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The Crescent: Cultures Collide in Al-Andalus

Updated on December 18, 2014

The Alhambra Palace, Granada Spain



The Spain that existed in the early 8th century C.E. is not the same unified, national Spain known today. It was ruled by Visigoths who were constantly fighting amongst themselves for greater lands, power or both. All that changed in 711 C.E. when the Berber commander Tariq ibn-Ziyad landed on the Iberian Peninsula from across the Straights of Gibraltar. In the space of only seven years, almost the entire Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim rule. The Umayyad Empire that followed as a result ushered in what is heralded as the Golden Age of Spain – and with good reason. Under the new Islamic regime, Al-Andalus flourished in technology, tolerance, culture and philosophy and left a legacy of tri-cultural exchange, growth and development that are still recognized by historians worldwide today.

Al-Andalusian Politics

The politics of Al-Andalus under Muslim reign were complicated at best. Although Christians, Jews and Muslims were all able to coexist in relative harmony within the boundaries of Al-Andalus itself, the borders were constantly under threat by the Christian dominated North[1] and the Berbers – a more fundamentalist view of Islamic policies and ideals – to the south. The Jews and Christians were both considered “people of the book” and therefore held a place of legal tolerance. Regulations and legal precedents governed the way that Muslim rulers and common people considered and interacted with their Christian and Jewish neighbors, and a balance of stability was therefore preserved.[2] In addition, as noted by Maria Jesus Rbuiera Mata and Mikel De Epalza in the article “Al-Andalus: Between Myth and History” “The Al-Andalus type of tolerance would be unacceptable today: Christians and Jews were in facet second-class subjects in the Muslim kingdoms, burdened with very heavy taxes. And we must recognize that in the Middle Ages this tolerance in itself was quite unusual.”[3] Although Jews, and Christians were in many ways regarded as secondary subjects in deference to the Muslim leadership, their beliefs and religious practices were protected in large part under Islamic rule and even respected, and in some cases, they were allowed to hold positions of importance within Al-Andalusian courts.2 The “tolerance” shown to both Christians and Jews by the Umayyad rulers is, however, open to interpretation – and scholastic views vary greatly from one another in many aspects. As historian Chris Lowney pointed out “Medieval Spain’s Muslims, Christians and Jews embraced and rejected each other’s faith traditions and customs, fought alongside each other and against each other, occasionally tolerated their neighbors and somehow forged a golden age for each faith…Uncomfortable necessity, rather than some higher-minded ideal of tolerance, first spurred the accommodation that scholars hail as Spain’s era of convivencia”[4] Whether it was necessary or desired tolerance, Al-Andalus emphasized the differences and similarity between three distinct belief systems, and all were able to work together for the common good, making Al-Andalus a land of prosperity for all three belief systems and cultures.

[1] Maria Jesus Rubiera Mata & Mikel De Epalza, “Al-Andalus: Between Myth and History”, History & Anthropology Vol. 18, Issue 3 (2007): 269-273.

[2] Ivy Corfis, Al-Andalus, Sepharad and Medieval Iberia: Cultural Contact and Diffusion (Leiden: Brill, 2009)

[3] Amin T. Tibi, trans., The Tibyan: Memoirs of ‘And Allah b. Buluggin, Last Zirid Amir of Granada (Medieval Iberian Peninsula Texts and Studies 5. Leiden: E.J. Bill, 1986).

[4] Mark R. Cohen “Jews Muslims and the Myth of the Interfaith Utopia” November 19, 2007, accessed December 8, 2014

The Iberian Peninsula

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The Iberian Peninsula
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The Mosque at Cordoba


The Economy

Economics, however, is where Al-Andalus particularly flourished. The Moors (or Muslim rulers in Spain) were incredibly capable agriculturalists, and under their direction, Al-Andalus became one of the wealthiest regions in the Mediterranean, and much of Europe as well.[5] The Al-Andalusian economy focused primarily on a three-pronged approach, consisting of industry, commerce and agriculture4. Al-Andalus produced multiple goods, including glass, ceramics, leatherworks, silks, iron and paper goods all throughout their previously established trade routes by Muslim merchants throughout the Islamic empire as well as the Mediterranean.

The Islamic rulers of Al-Andalus turned many economic necessities into scientific endeavors, including their advances in agriculture and farming, necessary to feed a growing, stable populace. They built upon the Roman ideas of aqueducts and turned the fertile landscape of the Iberian Peninsula into a thriving agricultural center of growth and prosperity.[6] Not only did they build on the Roman system of agriculture utilizing gravity, they also built water wheels and advanced irrigation systems. They also bypassed the ancient period of cultivation from bi-annually to annually, allowing the fields to be cultivated and harvested regularly.4

The economic boon that Al-Andalus cultivated both agriculturally and through trade did not go unnoticed by their Christian and Jewish neighbors. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a Jewish physician and scholar remarked that “The land is rich…a land of corn, oil and wine, of fruits and all manner of delicacies. Merchants congregate in it and traffickers from the ends of the earth…bringing spices, precious stones, splendid wares for kings and princes”[7]

[5] J.G. "Al-Andalus: Economy." Spain Then and Now. January 1, 2009. Accessed November 17, 2014.
[6] When the Moors Ruled in Europe, directed by Timothy Copestake (2005; UK; wildfire TelevisionSee), Online[7] J.G. "Al-Andalus: Economy." Spain Then and Now. January 1, 2009. Accessed November 17, 2014.

One of the Alhambra Interiors


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The Culture of Al-Andalus

Culturally, Al-Andalus and the people within it were the golden crown on Europe. Revered not only for their wisdom, their interest and translation of ancient Greek philosophy, mathematics, science and technology but their architecture, art, knowledge and tolerance as well, the people of Al-Andalus converged together in a tri-religious expression of growth. The economic success of Al-Andalus allowed the people living within the Iberian Peninsula to eat a healthier, more stable diet, and its forays into advanced agricultural means allowed for more time spent at other activities than work. Chess was introduced in the 10th Century and beautiful monuments were erected to celebrate Al-Andalus’ growth and success, such as the grand Mosque at Cordoba, the Alhambra Palace and the exquisite gardens. Al-Andalus was leaps and bounds ahead of its European neighbors in areas of science, medicine and education, focusing on the desire for an educated populous. Learning was highly valued, and scholars of Iberia were some of the most advanced learners in not only algebra, medicine, botany, history, astronomy and geography.[8]

Many Islamic rulers also encouraged learning and advancement and widely supported the arts. They wrote poetry, such as a poem by And al-Rahman, Emir of Cordoba, d. 788 CE, which states:

“A palm tree stands in the middle of Rusafa,
Born in the West, far from the land of palms.
I said to it: How like me you are, far away and in exile,
In long separation from family and friends.
You have spring from soul in which you are a stranger,
And I, like you, am far from home.”[9]

Educated men from throughout the world were invited to the court of And al-Rahman, including musicians, poets, scientists, astronomers and more. A notable example was Ali ibn Nafi, also known as Ziryab, who sang at the court of the Caliph of Baghdad prior to journeying to the court of And al-Rahman, who is said to have added a fifth string to the lute. Ziryab also made advances in the field of fashion, music and personal hygiene that would be carried throughout the courts of Europe.[10] Advances in the field of astronomy became a collaborative effort between Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, and scholars from many different backgrounds contributed and exchanged knowledge as equals. As noted by A. Corfis, “The importance of this exchange of knowledge cannot be overstated; it represents a significant Iberian cultural phenomenon that added to the European and world intellectual development.[11]

[8] J.G. "Al-Andalus: Economy." Spain Then and Now. January 1, 2009. Accessed November 17, 2014.
[9] James Bellamy and Patricia Owen Steiner, translators. “The Banners of the Champions: An Anthology of Medieval Arabic Poetry from Andalusia and Beyond” Madison: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies (1989)
[10] J.G. “9th Century Al-Andalus.” Spain Then and Now, January 1, 2009. Accessed November 17, 2014.
[11] Ivy A. Corfis “Three Cultures, One world” Medieval Encounters 15 (2009) iii-xiv

The Alhambra at Evening



While there is no doubt that the Muslim rulers of Al-Andalus prospered from their takeover of the Iberian Peninsula, it is also clear that the people who lived there – Muslim, Jew and Christian alike – all benefited from their presence. A system of mutual respect and tolerance, if not necessarily equality, defined the Al-Andalusian period in Spanish history, and unveiled and unbridled and unchallenged socio-economic landmine for the people of all three religions alike. Where taxes for non-conversion were mandated and collected, it is clear that the technological, scientific and educational advances made by the Iberian Caliphate extended to more than just the Moorish rulers – it extended to the other “people of the book” who resided there as well. What resulted was a culture focused on knowledge by any means necessary, allowing great leaps forward in a period of relative peace and prosperity, benefiting all three belief systems simultaneously. It’s little wonder that the emergence of Al-Andalus is heralded as Spain’s Golden Age – a time that can be remembered fondly in the dichotomy of beliefs on the world stage in modern times.


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    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 2 years ago from The English Midlands

      Good luck JMcFarland! I hope you get to see Spain. As said, lots of seaside resorts but just a bit of exploration can be really rewarding. My degree dissertation was on popular religion in late medieval / early modern Spain. I did publish it on Hub Pages but I later unpublished it as it wasn't getting many visitors. I may edit it for Kindle. I left on a related hub which you might enjoy:

    • JMcFarland profile image

      Elizabeth 2 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thanks, Trish! I'm working towards an eventual doctorate in European history, so I love anything historical. I'd love to visit Spain someday.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 2 years ago from The English Midlands

      Very interesting. This is a fascinating period in the history of 'Spain'. I love to explore Spain's Moorish past both by visiting and by reading. The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens are exquisite. Much is hidden today under holiday resorts but the history is still there, waiting to be found.