Connected Histories

'Andalusia' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article on al-Andalus, the Arabic name for Islamic Spain, provides background for Maria Rosa Menocal's book Ornament of the World and Amin Maalouf's Leo Africanus. The article by Jocelyn Hendrickson is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


The name “Andalusia,” for Muslim Spain, is derived from “al-Andalus,” the name used in Arabic sources to indicate those parts of the Iberian peninsula under Muslim control between the initial invasion of 711 C.E. and the fall of Granada in 1492 C.E. The extent of this territory varied considerably over nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule, ranging from an early hold on most of the peninsula to the small Naṣrid kingdom of Granada during Muslim Spain's final two and a half centuries. “Andalucía,” the name of modern Spain's southernmost autonomous region, reflects the longevity and continued legacy of Islamic rule in southern Spain but should not be confused with the historical Andalusia.

Political History.

The Muslim invasion of Spain followed the conquest of North Africa, completed in the early 700s C.E. Apparently without consulting the Umayyad caliph in Damascus, North African governor Mūsā ibn Nuṣayr authorized Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād to lead a primarily Berber army into the Iberian peninsula in 711 C.E. Gibraltar, from Jabal Ṭāriq, is named for this commander, who successfully defeated the Visigothic King Roderic that same year. Mūsā followed with a larger army and helped lay the foundations for a new province centered in Córdoba. Continued military expeditions under the early Andalusian governors reached across the Pyrenees before being repelled by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel in 732 C.E.; thereafter, small Christian kingdoms retained control of most of the lands north of the Duero River.

Andalusia's distance from the caliphal center of power increased after the ʿAbbāsids defeated the Umayyads in 750 C.E. and established their capital in Baghdad. One member of the Umayyad dynasty, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I (r. 756–788 C.E.), escaped the slaughter of his family and fled west, where in 756 C.E. he established a new Umayyad emirate in Iberia, independent of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. This emirate faced numerous revolts and civil wars between Berbers, Arabs, and local converts throughout the ninth century. The eighth Umayyad amīr, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III (r. 912–961 C.E.), unified the region and enjoyed a long reign characterized by economic prosperity and intellectual and artistic flourishing. In 929 C.E., he proclaimed himself caliph, the legitimate ruler of all Sunnī Muslims; this declaration symbolized the wealth and power of Córdoba, strengthened the Umayyads’ diplomatic weight abroad, and served as a countermeasure to the recently-established Shīʿī Fāṭimid caliphate in North Africa.

Following the fruitful reigns of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III and his son, the caliphate began to disintegrate as several contenders vied for control in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries; in 1031 C.E., the institution was abolished. Centralized authority was replaced by a large number of small states known as ṭawāʿif, or factions, ruled by rival “party kings” whose complex, shifting alliances included strategic relationships with Christian kingdoms. The Christian kingdoms also expanded at the expense of these smaller Muslim states. Alfonso VI's 1085 C.E. capture of Toledo, the center of one of the most prominent factions, marked a significant advance in the ongoing Reconquest of Spain.

In response to Christian expansion, the ṭawāʿif kings appealed to the Almoravids, a North African Berber dynasty centered in Marrakesh. Led by their ruler Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn (r. 1061–1106 C.E.), the Almoravid army crossed into Andalusia and won a major victory against Alfonso VI in 1086 C.E. at al-Zallaka. The Almoravids were unable to retake Toledo, but reunified Muslim Spain by assuming control of the ṭawāʿif. By the mid-twelfth century the Almoravids were replaced by the Almohads, a reformist movement that arose in southern Morocco and eventually spread throughout North Africa and Andalusia. Although these two successive Berber dynasties maintained Muslim control over much of the peninsula until the early thirteenth century, the Reconquest continued to gain ground and reached a major turning point in 1212 C.E. with the defeat of the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Muslim political unity again gave way to small states that were conquered by the Christian kingdoms over the next quarter century, including Córdoba (1236), Valencia (1238), and Seville (1248).

Granada, ruled by the Naṣrid dynasty, survived as the only Muslim kingdom in Iberia for an additional two and a half centuries, in part by paying tribute to the King of Castile. During this period, many Muslims in Christian-ruled Spain emigrated to North Africa or to Granada; those who remained under Christian rule became known as mudéjars, and were permitted to practice Islam, subject to certain restrictions. The beginning of the end for both Granada and the mudéjars’ protected status was heralded by Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castile's unification of their kingdoms near the end of the fifteenth century. The Catholic monarchs completed the Reconquest by securing the surrender of Granada in 1492. Jews were expelled from Spain the same year, while forced conversion of Muslims followed in the first decade of the sixteenth century; by the early seventeenth century, these last crypto-Muslims, or Moriscos, were also expelled.

Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

The population of Andalusia comprised a rich mixture of ethnic and religious groups. Berbers formed the majority of the initial conquering armies, and continued to migrate to Andalusia in later centuries. Arabs were originally a small minority, but those able to claim Arab lineage, an important marker of social prestige, rapidly increased as a result of intermarriage with the local Hispano-Roman population as well as through patron-client relationships. Interrelationships between Berbers and Arabs and between different Arab tribal groups remained complex throughout Andalusian history.

The number of Muslims in Andalusia also increased exponentially, through both reproduction and conversion. Although the local population was not forced to convert, they had ample political and socioeconomic incentives for doing so. Arab authors referred to these new Iberian converts and their descendents as muwallads. Muslims are estimated to have become the majority in Andalusia by the mid-tenth century. The region's population as a whole also increased as new crops and agricultural techniques brought from the Muslim east amplified food production and fueled economic growth.

The local Iberian population under Visigothic rule had been primarily Christian, with a small Jewish minority. Muslim rule permitted these groups to retain their religious identities as dhimmīs, or protected peoples, provided they submitted to Muslim authority and paid a special tax. Andalusian Christians and Jews became increasingly Arabized over time, adopting the Arabic language and Arab cultural practices. Christians soon adopted Arabic and were termed mozarabs, while Andalusian Jews cultivated both Arabic and Hebrew. By the twelfth century, Arabic had replaced Latin and the Romance languages as the dominant spoken language.

The term convivencia, or living together, is often used to describe the coexistence of these three religious communities in Islamic Spain. In Spanish historiography, this concept has tended to refer to mutual cultural influence alongside a competitive rivalry. More recently, convivencia has come to represent the romanticized vision of a uniquely tolerant and symbiotic pluralism; this version of Andalusian convivencia has proven especially attractive to those striving to improve interreligious relations between the Islamic world and the West.

Supporters of a romanticized convivencia highlight such achievements as the flowering of a Hebrew Golden Age among Jewish intellectuals and poets living under Muslim rule; the positions of considerable influence held by some Jews and Christians within Muslim administrations, including ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III's court physician and ambassador Ḥisdāi ibn Shaprut and Granada's vizier Samuel ibn Nagrela (d. 1056 C.E.); and culturally hybrid forms of architecture and poetry, most notably the muwashshaḥāt, a poetic genre written in classical Arabic but ending with a final refrain in a Romance language or colloquial Arabic. Critics of this romantic view of interreligious relations, however, stress that conflict and violence were also an integral part of ethnic and religious coexistence in medieval Spain. Notable instances of violence indicative of deeper hostilities include the voluntary martyrdom of nearly fifty Christians in mid-ninth-century Córdoba; the 1066 C.E. assassination of Samuel ibn Nagrela's son and successor, followed by a pogrom against Granadan Jews; and the forced conversion of Jews in the Almohad period.

Islamic Thought.

Islamic scholarship in Andalusia was concerned above all with the transmission and development of legal literature in general, and with the Mālikī school of law in particular. Immediately following the conquest, Andalusian judicial practice was based on that of the Syrian jurist al-Awzāʿī (d. 774 C.E.). The doctrines of Medina's Mālik ibn Anas (d. 795 C.E.) were introduced during the reign of al-Hishām I (r. 788–796 C.E.), supplanting those of al-Awzāʿī and becoming the dominant legal school in Andalusia from the reign of al-Hishām's son al-Ḥakam I (r. 796–822 C.E.) forward. This dominance was achieved following an 817 C.E. revolt against al-Ḥakam I in which several prominent disciples of Mālik participated. The Umayyad rulers and emerging scholarly elite then forged a mutually beneficial partnership; the jurists helped to direct popular opinion in support of the rulers’ legitimacy, while the administration appointed exclusively Mālikī judges as advisors and supported the Mālikī school over other groups. The Ḥanafī legal school was suppressed, partially because of the Ḥanafī predominance in the ʿAbbāsid empire. This Umayyad-ʿAbbāsid political rift did not, however, discourage Andalusians from traveling east in search of knowledge, for trade, or for pilgrimage; scholarly and commercial links continued to keep Iberia in fruitful contact with the central Islamic lands. By the tenth century the Mālikī school had been further solidified as the official caliphal school and was followed by most Andalusian jurists. The Andalusian Mālikī school thereafter faced only two significant competing systems: the strictly literalist and now-defunct Ẓāhirī school championed by the Córdoban jurist Ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064 C.E.), and the reformist creed of the Almohad dynasty. Both challenges were overcome, and prominent Mālikī scholars from this region, including Ibn Rushd al-Jadd (d. 1126 C.E.) and al-Shāṭibī (d. 1388 C.E.), continued to make important contributions to the elaboration of school doctrine throughout Andalusian history.

Sufism, theology, and philosophy were not seriously cultivated, especially by Andalusian scholars trained in the religious sciences, until the eleventh century. In the twelfth century, a number of prominent masters aided the spread of Sufism, although it was not embraced as widely as in North Africa. The most famous Andalusian mystic is Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240 C.E.), a prolific writer who spent much of his life outside of Spain.

Artistic and Scientific Heritage.

Andalusia was a thriving cultural center, celebrated for the brilliant literary, artistic, and scientific accomplishments of its poets, scholars, and craftsmen. This was particularly true of tenth-century Córdoba, which was famously described by a contemporary poet as the “ornament of the world” and boasted a caliphal library with an estimated 400,000 volumes. Among these collected works were the products of a major translation movement in Baghdad, during which Greek philosophical and scientific works, followed by Persian and Indian astronomical and mathematical treatises, were translated into Arabic. Alongside these translated works, Córdoba's caliphs collected original Arabic religious and scientific works drawn from both Andalusia and the greater Muslim world.

Much of this accumulated intellectual wealth was subsequently transferred to Christian Europe. Toledo's “school of translators,” particularly active in the twelfth century, translated Arabic texts into Latin, Hebrew, and the Romance languages; many of the multilingual translators were Arabized Jews. Two primary motives fueled these efforts: an understanding of Muslim religious texts was sought in order to facilitate conversion, while the translation of scientific and philosophical texts advanced less-developed European knowledge in these areas. One of the most influential works translated from Arabic into Latin in thirteenth-century Spain was an extensive set of commentaries on the works of Aristotle, composed by the Córdoban jurist and philosopher Ibn Rushd al-Ḥafīd (d. 1198 C.E.), known in the West as Averroës. This corpus not only made the works of Aristotle available to European scholars (prior to their later direct translation from the Greek), but the original contributions of Ibn Rushd also made a significant impact on the development of Christian philosophy.

The legacy of Andalusia also remains tangible in the form of unique architectural monuments. The Great Mosque of Córdoba, built between 784 and 786 C.E. by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I and later expanded three times, incorporated local Roman and Visigothic elements while evoking the Great Mosque of Damascus and reinforcing the amīr's Umayyad lineage. Columns in the vast prayer hall support a visually striking system of double-tiered arches composed of alternating red brick and white stone voussoirs. The mosque remains largely intact despite the insertion of a cathedral in the sixteenth century. Madīnat al-Zahrāʿ, the legendary palace city begun by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III in 939 C.E., was destroyed in the civil wars that brought down the caliphate but has been partially restored. Under the Almoravids and Almohads, the art and architecture of Andalusia both influenced and was influenced by that of North Africa. The most important remaining Almohad monument in Spain is La Giralda, the beautiful minaret of the former Great Mosque of Seville (begun in 1172 C.E.), now converted into a cathedral belltower. Granada's Alhambra (Ar., al-Ḥamrāʿ, “The Red”), dating primarily from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, has been extensively preserved. This magnificent complex of richly decorated palaces, fountains, and gardens remains one of the most celebrated architectural monuments in the Islamic world.


  • Constable, Olivia Remie, ed. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. A rich collection of primary texts translated and introduced by prominent scholars of medieval Spain.
  • Glick, Thomas F. Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages. 2d. ed.Leiden: Brill, 2005. A classic study of the medieval period. The original edition, published in 1979, is available through the Library of Iberian Resources Online:
  • Harvey, L. P. Islamic Spain: 1250 to 1500. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Provides particularly good coverage of the various Mudéjar communities and the kingdom of Granada.
  • Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. 2d. ed.2 vols.Leiden: Brill, 1992 and 1994. A comprehensive collection of essays on aspects of Islamic Spain including political history, economy, literature, music, art and architecture, religion, and science.
  • Mann, Vivian B., Thomas F. Glick, and Jerrilynn D. Dodds, eds. Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain. New York: George Braziller, 2007. A richly illustrated collection of essays covering literature, architecture, science, and the concept of convivencia.
  • Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002. An engaging and thought-provoking series of vignettes, more illustrative of recent approaches to convivencia than a balanced historical account.
  • Menocal, María Rosa, Raymond P. Scheindlin, and Michael Sells, eds. The Literature of Al-Andalus. New ed.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. A rich collection of essays covering Iberian Muslim, Christian, and Jewish literature, music, art, and architecture.
  • Reilly, Bernard F. The Medieval Spains. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A good single-volume introduction to medieval Spanish history before, during, and after Muslim rule.


Hendrickson, Jocelyn. "Andalusia." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #217: 'Andalusia' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 17, 2024