The Story of Europe's First Muslim Ruler - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Story of Europe's First Muslim Ruler

The Story of Europe's First Muslim Ruler

By James Watkins

Abd al-Rahman I


Because Muslims shaped Europe’s past as much as its future.

By James Watkins

Revolution was destroying the political order of the Muslim world just a century after the death of the prophet Muhammad. The family members of the Umayyad dynasty, whose caliphate had controlled much of the Middle East and North Africa, had all been killed, except for one 20-year-old prince who managed to escape Damascus. Young Abd al-Rahman I eventually made his way to the newly conquered Iberian Peninsula, declaring the region of present-day Spain and Portugal an independent emirate in 756 C.E. — a power grab unlike anything Europe had ever seen.

Abdul al rahman i

Abd al-Rahman I

Source Public Domain

The Muslim invasion from North Africa was “one of history’s greatest revolutions in power, religion, culture and wealth to Dark Ages Europe,” writes historian David Levering Lewis in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe. Before the Muslim conquest, the fall of the Western Roman Empire had left a variety of largely Christianized groups on the Iberian Peninsula. The invasion happened so quickly that “it probably took people in Spain a while to realize that the Muslims were there to stay,” says Justin Stearns, professor of Arab Crossroads Studies at New York University in Abu Dhabi, who notes how the Muslim armies even pushed briefly into parts of southern France.

When al-Rahman I arrived, Muslims had control of the southern two-thirds of the Iberian Peninsula, and, as the last descendant of the Umayyad caliphs, he was able to assert his legitimacy to unite the territory. His European Muslim dynasty would survive for three centuries, and Muslims would rule over some part of the Iberian Peninsula, known in Arabic as Al-Andalus, for almost 800 years.

The almost mythological symbolism of Al-Andalus still looms large across the Muslim world.

Perhaps the greatest of the early leaders of Al-Andalus, though, was his descendant Abd al-Rahman III, whose 51-year rule began more than 120 years after the death of his namesake, and who eventually declared himself a caliph — thereby asserting religious authority beyond the political authority of an emir. Al-Rahman III “was just an amazing ruler,” says Stearns, whose “military leadership provided enough economic and political stability for a cultural stimulus” in Islamic Europe. He built a vast and spectacular imperial city, Medina Azahara; the now-ruined city is “the most visible material manifestation of the political, cultural and economic splendor of the caliphate of Córdoba,” says historian Alejandro García Sanjuán from the University of Huelva. 


The level of urban development in Córdoba and other cities such as Toledo, Seville and Grenada, with public lighting, libraries and advanced irrigation methods, was way ahead of the rest of the continent. Córdoba became the largest and most prosperous city in Europe, making Paris look like “a ramshackle, backwater village,” says Stearns. What’s more, throughout the period of Islamic rule, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together on the peninsula for almost 800 years. Local populations were not expected to convert to Islam, with al-Rahman III even offering prominent administrative positions to Jewish scholars, leading Lewis to refer to Muslim rule of Al-Andalus as “generally religiously tolerant.” 

Abd al-Rahman I

Abd al-Rahman I, founder of a Muslim dynasty that ruled the greater part of Iberia for nearly three centuries.

Source Getty

But the relationship between Muslims and other religious groups in Al-Andalus remains hotly debated by historians, not least because of the parallels to modern-day values of multiculturalism and tolerance. It took several hundred years for the population of the Islamic region to become majority Muslim, and while “it is true that Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in medieval Iberia in various constellations,” says Stearns, “in no way does that mean we should take it as a model for what we should do today.” Non-Muslims were subject to different taxes, and at certain points during the long history of Al-Andalus, Jews in particular were persecuted (the same was true in Christian regions of Europe at the time). A unique example of centuries-long multireligious interaction in Europe? Yes. But it was not “some kind of glorious multifaith harmony,” says Stearns.

No other European country “has anywhere near the kind of complicated past that Spain does when it comes to its Muslim population,” says Stearns. Eventually, as Christians reconquered the Iberian Peninsula, a series of prosecutions, forced conversions and expulsions all but ended the Muslim presence in the region by the 17th century, until the waves of contemporary immigration. The Great Mosque of Córdoba remains one of the oldest religious buildings in the country, dating back to al-Rahman I. Centuries later, it would be turned into a Catholic cathedral, but telltale architectural features still point to its original purpose, despite “a campaign to erase the historic identity of the temple,” says Sanjuán. Today, owing to what he refers to as “an enormous and worrying ignorance,” Spanish Muslims are denied access to pray in the historic mosque — a stunning symbol of the country’s contested relationship with its long history of Islam.

While it leaves a disputed legacy in Spain, the almost mythological symbolism of Al-Andalus still looms large across the Muslim world. From incendiary claims of lost territory by radical Islamists to its use as a metaphor in Arabic poetry, art and music, Al-Andalus lives on.

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