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Myth or Reality: The “Invasion” and Spread of Islam in Spain
Jan 1, 2012

The majority of Spaniards, as well as people worldwide that have heard about "Muslim Spain," know about the conquest of Spain, (Hispania at the time) by the Arabs. However, few deepen their search in analyzing whether this could actually be a logical approach, considering the number of people that came to the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD. Whether a person should or should not believe what is written about Spain and its history, the article's main point is to challenge one's own ideas and thoughts in regards to how this event actually took place and value the seeds that this convivencia1 planted for the history of Spain and the world.

This article is mostly based on the book of the Spanish historian and paleontologist, Ignacio Olagüe, La Revolución Islámica en Occidente (The Islamic Revolution in the West), also translated into French as Les arabes n'ont jamais envahi l'Espagne (The Arabs Never Invaded Spain), which portrays some of the ideas of the historian and philologist Americo Castro, especially known for his writings about convivencia.

According to the way that history is taught in most Spanish schools, the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD. Here, the following question can be asked: Who did the Moors invade? In order to understand this, it is important to give a background of the inhabitants of Hispania at the time. The Iberian Peninsula was populated by Celts, Iberians, Sephardic Jews, Romans and Visigoths. The majority of Visigoths were Unitarian, meaning that they believed in only one God and were waiting the coming of the Messiah. They also saw Jesus as a Prophet. The rulers of Hispania in 711 AD were Visigoths as well. However, it was a civilization that constantly used force as a means of controlling the citizens of the peninsula, which resulted incessant instability. It was at this time that the Arabs, according to many historians, invaded Hispania.

De la Guardia2 states that "in no way were the newcomers all Arabs."3 The leaders came from Damascus, but they were only a few, and the majority that arrived in Hispania were Muslim Berbers. She later added, as well as Dr. Francisco Layna, author and professor of Harvard University: "Everybody that studies history at any university is aware that there was not an Arab invasion in 711 AD. The Gibraltar Canal that separates Morocco from Spain has always been known as a tool for merchants to trade on both the Spanish and Moroccan Coast. Hence, this was not the first time that the Berbers had visited Spain."4

We can also ask if the Arabs were in a condition to invade Spain in 711 AD or not. In the middle of the eighth century the Berbers brought the Arabs' progress to a halt twice and this suspended the conquest of Northern Africa for another fifty years. Hence, the Arabs that came to Northern Africa were weak and few and therefore could never have invaded Hispania.

Olagüe adds that people never take the time to think how the "invaders" of North Africa crossed the Gibraltar Canal in a blink of an eye. In other words, how were they able to conquer 544,192 km2, the most mountainous region in Europe, in three years? Even more astonishing is how the 7,000 men of General Tariq, were enough in number, to defeat Rodrigo and his people in the Battle of Guadalete. Olagüe continues: "If our math is right, each of the 25,000 Arabs was responsible for 23 km2. Since this was too easy for them, they ran to traverse the Pyrenees to dominate France."5 How could a person cover 23 km2 especially in those harsh and mountainous conditions? Olagüe writes that "even if these soldiers conquered Hispania in these conditions, they would each have had 23 km2 of land and therefore would be like a needle in a haystack, compared to the other populations."6 Due to these reasons, we can conclude that an Arab invasion never took place. Furthermore, if natives of the Iberian Peninsula would have resented these newcomers, Hispania would have never been Muslim, would have never planted the seeds for the Renaissance in Europe, and would have not had scientific and artistic advancements that later influenced Europe and the American continent. If it were an invasion, the natives would have forced them to leave Hispania as it occurred when Napoleon in 1807 tried to seize Spain and asked permission of the Catholic Spanish Monarchy for his French troops to pass through Spain in order to invade Portugal. However, once in Spanish territory, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of Spain. It was at this point that the Spanish population resisted and with the help of sticks and stones drove the French out of the country. This was never the case when the Muslims arrived in Spain. Actually, the natives from the Iberian Peninsula welcomed them and were happy to see someone that respected their faith and their traditions and had similar beliefs as the majority of the natives of Hispania were Unitarian Christians. They believed in only one God, saw Jesus as a Prophet and awaited the Messiah, exactly as Muslims. The following treaty was signed in 713 CE-within two years after the first organized entry of Muslims into Spain from the south under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad-between the Arab commander Abdal-Aziz and Theodomir, the Visigothic prince of Murcia, is a proof of the freedoms the natives of Hispania enjoyed after the Arab conquests.

In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate. This is the text that Abd al Aziz ibn Musa presented to Teodomiro ibn Gandaris, in virtue in which it is agreed that in the territory will be in peace by the promising it to God, His Prophets and His Messengers that this territory will be protected by God y the protection of His Messenger Muhammad- peace be upon him. Nobody will be forced, nothing will be taken away from you; Nobody will be slaves; you will not be separated from your wife or children; you lives will be respected; you will not be killed and your churches will not be burned down. You will be free to practice your own religion. (Text of the Treaty of the Visigoth Ruler of Murcia, Teodomiro and Abd Al Aziz).7

"In the name of God, the merciful and compassionate. This is a document [granted] by 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Musá ibn Nusair to Tudmir, son of Ghabdush, establishing a treaty of peace and the promise and protection of God and his Prophet) may God bless him and grant him peace). We ['Abd al-'Aziz] will not set special conditions for him or for any among his men, nor harass him, nor remove him from power. His followers will not be killed or taken prisoner, nor will they be separated from their women and children. They will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm, [so long as] he [Tudmir] remains sincere and fulfills the [following] conditions that we have set for him. He has reached a settlement concerning seven towns: Orihuela, Valentilla, Alicante, Mula, Bigastro, Ello, and Lorca. He will not give shelter to fugitives, nor to our enemies, nor encourage any protected person to fear us, nor conceal news of our enemies. He and [each of] his men shall [also] pay one dinar every year, together with four measures of wheat, four measures of barley, four liquid measures of concentrated fruit juice, four liquid meastures of vinegar, four of honey, and four of olive oil. Slaves must each pay half of this amount. {Names of four witnesses follow, and the document is dated from the Muslim month of Rajab, in the year 94 of the Hijra (April 713).} "The Treaty of Tudmir" in Reading the Middle Ages: Sources from Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World. ed. Barbara H. Rosenwein. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2006, p. 92.

Although there were other capitulation agreements with the same nature dating from 711, this one signed on the surrender of the city of Orihuela has survived to this date. The inhabitants of the conquered territories of Spain were suitably impressed by the tolerance which the Muslims offered them once active resistance had ceased. It is these earlier agreements and their successful implementation that prompted Theodomir and the population of Orihuela to agree to sign the treaty.8

If the people that arrived were not Arabs in majority, why are they referred to Arabs in Spain and why was Arabic spoken and even carved in some of their architectural beauties such as the Al-hambra in Granada? Guardia clearly states "they were not Arabs, even when the majority of Spain was Muslim. However, they adopted Arabic as their language."? Arabic was the language of scholars and Latin was the language of soldiers. Little by little, the natives of the Iberian Peninsula adopted Arabic as their own language, even people from other faiths. In the ninth century, a Bishop of Cordoba wrote: "Many of my colleagues read poems and stories; they study their philosophies as well as the Muslim theologians in Arabic, not to refute them, but to learn how to express themselves in Arabic more correctly and elegantly."10

Olagüe states that it took 300 years for the natives of the Iberian Peninsula to adopt and utilize the Arabic language. We can see a wonderful fusion of the jarchas, or poetry from Al-Andalus or Muslim Spain, where it can easily be seen how Arabic and Latin fused. These were love poems that were written in Arabic, and ended in Latin.

Poetry is only one of the many examples of the advances Spain experienced during this era. When in many cities of Europe people walked in streets of mud, people in Hispania walked on pavement, had a drainage and sewage system. Cordoba, once the capital of Al-Andalus, was famous for its scientific advances in medicine. Andalusians had stomach operations and very specialized cataract operations. Some specific instruments that were used at that time in medicine are still used today in the same field.

The first university in the West was founded in Cordoba, Spain. Scholars from all over the world came to gain knowledge in all the natural and social sciences such as medicine, technology for agriculture, astronomy, literature, and jurisprudence to name a few. The city of Toledo is another example of intercultural exchange, where the School of Translation efficiently contributed to the culture of mutual understanding.

Among many inventions Andalusians developed was the astrolabe which was used to determine the latitude of a ship at sea by measuring the noon altitude of the Sun or the meridian altitude of a star of known declination.11 It was with the help of this astrolabe that Christopher Columbus was able to travel to the American continent in 1492.

This intercultural and multicultural convivencia between Jews, Christians and Muslims in Al-Andalus was key to the development of different sciences that later contributed to give birth to the Renaissance in Italy. When the inhabitants of Al-Andalus put emphasis on their spirituality, this was also the time when their scientific and technological advances were strongest, also influencing Catholics in later times.

Towards the last century of Muslim Spain, the Christians had adopted the majority of Muslim traditions as well as the scientific discoveries and advances that they had accomplished during more than 800 years in the Iberian Peninsula.

In conclusion, the Arab invasion is only a myth and Al Andalus was in its majority composed of natives of the Iberian Peninsula and not Arabs. This civilization that spanned across eight centuries was a unique model of respect for other cultures and religions, a model that we can learn a lot from in our times.
Islamic Caligraphy at the Alhambra Palace in Granada,Spain.

Karin de Villa is a Spanish Professor at St. Mary's University, San Antonio, TX.


1. The Spanish Word for coexistence, also referred sometimes by Americo Castro as Las Tres Culturas or The Three Cultures: Jews, Christians and Muslims living together in peace during the Muslim rule.
2. One of the contemporary famous Historians and Chair of the University Autónoma de Madrid.
3. De La Guardia, Carmen. Lecture: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Spain and Latin America. Middlebury College: Spain, Madrid, 2006.
4. Lecture: Don Quijote, Spain: Madrid, 2006.
5. Olagüe, Ignacio. La Revolucion Islamica en Occidente. Espana: Cordoba, 2004. 36.
6. Ibid.
7. Historia de Espana, vol. 3. Historia 16 extra XV Madrid, 1980.
8. The Treaty of Orihuela. The Surrender of Orihuela, Spain, 713 C.E.
9. De La Guardia, Carmen. Lecture: Jews, Jews, Christians and Muslims in Spain and Latin America. Middlebury College: Spain, Madrid, 2006.
10. Alvarez, Fe Bajo & Pecharroman, Julio Gil. Historia de Espana. Sociedad General Espanola de Libreria. S.A. de Alcobendas: Madrid, 1998. 48.
11. Morrison, J. The Mariner's Astrolabe. 2002.