African Muslims in Spain

In the 8th century, Roderick, the tyrannical Spanish ruler, offended his Christian vassal Julian by dishonoring his daughter. Seeking justice, Julian had an audience with the Muslim amir of North Africa, Musa Ibn Nusayr. He poured out his heart to the Muslim governor, describing the lust, greed and cruelty of the European monarchy. Musa felt compassion for the plight of the Spaniards and dispatched the renowned general Tariq Ziyad with an army of 12,000 Muslim troops.

Anchoring on the Spanish coast the area would later become famous and bear his name, Jabl al Tariq (Gilbraltar).

Roderick with a much larger force and with superior equipment engaged the Africans in battle, confident that he would defeat their meager forces but he was wrong. The Muslims were victorious and before Roderick could be caught or killed, he fled the battlefield.

This victory began a benign African Muslim rule in Spain (Andulusia) which lasted almost 800 years. The Muslims (called Moors due to their dark skin and African origins) were tolerant and considerate of the Christians and Jews under their dominion and they were allowed to worship unmolested in their churches and temples. They were exempt from the rigors of forced military service and the mediaeval farmers could keep more of their produce than they had been allowed to under the former Spanish fiefdoms and monarchies. They were taxed, but usually for far less than what was paid to their former masters. And punishment under Muslim rule, although delivered in a swift and no-nonsense manner, was nevertheless a vast improvement over the fiendish and tortuous European practices of roasting the accused at the stake, disemboweling, breaking on "the wheel" slowly boiling in oil, skinning the victim alive, or impaling with sharp objects to cause the most pain for the longest duration.

The Moors, appalled at the beastly condition of their newly acquired territories, launched a campaign of refinement and civilization that not only elevated Spain to new heights of culture, science, and prosperity, but which filtered through to the rest of Europe and eventually broke the chains of ignorance, superstition and barbarity.

To get an idea of the level of decadence the Moors encountered, historian James Burke gives an overview:

"The inhabitants threw all their refuse into the drains in the center of the narrow streets. The stench must have been overwhelming, although it appears to have gone virtually unnoticed. Mixed with excrement and urine would be the soiled reeds and straw used to cover the dirt floors."[1]

In fact, in most of Europe the foul odors caused by inadequate or non-existent sanitation and by the mediaeval European tendency to frown upon bathing (the Catholic Church considered bathing a form of self indulgence and therefore sinful) those who could afford it carried with them a pomander, or a small perforated metal ball filled with aromatic spices that they held to their nostrils in an effort to neutralize the almost unbearable stench, and perhaps a forerunner to the Western custom of wearing a flower in the lapel.

The state of medicine and learning were on a equal setting with European hygienic practices, the cure in many instances, being more deadly the malady. The dispensing of poisonous potions and snake oils, the ignorant and often fatal practice of bleeding the patien (it was widely believed that sickness was in the blood), the hacking off of limbs with filthy, rust covered knives and saws, and the practice of drilling holes through the skulls of the mentally disturbed (it was thought that the mentally ill were possessed by demons) to release evil spirits were routine medical procedures in Spain as well as in the rest of Europe.

The Moors went to work building hospitals, massive libraries (some housing hundreds of thousands of books) to eradicate sickness, superstition, blatant ignorance, and illiteracy. (At the time of the Moorish invasion a whopping 99 percent of Europe could not read.) And while the whole of Europe had managed to produce only two universities, there were 17 institutions of higher learning in the Muslim city of Cordoba alone.

Sophisticated sewer systems were also built, as were elaborate public baths and beautiful fountains and public works. There were tanneries and skilled leather and cloth manufacturers. Paved streets took the place of putrid, muddy thoroughfares; and over 4000 public markets, bakeries and mills replaced the filthy ovens and bartering stalls of bygone days.

Abject ignorance and intellectual dogmatism were dispelled with the introduction of physics, geography, astronomy, philosophy, biology, pharmacology, geometry and algebra. Victor Robinson writes in The Story of Medicine:

"Europe was darken at sunset, Cordoba shone with public lamps; Europe was dirty, Cordoba built a thousand baths; Europe was covered with Vermin, Cordoba changed its undergarments daily; Europe lay in mud,

Cordoba streets were paved; Europe’s palaces had smoke-holes in the ceiling, Cordoba’s arabesques were exquisite; Europe’s monks could not read the babtismal service, Cordoba’s teachers created a library of Alexandrian dimensions."[2]

The European renaissance was thus propelled by the spread of enlightenment, culture, and civilization from Muslim Moorish ruled Spain and Portugal to the remainder of Europe. And this was expedited by the translation of African/Arab texts on theology, medicine and the sciences into Spanish, French, English, Portugese, and German (all of them retaining Arabic terms today). And as historian James Burke writes:

"The intellectual community which the Northern (European) scholars found in Spain was so far superior to what they had at home that it left a lasting jealousy of Arab culture which would last for centuries."[3]


The early spread of Muslim conquest and expansion into Northern Europe was thwarted in 732 by the armies of Charles Martel in France between Poiters and Tours. Centuries later, the Europeans began to gather momentum and to re-take large areas of Portugal and Spain. As the prophet Muhammad is reported to have predicted, it was not so much the strength and the valor of the Christianized European armies which defeated the Muslims as the softness and degeneracy brought on by their luxurious and exceedingly listless lifestyles. Eventually Granada, the last stronghold of Islamic culture, was overrun in the year 1492.

Although considering themselves victorious, the expulsion of the Moors ushered in a new era of debauchery and a return to plunder and inhumanity. Historian and scholar, Stanley Poole remarks:

"The misguided Spaniards knew not what they were doing. The exile of Moors delighted them; nothing more picturesque and romantic had occurred for some time. They did not understand that they had killed their golden goose. For centuries Spain had been the center of refined civilization. The seat of arts and sciences of learning and every form of refined enlightenment. No other country in Europe had so far app-roached the cultivated dominion of the Moors. Whatsoever makes a kingdom great and prosperous, whatever tends to refinement and civilization, was found in Muslim Spain."[4]

Fittingly, 1492 also marked the year Christopher Columbus and his weather beaten crew of starving sailors landed on an island in Central America and launched a unholy mission of enslavement, thievery and murder which would continue unabated for centuries. Meanwhile Europe, as darkness is prone to do whenever there is an absence of light, toppled into new depths of greed and cruelty, while Spain trembled as the Inquisition was set loose on its terrible quest of ferreting out "infidels" and inflicting ever vicious modes of torture and torment.

Notes and References:

[1]. James Burke, "The Day The Universe Changed" Back Bay Books (2001)p. 32

[2]. Victor Robinson, The Study of Medicine

[3]. James Burke, "The Day The Universe Changed" Back Bay Books (2001)

[4]. Stanley L Poole, "The Story of the Moors in Spain" Black Classic Press (1990)