As the Portuguese Dominican monk, Damian Fonseca, said, this was no less than an “agreeable holocaust”.

The coming of the Moors

In the year 711, a Christian chief sent out a letter to Mousa Bin Nusayr, the governor of North Africa, requesting assistance to get rid of the tyrannical Visigoth ruler of Spain, Roderick. Mousa responded by sending the young Muslim general Tarek Bin Ziyad with 7,000 North African Berber troops under his command.

This story does not resonate well universally, for while all historians agree that Tarek did invade Spain, most believe that the reasons behind the invasion were not as noble, and had more to do with expanding Muslim territory.

By 720, the Moors (as the Arab-led Muslim troops were called) had conquered most of Spain and Portugal, almost unhindered and unopposed in their takeover.

An important reason for their conquest at breakneck speed was their generosity in terms of their conditions for surrender. In return for the loyalty of local officials, the Moors allowed them to retain their positions of authority.

But because the Muslim forces were made up of different nationalities, it was difficult to find coherence in them. And it did not help that although Muslims are all equal in the eyes of the Almighty, the Arabs treated the Berber tribesmen as second-class citizens, usurping all the best lands and riches.

There was much tumult, uncertainty and even a Berber revolt, in the period immediately following the Moorish conquest. This anarchy allowed for the survival of three important Christian states: Leon, Castile and Aragon.

But stability returned to Spain by 750 with the formation of a heartland for Muslim rule in southern Spain: the Andalusia region.

Abdurehman, the sole survivor of Umayyad Dynasty, who escaped the Abbasid dynasty’s fierce coup, found his way to Spain. He is credited for binding together all the Muslim groups that had conquered Spain, and establishing a degree of control over the frontiers. He was extremely ambitious, ruling with authority after shifting the capital from Toledo, the old Visigothic centre, to Cordova, making it the new capital of the Umayyad Caliphate.

The golden period

By the year 1000, the Muslim rulers had turned Al Andalus into the greatest economic, social and cultural power in the world — founding a civilisation based on knowledge and faith. The population of Iberia at this time was more than five million — mostly Muslim.

The Moors were highly skilled agriculturalists, and their engineers mastered the construction of extensive irrigation and waterwheel systems, some of which have survived to this day. They introduced cotton, rice, lemons and strawberries in addition to the peaches, pomegranates, apricots and oranges already growing there, boosting the agriculture industry.

The government was able to lower tax rates even more as the economy flourished. It then turned to the growth of urban industries, utilising the mineral wealth of copper, gold, silver, tin and lead, and also making way for the establishment of the silk, glass, woollens and paper — and book-making industries. An indication of Moorish prosperity is that government revenue was said to have reached 6.5 million gold dinars (about Dh4.3 billion) per year in those times.

But the greatest legacy of the Moors to Europe was the establishment of Al Andalus as the cynosure of knowledge. At a time when the rest of Europe was in “darkness” so to speak, Muslim Spain was a shining light — the centre of learning.

Education was widespread in the 10th and 11th centuries, with 17 established universities in Moorish Spain. The finest of these were located in Almeria, Cordova, Granada, Juen, Malaga, Seville and Toledo.

Scholars, scientists and artists formed learned societies, and scientific congresses were organised to promote research and extend the reach of knowledge.

Moorish Spain boasted more than 70 libraries, of which the one in Cordova (said to be Hakam II’s personal collection) housed more than 6,000,000 volumes. These books were purchased and painstakingly brought from Baghdad, Basra, Kufa, Damascus, Cairo, Makkah and Madinah.

Sadly, this precious, priceless collection was destroyed — not in the Spanish Inquisition — but long before that; Al Mansour, a subsequent Muslim ruler who was ultra-orthodox, deemed the library useless and full of “ancient science” books, passing the order that they be burnt.

Hakam II, the second ruler of the caliphate, also ordered the translation of several ancient Greek and Latin works, earning the title of a patron of knowledge in the Muslim world. Ground-breaking achievements were made in the areas of mathematics, medicine, astronomy, geography and philosophy. Famous thinkers from this period, such as Ibn Massara and Ibn Rushd and the Jewish Mosheh Bin Maimoon (Maimonides) — the most prolific scholar of Torah — eventually helped usher medieval Europe out of the Dark Ages.

In fact, Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West, devoted his life to reconciling faith with reason, focusing especially on Aristotle’s philosophies, and laying the true foundation for Europe’s Rennaisance.

“Ibn Rushd is considered a key figure in modern secularism,” Al Baghdadi says. “Unfortunately, [due to the Almohads, and their intolerance and fanaticism] Maimonides fled to Egypt where he lived, taught and died; Ibn Rushd also lived during the Almohad period, and he was banished and his books burnt.”

In “The Golden Ages of History”, Joseph McCabe, a prolific British writer on science, religion, politics, history and culture, describes Cordova of those times, in some of the book’s most beautiful passages:

“In Cordova, the old packed Cordova, they would find a city of 250,000 houses … Its streets were paved — so soundly, indeed, that in some of them you tread the same stones today, just as you cross the Guadalquivir on the same noble bridge — drained by large sewers, … and lit by lamps at night … It had 900 public baths — we are told that a poor Arab would go without bread rather than soap — and more than 1,000 mosques, the largest of which is still one of the architectural wonders of the world in spite of later Spanish disfigurements.”

This was hundreds of years before there was a paved street in Paris or a street lamp in London. And public baths were an amenity that was enjoyed by the inhabitants of Moorish Spain when Christian Europe regarded cleanliness as a sin.

The bridge that McCabe refers to is the elegantly-arched Puente Romano (a vestige left over from the centuries spent under Roman occupation). Besides offering some fabulous views of the Mezquita, it has also been built over a significant waterway of Spain.

The mosque that he refers to is the Great Mosque of Cordova, now referred to as the Mezquita-Cetedral. It dates back to this caliphate, with expansion work carried out in four stages lasting two centuries to give the world the most adept form of Moorish architecture.

Under Hakam II, the second ruler of the caliphate, the capital enjoyed unparalleled ethnic, cultural and religious harmony. He ensured that the Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace.

“While the government of the times is to be credited with building this tolerant society, it is also true that the Umayyad Arabs were a minority and therefore had to treat other social groups with tolerance and a relatively light hand; meanwhile the Almohads and Almoravids that followed were Berbers and had a relative numerical majority and that contributed to their relative tyranny,” Al Baghdadi explains.

Although historians worry about the extent to which people tend to over-romanticise this as the “golden period of coexistence”, there was indeed a respect for one another’s sacred texts. Yet the reality was perhaps a bit more complicated.

In “The Jews of Islam”, the eminent historian Bernard Lewis says that non-Muslims in Moorish Spain were second-class citizens. But he adds that “second-class citizenship, though second class, is a kind of citizenship. It involves some rights, though not all, and is surely better than no rights at all ...”

Before 1050, Jews and Christians contributed a great deal to the culture and society of Al Andalus, were retained in the civil service of the Muslim rulers, and were not prevented from earning a living in any particular sector or industry.

The non-Muslims of Spain were not forced to live in ghettos, or any special areas. Their movements were unrestricted, and there were no forced conversions. Non-Muslims could follow their belief system, as long as they paid jizya, a tax levied on all non-Muslims.

The position of non-Muslims in Spain depreciated considerably by the middle of the 11th century, as intolerance began to find its way into the government.

However, things became far more difficult for minority-faith groups once Christianity replaced Islam in Spain.

Decline and downfall of the Moors

In the 1000s, the caliphate split up into small factions that came to be known as “taifas”. Distrust and disunity in these city-states made them vulnerable to invasions and conquests by the Christian kingdoms in the north, although the Almovarid and Almohad movements from North Africa tried to check this growing tide.

But despite Christian conquests, the Muslim rulers maintained their independence, even though they to pay tributes to the Christians who conquered their states.

The Almovarids can be blamed for sowing the seeds of hostility in Spain. They refused to allow for any breaches of Islamic law, and were absolutely intolerant of the Jews and Christians. Meanwhile, the Christian princes grew more aggressive, desperate for revenue that they had been generating from Muslim states in the form of tributes before the Almovarids put a stop to them. Also the church reform movement wanted to channel the energies of the Europe’s nobility into campaigns such as the wars in Spain and the Crusades to serve its own interests.

By the mid-13th century, Moorish rule was confined to Granada, where a ruling dynasty that came to be known as the Nasrids established their kingdom in the 1230s.

For more than 250 years, Granada remained a tributary to the powerful Castile kingdom, paying a sum annually to remain independent.

Poetry, art and architecture continued to flourish here, even as the influx of refugees from the north continued to increase. Some of the jewels of Islamic architecture are found here — the remains of the glorious Al Hambra complex of palaces and the Generalife gardens.

When he visited Spain in the 1800s, the American historian Washington Irving wrote, “They (the Muslims) deserved this beautiful country, for they won it bravely, and they enjoyed it generously and kindly. Everywhere I meet traces of their sagacity, courage, urbanity, high poetic feeling and elegant taste. The noblest institutions in this part of Spain, the best inventions for comfortable and elegant living, and those attitudes and customs which throw a peculiar and oriental charm over the Andalusian mode of living may be traced to the Moors.”

Granada’s luck ran out in the 1400s, with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. The union ended the internal disputes of the former rivals, Aragon and Castile — the two most powerful Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula.

Together, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella waged a war aimed at destroying the last vestige of Muslim power in Spain. Mohammad, the son of the sultan of Granada, helped them in this cause. A year into the siege of Granada, he rebelled against his father, and later, uncle, in the hope of being allowed to rule independently once the war was over.

Just when he had settled in the ruling seat, he received a letter from King Ferdinand ordering him to abdicate.

He realised too late that he had been used as a pawn to weaken Granada. He sought help from Muslim kingdoms throughout North Africa and the Middle East but none came.

Sultan Mohammad was exiled after signing the handover treaty papers. On his way out of the city, he stopped at a mountain pass to look back. He started to cry. Unimpressed by his sudden remorse, his mother chided him: “Do not cry like a woman for that which you could not defend as a man.”

In the end, constant infighting, a focus of Muslim rulers on strengthening only themselves rather than stressing on unity, and a lack of support from other Muslim empires, closed the chapter of Moorish rule in Spain forever.

After the Reconquest, as it is called, the marginalised Muslims were faced with a new, daunting prospect — a choice between forced conversion and expulsion.

Plight of religious minorities

For some historians, the campaign of ethnic cleansing that raised its ugly head once the country was “reunited as Christian Spain” has become associated with the persecution of the Jews, while the plight of the Moors is mostly ignored.

Yet nowhere was racial and religious tolerance so pronounced as it was in the Christian Spain of the 1600s — and this was so for both the Jews and Muslims.

Despite a clause in the handover treaty that allowed the new subjects of the crown to preserve their mosques and religious practices, and retain the use of their language, within seven years, the terms were broken. The Jews faced almost immediate persecution and expulsion orders once the takeover of Granada was complete.

But the Muslims fared no better.

Roger Boase, writing in “History Today”, says, “In medieval times the status of Muslims under Christian rule was similar to that of Christians under Muslim rule: they belonged to a protected minority which preserved its own laws and customs in return for tribute. But there was no Scriptural basis for the legal status of Jews and Muslims under Christian rule; they were subject to the whims of rulers, the prejudices of the populace and the objections of the clergy.”

The Catholic Church made it a priority to convert Muslims, now that they were not protected by the state. Muslims could choose between being baptised and leaving the country. Most Muslims chose the former, although secretly remaining attached to Islam. These supposed “converts” were called the Moriscos, a derogatory term but used by historians to define the Arabs who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada.

When it became clear to the Christian rulers that the Muslims remained adherent to their beliefs, they were harassed and tortured to ensure their “true” conversion. Their wealth and properties were confiscated, all Arabic texts (except medical ones) burnt, children separated from their mothers, and rebels reduced to slaves. Even then, if Muslims were found abiding by their beliefs, they were imprisoned.

The church dictated royal legislation at just about every stage. Juan de Ribera, the ageing Archbishop of Valencia, convinced King Philip that the mere demographic factor would have the “Moriscos outnumbering the Christians in no time”.

Hence, about 100 years after Granada’s fall, the King of Spain signed an edict that expelled all the Moriscos from Spain. They were given three days to pack up and leave.

And so the Muslims were removed from Spain in 1610. The Spanish government gave clear orders to the Christians to harass, or even kill, as many of them as possible before they left.

According to Roger Boase, “The full tale of the sufferings endured by the Moriscos has never fully been told: how those who survived the journey arrived at their destination starving and destitute because the bare necessities and money that they were permitted to take with them had been extorted from them by thieves and swindlers; how those travelling overland to France were forced by farmers to pay whenever they drank from a river or sat in the shade of a tree; how thousands of those who resisted and survived ended their days as galley-slaves; how those waiting to board ship were starved so that they would agree to sell their children in exchange for bread; how it was the official policy of the church to separate Morisco children from their parents.”

Ribera’s suggestion that the thousands of Muslim children leaving with their parents be held back so that they could be trained as priests found much appreciation in the royal courts. He also suggested that they be brought up only by farmers or artisans, and definitely not be allowed to study literature. That way, it was hoped that all memories of Muslim Spain would be wiped out for ever.

How many Moriscos eventually reached North Africa and parts of the Ottoman Empire are unknown, for no Muslim historian has dealt with the subject. But Stanley Lane-Poole, the British orientalist and scholar, says that no less than three million Moors were banished after the fall of Granada.

Many modern Western historians, in their aim to banish the dark pages of their side of history, and lay all the blame of savagery on the Muslims, quote the number in merely thousands. And most claim that they were transported on specially arranged boats and ships from the Spanish naval fleet. Again, how small or overloaded these boats were, and the precarious conditions of this travel find little mention in their books.

In fact, some historians such as Henry Lapeyre and P. Conrad go even further, justifying the expulsion (read extermination) as a need of the times.

According to Al Baghdadi, “For many years after the final fall, Arabs would suffix their mention of Al Andalus with a short prayer, ‘raddaha Allah’ (may God return it). Five centuries later, Al Andalus is to Arabs a symbol of magnificent glory and irrecoverable loss. The mention of Al Andalus brings to the contemporary Arab deep feelings of both great pride and heart-rending sorrow. Some see parallels between the final expulsion of its people and the displacement of the Palestinians from their homeland, raddaha Allah.”

There is nothing in Islamic history that matches the story of the rise and decline of Al Andalus. Spain has paid a heavy price for denying the country’s Jewish and Muslim cultural roots for so long.

In today’s Europe, home to more than 30 million Muslims and 1.5 million Jews, it is perhaps time to revise and rewrite history so the Moorish legacy can be granted its rightful place — a place so aptly defined by R.B. Smith, in his book “Mohammed and Mohammedanism”: “Yet even now, the traveller in Spain feels as he approaches Andalusia that he is breathing a clearer atmosphere, that he is brought into contact with a finer literature, and is contemplating a far nobler architecture than any which the more northern parts of the peninsula can boast. Moorish, not Catholic, is everything that appeals to his imagination and to his finer feelings; Moorish are the legends and the ballads of the country; Moorish are the Alcazar and the Giralda of Seville; Moorish everything that is not discordant in the once matchless Mosque, now the interpolated Cathedral of Cordova; Moorish all the glories of the Alhambra. And as the traveller passes the hill which is still called, with such deep pathos, ‘the last sigh of the Moor’, he feels that the day which saw the fall of Granada is a day over which every Spaniard may well sigh for what it cost Spain, and every European for what it cost humanity at large.”

Rabia Alavi is a Dubai-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/RabiaAlavi