Islamic Spain: A Golden Age of Tolerance?

Written by Lee Clarke

Islamic Spain: A golden age of tolerance?

Muslim forces completed their conquest of what is now Spain in 711 AD. The Islamic caliphate now stretched from Spain across North Africa to the Middle East and was one of the largest empires in the world at the time. Unlike other conquests though, the other peoples living under Muslim rule, namely Christians and Jews were not forced to convert to Islam nor were they oppressed to a great extent. What followed was a remarkable (for the time) age of multiculturalism and religious tolerance where the adherents of the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam found that they could live together and more importantly learn from each other.

Islam had emerged in the 6th century in Arabia as the third of the Abrahamic religions after Judaism and Christianity when a man named Muhammad claimed he had received a revelation and was the final prophet sent by God after the Jewish prophets which includes Abraham and Moses and Jesus. Islam classifies itself not as an entirely new religion superseding the other two, but instead as a continuation of the revelation given by God in the Torah and the Gospels, the final chapter in the story. The Islamic holy book, the Koran (meaning ‘the revelation’) specifically mentions both the previous religions in its text in many places and clearly states that the Koran is but another revelation in the line:

“Indeed, We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], as We revealed to Noah and the prophets after him. And we revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the Descendants, Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the book [of Psalms].” (4:163)[1]

Muhammad himself had also met and been friendly with many Jews and Christians when he was alive and he made sure that they were protected in the city of Medina when he governed the city.

This is important because Judaism and Christianity were therefore not alien to Muslim eyes but were also seen as valid faiths worshipping the same God as Muslims. This theological fact is one of the reasons that the three groups eventually managed to establish a more or less tolerant society in Spain later on.

With time, the three different cultures blended. People married, learned each other’s languages, converted to each other’s religions and even established mixed families with a mix of ethnicities, cultures and faiths. Jews and Christians were given freedom to practice their faiths in peace and this also resulted in exchanges of ideas between peoples.

Ira M Lapidus in his great book ‘A History of Islamic Societies’ (third edition) in the chapter on Islamic Spain, co-authored by David Moshfegh says the following:

“Many Muslims came to speak Romance, some Christians retained both their Romance language and Visigothic Christian culture. Other Christians converted to Islam but spoke only romance but knew no Arabic. Still others took on Arabic language and cultural traits without becoming Muslims. Mozárab was was the name applied to Christians who were acculturated to Arabic but not converted to Islam…people in all three categories married each other creating new layers of hybrid family, religion and culture…In sum there were romance speaking Christians as well as romance speaking Muslims and Arabic speaking Muslims and Christians…a new, cultural blend came into being”[2]

As well as a degree of religious tolerance and cultural blending, something else flourished in Islamic Spain and that was culture. Great architecture, beautiful poetry and the like defined Hispano-Arab culture. Islamic civilisation at the time was among the most advanced in the world. Philosophy, poetry, science, mathematics, the arts and practically every other field advanced ten-fold. A lot of this advancement was down to the establishment of the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad. This became a centre of knowledge and learning and many works from Ancient Greece and from as far as India were translated into Arabic there. Many of these texts which included the work of such greats as Plato and Aristotle had been lost in the Christian West. Since they had been pagan Greeks, their works had been given little importance by the Christian church in Europe at the time. Ironically, in the House of Wisdom, it was mostly Christians translating the Greek texts into Arabic, scholars of all religions played a part in preserving this knowledge and if it hadn’t been for them, it most likely would have been lost to history.

In 771 a delegation of Hindu scholars from India had arrived at the court of the Muslim Caliph bringing with them their advanced knowledge of mathematics which included the decimal point and the number zero. Muslim mathmiticans absorbed this into their own works and it helped them to solve algebraic and geometrical equations. Medicine, optics and astronomy also saw advances with Al-Razi producing the first descriptions of smallpox and messals. ‘The cannon of medicine’ written by Persian polymath and philosopher, Ibn Sina became an authority in Europe for centuries afterwards.

A great observatory was constructed in Iran in 1259 allowing scholars to record planetary movements in great detail. Al Hazen was the first person to discover that light enters our eyes in straight lines rather than coming out of them enabling us to see. This great discovery led to the invention of lenses, glasses and later camera lenses. All this knowledge helped to lead the renessiance and enlightenment in the West centuries later. Baghdad is so often in the modern era thought of as a war-torn and desolate city as a result of recent conflicts, but building on the knowledge of the ancients, mathematical knowledge from the East and making its own discoveries, the House of Wisdom made the city the intellectual heartland of the Medievil world.[3]

Islamic Spain was also very important in this regard. The cities of modern day Andalusia, especially Córdoba became vital for the transmission of translated works from Baghdad back to the rest of Europe where they could be translated into Latin for use by European scholars. As a result of its wealth and culture, Córdoba became admired in both East and West. One author wrote of the city:

“There were half a million inhabitants, living in 113,000 houses. There were 700 mosques and 300 public baths spread throughout the city and its twenty-one suburbs. The streets were paved and lit… There were bookshops and more than seventy libraries.”[4]

Córdoba also produced some great thinkers of its own, most notably Ibn Rusd (Averroes) and Moses Maimonides. One Muslim and one Jewish, they became testament to the rich cross culture encounters in Spain. Averroes tried to bring Greek philosophy, especially that of Aristotle and logic into Islamic thinking. He’d also advocated a non-literal interpretation of the Koran backed up by one’s own reason. Maimonides became one of the most famous Jewish theologians, fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, he completed a series of works on both law, Greek philosophy and the idea of God. Both of them would later influence European thought.[5]

However, life in Islamic Spain was not at all perfect. Although, for the time it was very tolerant and did indeed develop a multiculturalism, religious clashes were frequent and the society by modern standards would most likely not be called “tolerant” at all. Between 850-859 about fourth eight, Christian monks, nuns and priests killed themselves to protest Muslim rule, being worried by the amount of Christian conversions to Islam and the cultural mixing. In reaction to these and other protests, the Umayyad regime, dismissed Christians from the courts, put new taxes on them and destroyed some churches.  At different periods and in different places, restrictions were placed on Christians and Jews by some Muslim rulers in Spain. Whilst they were never made to forcibly convert, they had to accept the superiority of Muslims, pay the Jiyza tax and were not allowed to build new religious buildings along with many other things. It just shows that no society can lay claim to be a utipoa.

Internal conflicts and pressures by Christian states from outside led to the famous reconquista (reconquest) and the eventual downfall of Islamic Spain. In 1085 Alfonso VI captured the Muslim city of Toledo. Toledo then became a centre for translating the Arabic translations back to Latin for use in Europe. This was done by a international team including Jews, Frenchmen, Italians and Englishmen. Over time, the rest of Spain was reconquered and although the Spanish Jews and Muslims were left alone initially, eventually brutal restrictions were placed upon them. The use of Arabic and Muslim dress was banned and religious clashes, massacres and discrimination reached new heights over the next couple of centuries on all sides. Jews were treated as they were in other Christian states, they were accused of having killed Christ and of not accepting him. Muslims and Islam were thought of as “evil” – sadly this hatred of Islam and Muslims stemmed back to the times of the Crusades.

Eventually, in 1492, in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic monarchs of Spain issued an ultimatum to the remaining Spanish Jewish and Muslim citizens. They could either convert to Christianity or leave Spain forever. Some stayed but many fled to places such as the Ottoman Empire, North Africa or other countries in Europe. Muslims and Jews had been in Spain and had called it home for almost a thousand years. For the Jews especially, life under Muslim rule in Spain had been the best deal they had had since the exile from their homeland by the Romans shortly after the death of Christ. They had been able to practice their religion and culture in relative harmony for the time when compared to the rampant anti-semitism in European Christian nations. They would not have a better living arrangement until the creation of state of Israel in 1948 after the Nazi Holocaust had cost millions of Jewish lives.[6]

In conclusion then, Islamic Spain was not at all perfect but it was at least a start. It could be called at a push, a predecessor to our own societies in the 21st century. While our societies are now much more open and tolerant and respect human rights and dignity, even they are not perfect and leave us much work to do to eventually create a tolerant society in which all are free and equal. But in Spain, people’s of three of the world’s most important religious traditions found that after centuries of discrimination and war, that they had much more in common with each other than was originally thought and using this, they were able to create a society that took something from each culture and combined them to create a rich multicultural and multifaith mix of humanity that allowed ancient knowledge to be shared across the globe. If they could do that all those years ago, there is no reason why we can’t do it today.




[2] Ira M Lapidus,/ David Moshfegh (Co-author)  ‘A History of Islamic Societies’ (third edition) , Cambridge University Press, p. 300

[3] Reg Grant et al, ‘The History Book’, DK publishers, pp. 88-93

[4] ‘Muslim Spain: 711-1492’:

[5] Will Buckingham et al ‘The Philosophy Book’, DK Publishers, pp. 82-85

[6] Ira M Lapidus,/ David Moshfegh (Co-author)  ‘A History of Islamic Societies’ (third edition) , Cambridge University Press, pp. 298-315

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