The Origins of Al-Andalus and Beyond

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 1st 2018)

The Umayyads

It was one of the world’s major empires, albeit a short-lived one, but its influence, culturally, historically, politically, etc. was immense and not just in Spain, but Morocco too. But few remember its name – the Umayyad. It was one of four Caliphates that sprung up shortly after the death of the founder of Islam, Muhammad.

It became established as a major power and empire in 661 AD and was based mainly in Damascus. Muawaiya ibn Abi Sufyan was the first Caliph to extend its influence. At its height it was one of the greatest ever empires in terms of land ruled and subjects as a percentage of the world’s population. Less than a century later it passed into history – its brand of Islam deemed too secular for some.

Nevertheless, it brought more than conquest. It brought Islam to North Africa, the Mahgreb, and also to Europe, Spain, but the Umayyads were tolerant of other faiths, as long as the tax was paid, especially Jews and this played a major part in what followed. Their tolerance of other faiths and peoples was both its greatest strength and ultimately its greatest weakness too.

The Umayyad Empire became one of the largest and most successful empires in history, especially of that time. A large part of that was due to the expansionist policies of the Caliph Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik (Al-Walid I – 705-715), and the assimilation of the conquered into the empire.

The Conquests

Before Spain could be conquered Musa ibn Nusayr had been given a task. He had to expand the Empire by conquering swathes of North Africa, He did so. By 698 he had become the first Emir of Ifriqiya, not beholden to Egypt. He also governed the Balearic Islands and Sardinia. It was near the height of his powers, but ibn Nusayr was headed for a mighty fall.

Berbers were conquered but accepted on merit. Even slaves could advance if they had requisite skills. One did in abundance, and he helped change the course of history, ultimately at great cost to his former master, ibn Nusayr. The pair, Tarik ibn Ziyad and ibn Nusayr were responsible for the conquest of Spain and establishment of Al-Andalus, although the Visigoth, Julian, Count of Ceuta, played an important role too.

The rivalry among Visigoth rulers helped the Islamic conquest. The last King of the Visigoths in Spain, Rodéric, lost no time avenging the family slight on his father, Theodofred, and enforced exile by the King Wittiza, whom Rodéric, had blinded and imprisoned – the same fate his father had suffered at Wittiza’s hands. Wittiza did not last long after his capture, but Rodéric’s coup came at a price – the Visigoths were divided and ripe to lose their influence.

Rodéric then made an important enemy of Julian, Count of Ceuta, by raping his daughter, although it is far from certain that this happened. Nevertheless, Julian’s ensuing actions were extreme if he had no cause – he betrayed the Visigoth cause totally, facilitating and actively aiding the Moors.

Julian’s revenge was to aid the Berber and Umayyad commander, ibn Ziyad – the man who began Islamic expansion into Spain. He assisted ibn Ziyad to invade through Gibraltar. Ibn Nusayr later joined his former slave in the conquest, playing an important role too. The Berber origins of ibn Ziyad suggest that he was indeed subordinate to ibn Nusayr, at least at first. However, he was a gifted military commander.

The Mountain

Even without this, you probably know a bit of his legacy even if you don’t know of him. In Morocco, Gibraltar is named after him, and almost certainly is where the rock got its name from. In Arabic it’s called Gebral Tariq (Tariq’s Mountain). The similarity between Gebral Tariq and Gibraltar is too great to be coincidence.

This was the point where Berbers crossed from Africa into Spain, extending the Umayyad Empire, thanks to Julian’s assistance. So who was Tariq ibn Ziyad? He was originally a slave of the Emir of Ifriqiya – a region of North Africa – Musa ibn Nusayr, who gave ibn Ziyad his freedom and appointed him a military commander. He was further rewarded with the Governorship of Tangier.

Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar, and onto the Rock with 7000 followers. He was provided with further assistance by Julian. Despite facing a far larger army under the ‘usurper’ King Rodéric, ibn Ziyad inflicted the major defeat of Visigoth Spain within three weeks of his arrival in Spain at the Battle of Guadalete.

Hearing of ibn Ziyad’s success and not wanting a Berber to get the glory of subjugating Spain, ibn Nusayr also crossed into Spain, taking Seville before advancing to meet ibn Ziyad at Toledo. The conquests led to the seizure of a huge haul of treasures and this contributed to the falling out between the Emir and his former slave.

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