Moorish Spain By Richard A. Fletcher


“Thus far the Islamic presence in Spain has been considered from a western and Christian point of view. We should also attempt an assessment of its culture in the wider context of Islamic civilization as a whole. During the Middle Ages al-Andalus–as Moorish Spain was always known in the Arabic-speaking world-was little regarded in the Middle Eastern heartlands of Islam.”

“For the mandarins and intellectuals of sophisticated Damascus, Cairo or Baghdad, al-Andalus was a distant frontier outpost of Islam on the fringes of the known world, irredeemably dowdy and provincial. Yet from this dingy backwater there emerged some of the finest works of Islamic art and culture: for example, the great mosque of Cordoba, the Cuenca school of ivory carving, the poetry of Ibn ‘Ammar, the philosophy of Ibn Rushd (better known as to the west as Averros), the medical treatises of Ibn Zuhr, the Giralda of Seville and the Alhambra of Granada. Here too there are puzzles to be investigated.”

“This is to indicate some of the ways in which Moorish Spain might be thought to lay claim to our attention. But before we proceed further with the inquiry it will be as well to introduce the land which medieval Muslim and Christian shared, for the benefit of those who do not know it. A preliminary difficulty–of which doubtless the reader must already have become aware–is to decide what to call it. This is not a new problem: take for example the opening sentences of the description of Spain by the eleventh-century geographer al-Bakri.”

“People say that in ancient times it was called Iberia, taking its name from the river Ebro. Later it was known as Betica, from the river Betis which runs past Cordoba. Later it was known as Betica, from the river Betis which runs past Cordoba. Later still it was called “Hispania” after a man named “Hispan” who had once ruled there. Some people say that its true name is Hesperia, which is derived from Hesperus, the evening star in the west. Nowadays we call it al Andalus after the Andalusians who settled it.”

“Objections can be raised against nearly all the available options. Hispania and Hesperia sound precious and pedantic. Iberia risks being confused with the region of that name in the Georgian Caucasus. Spain as a term for the whole peninsular land mass between the Pyrenees and the Straits of Gibraltar is open to the objection that it will inevtiably suggest the modern state of Spain and thereby exclude the area covered by modern Portugal.”

“The political designations of the  Middle Ages were applied to territories whose size and shape oscillated wildy. Castile did not exist in the year 800, by the year 1000 it was a moderst county of the Kingdom of Leon, by 1300 it was the largest state in Europe. Al-Andalus meant nearly the whose of the peninsula in the eighth century, but by the late thirteenth it meant the tiny principality of Granada. Religous labels are misleading. Islamic pain always contained a sizeable communities of Christians and Jews, Christian Spain, similiary communities of Jews and Muslims.”

“Ethnic desginations are even more misleading. The language of common speech in al-Andalus, for Christians and Jews as well as for Muslims, was Arabic; but to speak as some have done of Arabic Spain is to give the impression that the land had been colonized by the Arabs, whereas the number of Arabs who settled there was very small. Moorish Spain does at least have the merit of reminidng us that the bulk of the invaders and settlers were Moors, i.e. Berbers from northwest Africa. But we shall need to bear in mind that they overlay a population of mixed descent-Hispano-Romans, Basques, Sueves, Visigoths, Jews, and others.”

“The read who looks for consistency of verbal usage in this book is going to be disappointed. When I use the term al-Andalus I understand by it that area of the Iberian peninsula under the control of Muslim authority, and the phrases Moorish, Muslim and Islamic Spain are to be regard as synonmous with it. I shall try to avoid using Spain to indicate the whole land mass but I do not expect to keep to this well meant resolution. I offer my apologies in advance to those who inhabit the peninsula today who are politically independant of the Spanish monarchy (in Portugal) or who think that they ought to be in the Basque country, Galicia and Catalonia).”

“What needs special emphasis in any account of Moorish Spain is the ease of contact between southern Spain and northwest Africa: the Straits at their narrowest are only twelve miles wide. In his poem Spain of 1937, later disavowed-W.H. Auden called the land that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot Africa. how right he was. The relief, climate, and ecology of southern Spain parallel in Morocco. Shackled to Castile by the chance of history, Andalusia has a natural partner in Barbary, the land of the Berbers, to which indeed she was once linked until the land bridge burst and the waters of the Atlantic gushed in to make the Mediterranean.”

“The Berber and Black African soldiers were known in Andalusi slang as “Tangerines’ because so many were imported through Tangier. Spain was known colloquially as the Dar Dijihad, the land of jihad. The Roman provinces of North Africa fell swiftly to the Arabs. They conquered Egypt in the years 640-42, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (i.e. roughly, the parts of modern Libya) in 643-47, and the province of Africa proper (which the Arabs called Ifriqiya, i.e. today’s Tunisia) by 670 when the new city of Kairouan, to the south of Tunis, was founded. But then the pace of conquest slackened. The Berbers put up fierce resistance to the Arab armies.”

“They were nominally subjected by the early years of the eighth century but continued to mount sporadic rebellions against Arab rule until the 740s and 750s. One way of taming the Berbers, and of simultaneously profiting from their fighting skills, was to encourage or compel their enlistment into Arab-led armies for the prosecution of military campaigns elsewhere. The prospects of adventure and plunder, possibly even of land, would appeal to the Berber warrior tribesmen. Regular military discipline would break down clan loyalties and values; Regular military discipline would turn them into good Muslims. This thinking probably influences the Arab leadership to undertake the raids on southern Spain which occupied the years before 711.”

“It is not clear, from the meager sources that have survived, why raiding should have turned into conquest. Partly, perhaps, it may have arisen from the inner dynamics of the early Islamic polity. The caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty who presided from Damascus over the vast sprawling Islamic empire which had erupted with such speed in the seventh century depended for their survival upon the allegiance of an Arab aristocracy imbued with a warrior ethic. (In this respect they were not unlike the rulers of other early medieval successor states to the Roman empire, such as the Merovingian and Carolingian kings of the Franks in Gaul and Germany.) Prudent rulers respected the habits and needs of their predatory nobilities. Expand or go under: this could have been the motto of any early medieval ruler, whether Christian or Islamic.”

Source: Spain By Richard Fletcher, Richard A. Fletcher

North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present



“Livy contemplated Polybius’s generous assessment as he described Hannibal’s exceptional transcultural consciousness, which the Carthaginian exploited: Hannibals’s army was composed of so many men who had nothing in common in terms of language, culture, law, weaponry, dress, physical appearance, and their reasons for fighting and he varied his exhortations accordingly….The Gauls could be aroused by their own particular and instinctive hatred for the Romans.”

“The Ligurians, who had been brought down from their rugged mountain homes, were inspired hopes of victory by the prospect of the rich plains of Italy. The Moors and Numidians Hannibal frightened by telling them how brutal Masinissa’s rule would be. He worked on their various races by inspiring different hopes and different fears. (Livy 2006, 602)”

“Although Polybius and Livy admired Hannibal’s transcultralism, Carthaginians characteristically evinced these sensitivities for centuries given their commercialism and their need to enlist mercenaries. They realized that Carthage’s survival depended on positive and patient interaction with diverse societies. Carthaginian transculturalism was not casual but crucial and compulsory.”

“Carthage remained independent, but hardly a threat to Rome. Instead, Numidia loomed as Carthage’s greatest menace, whose dynamic King Masinissa aspired to unite the Maghrib. The growth of Numidian power, coupled with the pathological fear of a potentially resurgent Carthage, led to another Roman expedition against its archival.”

“Aided by their Numidian allies, the belligerent Romans, commanded by the adopted grandson of Scipio, Scipio Aemilianus, finally breached Carthage’s walls after a determined and desperate defense. The Romans enslaved the survivors and destroyed the city, reputedly plowing its debris underground and then symbolically salting the land to prevent its regeneration. Establishing a new province, Africa Proconsularis, Romans settled permanently in North Africa.”

“Significant Berber kingdoms exercised considerable power and influence by the time the Romans defeated Carthage, notably Numidia. In addition, Mauretania (the country of the Mauri) bordered Numidia on the west and included Morocco. Although the Romans had allied with Berbers, specifically the Massyli, against Carthage, relations between them declined and ultimately led to the Jugurthine War. In the first century BCE, rivalries among Roman commanders contesting for power embroiled North Africa, ending the Berber Kingdoms and also Hellenistic Egypt. For the first time, an imperial state, the Roman Empire, ruled North Africa’s Mediterranean littoral and, in varying degrees, its hinterland from Egypt to the Atlantic.”

“Ibn Odhari refers to al-Kahina as a Malika or a queen. The resistance of Kusayla and al-Kahina remains important regarding contemporary Berber-Arab cultural controversy, such as the use of the Berber language, Tamazight. See also El-Aroui 1990.”

“Phillip Hitti credited the Arabs’ Semitic (refers to language, not ethnicity) kinship with the Phoenicians in expediting their relations with the Berbers who still spoke Punic in some regions: “This explains the seemingly inexplicable miracle of Islam in Arabicizing the language and Islamizing the religion of these [Berbers] and using them as fresh relays in the race toward further conquest” (Hitti 1970, 214). On the other hand, a significant number of bishoprics remained in North Africa three hundred years after the conquest (ibid.,361). Regarding Arabization, see also the section on the Bantu Hilal in this chapter. Musa’s trust in Tariq illustrated an exceptional sensibility between Arab and Berber, which obviously expedited the campaigns in the far Maghrib and Iberia.”

“The extraordinary expansion of the Umayyads also led to problems in North Africa. Animosity intensified between Berbers and Arabs. Berber, especially those who contributed to Arab success in al-Andalus and elsewhere, demanded the application of Muslim equality. Despite legal prohibitions, Arab administrators imposed taxes and even enslaved Berbers, fellow Muslims, and sent them to the East. The renowned Abbasid historian al-Tabari recounted how Berbers questioned the caliph and Umayyad authority: “They make us give them the most beatiful of our daugthers, and we say, ‘We have not found this in the Book or in the Sunna [the customs of the Prophet Muhamad (see below)]. We are Muslims and we wish to know: is this with the approval of the Commander of the Faithful or not?” (Lewis 1974,2:57-58). The Berbers subsequently revolted and in 741, led by a self-proclaimed “caliph” named Maysara, defeated an Arab force sent from Qayrawan. Although Maysar was eventually killed, the Berber revolt spread into Algeria and al-Andalus.”

Source: North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present By Phillip C. Naylor