• Elisa Lenker

The Memory of al-Andalus

The kingdom of al-Andalus has gone under the historical microscope many times. Between the years 711 and 1492, the Iberian Peninsula was – to different extents – occupied by Muslim powers and Arab royalty. Indeed, almost eight hundred years of non-Catholic cultural influence and significance leave ripples to this day. This article explains Muslim Spain’s history and discuss its influence in the 21st century.

The western border of Islam

In the early 8th century, the Umayyad caliphate was spreading East and West. Their expansionist motivation led them to Northern Africa and, eventually, to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to launch an attack on the Iberian Peninsula, forcing the Visigoth ruling class to retreat north. A Berber army, led by Damascus generals, soon conquered most of the land, renaming this new territory the caliphate “al-Andalus” with its capital in Seville (Al-Andalus, 2019; Historia de al-Andalus, n.d.).

However, the Umayyad caliphate’s defeat in 750 caused a new course in leadership. Prince Abd al-Rahman I, a member of the Umayyad ruling family, ran away to the Iberian Peninsula and, with the help of a mercenary army, established control of the kingdom. He chose Cordoba as the capital of the new Umayyad emirate. His administration brought about elements of Syrian judiciary, politics, and many other changes (Al-Andalus, 2019; Historia de al-Andalus, n.d.).

Unity would remain in the flourishing al-Andalus until 1031. Especially in the 10th century, the court of Cordoba would become a home for great scientists, poets, and philosophers. Its inhabitants benefited from cultural exchange and scientific knowledge from the East. Christians, Muslims, and Jewish people shared a space ruled by the Arabic elite for centuries, prompting the creation of hybrid traditions and intellectual content. A noteworthy example of this would be the Mozarabs, Iberian Christians under Muslim rule who adopted Arabic language and culture (Al-Andalus, 2019; Culture of Muslim Spain, 2019; Historia de al-Andalus, n.d.). This, however, came with its difficulties. Non-Muslim people were not allowed to take any administrative or managerial positions in government, as this would place them above Muslim citizens. Non-Muslim males also paid a yearly tax (jizya) for their protected status in a Muslim state (García Sanjuán, 2003).

A power switch called Reconquista

Following a civil war or fitna, the central authority of the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba fell in the 11th century (Al-Andalus, 2019; Historia de al-Andalus, n.d.). Some of the great Berber, Arab, and Muladí families (previously Christian households from the Iberian Peninsula that converted to Islam) chose to take the reins of their city and establish their own independent kingdoms, called taifas (Taifa, 2016).

Meanwhile, the Christian kingdoms residing in the northern part of the Peninsula began to gain territory. Some taifas built ties with the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties of Northern Africa in exchange for help against the Christians (Historia de al-Andalus, n.d.). This was, ultimately, not enough to prevent the many crusades and battles between the two sides – wars that were closely influenced by the religious clash and papal rhetoric (O’Callaghan, 2004). In 1492, the last Nazari kingdom of Granada fell (Historia de al-Andalus, n.d.).

Despite the large stretch in history, cultural remnants of al-Andalus are still very much present in modern-day Spain. Great works of architecture were built, such as the Alhambra palace in Granada, or the Great Mosque of Cordoba, that hold an invaluable place as cultural heritage (Rubiera Mata & de Epaza, 2007). Approximately 8% of the Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin, including “hundreds or thousands of modern locations and geographic features” (Rorabaugh, 2010, p. 7), like Gibraltar or Algeciras. Spanish anthroponomy is also closely intertwined with Arabic, examples being common names such as Almudena or Azahara (Elsayed Mahmoud, 2018). Nevertheless, much of this influence has been diluted and eroded through time, allowing many to interpret the role of al-Andalus in Spanish history in different ways.

Reality and the Two Myths

Al-Andalus has been a part of the political narrative and, in recent times, national and/or regional identity-building, creating two very different approaches. For the Arab empire, it was their religious mandate to spread the word of Islam. For the Catholic crown, as the name suggests, the reconquest meant retaking their legitimate lands and justifying this secular conflict. The Catholic royalty’s narrative emphasized the “otherness” of al-Andalus, versus that of the “real” Hispania (Fierro, 2017; Torrecilla & Cortijo Ocaña, 2017). The myth of the reconquest, with national heroes such as el Cid Campeador, served Spanish National Catholicism and the national narrative in the 20th century during nationalist dictator Franco’s rule (Blanco, 2019).

In contrast, the positive myth of al-Andalus was also born (Rodriguez Mediano, 2017; Rubiera Mata & de Epaza, 2007; Torrecilla & Cortijo Ocaña, 2017). Spanish Arabists took the role of integrating the Arab history of Spain, considering it a flourishing era. During the late 20th century, as the steppingstones of democracy and a new collective national identity were built, al-Andalus was then associated with religious tolerance and interfaith coexistence, representing the Muslim occupants as sophisticated and educated (Torrecilla & Cortijo Ocaña, 2017). It is particularly important for the people of Andalusia, the region in Southern Spain, who identify it as one of their “roots” (Al Andalus Roots, n.d.). This myth also has been used to promote dialogue among Mediterranean nations (Rubiera Mata & de Epaza, 2007) and, perhaps in times where islamophobia has increased in Europe, as a countering stance. In fact, cultural anthropologist Jonathan Shannon suggests that Syrian national discourse in the 20th century also uses the rhetoric of al-Andalus, appealing to nostalgia, the idea of a tolerant past era, and ideologies of pan-Arabism (Shannon, 2016).

What is true about these contradictory perspectives and what is not? Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset said in his book España invertebrada (Invertebrate Spain, 1921) that he could not understand how one could call “reconquest” something that had lasted eight hundred years, pointing to the fragmented history of al-Andalus, with its many parts and lack of linearity. Contrarily, it must be noted that the tolerant idyllic image of al-Andalus probably cannot be sustained. There was some semblance of tolerance, at least perhaps during the Umayyad caliphate era, that nevertheless left Christians and Jewish as second-class citizens. The modern standards of tolerance cannot be applied to Medieval Spain (Rubiera Mata & de Epaza, 2007).

At the end of the day, it is not uncommon for history to get shaped by a political agenda and be subject to contrasting angles. Lessons can be learned from analyzing the role of history in national identity. Al-Andalus is, irrevocably, a part of Spanish history and will take a position in national memory. It can only be hoped that its myth will continue to bring further dialogue and positive exchange with Muslim and Arab nations in Spain.



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