Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part II)


[The Alhambra]

The Alhambra in Granada.
Photo courtesy Juan Carlos Guijarro Moreno through this Creative Commons license. Esta obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons.

When we left the medieval Iberian Peninsula last week in Part I of this three-part series, it was around the year 1000 and al-Mansur, who for all practical purposes ruled al-Andalus, had been raiding the northern Christian kingdoms.

Today, we begin after al-Mansur’s death in 1002. Al-Mansur’s son succeeded him in ruling through the puppet caliph Hisham II. But the son soon died, and Al-Andalus passed into yet another period of civil war and rebellions, at least in part because al-Mansur had upset the previous balance of power and brought in soldiers who weren’t part of Andalusi society.

Out of the chaos that ensued came smaller regional states ruled by emirs whom historians have dubbed the taifa or party kings. (The “party” part means “factions” rather than “fiesta,” but a number of the important taifa rulers actually did party in the wine, women and poetry sense of the word.)

In some places, the new rulers had been Berber generals. In others, they were already lord of the area. Some were regional administrators—often slaves or freedmen—who seized power during the decades of civil war.

The taifa states fought amongst themselves, and the larger took over the smaller. By the 1050s, there were six primary states—Sevilla, Granada, Badajóz, Toledo, Valencia and Zaragoza—and some remaining smaller states.

As would happen later among the city-states of Italy, the taifa states’ jostling for position didn’t only involve warfare. They also tried to outdo each other culturally, building mosques and palaces and competing to attract the best poets and scholars.

Abd al-Rahman III and some of the other Umayyad rulers had also patronized the arts and sciences. However, the taifa period was probably the most culturally and intellectually fertile in Andalusi history, as Muslim and Jewish poets and scholars created important works of poetry, philosophy and science.

Three Faiths in al-Andalus

We don’t know a lot about everyday relations between Muslims and Mozarabs (Christians living under Muslim rule) in the cities during this period—or really, any other period.

Sometimes the Mozarabs lived in their own areas of the city, and sometimes not. What does seem certain is that people of the two faiths frequently came into contact with each other. They traded together, and a man of one religion might work for someone of the other. Apparently, some richer Muslims were also in the habit of stopping by Christian monasteries for a drink of the wine that was forbidden them under Islam.

We know even less about the countryside. Meager evidence suggests that some—possibly very large—areas were inhabited by Christians who never converted and may have resented Muslim rule.

Jewish communities were usually found in cities. In general, they seem to have been large and well-off, and during the eleventh century several of their members rose to prominent positions in state governance.

Samuel ibn Naghrila is probably the best-known of these. He helped Badis, the ruler of Granada, attain that lofty position, and in practice was the first minister, commanding troops and running the city until he died in 1056. He was also a respected rabbi and poet.

His son, who succeeded him to the post, was killed in a pogrom against the Jewish community in Granada. This outburst of violence was a tragic but isolated incident. Like the Mozarabs, Jews had limited rights but weren’t usually subjected to violence—although some criticized rulers like Badis for putting Jews in a position of authority over Muslims, which violated Islamic law. But for the most part, Jewish culture flourished during the eleventh century.

Al-Andalus and the Christian Kingdoms

During the tenth century, al-Andalus had been much stronger than the Christian kingdoms to the north.

That balance of power reversed during the Andalusi civil war and the rise of the taifa states. Christian armies now raided al-Andalus. Over the course of the century, the raids turned into tribute-gathering missions as the taifa rulers paid the northern kings parias—basically protection money.

As in the Umayyad period, alliances weren’t necessarily along religious lines. A Christian king might ally with another Christian ruler against one of the taifa kingdoms—or he might just as easily ally with a taifa ruler against one of the other Christian kings.

Individual adventurers, such as the Christian soldier, diplomat and courtier Rodrigo Díaz (El Cid) and the Muslim poet and courtier Ibn Ammar, acquired their own taifa states.

The Christian kingdoms took over some previously Muslim areas, and competed with each other for the taifa tributes. The more successful they were, the richer they grew.

And the richer they grew, the more they attracted the attention of the rest of Europe, particularly neighbouring France.

The Almoravids

And then Alfonso VI of León captured Toledo, the former Visigothic capital and an important city in its own right.

The taifa kings panicked. Mu’tamid, the ruler of Sevilla, led them in asking for help from the Almoravids, a fundamentalist Islamic sect that had recently risen to power in North Africa. According to the story, Mu’tamid said he “would rather be a camel-driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castilla.” (For Muslims, pigs are unclean.)

The ascetic Almoravid leaders despised the taifa rulers for the poetry and decadence of their courts, the “impurity” of their religion, and their tendency to ally with the northern kings. But they despised the northern kings even more because they were Christians daring to exact tribute from Muslims.

In 1086, led by Yusuf ibn Tashfin, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and defeated Alfonso.

Then Yusuf turned on the taifa rulers because they didn’t support him sufficiently in additional campaigns against the Christian kingdoms. He exiled several of them to North Africa, and took over himself.

Al-Andalus was united again, but this time as a colony under governors that the Almoravid emir sent from Marrakesh.

Fundamentalists in the North and the South

Within al-Andalus, Muslim-Christian relations deteriorated under the fundamentalist Almoravids.

Relations between al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms also went downhill. The northern Christians, already upset about the loss of important revenue from tributes since the Almoravids took over, became even more anti-Muslim after the Almoravids exiled a number of Christians to Morocco in retaliation for a Christian raid.

The Christian kingdoms were always anti-Islamic—at least in their rhetoric (as, of course, Muslim rhetoric was anti-Christian)—and to some extent the Reconquista may have developed soon after the Muslim conquest of Spain (it’s a subject that historians debate a lot). But at the same time, the Christians adapted to the Muslim presence over the centuries of Andalusi strength.

Anti-Islamic attitudes intensified during the first half of the twelfth century. To some extent this was likely a result of Almoravid anti-Christian policies. But historian Richard Fletcher argues that the serious French influence on the Spanish Christians may have propelled them even more strongly toward intolerance.

During the second half of the eleventh century, they Spanish kingdoms developed close links to Spain. Their families intermarried with French nobility, and some of them developed close ties with the monastic order of Cluny. And of course, in the same century the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela ceased to be primarily a local affair, and drew large numbers of French pilgrims.

For French aristocratic warriors, inspired by the Chanson de Roland (a seriously romanticized account of an earlier fight against the Moors), going to Spain to fight Muslims meant following a path already blazed by the revered Charlemagne.

The idea of a holy war had been part of Christianity for a long time, but the idea that individuals gained merit by fighting “infidels” developed in the eleventh century. In 1123, the Iberian Peninsula became an official crusade zone.

Not coincidentally, the twelfth century seems to be when Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-Slayer) makes his first appearance—at least in the written sources that have come down to us.

One example is the “Diploma of Ramiro I,” a forged document from about the middle of the century. It claims to have been written after a battle at Clavijo in 844, where St. James himself appeared to lead Christian troops to a resounding victory over Moorish armies. In gratitude, the document continues, Ramiro I decreed that all of Christian Spain must make an annual donation to the cathedral, which should also receive a share of any booty taken from the Moors.

Being a forgery, the document isn’t helpful in learning about the ninth century, but as Fletcher points out, it does tell us what at least some influential Christians in the twelfth century believed, or at least wanted others to believe: that St. James championed the Christian struggle against the Muslims.

But at the same time, it’s important to remember that Muslim and Christian attitudes toward each other didn’t change all at once. At least one rebel Muslim noble worked with the Christians to oppose the Almoravids, and a Catalan baron named Reverter, after being captured by the Almoravids, became a mercenary who worked for them. Of his two sons who appear in the historical record, one continued his father’s work for the Muslims, and the other went back to Spain to fight under his father’s former master.

The Almohads

Al-Andalus did not fare well under Almoravid rule. While Almoravid leaders were devout, the regular soldiers weren’t. Not only did they fail to take back much of the land the taifa kingdoms had lost to the Christians, but they indulged in forbidden luxuries, looted, persecuted Christian and Jewish minorities, and fought amongst themselves.

Al-Andalus fell apart again after the death of Yusuf’s son and successor in 1145, with more rebellions and civil war, and a second batch of taifa states. The Christian kings took advantage of the chaos to advance into Muslim territory.

In the meantime, a new sect, the Almohads, was challenging Almoravid rule back in North Africa.

And Ibn Qasi, the leader of a new Sufi sect in al-Andalus, invited the Almohads to help him take Sevilla. The Almohads came, but soon the two groups had a falling-out. The Almohads had Ibn Qasi assassinated, and remained in Spain.

By the final quarter of the twelfth century, the Almohads ruled all of Muslim Spain, and pushed back the Christian kings, who were too busy quarrelling amongst themselves to mount a common defence.

Alliances at this time still weren’t primarily dependant on religion. Take King Alfonso VII of Castilla, for example. At one point, one of his borders was under attack by the neighbouring kingdom of León (whose king was a close relative of Alfonso’s), who had invited the Almohads to join them. The Muslim troops were commanded by Pedro Fernández, an important Castilian nobleman who had argued with King Alfonso the year before, and left Castilla to work for the Almohads.

At the same time, Christian troops from Navarra were attacking Castilla’s other border, after the Almohads had encouraged border disputes between the two kingdoms.

It was, when it comes down to it, not an atypical Iberian situation. The Christian and Muslim participants may well have hated each other’s beliefs, but at a practical level, local rivalries came first.

* * *

Thanks for indulging me in my Spanish history fixation. I said last week that this would be the final installment, but I seem to require a Part III. (If I leave out all detail, it gets rather boring—at least to me.)

Much of this information comes from Richard Fletcher’s wonderful Moorish Spain, and some of the information on Santiago Matamoros is from St. James’s Catapult, by the same author. Thomas F. Glick’s Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages is another fascinating read.

I’ve also started to read Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain by Joseph F. O’Callaghan, who isn’t as cautious as Fletcher is about assigning religious motives to pre-twelfth-century warfare on the Iberian Peninsula.

Do keep in mind that a lot of the interpretations—especially when it comes to the interplay between religions—are hotly debated among historians.

Next week: the final installment (really) of this three-part series will address the impact of al-Andalus on Christian Europe and of course the Reconquista.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:14 pm
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