The history of Islamic Spain

The history of Islamic Spain

The story of how Islamic culture, architecture, art & language dominated Spain

Kasper Christiansen
Text & photos: Kasper Christiansen
2. July 2021 (updated)

When travelling in Spain, you will see the Islamic heritage from Zaragoza in the North to Andalucía in the South. The Muslims were present on the Iberian for almost 800 years from 711 until 1492 and they have left an important impression in Spanish culture architecture - also Spanish language is highly influenced by the Arabic language.

Read our article about Islamic architecture & art in Spain.
Islami design tiles and carved plaster from the Alhambra Palace, Granada . Spain
Islamic culture and architecture- tiles and carved plaster from the Alhambra Palace, Granada . Spain

How did Islam come to Spain?

Islam came to Spain when the Berber Umayyad commander Tariq Ibn Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar that separated Morocco from Spain in 711 and started the conquest of Visigothic Spain. The name Gibraltar, the famous rock in the now English colony, is actually named after Tariq: Jabal Tāriq means Tariq's mountain.

TTariq's army counted some 7.000 people (a mix of Berber and Arab troops) killing the Visigothic king Roderic a few months later. A new Arab army joined Tariq's forces the year after, and over the next couple of years, two thirds of Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal) was taken. So already in 716 most of the peninsula was under Arabic control. In 718 Tariq entered Barcelona in north-eastern Spain close to the border of modern France.

The moors soon entered southern part of France and not before the battles of Covadonga, Spain (722) and Poitiers, France (732, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Tours) where the Muslims were pushed back.

However, to understand the real influence of the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain, we need to rewind and look at the beginning of Islam.

A short history of Islam

The Islamic caliphates

After the death of Muhammad, there was no generally acknowledged heir and several people claimed to be the rightful successors of the prophet. A series of caliphates arose over the following decades. They caliphates were ruled by a caliph (Arabic khalīfah, 'successor').

The following caliphates arose:

  • The Rashidun Caliphate (632-661)
  • The Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)
  • The Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258).
  • With the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, the Caliphates ceased to exist - until Selim I claimed to be the rightful successor of Muhammad in 1517 and constituted the Ottoman Caliphate (1517-1923)

Abd al-Rahman & the Umayyads

The Umayyads Caliphate was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan after the murder of the third Caliph Uthman ibn Affan (Uthman was also part of the Umayyad dynasty). Muawiya led a reaction against the successor Ali ben Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and, a called himself the emir of the Muslims.

The Abbasids (762-1268) - Abd al-Rahman and the Spanish Caliphate

The Abbasid Caliphate was the third caliphate to succeed the prophet Muhammad and are descendants of Muhammad's youngest uncle Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (they take their name from Abbas). Baghdad was their capital from 762 to 1258. The Abbasids organized a massacre on the Umayyad family in 750. However, one heir, Abd al-Rahman, succeeded in escaping and fled to western North Africa (the birthplace of his mother, a Berber slave).

In 756 he sailed across the strait between Africa and Europe and founded a new Umayyad dynasty. In 786 Abd al-Rahman started building a new mosque in Qurtuba (Córdoba). The city was founded by the Romans (during the Romans it was named Corduba) and it was the capital of the roman province of Baetica.

Cordoba grew rapidly and became the biggest city in Western Europe, with more than 500.000 inhabitants in the 10th century. It became the center of Muslim learning with schools and libraries, and both Muslim, Christian and Jewish intellectuals came to Cordoba.

The Fatimids

The Fatimid leader, the imam, claimed descent from Muhammad's daughter Fatimah (therefore the the Caliphate was called Fatimid) and formed a dynasty in Ifriqiya: today's eastern Algeria, Tunisia and Libya (former Tripolitania). The Fatimid leader, Mahdi (the “right guide”) emerged in northern Syria, but fled to Egypt fearing the Abbasids, whose authority he challenged.

Mahdi arrived to Sijilmasa, Morocco and then to Kairouan, Tunisia, where he formed a new capital city: Al-Mahdiya/Mahdia, in the year 921. Here he built the Mosque of Mahdia, one of the most important Fatimid monuments.

Abd al-Rahman III and the caliphate (929-1031)

Abd al-Rahman III (912-961) came to the throne in 912 - 3 years after the Fatimid declaration of a caliphate in Ifriqiya. In 929 he assumed the title of Caliph, provoked by the Fatimids who had declared their own caliph. He hereby became "the ruler of the orthodox" and situated the Umayyads on the same level as the Abbasids and Fatimids.

Ab al-Rahman III had access to the lucrative African trade that brought gold, slaves and ivory and he built a new capital city, Medina Azahara, and the embellished the mosque in Cordoba.

The Almoravids (1062-1147)

The founder of the Almoravids, Yahya b. Ibrahim, had visited Mecca in 1036-39, where he had met with Abdallah Ibn Yasin. From Mauritania, they founded Marrakesh as a capital. Marrakesh got water from the Atlas Mountains by sloping underground water channels (qanat). Under Yusuf many taifas were annexed under Marrakesh.

The Almoravids were initially able to maintain prosperity by controlling the African gold trade but ultimately could not control such a big empire. The pope extended the Crusades to the Iberian Peninsula and revolts broke out in major cities and Marrakesh fell to the Almohads in 1147.

The Almohads (1147-1248)

The name of the Almohads comes from al-Muwahhidun, which means 'Believers in the unity of God'. The founder of the Almohads was Muhammad ibn Tumart, who studied in both Córdoba, Alexandria, Baghdad and Mecca. After the conquer of Marrakesh from the Almoravids in 1147, the Almohads built many mosques and fortifications in both northern Africa and in Spain. The building style of the Almohads was serene, with only limited used of scalloped arches and the use of whitewashed walls, long rows of horseshoe arches, limited ornament and use of inscriptions and only use of little colour on the minarets of the mosques.

The collapse of the Almohad dynasty started with the Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212, which was an important turning point in the history of the reconquista. The forces of King Alfonso VIII of Castilla were joined by armies of his rivals, Sancho VII of Navarro and Pedro II of Aragón and defeated the Almohad Caliphate. In terms of building style, the Almohads were clearly inspired by the architecture of Abd al-Rahman III.

The Nasrid dynasty

The Nasrid dynasty was the last Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula. They ruled the Emirate of Granada (with Granada as capital) in the period 1230 to 1492. The impulse of Nasrid power was the Almohads loss in the battle of Navas in 1212.

The building style of the Nasrids

Their building style contrast heavily to that of the Almohads, being much bolder. Muhammad V inherited the throne from his father Yusuf I in 1354 but was overthrown in 1359 by his brother Ismail II. He went to Fez (Morocco) under the protection of the Marinid Sultan for three years. This period meant an important change in style, and Mohammad V most probably was inspired by the architecture in Fez. With help from the Christian King of Castille, Pedro el Cruel, he regained power.

The close relationship between Peter the Cruel and Muhammad V

After ruling 5 years, from 1354 to 1359, Muhammad was overthrown from power, by his half-brother, Ismail II (who took the throne as Muhammad VI). He then went to Fez three years (1359-62), where he had protection from the local Sultan.

With help from the Christian king Peter the Cruel he restored power. Peter the Cruel lured Muhammad VI to come to his court in Seville, where he was murdered. Peter the Cruel then sent the head of the half-brother to Muhammad V, when he was reinstalled at the throne.

Peaceful coexistence?

It is often said that Al-Andalus is an example of peaceful coexistence between three different religions and culture: Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

The moors

The moors is the general term (in Spanish moros) used for the foreign. It comes from greek μαύρο, meaning black or brown. It included everyone who was a Muslim, both Berbers, and Arabs.

Muslims vase
Potteri - one of the most beautiful churches in Europe

Al-Andalus - Muslim Spain

The Muslims dominated Spain from 711 to 1492 and continued to have influence until 1609, when the moriscos were expelled from Spain. Al-Andalus was closely connected with northwest Africa, known as Maghrib - the word means "the place where the sun sets" in Arabic. Also, Sicily was Muslim from the 9th century to the end of the 11th century.

‘‘Córdoba had street lamps and a highly developed culture when the Vikings were mostly focused on drinking beer’’

Muslim forces left Egypt in 641-42 and moved towards Tripolitania (modern Libya) and arrived to the Atlantic coast in 681. In 711, a force under the control of the berber Tariq b. Ziyad entered Gibraltar. The name of Gibraltar comes from Arabic Jabal Tariq, Tariq's mountain. The Muslims took Spain in just 7 years.

During the first years, simple mosques were created, but none of them stand today.

Some decades later, Abd al-Rahman (731–788). Abd al-Rahman came from the Umayyad family that had controlled Syria since 661.

Spanish language today and the Arabic influence

Today, in modern Spanish around 25 % of Spanish words can be traced back to Arabic influences. Many words starting with al- come from Arabic: alfombra (carpet), almendra (almond) and albornoz (bathrobe) are just a few. Another word is alcohol.

Science in Al-Andalus

Under the Umayyads, the city of Córdoba became an important place for learning and science. During the first years, the Umayyads sought inspiration in and copied from Abbasid learning. The Abbasid Caliphate had its first capital in Kufa (in modern-day Iraq), but in 762 the caliph Al-Mansur changed the capital, founding the city of Baghdad. The city of Baghdad was visited by many Umayyad scientists during the first years.

But during the reign of Abd al-Rahman II (reign 822-852), Islamic culture began to flourish and the Umayyads established a science center in its own right. This started a period where giant leaps of thinking were made in the fields of medicine, mathematics, astronomy, geography, and philosophy. Examples of words that has entered into English from Arabic are alchemy and algebra. This meant that scholars, poets, philosophers, historians and musicians travelled to Al-Andalus from far away.

The invention of paper

In 751, the Chinese introduced paper into the Islamic world. This had a huge impact on learning, and the Arab world gained land over the Latin west, where books were still written on expensive parchment. As an example: in the library of the monastery of St. Gall, one of the largest in Europe, there was a total of 36 volumes. In the same period, the library of Córdoba had around 500.000 volumes.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle's texts circulated in Arabic and Greek versions until the 12th century, but not in Latin: only 2 books were in general circulation in the Western-Latin World, but during a period a 100 years, 42 works of Aristotle were translated into Latin.

Three cultures

The Muslim world, in cities like Baghdad and Córdoba, was open to Muslims, Christians and Jews. Also, Arabic language was becoming increasingly important.


The following mathematicians are some of the most important in Al-Andalus:


Medicine was one of the most important disciplines in muslim science and the prophet Muhammad had said that thre is a remedy for every illness. Below you will find some of the most important scientists:


Some of the most important geographers:


On of the most important historians

Read our article about Islamic architecture & art in Spain.
The Umayyads built mosques and palaces in Al-Andalus but also in Northern Africa like the great mosque of Kairouan and mosques in Sousse, Sfax and the mosque of Tunis (Zaytuna), Aghmat and Agadir.
Muqarnas roof , Hall of Two Sisters, Alhambra
Muqarnas roof from the Alhambra Palace - Details from the Hall of Two Sisters, Alhambra, Granada (Spain)
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