Al-Andalus was the name used by the Muslim population of the Iberian Peninsula for the territory that was under Muslim rule from the times of the conquest in 711 CE until the fall of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada in 1492. That territory varied through the centuries. During the Umayyad period (eighth–tenth centuries), Muslims ruled most of the regions of the Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of part of the lands situated north of the river Duero and south of the Pyrenees, where Christians managed to establish small independent kingdoms. A major shift in the balance of power between Muslims and Christians occurred in 1085, when Toledo, the former Visigothic capital, was lost forever to the Muslims when it fell into the hands of the king of Castile, Alfonso VI.
The Muslim conquest of al-Andalus had taken place during the Umayyad caliphate, with its seat in Damascus, and some of the settlers in the Iberian Peninsula were clients of the Umayyads. When the latter’s rule was put to an end by the new dynasty of the Abbasids (who moved their capital to Baghdad), a member of the fallen dynasty, Abd al-Rahman I (r. 756–788), escaped from the massacre of his family and with the help of the Umayyad clients managed to establish himself as ruler of al-Andalus. The new Umayyad emirate had Cordova as its capital. During the ninth century, the Umayyads fought hard to maintain their power in the Iberian Peninsula, shaken by the attempts of Arabs, Berbers, and local converts to establish autonomous political governments. The eighth Umayyad ruler, Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912–961), succeeded in regaining control of al-Andalus and proclaimed himself caliph in order to give a firmer basis to his rule and to counteract the danger represented by the establishment of a Fatimid (Shia) caliphate in North Africa, while taking advantage at the same time of the decline of the Abbasid caliphate in the East. Political unity, general stability, economic flourishing, and cultural achievements were some of the traits of the tenth century, although the minority of the third Umayyad caliph and the military reforms carried out by his powerful chamberlain, al-Mansur ibn Abi Amir, eventually opened the door to civil war.
The conquest of Toledo in 1085 was partly the result of the political fragmentation of al-Andalus that took place during the eleventh century. The administrative centralization achieved during the tenth century disappeared with the collapse of the (second) Umayyad caliphate. It was abolished in 1031, but before that date independent Muslim kingdoms had already arisen, the most important being those of Seville, Toledo, and Zaragoza. With different ethnic backgrounds, the rulers of the so-called Party or Taifa kingdoms were engaged in a complex internal political game of war and peace, in which the intervention of the Christian kingdoms played a major role. Muslim military weakness led to the payment of tribute to those Christian kingdoms. This situation was novel in al-Andalus and almost exceptional in the Muslim world, as the predominant historical experience of Muslims had been until then one of conquest and rule, not of submission to non-Muslims. But money was not a deterrent to Christian military expansion, as became clear when Barbastro and Coimbra fell into Christian hands in the years 1063–1064, followed by Coria in 1079 and Toledo in 1085.
By this time, the need to seek military help outside al- Andalus had become acute and an appeal was made to the Almoravids by some of the Taifa rulers. Of Berber origin, the Almoravid dynasty had succeeded in establishing a unitary kingdom in the Maghreb (nowadays Morocco), having as its capital Marrakech. The powerful Almoravid army crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and defeated the Christians in the battle of Zallaqa (1086), although they were unable to regain most of the territory already lost to the Christians or to retain some major towns (Valencia was in Christian hands from 1094 to 1102, Zaragoza was taken in 1118, Lisbon in 1147, Tortosa in 1148). Almoravid political legitimization revolved around the abolition of illegal taxes and the pursuit of holy war (jihad). As this program failed, the support the Almoravids had attracted both among the elites and the masses of al-Andalus declined and by the third decade of the twelfth century, political and religious movements aiming at autonomous government had begun in several towns, shaking Almoravid rule in al-Andalus. The Almoravids were facing, at the same time, a new religious movement in their Maghrebi territory, that of the Almohads, who threatened Almoravid power both politically and ideologically.
The Almohad movement was founded by the Berber Messianic reformer Ibn Tumart; his successor as political leader was also a Berber who adopted an Arabic genealogy in order to proclaim himself caliph. The movement started in the south of Morocco in the first decades of the twelfth century, expanding from there to dominate the whole of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and al-Andalus. Aiming at a radical political and religious revival, the Almohads found support among disparate groups in Andalusi society who shared some of their puritanical reformist policies, although it was mostly the use of violence that helped them suppress, at least for some time, the opposition of those groups and individuals that either disagreed with their program or were against its more extremist aspects. Although the Almohads were able for some time to check Christian military advance, their armies suffered a major defeat in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the year 1212. This defeat had been preceded and was followed by the loss of major towns in what was left of al-Andalus: Silves was conquered in 1190, Cordova in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Murcia in 1243, and Seville in 1248.
While Almohad rule collapsed both in the Maghreb and in al-Andalus, there were attempts at replacing it with local forms of government. This happened in al-Andalus according to a pattern that had been followed before during the collapse of Umayyad and Almoravid rules. Military men, urban elites, and charismatic leaders aimed at creating viable political and military entities in order to ensure the maintenance of the remaining territory under Andalusi rule. Only one such attempt succeeded, that founded by Ibn al-Ahmar in Granada and the surrounding area. From the middle of the thirteenth century until 1492, the Nasrid kingdom of Granada managed to survive by taking advantage of the internal dissensions both among the Christian kingdoms and those Muslim states that had been created in North Africa after the demise of the Almohad empire. The political unity achieved by Isabel of Castille and Fernando de Aragón signaled the end of the small Muslim kingdom of Granada. In the same year that Christopher Columbus disembarked in America and Jews were expelled from Spain, Granada was conquered and al-Andalus as a political entity ceased to exist. But the term survived in the form of Andalucía, the name given to the southern regions of Spain, this being the area where Muslim rule had lasted longest.
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