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Islam and Christendom >
Christians and Muslims in Andalusia

In the Iberian peninsula the establishment of a Muslim presence did not take place without serious difficulties. The ruling group was composed of Arabs, Syrians, and Egyptians with Berber troops, all uncertain of the trustworthiness of the other. Aside from the Berbers, the actual number of invaders from the east was very small. Nonetheless, in the forty years it took to set up a stable administration in Spain, it was clear that the Islamic presence was a reality and that their successes were not to be seriously reversed for a long time. In 756, six years after the overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasids in the eastern Islamic territories, an Umayyad prince named Abd al-Rahman fled west to escape Abbasid persecution. He established the emirate of Córdoba, forming an administration that would last for two and a half centuries.

The time during which Muslims and Christians, along with Jews, lived in proximity in the Iberian peninsula has often been cited as a kind of ideal era of interfaith harmony. To some extent that claim may be justified, but if so the era was fairly short and was soon supplanted by the tensions, prejudices, and treatment of minorities by both Muslims and Christians that more often has characterized relationships between the communities. By the tenth century the chaos of earlier invasions had settled, and the Iberian peninsula was pretty well split between the Christian Kingdom of Leon in the north and the considerably larger Muslim al-Andalus (known as Andalusia) in the south, with a thin frontier zone in between. During the rule of Abd al-Rahman III in Córdoba (912–61, the first Andalusian caliphate officially beginning in 929), the Spanish Islamic state reached the height of power and fame. It was a time of great opulence and achievement, in which intellectual circles of Muslims, Jews, and Christians under Abd al-Rahman's patronage contributed to a flourishing of the arts, literature, astronomy, medicine, and other cultural and scientific disciplines. Muslim tolerance of the so-called People of the Book was high, and social intercourse at the upper levels was easy and constant. It was also a period during which a significant number of Christians chose to convert to Islam, although Christians continued to outnumber Muslims in Andalusia until the second half of the tenth century.

Christians and Muslims in Andalusia

Córdoba was the capital of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain. Although Christians and Jews occupied high positions at court in the tenth century, many converted to Islam. The center of the Muslim community was the Great Mosque, founded in the eighth century and repeatedly enlarged and restored, as shown by this tenth-century portal.

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Christians living in Andalusia gradually became Arabized, adopting certain elements of the speech and dress of their rulers, often including Arabic names. They were thus known by the designation of Mozarabs. This was not always received well by the jurists of Islam, who saw in this a danger of contamination and a threat to the faith of Muslim societies. Arabs, whether for reasons of pride or disdain, refused to learn the language of the populations they conquered, forcing the westerners to learn their language. Arabic words began to infuse the vocabulary such that some Arabic words still remain in Spanish today and many have found their way into the English language. Learned Christians, who had once written in Latin, increasingly composed their works in Arabic. Eulogius, Bishop of Toledo (martyred in 859), is said to have complained that his co-religionists of Córdoba knew the rules of Arabic grammar better than the infidels, and that many among them were ignorant of Latin.

Christians and Muslims in Andalusia

Jewish culture flourished under Islamic rule in Spain. The lavish carved plaster decoration of the thirteenth-century synagogue of Toledo, later converted into the church of Santa Maria la Blanca, attests to the intermingling of faith and culture in this period.

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Arabization did not stop with the language. Mozarab women of a certain social status became accustomed to going out with their faces veiled. Many Christians living in Muslim Spain gave up the practice of eating pork and often refused even to raise pigs. They found themselves increasingly appreciating and appropriating Arabic music, poetry, and other forms of culture. Popular pre-Islamic melodies were conserved in Spain over the centuries. Records even tell of Christians and Muslims joining together in merrymaking and sexual indulgences. Christian moralists denounced as corruption what they saw to be the libertine nature of the conquerors' manners, whereas in fact both Muslim clerics and Christian theologians were worried that sensuality was taking over the culture. One important means of rapproachment between the elites of the two populations was the marriage of an Arabic-speaking Christian of high rank with a Muslim. Nevertheless, records indicate that actual contacts between Muslims and Christians were relatively limited.

Mozarabs of the Iberian peninsula, who were living comfortably in the Muslim state, seemingly did not attach much importance to the difference in religion. Nonetheless, Arabization had its limits. As assimilated as he or she might be, the dhimmi always remained an infidel in the eyes of the Muslim. No matter how integrated Christians were in the Arabo-Islamic culture, by virtue of their Christian identity ultimately they remained strangers in their own society. This became more evident as the centuries of Muslim rule in Spain passed. In the days of the high Córdoban caliphate under Abd al-Rahman III, Christians generally were tolerated, protected, and treated with charity. This began to change with the rule of Abu Amir al-Mansur (Almanzor) in the late tenth century, who began a series of ruthless campaigns against Christians, including the plundering of churches and other Christian sites. Almanzor was regarded by Christian writers as a kind of satanic scourge.

With the decline of the prestige of the Córdoban caliphate, official policies became reflected in social intercourse. The most pious Muslims refrained from speaking to the infidels except at a distance. If a Muslim and Christian met on a public road, the Christian always had to give way to the Muslim. Houses of Christians had to be lower than those of Muslims. An “infidel” Christian could never employ a Muslim in service. It was forbidden for Christians to learn the Quran or to speak about it to their children, as it was forbidden for them to speak about Christ with Muslims. Christians could not build new churches or monasteries or repair old ones if they deteriorated, although they could provide minimal maintenance. Churches and chapels had to be kept open day and night should a Muslim traveler wish to find lodging. Church bells could only be sounded softly, voices could not be raised in prayer, and no cross could be placed outside of any building. A priest could not carry a cross or gospel in a visible manner in case he should pass a Muslim. Christians were buried in their own cemeteries, far from Muslims, and funeral processions could not pass through Muslim areas. A Muslim who converted to Christianity was immediately sentenced to death, even if he had formerly been a Christian who converted to Islam. Islamic authorities, concerned that Muslim society not be contaminated and in the attempt to contain rebellions, forced Mozarabs to live in special quarters. By 1250 most of Iberia was ruled by the kings of Aragon, Castile, and Portugal, with only the Muslim principality of the Nasrid emirate of Granada surviving. Schools of Latin and Arabic were established in Seville, especially to train missionaries to Muslims. Rebellions of mudejars (Muslims who submitted to Christian rule) in Castile and Aragon led to severe persecutions and expulsions.

Thus the era of harmonious interaction between Muslims and Christians in Spain came to an end, replaced by intolerance, prejudice, and mutual suspicion. Muslim Almoravids and Almohads from North Africa, coming to power in the eleventh century, represented a much more aggressive Islamic fervor, and relations with Christians became increasingly hostile. Christian attitudes hardened against Islam, influenced by the revival and spread of the Catholic monastic houses of Cluny. In the meantime Christian forces from the north were moving gradually but steadily to recapture Andalusian territories. By 1212 the Almohads were defeated by major Christian powers who then reconquered Córdoba, Valencia, and Seville. By the middle of the thirteenth century Muslim control in Spain was greatly reduced, and Christian fervor, kindled also by the temporary successes of the Crusades in the Holy Land, led to persecutions, emigrations, and the expulsion of Muslims from newly regained Christian territories. Those Muslims who remained were forbidden from giving the call to prayer from minarets, from going on pilgrimage, and from publicly practicing their faith. High taxes led to an increasingly low standard of living for Muslims. The ground was laid for the final expulsion of Islam from the land of Andalusia at the end of the fifteenth century.

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