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'Moors' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article explains the term "Moor" as background to Menocal's Ornament of the World and Maalouf's Leo Africanus. The article by David Assouline is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


The Moors were the Muslim inhabitants of Islamic Spain, or al-Andalus. The term Moor is a late-antique and medieval Western European usage to indicate dark-skinned North Africans of Arab and/or Berber origin who were responsible for the invasion of Spain in 711 C.E. and the establishment of its flourishing Islamic culture, which lasted from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries.

Origin and Development of the Term.

The origins of the term remain elusive. Its derivation from the Semitic etymon mahourím, “people of the West,” is questionable, and the Arabic al-Mar is extremely rare and does not occur in Andalusi Arabic sources. Mauroi is late Greek and may have been derived from the Latin ethnic name Mauri, both meaning “dark ones.” Following the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.E., the term mauri was used to indicate the tribes inhabiting the Roman provinces of Mauretania, corresponding to modern-day western Algeria and northeastern Morocco.

In the Latin Middle Ages, Mauri referred to a mixture of Berbers and Arabs inhabiting the coastal regions of Northwest Africa. In Spain, Portugal, and Italy, Mauri became Moros (Maures in French). More commonly, however, it was a racial designation for dark-skinned or black peoples, as in its English usage, which is seen as early as the fourteenth century.

The term was most popular in historiography and literature from early modern times to as late as the mid-twentieth century, when it was used to describe persons and events in the history and culture of Islamic North Africa and Spain. It survives in such phrases as “Moorish history” (or “civilization”), “Moorish art,” and “Moorish architecture.” In Spain, the term is still used, inaccurately and often disparagingly, in reference to Arabs or Muslims of diverse origin. Since the mid-twentieth century, the term has fallen out of use and carries racial connotations.

Ethnic Composition.

The Moors do not constitute a well-defined ethnic group, and, unlike the Mongols, they do not represent a clearly identifiable tribal confederacy. They are, rather, a large and diffuse ethnic group consisting primarily of sub-Saharan Africans (Mauritania, Northern Senegal, and Western Mali), Berbers (Morocco and Western Algeria), Arab Bedouins, and a landed Arab elite (primarily from Yemen and Syria). In most writings on the Moors, darkness of skin has been applied as a characteristic for any and every Muslim invader of Europe.

The Islamic conquest of North Africa (Ifriqiyya) throughout the eighth century, and the existing tribal and social contentions among these various groups, led to the consolidation of rival confederacies. The Arab element among the Moors was always a minority, with the majority entering from North Africa during the conquest of the area or as migrant soldiers reinforcing existing armies. The system of walaʿ, or forced conversion, led to significant racial mixing among Arabs, Berbers, and other Africans—in addition to Visigoths and numerous Slavs (saqaliba)—thus forging a highly diverse Muslim population in the Maghrib and al-Andalus.

Numerous terms provide further illustration of the ethnic and political groupings present in Islamic and, later, Christian Spain. Muladí (Arabic muwallad, “person of mixed ancestry”) designated non-Arab Muslims or descendants of converts living in al-Andalus (also generically designated musalima). Mudejar (Arabic mudajjan, “those accepting submission”) designated a Muslim living under Christian rule as well as an architectual style predominant in Castile and Aragon. Morisco (Spanish “Moor-like”) referred to Muslims living in Christian Spain in the period between the conquest of Granada in 1492 and their expulsion from Spain in 1609.

Role in Political, Social, and Religious Life of Islamic Spain.

Although the European history of the Moors begins with their conquest of Iberia in 711, this historical survey will be limited to the Berber dynasties of the Almoravids, ruling from 1069 to 1121, and the Almohads, who ruled from 1121 to 1269. These were followed by the Nasrids (Banū al-Nasr) who settled the kingdom of Granada from 1232 until its capitulation in 1492, and finally the Moriscos, who remained mainly in Granada under Christian rule until their expulsion in 1609.

The tribal coalition of the Almoravids (al-Murābiṭūn), led by Berbers belonging to the Lamtuna tribes of the Moroccan Atlas, marks the emergence of a properly Moorish social and political legacy. The Almoravids were a formidable Muslim dynasty, conquering in Northwest Africa throughout the eleventh century. Following the capitulation of Toledo to Alfonso VI in 1065, Muslim forces called on the Almoravids for aid, which resulted in the rapid conquest of southern Spain by 1079, the year in which their most renowned leader, Yūsuf Ibn Tāshfīn (d. 1106), declared himself commander of the faithful. The Almoravids brought with them a militarist ideology centered on rigid application of Mālikī Islamic law, issuing fatwas against the perceived moral laxity of Islam under the Taifa states (muluk al-tawaif, independent Muslim-ruled principalities).

The Almoravids were usurped by another Berber dynasty, the Almohads (al-Muwaḥḥidūn, “the unitarians”), who followed the doctrine of Muḥammad Ibn Tūmart, a self-proclaimed mahdī, and took over al-Andalus, establishing Seville as their capital in 1170. Under the military guidance of ʿAbd al-Muʿmin (d. 1163), the Almohads became a powerful force, imposing Islamic law and persecuting minorities. Their mark on Islamic North Africa and Spain is visible in the great Kutubiyya mosque in Marrakech, begun under ʿAbd al-Muʿmin. This monument was followed by the mosque of Hassan, begun in 1191 with the foundation of Rabat, and later the “Giralda” of Seville—a minaret now adjacent to the cathedral—which was begun in 1198. As their name suggests, the Almohads brought the religious ideology of tawḥīd to the Iberian peninsula, a reaction against a perceived heterodox Islam. They were patrons to the great philospher Ibn Rushd (Averroës) and several important poets. Despite their routing of the armies of Alfonso VII at Alarcos (al-Arak), the Almohads were unable to retain political power and their dynasty began its downturn with their defeat at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.

Following the downfall of the Almohads in the mid-thirteenth century, Islamic Spain was reduced to the kingdom of Granada. The Nasrid dynasty was founded in 1232 and would rule there as the last Muslim dynasty in Islamic Spain until their capitulation to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, in 1492. Their most renowned ruler, Mohammad V, was responsible for completion of the Alhambra palace. A renowned poet working under his patronage was Ibn Zamrak, whose poems are inscribed on the Alhambra 's walls. An insight into Islamic law during this period is attested in the numerous religious writings, in both Arabic and Spanish, of Içe de Gebir.

Finally, Moriscos (“descendants of the Moors”) is the label given to Muslims who continued to settle Granada and its surrounding areas after 1492. The Moriscos composed numerous literary works in a Romance language written in the Arabic alphabet, a language known as aljamiado (Arabic al-jamīyah). Several crypto-Muslim writings in defense of Islam (and attacking Christianity) have survived in this language. Among their numerous uprisings against a harsh Christian rule, the most famous occurred in the Alpujarras mountains in 1568, signalling the decline of their culture in Spain.

Meaning in Western Culture.

Under their many European labels—Arabs, Mohammedans, Ishmaelites, and so forth—the “Moors” were viewed as the enemies of Christian Europe. They become central topoi in European historiography beginning with chronicles of Spain 's conquest in 711 and continuing in Crusader accounts and beyond: as characters in epic and ballad; as romanticized (and reviled) others in early modern poetry and novel; and as a centerpiece of European orientalist fictions and histories throughout the Enlightenment and into the modern period.

The earliest European account of the Moorish invasion of Spain, the Chronicle of 754, refers to the Visigothic capitulation, the so-called “loss of Spain” (perdida de España) at the hands of the “Arabs and Moors sent by Musa,” or Musa Ibn Nusayr, the Muslim governor of North Africa. In the Estoria de Espanna (History of Spain), the first vernacular chronicle composed in Spain, we find a characteristic portrayal: “All the Moorish soldiers were dressed with silk and black wool that had been forcibly acquired … their black faces were like pitch and the most handsome of them was as black as a cooking pan.” The extensive European historiography on the Crusades is replete with similarly derogatory portrayals. French, Italian, and English histories of the medieval Moors—and later the Turks—repeat these stereotypes and reinforce this negative image.

Early-modern through modern European historiography—which began to view the Moor as subject rather than enemy—began to move away from such portrayals without quite relinquishing the romantic and epic mode in assessing Moorish history. Unfavorable portrayals can certainly be found in the works of Ernest Renan, Richard Burton (Personal Narrative), Washington Irving (The Alhambra), Menéndez y Pelayo (Origenes de la novela), and William Montgomery Watt (A History of Islamic Spain), to name a few.

As in the early medieval historiography, the Moor appears as a literary type throughout European literature and art in the late medieval through the modern periods. Among the earliest, and certainly most influential, depictions of Moorish characters is Avengalvon, who, in the Poem of the Cid, accompanies this hero of the “reconquest” on his expedition to Almoravid Valencia. The Moorish enemy of Roland in the Chanson de Roland is Baligant, who is portrayed as a formidable foe. In contrast to their stock representations in historical works, the Moors are “humanized” in literary works, although often as individual exceptions to the generally negative assessment of their religion and society.

In Spain, the romancero (ballad tradition) and comedias (Renaissance theater) present idealized portraits of their military prowess, unbridled eroticism, or cultural barbarity and savagery. The so-called Moorish novel begins with such works as Abencerraje and Ginés Pérez de Hita 's Guerras civiles de Granada (Civil Wars of Granada), dramatizations of the Spanish dominion over the Moriscos. This group also appears with some frequency in Renaissance Spanish literature—Cervantes ’ Don Quixote and Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Tales), for instance—which offer stereotypes concerning their lax or mendacious nature on the one hand, and, on the other, their knowledge of Arabic and their own medieval literary heritage.

In the opening of Shakespeare 's Othello, Ophelia is imagined in the “lascivious grasp of the Moor” (I.1), in reference to the play 's eponymous character. In Ariosto's Orlando furioso, the Moorish leader is a fierce enemy, but other Moors fight alongside Christians in the parodic adventures depicted in this Renaissance epic. African kings, referred to as mouros, also appear in Camões ’ Lusiads, sometimes as wise men, at other times as barbarous infidels. European translations of the Thousand and One Nights served to reinforce this image of the lascivious Moor. The image of the Moor has occupied a place of some importance in more recent European and even American writing, in texts such as Heinrich Heine 's verse play Almansor (1821), and more recently in Amin Maalouf    's Leo Africanus (1988) and Salman Rushdie 's The Moor 's Last Sigh (1995). This term continues to inform modern conceptions, fictional and otherwise, of the Muslim inhabitants of medieval Iberia and western Europe.

As for visual art, depictions of Moors abound in medieval manuscript illumination, iconography, and sculpture. The images of the Cantigas de Santa María (Songs of Holy Mary) of Alfonso X were intended to portray tolerance and courtly eclecticism: the Moors are depicted playing lutes, engaged in a chess match, or fighting Christian armies. Bellicose imagery appears in the frescoes in the palace of Berenguer de Aguilar, which feature a white knight stabbing and throwing a Moor from the battlements during the Aragonese capture of Majorca in 1229. Some well-known statues include, for example, I due mori, dark bronze representations of two robust Moors wielding hammers for striking the bells of the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Illustrations of turbaned Moors in early modern Moorish novels and their British counterparts have been engraved in the European imagination. These represent a small sample of the myriad representations of the Moors in Western culture.


  • Burshatin, Israel. “The Moor in the Text: Metaphor, Emblem, and Silence.”Critical Inquiry12.1 (1985): 98–118.
  • Cirot, Georges. “La Maurophilie littéraire en Espagne au seizième siècle (Suite et fin).”Bulletin Hispanique46 (1944): 5–25.
  • Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.
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  • Harvey, L. Patrick. Islamic Spain, 1250 to 1500.Chicago, 1990.
  • Ibn Khaldūn, ʿAbd-al Raḥmān bin Muḥammad. The Muqaddima: An Introduction to History. Edited and translated by Franz Rosenthal. Princeton, N.J., 1967.
  • Irving, Washington. The Alhambra: A Series of Tales and Sketches of the Moors and Spaniards.Philadelphia, 1832.
  • Jayyusi, Salma K. ed. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Leiden, Netherlands, 1992.
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  • Maalouf, Amin. Leo, the African. Translated by Peter Sluglett. London and New York, 1988.
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  • Mille et une nuits. Translated by Antoine Galland. Paris, 1960.
  • Pérez de Hita, Ginés. Guerras civiles de Granada. Edited by Shasta M. Bryant. Newark, Del., 1982.
  • Poem of the Cid. Translated by W. S. Merwin. New York, 1959.
  • Rushdie, Salman. The Moor 's Last Sigh. London, 1995.
  • Scales, Peter C. The Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba: Berbers and Andalusis in Conflict.Leiden and New York, 1994.
  • Song of Roland. Translated by Dorothy Sayers. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1957.
  • Yaʿlá, Muḥammad, ed. Tres textos árabes sobre Beréberes en el Occidente Islámico. Madrid, 1996.
  • Versión crítica de la Estoria de Espanna. Ed. Inés Fernández Ordóñez, Madrid: Fundación Menéndez Pidal: Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, 1993.
  • Wolf, Kenneth Baxter. Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain. Liverpool, U.K., 1990.


Assouline, David. "Moors." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #218: 'Moors' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024