Caliphate of Córdoba 929 - 1031 AD
in Andalucia, Spain
By Nick Nutter | 25 Nov 2020
Abd al-Rahman III succeeded his grandfather Abd Allah as emir of Córdoba in October 912 AD at the age of 21. He was to lose no time taking control. Within ten days of his accession he was displaying the detached head of a muwallad rebel in his capital. For the next twenty years he led expeditions against the rebels; first in the southern areas of al-Andalus, rebels under the banner of Umar ibn Hafsun based at Bobastro near Ardales in Málaga province and later in central and eastern areas. He has been acclaimed as the greatest ruler of the Umayyad Arab Muslim dynasty in al_Andalus.
Abd al-Rahman III - Victor for the Religion of Allah
From his fortress at Bobastro, Umar ibn Hafsun controlled over seventy forts in the present-day provinces of Málaga, Seville, Granada and Jáen. They first few fell in rapid succession, Seville in 913 AD followed by Algeciras, Medina Sidonia and Carmona. Umar ibn Hafsun died in 917 AD and the rebellion collapsed. To prevent a resurgence all Hafsun’s children were captured or killed. It took another eleven years to subdue the formidable fortress at Bobastro but that too was stormed in 928 AD. In 929 AD, Abd al-Rahman III took the title caliph and adopted the caliphal title, Al-Nasir li-Din Allah, ‘Victor for the Religion of Allah’. In 933 AD, Toledo, the last Muslim centre of resistance to the Córdoban caliphate was sacked after a long siege.
Meanwhile, Abd al-Rahman had to deal with the incursions made by the Christians in the north. In 913 AD, Ordono II, king of Galicia and later León, sacked Talavera and massacred its Muslim population. Abd al-Rahman retaliated in 920 and 924 AD with campaigns into the Christian held territories. These campaigns secured his borders with Christian Spain for seven years. In 932 AD, a belligerent king of Leon, Ramiro II mounted attacks into the Muslim territories and defeated them at the so called ditch of Simancas, almost killing al-Rahman in the process. The Christians did not follow up on this victory and after Ramiro dies in 950 AD, the Christian territories dissolved into a civil war allowing Abd al-Rahman to more than make good his losses.
In North Africa, the Shi’i Fatimid dynasty fought for the establishment of an empire that would reach as far as the Atlantic and encompass al-Andalus. They also aimed to overthrow the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. In order to forestall Fatimid hegemony in the Maghreb, the Islamic area of north western Africa, Abd al-Rahman occupied the North African ports of Melilla and Ceuta in 931 AD. Intense naval warfare between the two western caliphates coincided with clashes on land in the Maghreb and attempts at subversive wars in the enemy states in northwest Africa. The conflict between the Umayyads and the Fatimids dragged on and ended in 969, when the latter conquered Egypt and lost interest in the Maghreb, thus leaving a power vacuum that was rapidly filled by the Umayyads.
During his reign, Abd al-Rahman did not neglect internal policy. He rotated his governors regularly to prevent them establishing rival, local, dynasties and in 949 AD even executed his own son for conspiring against him. This period of relative stability saw al-Andalus flourish. A tolerant attitude persuaded teachers and scholars from all over the Arab world and beyond to congregate in al-Andalus, particularly Córdoba. They in turn attracted students and pupils from both the Christian and Muslim worlds. During this period Córdoba was said to have 100,000 shops and houses and 3,000 mosques.
Just outside Córdoba, Abd al-Rahman III established his royal city that housed his household and government, the ‘Shining City’, Madinat al-Zahra. He also added to the Great Mosque at Córdoba, and the Royal Palace both started during the emirate of Abd al-Rahman I.
Abd al-Rahman III was succeeded by his son al-Hakam II in 961 AD. Although al-Hakam only ruled for fifteen years his reign was generally peaceful and allowed him to continue the cultural progress of al-Andalus. He gathered a library of 400,000 volumes, founded 27 schools in Córdoba and attracted scholars from the east to teach in the university. His library was made possible by the use of paper. The secret of how to make paper had arrived in the Muslim world during the 8th century carried by prisoners taken after the Battle of Tallas in 751 AD (The Battle of Talas or Battle of Artlakh was a military engagement between the Abbasid Caliphate along with its ally, the Tibetan Empire, against the Chinese Tang dynasty). Paper mills were built in Baghdad and Damascus. The latter would grow to become an industry that supplied much of Europe. In 850 a paper mill was built in Egypt and in 950, another was built in Morocco. From there the technology arrived in al-Andalus. For many years, bookmaking in Christian Europe continued to depend on the use of parchment. Whilst libraries did exist, usually private collections, the number of books could be numbered in the hundreds. The collection amassed by al-Hakam II was exceptional.
During this period, the problems with the Fatima dynasty in the Maghreb were solved by one of al-Hakam’s generals, General Ghalib and an intendant, his son in law, Abu Amir al-Maafiri. The latter would soon become known as al-Mansur, the ‘Victorious One’ and he would have a significant part to play in the fortunes of the Umayyad dynasty.
In 976, al-Hakam II died and his twelve year old son, Hisham II, became caliph. Hisham was dominated by two people, his mother, Aurora, and his prime minister, Ja far al-Mushafi. The latter was assassinated by al-Mansur in 978 AD, an act that allowed al-Mansur to run the caliphate in all but name. Soon after Hakam’s death, Madinat al-Zahra, the Shining City, was abandoned.
Abu Amir al-Maafiri al-Mansur
One of al-Mansur’s first actions was to transform the Maghreb into a viceroyalty of Córdoba and halt the expansion of the Christian kings in the north by a series of raids, usually every six months, that laid waste to all the Christian capitals. His professional army consisted of conscripted Berbers from North Africa. With their support al-Mansur managed to dispense with much of the pro-Umayyad Arab aristocracy and control the influence of slaves, many of whom had by now achieved posts with great responsibility. In 994 AD, al-Mansur took on the title of al-Malik al-Karim, ‘Noble King’.
Al-Mansur died in 1002 on his way back from a campaign in Castile and was succeeded by his son, Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar.
Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar
Al-Muzaffar continued his father’s policies, keeping the legitimate caliph, Hisham II, under tight control and fighting the Christians. Al-Muzaffar died prematurely in 1008 AD and was succeeded by his brother, Abd al-Rahman Sanchuelo.
Abd al-Rahman Sanchuelo
Sanchuelo immediately had a problem, a section of pro-Umayyad Arabs caused an uprising designed to re-instate Hisham II as rightful caliph. During this uprising, Abd al-Rahman Sanchuelo was killed in 1009 AD ushering in twenty one years of unrest that would tear the caliphate of Córdoba apart.
Culture and Religious Tolerance
The period of the Caliphate of Córdoba, especially under Abd al-Rahman III (ruled 912-961 AD), his son al-Hakam II (961-976 AD), and the vizier al-Mansur, effective ruler during most of the reign of Abd al-Rahman’s grandson, Hisham II (976-1009 AD). is often referred to as a ‘Golden Age’ of learning where libraries, colleges and public baths were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished. Both Muslims and non-Muslims made major contributions to this flowering of culture. Andalusis were recognised as leading scholars in algebra (an Arabic word), astronomy, medicine, botany, geography and history, fields which had a wide impact on European life in the Middle Ages. This period is also often regarded as a ‘Golden Age of Religious and Ethnic Tolerance’ but that depends, as we shall see, on your position on the social ladder.
What is known is that diplomats and emissaries came to al-Andalus, especially Córdoba, from as far away as Constantinople, Europe, North Africa and from the Christian kingdoms to the north of al-Andalus. They brought with them a treasure trove of gifts to enrich already wealthy rulers; gold and silver, silks, furs, cedar (a rare wood prized for its fragrance and durability), horses, slaves, rugs and tapestries. They returned suitably impressed by the paved streets, street lighting, gardens and fountains, the Great Mosque and the luxurious villas built on the banks of the Guadalquivir. For those fortunate enough to be worthy to be received there, the ‘Shining City’, Madinat al-Zahra (completed in 976 AD), rivalled the royal palaces of Baghdad and Samarra, a direct snub to the Abbasid Caliphate.
The multi-cultural make up of its population served Córdoba well in its diplomatic relations and as a centre of learning. Both Abd al-Rahman III and al-Hakam II made use of members of both groups to further diplomatic aims.
A Christian cleric, Recemund, was a civil servant under Rahman III. He embarked on an year long diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I followed by a mission to Constantinople. He then received the bishopric of Elvira (Granada) although there is no evidence he ever exercised his role as bishop.
Another notable figure during the period was a Jew, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut. Hasdai was learned in medicine and the properties of poisons, a favourite means of assassination. He came to the attention of Abd al-Rahman and became his personal physician. Whilst holding that position he cured the king of León, Sancho el Craso (Sancho the Fat), of obesity. As a Jew he was able to mediate between Muslims and Christians and was called upon to negotiate alliances between the two groups when political motivations took precedence over religion. In the late 940s he served as the intermediary between the Christian emperor of Byzantium and Abd al-Rahman against their common enemy, the Caliph of Baghdad. At various times he also negotiated between the Christian courts in Leon, Burgundy and the German empire.
During his travels, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut forged close contacts with Jews in other countries, taking a keen interest in the welfare of Jewish communities as far away as Central Asia. His high profile allowed him to attempt to alleviate suffering and discrimination. As his fame grew, he received more and more requests for assistance, a latter-day Kissinger.
Within al-Andalus he was appointed head of the Jewish community in Córdoba and encouraged cultural expression amongst the Jews of al-Andalus. As a result the Jews in al-Andalus developed a sense of their own autonomy, disassociated from the rabbinic schools in Baghdad. When a Talmudic academy in Baghdad closed, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut purchased the library and transferred it to a school he founded in Córdoba. Jewish scholars from the Middle East and North Africa flocked to the city during what has been called the ‘Cultural Golden Era’ of Sephardic history.
Restrictions on Dhimmis
While all the above suggests there truly was a ‘Golden Age’ for all religions and ethnicity, it is necessary to look at the social differences imposed on the non-Muslim groups and why the Muslim rulers during this period turned a blind eye to many of the restrictions supposedly imposed on non-Muslims.
The rules for non-Muslims were in fact quite harsh by modern day standards, although not quite as bad as may be expected by a conquered people during Mediaeval times. Jews and Christians, collectively dhimmi, were treated equally and were tolerated if they: acknowledged Islamic superiority, accepted Islamic power, paid a tax called Jizya to the Muslim rulers and sometimes paid higher rates of other taxes, avoided blasphemy, did not try to convert Muslims and complied with the rules laid down by the authorities.
These included: restrictions on clothing and the need to wear a special badge, restrictions on building synagogues and churches, not being allowed to carry weapons, dhimmis could not receive an inheritance from a Muslim and could not bequeath anything to a Muslim, they could not own a Muslim slave, a dhimmi man could not marry a Muslim woman (but the reverse was acceptable), a dhimmi could not give evidence in an Islamic court and dhimmis would get lower compensation than Muslims for the same injury.
Note that, during this period, there was no restriction on Christians and Jews holding high office.
At times there were restrictions on practicing one's faith too obviously. Bell-ringing or chanting too loudly were frowned on and public processions were restricted.
Why non-Muslims were tolerated in Islamic Spain
The question asked by scholars today is, ‘Why were non-Muslims tolerated in Islamic Spain?’
Firstly, Judaism and Christianity were monotheistic faiths, not in direct conflict with the Qur’an, and arguably worshipping the same God. More importantly, Christians alone far outnumbered the Muslims so mass conversion or mass execution was not practicable and controlling and policing the beliefs of so many people would have been expensive.
Having non-Muslims in government and the civil service provided the rulers with administrators who were not attached to any of the multifarious Muslim groups, they were, essentially, apolitical. They could also be easily disciplined or removed if the need arose.
Finally, the non-Muslims took on jobs of work that Muslims found unpleasant or distasteful such as tanning and butchery. In fact, the Jewish and Christian communities were the foundation of the economy of al-Andalus, dispossessing them would have ruined the economy.
Unfortunately for dhimmis the ‘Golden Age’ was not to last. After the Caliphate of Córdoba period, conditions for non-Muslims deteriorated fast.
Fitna of al-Andalus
The years following the reign of Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar is known as the Fitna of al-Andalus. Rivals throughout al-Andalus and North Africa claimed the title of caliph. Sulayman ibn al-Hakam became the fifth Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba, ruling from 1009 to 1010, and again from 1013 to 1016. Two members of the Hammudid family were given governorships of Algeciras, Ceuta and Tangier, together a very powerful position since they controlled all the shipping passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. In 1016, ostensibly acting on behalf of the deposed Hashim II, the Hammudi governor of Ceuta captured Córdoba where he was crowned caliph. His name was Ali ibn Hammud al-Nasir and he became the first caliph of the short lived Hammud dynasty in al-Andalus. In 1056, the last Hammud caliph was dethroned, losing Málaga to the Zirid family in Granada. The Zirids had, up until then supported the Hammuds. After the loss of Málaga, the Hammudi family returned to Ceuta.
Meanwhile, the Caliphate of Córdoba had sundered irrevocably into a number of independent kingdoms known as taifas.
Further reading and references
Barrucand, Marianne & Bednorz, Achim Moorish Architecture in Andalusia Cologne 1992
Christys, Ann Christians in Al-Andalus 711-1000 Richmond, Surrey 2002
Collins, Roger Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity 400-1000 London 1995
Constable, Olivia R. ed. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources Philadelphia 1997
Fletcher, Richard Moorish Spain London 1992
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for El Cid London 1989
Gerber, Jane S The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York 1994
Gilmour, David Cities of Spain London 1992
Hitchcock, Richard Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Identities and Influence Aldershot, England 2008
Lomax, Derek The Reconquest of Spain London 1978
Melville, Charles & Ubaydli, Ahmad Christians and Moors in Spain, Vol. III Arabic Sources Warminster, England 1992
Smith, Colin Christians and Moors in Spain, Vol. I Arts & Phillips Ltd: Warminster: England 1988
We Welcome Your Comments
Submitted by Brian Neale on 16 Nov 2020
Very interesting article as I am very interested in islamic Andalucia
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About the Author
Nick has lived and worked in Andalucia for over 20 years. He and his partner, Julie Evans, have travelled extensively and dug deep into the history and culture, producing authoritative articles on all aspects of the region. Nick has written four books about Andalucia and writes articles for other websites and blogs.