How Islamic Spain gave origin to the Modern West

Luigi Vitali in conversation with Brian Aivars Catlos

Ortega y Gasset, once said: “I don’t understand how a thing that lasted eight centuries can be called a reconquest.” The story goes like this, Muslim forces crossed into the Iberian peninsula in 711 and took control of it within seven years, giving rise to a great Muslim civilisation that reached its peak under the Umayyad caliphate of Cordova in the 10th century. This Muslim power then came to an end when the stronghold of Granada was conquered by Christian forces in 1492, after a long process of Christian expansion throughout the peninsula that lasted 781 years.

Ever since, the topic of Islamic ‘Convivencia’ and the Christian ‘Reconquista’ as foundational myths of the Spanish nation have been divisive, politically charged, and overly romanticised by historians, rulers and a number of politicians who attempted to frame contemporary tensions in the context of an ancient Iberian narrative.

However, if we look closer, there are even more tales to recount, and it’s in this period of Spanish history that we can see the origin of our modern West.

Brian A. Catlos is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He works on Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations and ethnoreligious identity in medieval Europe and the Islamic World. He’s well known for the books Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad (2014), Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain (2018) and The Sea in the Middle: The Mediterranean World 650–1650 (2022).
DUST met with Brian A. Catlos to discuss the origin of Spain and our modern world.

Luigi Vitali – Lately, more and more scholars praise Al Andalus as being a paradise for tolerance and coexistence; one of the highlights of human civilisation we should emulate. Others, more traditionally, credit the Christian Reconquista for the liberation of Spain from Muslim invaders, thanks to which Spain was able to reconnect with Europe. Where should we stand?

Brian Aivars Catlos – It’s problematic when people approach history from a political perspective. In this case, some want to see the history of Muslim Spain as a clash of civilisations, others as this happy paradise of ethnoreligious harmony. What I try to do in my work is to go beyond that and look at how people felt and how they acted at the time, which is often really complex and usually kind of self-contradictory. The history of these relations in Spain does not correspond to just one single point of view. Nevertheless, that is what makes it interesting. When we look at Christian, Muslim, and Jewish relations in Spain, this is a history of people and, therefore, it’s also a history of power, and whenever there’s power, there’s indeed conflict. But what is unique here is the long period and the intensity of the interactions amongst these groups, which is quite remarkable.

L.V.- But let’s start from the beginning. Spain—or more precisely, the Iberian peninsula—has been a rare exception in the European continent, being home to a flourishing Muslim civilisation. Can you tell us how it came about and how it was able to last seven centuries?

B.A.C. – It happened as a consequence of conquest and warfare. But what is interesting is that Muslims arrived in Spain in 711, at the end of a long process of conquest that started about 75 years prior and took place in the Arabian Peninsula, at a time when there were only a handful of Arabs. By the time they arrived in Spain, they weren’t prepared to conquer such a vast territory, and this wasn’t a case of mass migration. They had recruited and converted many North African Berbers who came to form the bulk of their army. But the reason they conquered such an extensive amount of land in such a short time was different. By the time Muslims had made their way to the country, Spain was under the rule of a Christian group called the Visigoths, and they were in the middle of a civil war, and some of these local Christians sided with the Muslims to overthrow their king. So, the conquest really happened by accident. As a result, when Muslims took control of the country, they had problems imposing their will with the force since there were so few of them. Therefore, they had to integrate the conquered people into their political system through collaboration. It is what the Americans call winning people’s hearts and minds. Muslims had to involve the people they had conquered in their political process.

L.V.- How were they able to do that?

B.A.C. – Well, Islam has a very interesting approach to religious diversity, slightly different from how it usually works in Christianity. Traditional Christianity emphasises that there can only be one truth, the Christian truth, and whatever version there may be of that is the version established by those in power. On the other hand, Islam also believes there is one truth—in this case, revealed by Prophet Muhammad—but it also recognises that even if Jewish and Christian beliefs differ, they worship the same God, so their intentions must be essentially good. As a result, Jews and Christians had certain rights under Muslim rule during the medieval period. Now, this is not to say that they were equal citizens. But even though they were a subordinate group, they had rights that had to be respected to ensure their participation in society. This was the foundation of what some historians call convivencia, living together, which characterised much of the period under Islamic rule.

L.V.- Was this unusual for Muslim civilisation?

B.A.C. – Islam faced similar challenges wherever it expanded to. We must remember that initially, the Arabs were a relatively underdeveloped group. They had no experience running a kingdom or an empire, and, all of a sudden, within a very short period, they had conquered the Persian Empire and the majority of the Roman Empire. They found themselves with this very complex empire to run and didn’t know how to do it. Like modern colonialism, the solution they had was to get the local people to run their empire for them – which is what they did. In the first century of the Islamic expansion, we see the Islamic empire mainly run by local Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews.

L.V.- Coming from an underdeveloped background, what led them to become a beacon of progress in the fields of art, philosophy, science and architecture in such a short time?

B.A.C. – Well, when a group expands, there is a moment when they feel confident and are in a position to welcome outside knowledge and appreciate the things other cultures can bring to them. When the Arabs conquered the Persian empire and parts of the Roman Empire, they were blown away by the sophistication of these cultures and quickly realised how valuable these were to them. As a result, they saw knowledge as a key to power and incorporated it into their culture. They soon understood that the more knowledge a ruler had control over, the more powerful he was (and I say “he” because, in this era, formal rulers were all but invariably men). Because of this, the sciences developed so much under Islamic rule throughout the centuries when Islam was a dominant political force. To draw a comparison, consider the United States in the 20th century. The U.S. was also expanding in that period: it was confident, so it welcomed knowledge and ideas from all over the world. Anyone could come to the United States, contributing to making it a creative, dynamic place. Nowadays, that may not be the case. The U.S. is now closing itself off because it no longer feels confident. In that sense, we can draw parallels between the early Islamic world and the history of the modern world. Same with the U.K.

L.V.- Following what we are saying, the clash between white Europeans and Arab Muslims that we tend to imagine from our standpoint is not always the case, as we can see from this part of history.

B.A.C. – No, not at all. One has to remember that at the time of the Islamic invasion of Spain, as I said, only a handful of Arabs and maybe a few tens of thousands of North Africans had reached Spain. Many of those North Africans left at a later stage. So, most of those who became known as the Muslims of al-Andalus were local people who converted.

This isn’t a story of a massive invasion but one of a group of people who went to Spain and established a new religion and culture, to which the people who were already living there converted. Centuries later, we would see a similar reverse process when the Christian kingdoms conquered all of al-Andalus. In other words, if we were to view this genealogically, most Spanish Muslim populations had Christian ancestors who converted to Islam, and their descendants would eventually convert back to Christianity. The tendency to see this in terms of colour, ethnic or racial difference is our 21st-century vision of the world being projected onto the past. But it wasn’t necessarily how people would have thought of things at that time.

L.V. – Is then the Visigoth migration the last significant migration to the peninsula?

B.A.C. – Even then, when the Visigoths arrived, there were very few of them. It was a small Christian-ruling class that established itself and took power. Most of these people were the same folks who had been there for thousands of years. The people weren’t the ones to change, but the culture around them indeed did.

L.V. – We incorrectly refer to a ‘Moorish Spain’ when there were actually no borders at the time since multiple kingdoms simply bordered one another. When Spain today is one of the most divided countries in Europe, is it possible to find the root causes of its modern development in these early divisions and spheres of influence?

B.A.C. – That’s an interesting question, and it comes down to the fact that the idea of Spain as a modern country only developed in the 19th century. In our imaginations, all countries are clearly defined, long-established national entities. But the thing is that they’re all pretty recent. It was in the 12th century that the idea of a Spain defined by one region developed. The region in question was Castile, which by the 1500s came to dominate the Iberian Peninsula, or almost all of it, except for Portugal. Once it came into power, Castile developed a narrative of history which reinforced the idea that there had always been a single Spain. And this is where the concept of the Reconquista comes from. The idea is this: there was a Spain under the Visigoths that foreign Arabs conquered, and then, throughout hundreds of years, Christians pushed those Arabs out and reclaimed Spain as a united Christian country. Although this makes sense from a 19th-century perspective, it isn’t how it unfolded from a historical point of view. And in any case, many regions did not want to identify with this linguistic unification and political centralisation process. Instead, they preferred to identify with the previous kingdoms and cultures on the peninsula. So, as modern Spanish nationalism merged in the 19th century, nationalism also blossomed in regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country.

L.V. – What narrative do you reckon would be more accurate?

B.A.C. – If you look at Spain in the Middle Ages, you can draw a line across the country and say, above this line, there are Christians, and below it, there are Muslims. Therefore, it looks like a Muslim-Christian conflict. But if you look at what was happening on the ground politically, who the rulers were, who their allies were, who their enemies were, what we see for the most part is that Muslims were fighting each other and so were Christians amongst themselves, hence why they often looked for allies on the other side. Occasionally, we would see big battles and significant conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Spain. Still, it’s equally as common to have Muslim rulers allied with Christian kings fighting against other Muslim rulers allied with Christian kings. And this is one of the ways that culture was disseminated. Unlike what we might imagine today, there was no iron curtain or dividing line between Islam and Christianity. They were really profoundly integrated.

L.V. – How did an alliance work between a Christian king and a Muslim ruler?

B.A.C. – As in any other alliance, it worked if they both had common political interests. They would exchange gifts. They would fight side by side. Their armies would fight together against their enemies’ armies. They would trade with each other. So they established all sorts of relationships in terms of diplomacy and politics. For example, take these two buildings in Andalucia: if you go to the Alcazar in Seville and look at the part built as a fortress palace built by the Christian king Pedro the Cruel of Castile, you can notice the resemblance with the Muslim Alhambra Palace in Granada. As a matter of fact, this part of the Alcazar was built a few years before the Alhambra by the same Muslim architects and builders who were moving back and forth between the Christian and Muslim kingdoms. The Christian kings thought the culture of Al-Andalus was so sophisticated that they employed Muslim workers to build their palaces. Muslims built most of the churches in Spain throughout the 13th century. So this was a two-way street of exchange in which, even though these people were enemies at times, they really held each other’s cultures valuable. 

L.V. – One of Al Andalus’ most fascinating aspects is how it allows us to see relationships between contrasting cultures from such a different perspective.

B.A.C. – I think it’s impressive when people with conflicting views or ideas can recognise the value in each other and find a way to rise above whatever divides them and communicate as humans regardless of these differences. And I think that’s what makes culture happen. There is this idea of culture, especially among those on the right of the political spectrum, as something that must be purified, guarded and distilled. But it shouldn’t be this way. Culture happens when diversity and opposites come together in fascinating and creative ways. These mashups and dialectics that emerge from diverse ideas are the essence of any artistic creation. And that’s true at every level: in philosophy, science, art and even cuisine. This is the secret of Al-Andalus: the balance between Christians, Muslims and Jews held for so long, providing a platform for this sort of exchange and enrichment of culture.

L.V. – The last Muslim stronghold in Granada fell in 1492, ending the Muslim domination over Spanish territories. A few months later, with the Alhambra Decree, Jews were forced to either convert or leave— marking their largest expulsion since the destruction of the Second Temple. This very same year, the New World was discovered by Columbus. Can we say that because of these events, 1492  was the year Spain, for better or worse, changed the course of Western civilisation forever?

B.A.C. – It most definitely did. However, I would like to draw attention to an additional pivotal point in the Western mindset that began a century later, in 1609. But let’s start from the beginning. In 1492, Fernando and Isabel, the king of Aragon and the queen of Castile, conquered Granada, the last Muslim kingdom. As you said, a few months later, they enforced a decree requiring all Jews in their kingdoms to convert to Christianity or leave. Since these events took place almost simultaneously, people tend to see them as deeply connected. But they actually aren’t. For centuries, Jews had played a crucial role in both Christian and Muslim kingdoms. They covered all sorts of important economic roles. By 1492, however, that no longer became the case. During the previous century, most of Spain’s Jews had converted to Christianity mainly due to persecution. Christian rulers had stopped seeing Jews as being useful to society and had started perceiving them as a threat, mainly because they were tempting conversos—the formerly-Jewish population who had converted to Christianity—into converting back to Judaism. In 1492, the solution became clear: to expel any remaining Jews who would not convert. The rulers knew they could do this without facing any serious consequences. Muslims, on the other hand, were a different matter. In 1492, there were many more Muslims in Spain than Jews, and they were essential to the development of the Christian economy. They worked as farmers, artisans and merchants. It wasn’t in anybody’s interest to send them away. For most Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, 1492 came and went without much of a change. Remember that Granada occupied only a tiny portion of the southern peninsula and that much of the north—particularly in Aragon—was still inhabited by Muslims who had been living under Christian rule for centuries. Around 1500 there was a Muslim uprising in Granada, and a few years later, Isabel forced the Muslims of her lands to convert. However, the fundamental shift occurred 20 years later when the country’s ruling family changed.

The native dynasty of Ferdinand and Isabel effectively ended, and the Habsburgs, a new family of rulers, moved in from the north of Europe. They had different viewpoints when it came to politics and religion. They came to rule an empire encompassing various parts of the world, including the Americas and parts of Asia, leading it to become one of the world’s most important political and military powers during the majority of the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result of these events, Muslims in Spain weren’t as important to them as they had been to the previous dynasty. So, firstly they forced them to convert to Christianity. Still, fearing that many of them would secretly continue to practice Islam, they decided to send them all away about 75 years later. Between 1609 and 1614, as many as 300,000 Moriscos (the descendants of converted Muslims) were expelled from Spain. When we look back at the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, we could say that between 20,000 and 50,000 individuals probably chose exile. In the case of the Moriscos, it was over 300,000 who were sent away.

L.V. – What makes you say that a significant shift happened within our Western consciousness from this event onwards? 

B.A.C.: The difference was that in 1492 the Jews were given a choice. You could convert to Christianity and stay, or you had to leave. The Moriscos had no choice since they were already officially Christian, so they were basically thrown out based on their ethnicity. This was a crucial turning point in Europe’s history because this is when our society started developing a formal idea of racism. The idea was that even if you convert and change your religion, you still are who you used to be because it’s inside you somehow. It’s in your blood. That’s very different from how it used to be perceived before. That’s not how people thought in the Middle Ages, and that’s why people who practised other religions could co-exist back then because they didn’t necessarily see themselves as inherently different.

L.V. – It must then be possible to attribute the modern conception of racism and ethnicity as the main divide between people to the early 17th century.

B.A.C. – Yes, but several factors contributed to this. One of them was the European expansion into Africa and the growing importance of enslaved people. Europeans had long used enslaved people, but once most of them happened to come from Africa, this accentuated the idea that African people somehow represented a lower strata of humanity. This also coincided with the Moriscos being expelled. It all started to come together between 1500 and 1600. We see a shift in how people think about themselves and how they feel about others. Before 1500, people in Spain didn’t think of themselves as Spanish but rather as Christians, Muslims or Jews. Or they thought of themselves as being from Castile, Catalonia, Leon or Portugal. During this period, a new way of conceiving identity emerged. So yes, in some ways, you can say that the modern world rose from both Islamic Spain and Christian Spain.

L.V.- That’s very interesting indeed. Now, let’s try to understand Spanish dynamics better. Because Iberian native populations remained in locus during these centuries, converting each time to different, sometimes opposite sets of values. Can we assume that this resulted in a national attitude less inclined to personally identify in a central system of government but more in a local and individual element? An attitude that each central governing power tried to tame with force, either it was the church with the Inquisition, for example, or the 20th-century dictatorship. I know it’s a long shot, but what do you think?

B.A.C. – Yes, it’s a fascinating question. But I would frame it differently. You always have to think about power, and one of the reasons that people form groups or ways of identifying themselves is to withhold their power. So, if we look at Islamic Spain, as I said, there were Christians, Muslims and Jews, but the Muslims were on top. Hence, in this environment, a Muslim could walk down the street and feel like he was a member of the privileged class. In Christian Spain, it was the same, except it was the Christians on the top. So, religious differences helped reinforce the power structure because Christians saw Jews and Muslims as beneficial and non-threatening elements. But when political and economic conditions changed, and Muslims and Jews no longer seemed beneficial to Christian society but were rather seen as competitors, Christians began to discriminate against them. And they began to see them not just as different but as bad people. And they began to persecute them and pressure them to convert to Christianity. But conversion did not solve the problem; it made it worse. Because if those Jews and Muslims were now Christians, there was no rationale for discriminating against them. This is when it became necessary for the “old Christians” to think up new ways to maintain their privilege. So, they began to think under racial terms; that Jews or Muslims, even after converting, were still different and inferior. By the time they decided to send away the Jews, followed by the Moriscos, the idea of maintaining a pure society had become entrenched. This is when the Inquisition also becomes important, and this is perhaps the same sort of ideological dynamic behind the later dictatorial regimes of the 20th century. The idea of purity, the idea that we’re unlike anyone else and that we need to separate from everyone else because they are inferior to us and they certainly can’t mix with us is something that first emerged within the narratives of the Reconquista but didn’t come so forcefully into play until 500 years later.

You can see how these tensions between purity/control and diversity/‘convivencia’ characterise Spanish society across centuries and even today. So, in our current uncertain world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the idea of purity is now re-emerging in Spanish politics on the right. Even if this is an international trend, it touches a sensitive nerve within Spanish culture. But, deep down, it’s about power, and if we want to understand what really happened, we have to look at how these new ideas of power emerged in the first place.

L.V. – Talking about the power shift. During the 15th century, Italy underwent a cultural revolution known as the Renaissance. A shift named after the rebirth of the Italian peninsula and its return to the forefront of power and scientific advancement in the world. Until then, however, Al Andalus had been at the forefront by forming a continuum between the Classical world and the European Renaissance. Could we say that the Renaissance in Europe would not have happened in the same way, or probably not at all, without the contribution of the Muslim world?

B.A.C. – Absolutely. We know Al-Andalus was the point of contact, not the only one, but indeed the main point of contact between the world of Islam and the Christian European world. When Islam expanded in 600 and 700, it took over much of the Roman Empire and the entire Persian Empire, inheriting all that knowledge. Muslims continued to develop that knowledge of the classical world, which was pagan in orientation, and they tried to reconfigure it so it could work across Islam, Christianity and Judaism. This was a process in which Christians, Muslims and Jews were all involved. In the Islamic world, classical knowledge was reinterpreted to fit an Islamic perspective. Centuries later, Christian thinkers could look at Islamic science and philosophy and be able to adapt it to Christianity. I’ll give you an image: Aristotle was one of the great classical philosophers, the person who worked out the rules of logic and rationality. Now, around the year 900 or so, Muslim philosophers began to think about how they could align their theology with the logic conceived by Aristotle. It took them about 300 years to figure it out, and, in the late 1100s in al-Andalus, in Cordoba, a Muslim philosopher named Ibn Rushd finally figured it out. He cracked it. About 50 years later, a Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, the most significant Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, looked at what Ibn Rushd had done with Aristotle and Islam and adapted it to Judaism. He wrote a book called The Mishnah Torah, which analyses Jewish scripture in a logical way. In the Christian world, we had people like St. Thomas Aquinas, who took the same ideas from Ibn Rushd and applied them to Christianity. Similar processes took place across the sciences as well. Hence, the Renaissance and the rediscovery of the Classical period could not have happened the way it did without Islamic culture and influence—it was a process that reconfigured classical knowledge to fit a cultural and theological context that Christians, Muslims and Jews could all understand. The Renaissance is an outgrowth of this. So, in that sense, Al-Andalus and Islamic culture were essential to the development of the Renaissance.

L.V. – Many scholars have started doing so, and you are one of them.

B.A.C. – Yes, scholars are looking back, and we are checking not only the links between the Renaissance and the scientific developments of the Islamic world, but we’re also noticing how, after 1500 or 1600, European scientists became embarrassed by the extent of Muslim influence on scientific discoveries and how they tried to conceal these. It’s interesting because, in the Middle Ages, Christian philosophers didn’t have a problem acknowledging having taken ideas from Muslim philosophers and scientists. After the 16th century, though, when these new ideas of race and nation started taking over, official culture started to conceal this part of history. And this is one of the reasons why we have this idea that first, it was Rome that fell and, after 1000 years, it came back during the Renaissance as if nothing had happened in between. This is the idea behind the Dark Ages. But it’s not true since so much had happened at that time, and most of these advances came to Europe through Al-Andalus.

L.V. – Let’s see what happened after the Roman Empire fell. Since the Greeks and the Romans, the Mediterranean Sea has been the cradle of Western civilisation. Still, when the empire fell, Muslims living on the other side of the Mediterranean became the enemy. With time, the Mediterranean ceased to be the epicentre it once was, and southern Europe had no choice but to merge with northern Europe, slowly starting to form the entity that has now become known as Europe. Since the Mediterranean Sea is the topic of your latest book, can you tell us what happened to the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages?

B.A.C. – Well, the idea that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the northern and southern parts surrounding this Sea were cut off is one of those theories that emerged together with the notion of European nationalism in the 19th century. What we see when we leave behind our presuppositions and look at the hard data is a little bit different. It’s true that with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the southern countries fell out of favour, but that also created a power vacuum that was suddenly filled by other Europeans, Muslims from Arabia and people from North Africa or the Byzantine Empire. Even if the Mediterranean was no longer ruled by one power and became a contested area, trade and communication didn’t cease; it just involved different powers. This is what connected the worlds of Christian Europe, Islam and Byzantium together because it was a region of wealth and trade between Europe, Africa and Asia. The Mediterranean has a long history of bringing diverse cultures together. And we can say this because the same dynamics of alliances between Christians and Muslims that can be observed in mediaeval Spain can also be seen throughout the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. But since we are so accustomed to thinking of history in terms of nations and the division between the Christian and Muslim worlds, it is hard for us to grasp the concept of these two worlds having actually always been linked.

I’ll give you an example. Those Muslims that conquered the Mediterranean were Arabs from a part of the Arabian Peninsula that had no ship-building tradition, no seafaring and no navies. Yet, within 50 years after conquering the south of the Mediterranean, they were attacking the Byzantine Empire with ships. Who do you think was employed on these ships? It was Christians. The idea that it was a war of Muslims against Christians or that there was such a clear division between the world of Christianity and Islam is essentially an illusion that we have created because of how we think about history today. But that story doesn’t reflect what was actually going on in the past.

L.V.- The conclusion that can be drawn seems to be that the closer we get, the blurrier the lines become, even on an individual level. As we can see, faith and religion were indeed used to structure societies. Still, when we look closely at people, we can notice how they all have contradictory behaviours, a factor that is indeed a recurring pattern throughout history.

B.A.C. – Absolutely. I would even go beyond that to say that the definition of a human being is contradictory behaviour. We all say things and then do the opposite. We all do things we shouldn’t do, but we do them regardless. This is what makes humanity so fascinating. We’re not robots. We may have an ideology or a sense of identity, but we don’t necessarily stand by it in our daily lives. We’re messy. And it is amid all this messiness that exciting things happen. It’s when people get along despite their differences or when people do things they theoretically shouldn’t. For me, the goal of history is to understand ourselves better. And if we come to know how messy the past was and how interesting and beautiful it all was, we can better understand how messy, exciting and beautiful we are today. I’ll give you an example: you look at Islamic culture today and come away with an idea of Islam as being very puritanical, rigid and uncompromising. But if you look, for example, at the poetry and literature of medieval Islam, you get a very different picture – one of a culture that is cosmopolitan, diverse and liberal. 

For instance, the last time I was in Tunis, I ate at a restaurant named after Abu Nuwas, a great poet of the Abbasid period. If you read Abu Nuwas’ poetry, you’d probably be surprised to find out that he is highly regarded in the Islamic world today as a great poet, even though he wrote very explicit homoerotic poetry, odes to wine, and was essentially a libertine and bon vivant. It’s ironic, isn’t it? But that’s what’s interesting about history. That’s what makes the world go around today: the fact that we have ideals but we don’t always follow them. If we followed our ideals dogmatically, we’d be monsters; breaking our own rules is what makes us human.

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