Citation for Mozarabs

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Christys, Ann . "Mozarabs." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Nov 29, 2021. <>.


Christys, Ann . "Mozarabs." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Nov 29, 2021).


Medieval writers applied the term “Mozarab” mainly to Christians living in the region of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) held by the Christians after a period of being under Muslim rule, either because they had migrated from al-Andalus to the north or as a result of Christian expansion toward the south. Mozarab has subsequently been extended to all Christians under Muslim rule and to their role as mediators of Islamic influence on Christian culture. The resulting portmanteau term contains a set of assumptions about the Christians of medieval Iberia.

Definition and Origin of the Term

“Mozarab” appears to derive from the Arabic term mustaʾrib, which has a range of meanings in medieval dictionaries, but may be translated “to make oneself similar to the Arab” or “having assimilated Arab customs.” To paraphrase the tenth-century lexicographer al-Azharī from Iraq, who wrote about the eastern mustaʾriba: they looked like Arabs, but they were not real Arabs. It is important to note that mustaʾrib does not seem to have been used by Muslim writers in the West either for the Christians of al-Andalus or for those in the neighboring Christian realms. Western Muslim writers usually referred to Christians in general as naṣrānī. Those living under Muslim rule as one of the protected “Peoples of the Book” were also called dhimmī or muʿāhid. Those outside the dār al-Islām were often defined in harsher terms as mushrikūn (polytheists) or kafīrūn (unbelievers); other labels such as ʿajam (non-Arab), rūm (Byzantine), and afranj (Frank) were more neutral. However, the intended meaning and geographical range of such ethnonyms is often unclear as they were rarely used with precision. Writing about religious sects in his Kitāb al-fīṣal, the Andalusī polymath Ibn Ḥazm (d.1064) made little distinction between the Christians of al-Andalus, whom he called “Melkites,” and those of other lands, putting them in the same category as the Christians of the eastern Islamic lands, the Copts of Egypt, and the Christians of Francia and other parts of Europe.

The first appearance of Mozarab in Iberia is in a Latin document from 1026 recording a land dispute between the monks of San Ciprián de Valdesalce and three muzaraves de rex tiraceros (royal silk-workers) nominates Vincente et Abiahia et Iohannes. This is a unique instance of ethnic labeling for men with Arabic names who appear in charters of northern Spain dating from the tenth century onward and who are assumed to be Christian immigrants from al-Andalus. After the conquest of Toledo by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085, Mozarab came into general use for those Christians who were assumed to have lived in that city under the Muslims. Members of the clergy with Arabic names recorded in the documents for Toledo may be Mozarabs in this sense, although the sources do not name a single Toledan Christian for the two centuries before the conquest and it is possible that some of Toledo’s Mozarabs came to the city from al-Andalus after 1085. Christian writers made a distinction between Mozarabs and other Christians. A fuero general issued by Alfonso VII of Castile in 1118 addressed “omnes cives Toletanos, scilicet Castellanos, Mozarabes atque Francos” and a document of 1115 names one alcalde (judge) for the Mozarabs and another for the Castilians. Pope Eugenius III (1145–1153) addressed a letter to a section of the clergy and people of Toledo “qui Muzarabes nucupantur” (who are called Mozarabs). Between c. 1050 and 1200, these men were responsible for a small corpus of polemical literature against Islam in Arabic that demonstrated their familiarity with the Qurʾān and Islamic tradition, with earlier and perhaps contemporary Oriental Christian polemic in Arabic, as well as with Latin. At the same period scholars from all over Europe came to the city to commission Latin translations of the Qurʾān and Arabic translations of Greek science, both in the search for knowledge and to equip themselves to write polemic against Islam. Around 1400 López de Ayala defined the Mozarabs of Toledo as “Christians mixed with Arabs” who still kept to their separate parishes and practiced their own liturgy rather than the Roman rite adopted at the Council of Burgos in 1080. They looked like Christians, but they were not real Christians. By the sixteenth century there were few Mozarabs in Toledo. Their liturgy had fallen out of use and it was re-created by Cardinal Cisneros to protect the Mozarabs against the charges that they were not Christians of pure blood and that they had betrayed Spain to the Muslims in 711. The Mozarabic liturgy is still observed in this form in Toledo.

Mozarabs in al-Andalus

The thirteenth-century bishop Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada used the term mixli arabes for Christians still under Muslim rule. Although it is not clear whether this has the same etymology as Mozarab, modern historiography has extended Mozarab to all Christians living under Muslim rule. Confusingly, this classification takes in both those who assimilated into Islamic society and those who bitterly opposed acculturation and conversion to Islam. The earliest Andalusī Christian to be characterized as a Mozarab in modern times is the anonymous author of the first chronicle written after the Muslim conquest, known today as the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754. This text was written in Latin in the Late Antique chronicle tradition with no hint that the conquerors of 711 had brought a new religion to the peninsula. The most substantial body of evidence for Andalusī Christians was also written in Latin by Eulogius, a member of a group that included some fifty men and women who, in the 850s, expressed their rejection of Islam by seeking martyrdom. Some of the martyrs experienced the divided loyalties of having a Muslim father and a Christian mother, particularly since Islamic law did not allow them to follow their mother’s faith. Alvarus, Eulogius’s hagiographer, described the existential threat posed by the loss of the Latin language and Christian culture. Yet even Eulogius and Alvarus make it clear that few Christians supported the voluntary martyrdom movement and it was condemned by the church hierarchy in Córdoba. Two works of hagiography composed in northern Spain in the tenth century recount the passions of two Christians martyred in Córdoba and there are occasional references to martyrs in the Arabic sources, but such protest was rare.

In general, the Christians of al-Andalus are rarely mentioned in the written sources and the evidence of their existence has to be pieced together from brief references in a wide range of sources including Arabic chronicles, biographical dictionaries, legal texts, and inscriptions. Lead seals, probably dating from the years of the conquest and originally affixed to written tax demands that have not survived, refer to the capitulation of Christian cities and mention the jiyzah, the poll tax paid by the dhimmī. The responses attributed to Islamic jurists active in al-Andalus from the ninth century onward to questions about the status of Christians and Jews survived in later legal texts. One of these works, attributed to al-Utbi (d. 869), was preserved with a commentary by Ibn Rushd (d. 1126), grandfather of the Ibn Rushd known in the west as Averroes. The elder Ibn Rushd himself issued a fatwā advising the expulsion to Morocco of those Christians who collaborated with Alfonso I of Aragon’s campaigns against al-Andalus in 1125–1126. The compilation of al-Utbi was part of a chain of transmission of the rulings of Mālik ibn Anas (c. 711–795), the dominant school of law in al-Andalus. Rather than representing attempts to increase societal cohesion (known today as convivencia) the legal rulings set boundaries protecting the Muslims from contamination by non-Muslims and concern such matters as ritual purity, sharing food and clothing, the segregation of Muslims and non-Muslims after death, conversion and apostasy, and the treatment of merchants and others from beyond the realm of Islam. Similar warnings against dealing with Christians are found in Ibn ʿAbdun’s treatise on the regulation of markets from twelfth-century Seville.

The first substantial modern account of the Mozarabs, Francisco Simonet’s History of the Mozarabs (1903), characterized the conditions of Christians under Muslim rule as defined by crushing taxation, religious persecution, and public humiliation, which forced them to choose between emigration and resistance to Islam. Simonet’s work set the agenda for research up to the present day, especially in Spain where the diocese of Córdoba, whose cathedral occupies the former Umayyad mosque, promotes Mozarab studies. Simonet’s comprehensive survey of the evidence was biased by his dislike of Islam; some of his conclusions—such as the characterization of Ibn Ḥafṣūn, a prominent rebel against the Umayyads, as the champion of Christian nationalism—have not held up upon further examination. It is now assumed that many, perhaps most, Christians converted to Islam and that this process was almost complete by the tenth century although the scale of conversion is impossible to assess. The genealogies of some Muslim scholars include names that appear to be of Christian origin. Prominent families in the peninsula claimed Christian ancestors who had converted to Islam as a declaration of allegiance to the new regime, sometimes at the hands of the caliph in Damascus. Some of these claims are demonstrably false, as contemporaries noted. The anecdotes recounted by the historian Ibn al-Qūṭiyya (d. 977) show Christians, among them his ancestors, retaining their ancestral lands after the conquest, integrating into Muslim society, and making careers in the Arabic administration. Although some found that conversion to Islam was their passport to success, the bishops and other Christians who served as secretaries, translators, and emissaries from Córdoba to the Christian courts of Europe and Constantinople were able to reach an accommodation with the Umayyad regime while remaining Christian. In the tenth century Bishop Reccemund of Elvira served as ambassador to the court of Otto the Great and is also remembered under the Arabic name Rabīʿ ibn Ziyad as the author of the Calendar of Córdoba, which survives in both an Arabic and a Latin version. From the beginning of the eleventh century, Christians become more prominent in the sources as they acted in the administration of the small ṭāʾifah kingdoms that emerged from the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate. Sisnando Davidez, who was educated in Córdoba, served both the Muslim rulers of Seville and the kings of Leon. Yet the institutions of the church declined and the number of bishoprics was reduced. Archaeology suggests that some churches were abandoned although Christian cemeteries are represented by burials and by a corpus of Latin epitaphs mainly from the tenth century. According to legend, the great mosque of Córdoba was constructed on the site of a Visigothic basilica, although repeated excavations have failed to confirm this. Additionally, excavation of Lisbon’s cathedral suggests that the Visigothic foundations remained in place to the eleventh century when it was used as a mosque. When the Crusaders took the city in 1147 the Christians still had their own bishop, but the Crusaders slaughtered them as though they were indistinguishable from the Muslims. The Andalusī Christian community was one of the targets of the more sternly orthodox Almoravid and Almohad regimes introduced from North Africa. Although Mozarab communities may have survived in Zaragoza, Valencia, and Granada, by the thirteenth century, when Castilian forces regained control of Córdoba and Seville, they found few Christians in these cities.

Conversion to Islam ran in parallel with acculturation. From the late ninth century onward, Arabic was increasingly the medium of written Christian culture. Eulogius’s accounts of the martyrs of Córdoba, written in highly convoluted Latin, marked the end of original Latin literature in al-Andalus. Latin texts from the period before 711 were still copied, but many have marginal glosses in Arabic to help their readers, who could also use Latin-Arabic glossaries. Some of the church’s important texts were translated into Arabic for the same reason. Fragments of an Arabic translation of the letter of Paul to the Galatians and a verse translation of the Psalms survive from the end of the tenth century. The translator of the Psalms, Hafs ibn Albar, was probably responsible for an Arabic version of the Seven Books of History Against the Pagans of Orosius (c. 375–after 418), one of the most influential works of history of the medieval period; he may also have written a now lost apology for Christianity. Other sections of the Bible were translated, some more than once, together with a codex of canon law for use by the Arabic-speaking Church in al-Andalus, which was completed in 1050. By these criteria, those who remained Christian were becoming increasingly “similar to the Arab” and the philologist Federico Corriente concluded that they left a lasting legacy on the Spanish language, introducing more than four thousand Arabic words via the local Arabic dialect.


Just as the rate of Christian conversion to Islam is unknown, so the scale of Christian emigration to northern Spain is impossible to quantify. Arabic names appear in cartularies from Galicia in the west to Pamplona and Jaca in the east. Individuals coming from al-Andalus were named in chronicles, documents, and inscriptions as the founders or “re-founders” of monasteries. Other emigrants, such as Theodulf of Orleans and other and Hispani (Spaniards), contributed to Christian societies beyond Iberia. It is not clear if they traveled north to escape persecution. Some came in response to requests for colonists of lands conquered by the kings of Asturias and later Castile; the Asturian chroniclers used the topos of depopulation and repopulation of land abandoned by Christians after the conquest, which recent archaeology has disproved, to justify Asturian claims over the Duero region. The influence of these Christian emigrants who were familiar with the language, art, and architecture of al-Andalus generated what Cyrille Aillet and other scholars have characterized as “Mozarabism” or “a Mozarab situation” that pervaded Christian culture both in the south and the north of the peninsula. The extent of this influence is difficult to assess. Early medieval Spanish art is best known for the spectacular illustrations of manuscripts in Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, which were copied in the monasteries of the northern kingdoms of Asturias and Leon after the end of the ninth century. They are very different from contemporary Frankish and Ottonian art and while some scholars see this as a sign of Islamic influence, others argue that the Visigoth period left an indelible mark on Spanish culture that can still be traced in the tenth century and after. The perennial debate about the Islamic contribution to Spanish culture and identity cannot be settled by looking at the Beatus manuscripts, as their artists rarely used Islamic motifs. Attention has instead been focused on dating a group of churches—of which the earliest is probably San Miguel de la Escalda, near Leon, dedicated in 913—most of which are characterized by a central plan, the horseshoe arch, and barrel vaulting. Manuel Gómez Moreno, writing in 1911, called them Iglesias Mozárabes (Mozarabic Churches) and argued that they were built in the Visigothic style in the Islamic period. In 1992 Luis Caballero redated the church of Santa María de Melque, near Toledo, which he had previously considered Visigoth, to the eighth century because it appeared to have Islamic stylistic features, raising the possibility that church building continued in lands held by Muslims. The Hermitage of San Braulio de Berlanga, Soria, which has several Islamic features, may also date from this period, although its famous frescos, now in New York and elsewhere, date from the twelfth century. As most of the churches associated with Mozarab founders are difficult to distinguish on stylistic grounds from clearly dated Visigoth foundations, the subject remains open to reassessment in the light of future archaeological discoveries.


No simple answer can be given to the question of who were the Mozarabs. A purist attitude in defining the term would be too restrictive, yet modern historiography has compounded the polyvalence of the term found in the medieval period, as each user of the label “Mozarab” smuggles in his or her opinion of the people so designated. It is likely that most Christians living under Muslim rule were neither especially resistant to Islam nor wholly welcoming of it. Andalusī Christians adopted elements of the Arabic language and Islamic culture; that this contributed to Spanish culture and identity is clear even though the extent of the contribution remains controversial.


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