De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images

Muhammad XII, also known as Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, leaving the city in 1492 after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella; detail of an altarpiece in the Royal Chapel of the Cathedral of Granada, sixteenth century

The historiography of medieval Spain is an academic battleground on which historians and other intellectuals pick over elements of the country’s past that might support one or another version of its national identity. The question of national identity became acute during and after the Spanish Civil War. In 1943 the medievalist Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz published España y el Islam, in which the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula was presented as a disaster: “Without Islam who can guess what our destiny might have been?” Sánchez-Albornoz identified strongly with what he saw as the specifically Christian and Castilian heritage of Spain. This version of Spanish history might have appealed to the royalists, Falangists, and fervent Catholics who were winning the civil war. Yet Sánchez-Albornoz not only spent the Franco years teaching in Argentina, he was also president of the council of the Spanish Republican government in exile, and his book was published in Buenos Aires.

It was another exile from Franco’s Spain who produced an interpretation of Spanish history that celebrated just those elements in it that Sánchez-Albornoz regarded as his country’s curse. After the civil war broke out, the cultural historian Américo Castro had taken teaching posts in America, and in 1948 his España en su historia: cristianos, moros y judíos was published in Argentina. This book emphasized the hybrid nature of medieval Spanish society and the enormous contributions made to its culture by Arabs, Berbers, and Jews. Castro used the term convivencia to describe the peaceful coexistence that he argued was commonly, though not always, the leading feature of the Muslim and Christian regimes in medieval Spain.

The debate has continued into the post-Franco era. The Cuban-born scholar of medieval history María Rosa Menocal followed Castro in celebrating the Arab and Jewish contributions to Spanish history and culture.* “A thousand years ago on the Iberian Peninsula, an enlightened vision of Islam had created the most advanced culture in Europe,” she wrote in 2002. Menocal lamented the Christian Reconquista, but it was not, in her view, what brought an end to that utopia of high culture and tolerance. Instead, civil strife among Muslim warlords in the early eleventh century began the ruin of Andalusian civilization. Thereafter the invasion from Morocco of first the fanatical Almoravid Berbers and later the no less fanatical Almohad Berbers completed the ruin.

In The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016), Darío Fernández-Morera took a less pollyannaish view of Muslim Spain, which he argued “was marked by religious and therefore cultural repression in all areas of life” (in the words of his book jacket). His argument is densely and polemically annotated, and Menocal’s writings do not feature in his bibliography. In Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain, Brian Catlos, a historian at the University of Colorado, expertly navigates between these clashing interpretations and presents a balanced account of the Muslim occupation of Spain and its consequences.

Within a few decades of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, Arab armies occupied the Sassanian Persian Empire and much of the Byzantine Empire. Having invaded Byzantine Egypt in 639, the Arabs went on to occupy Berber North Africa. In 711 an army of Arab and Berber troops crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco and went on to conquer Visigothic Spain and then to invade southern France.

Those sweeping victories can be presented as the fruits of jihad, and Catlos does acknowledge that religion both strengthened the cohesion of the invading tribal armies and influenced the accounts of their victories in later chronicles. But he prefers to emphasize the warriors’ desire for loot, including church treasures, livestock, and slaves, as well as the prospect of fertile lands to settle on. Some of the Visigothic aristocracy, at odds with their king, assisted the advance of the Muslim armies. It is also likely that many of the Berber troops still had only the slightest grasp of Islam.

In France the Muslim advance was checked by their defeat at the hands of Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon famously speculated that, but for the victory of the Franks, the Muslims might have swept on to cross the English Channel: “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” By the end of the eighth century the Muslim territory in southern France, Septimania, had been lost to the Franks.


Though Muslim Spain, and particularly the Caliphate of Cordova, has sometimes been presented as a utopia of multiculturalism, Catlos argues that tolerance, which was in any case often strained to the breaking point, was the product of economic and political necessity. There were simply too many Christians and Jews in eighth-century Spain to be killed or expelled, and besides they were needed as artisans and agricultural laborers. Their acceptance was the result of countless local accommodations rather than an official decree.

The modern Arabic word for toleration is tasamuh, which may also signify indulgence, forbearance, or leniency. The primary medieval sense seems to have been “magnanimity,” rather than a readiness to be relaxed about the religious or political views of others. In considering the significance of religious affiliation in medieval Spain one has to dismiss from one’s mind analogies with modern fundamentalist Islam and revivalist Christianity. As Catlos puts it, when discussing the identity of Muslims who eventually found themselves living under Christian rule, “religion in this era was conceived of not so much as a matter of individual conscience as the legal community to which one belonged. A Muslim was someone who followed ‘the law of the Muslims.’” Very much the same had applied to Christians under Muslim rule. Though there was no attempt to force the conquered Christians to convert, by the ninth century large numbers had done so, headed by descendants of the old Visigothic aristocracy and leading townspeople. Other citizens followed their lead as they sought economic and social advantage.

In the eighth century, Cordova became the capital of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. The entire province was under the nominal rule of the Umayyad caliphs in Damascus, though in light of the distances involved the regional governors were effectively independent. In 750 the Umayyad Caliphate in the East was overthrown by the Abbasids, and members of the Umayyad family were hunted down and slaughtered. But one Umayyad prince escaped and made his way to North Africa. From there he reached Spain in 756 and established himself in Cordova as emir of the caliphate of al-Andalus.

The emirate prospered under a succession of Umayyad princes and enjoyed its heyday during the long reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman III (912–961). In 929 he declared himself caliph, thereby setting himself in opposition to the Sunni Abbasid caliph in Baghdad and the Shia Fatimid caliph in Cairo. Catlos presents a vivid if absurdly anachronistic picture of high life in Cordova: “The masculine culture of the Andalusia elite was ninth-century ‘gangsta’—a testosterone-driven, wine-fueled culture, revolving around bling, bros, and biyatches, of biting freestyle wordplay and conspicuous consumption.” Yet despite its wealth and swagger, it was nonetheless provincial, and its courtiers, poets, and scholars had everything to learn from what was going on in Abbasid Baghdad.

The arrival in Spain in 822 of Ziryab, a musician formerly employed by the Abbasid court in Baghdad, was a major event. He introduced the Cordovan elite to new modes of song, modifications to musical instruments, innovations in court ceremony, new styles of dress and hair, innovations in cuisine and table etiquette, as well as an antiperspirant based on lead monoxide. He was such a Promethean figure that it is tempting to think of him as a mythical being, yet his career is well documented. Still, the stigma of Andalusian provinciality was hard to shake off. When, in the following century, the Cordovan court poet Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih produced Al-‘Iqd al-farid (The Unique Necklace), a compendium of the best prose and poetry from around the world, he included no examples by Andalusians, with the exception of some poetry of his own. As it turned out, the cultured elite in Baghdad did not think much of Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih’s verses. The vizier in Baghdad, Sahib ibn ‘Abbad, declared that the anthology was “nothing but our own merchandise sent back to us.”

After the death of the caliph Hakam II in 976 the succession passed to a sequence of ineffectual fainéants and child caliphs, and real power was exercised by al-Mansur, the hajib (chamberlain). He was a vigorous general who campaigned twice a year in Christian territory, but as Catlos observes, the “goal was not conquest, but to generate plunder, prevent the Christian kings from taking the political initiative, and cripple their rural economies.” Mansur’s campaigning was hardly a jihad, for there were numerous Christians serving as soldiers and guides in his army.

In the decades that followed al-Mansur’s death in 1002, the caliphate of Cordova fell apart. Its ruin was brought about not by Christian armies but by Berber regiments that contended for supremacy and loot. Ibn Hazm, the historian, theologian, and poet, wrote of the capital’s desolation:


I stood upon the ruins of our house, its traces wiped out, its signs erased, its familiar spots vanished. Decay had turned its cultivated bloom to sterile waste. In savagery after society, ugliness after beauty, wolves howled and devils played in the haunts of ghosts and dens of wild beasts that had once been luxurious and melodious.

Catlos devotes only a single paragraph to the life and writings of Ibn Hazm, in which he notes that Ibn Hazm produced an encyclopedic work, the Kitab al-fisal fi al-milal wa-al-ahwa’ wa-al-nihal (Book of the Distinctions in the Religions, Heresies, and Sects, also known as the Fisal), which compared ancient and modern religions, and that he also wrote a treatise on love, the Tawq al-hamama (Ring Collar of the Dove). Both are worth consulting. The Fisal was based on wide reading and was designed to demonstrate not only the falsehood of all religions other than Islam but also the wickedness and folly of those interpretations of Islam that differed from the strictly literalist one he espoused. He never accepted that Muslims who disagreed with him might do so in good faith. Rather, their disagreements were the willful and vain products of disobedience of God’s word. Though Ibn Hazm took enough interest in Christianity to denounce it, most Spanish Muslims did not bother. On the other hand, his Tawq al-hamama is a delightful book that can still be read with great pleasure today, dealing as it does with such matters as falling in love as the result of a dream, keeping one’s love a secret, amorous abjection in thrall to a beautiful slave girl, and dying from unfulfilled love.

Ibn Hazm’s religious books were burned by his enemies and he was imprisoned several times. It is striking how often and how many books were burned in al-Andalus. Hakim II is reported to have assembled a library of 400,000 volumes in Cordova covering all subjects and drawing on Greek, Persian, and Indian wisdom, but al-Mansur, the power behind the throne of the last Umayyad caliphs, seeking to please religious scholars and jurists, had the library purged of books dealing with astrology, philosophy, and other sciences of the ancients, as well as other immoral subjects. The offending books were publicly burned. Later, in 1106 and again in 1143, treatises on theology and Sufism by the great Eastern thinker al-Ghazali were burned on the orders of the Almoravid Berbers. In 1195, the philosopher and leading critic of al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd (known in Christendom as Averroes), saw his books burned on the orders of the Almohad Berber Abu Yusuf. In the fourteenth century the Sufi treatises composed by the statesman and polymath Ibn al-Khatib were burned in Spain before he was strangled in a North African prison cell.

As the caliphate fell apart, what was left of Muslim Spain was divided among overlords who were known collectively as taifa kings, or party kings. Even in their own time they did not enjoy a good reputation. According to one contemporary poet, they were “like pussycats, who puffing themselves up, / Imagine they can roar like lions.” Catlos’s no less damning verdict is that the kings were “strongmen who were not even strong.” Yet the eleventh and twelfth centuries were a great age for philosophy, theology, and literature, and the political and military decline of the taifa principalities did not entail a cultural decline. Catlos’s account of Andalusian literary culture in this period is brisk and less surefooted than his coverage of politics and society. About the increasing influence of Arabic literature on the development of European literature from the thirteenth century onward, he writes:

Now Arabo-Islamic epics, romances and folktales—many of South Asian or Persian origin—were translated, adapted, or otherwise made their way into popular literature. These included the Kalila wa-dimna, a collection of fables; Sindibad, or Sendebar, the tales of Sinbad the Sailor; the epic of Alexander the Great; and tales from The Thousand and One Nights. Popular and didactic literature of the era, such as Ramon Llull’s Book of the Beasts (1280s) and The Tales of Count Lucanor, written in 1335 by Don Juan Manuel, a nephew of Alfonso X, were strongly influenced by these texts. In fact, Arabic literature transformed European fiction, both through the borrowing of narratives and through the appropriation of the literary device of the maqamat, or frame tale, the story-within-a-story—the same device used by Boccaccio in his Decameron and by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

Only some of this is correct. Kalila wa-dimna, a collection of animal fables, did circulate in medieval Spain, and some of its stories were recycled in the Latin Disciplina Clericalis, a collection of Eastern fables put together in the early twelfth century by Petrus Alfonso, a Spanish Jew who had converted to Christianity. But Sindibad (or Sendebar) doesn’t contain the tales of Sinbad the Sailor. It is a collection of moral tales, probably of Persian origin, in which a queen tells stories with the aim of securing the execution of the prince who has rebuffed her advances, but a wise vizier tells other stories designed to save the youth’s life. The craft and malice of women is a leading theme of the stories told by the rival narrators. A version of this story cycle certainly circulated in Spain in Latin and in Spanish, and an Arabic version was eventually added to printed versions of The Thousand and One Nights. There seems to be no evidence that the stories of Sinbad the Sailor circulated in medieval Spain. (At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Antoine Galland arbitrarily added the Sinbad stories to his French translation of The Thousand and One Nights, the first ever available in Europe.)

Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence/Art Resource

The philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes; detail of Andrea di Bonaiuto’s The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1366–1367

Although stories from what eventually would form the corpus of The Thousand and One Nights, such as “The Ebony Horse” and “Abu’l-Husn and His Slave-girl Tawaddud,” did circulate in medieval Spain, they appear to have done so as freestanding stories, and they do not appear in the oldest substantially surviving manuscript of the Nights, dating from the fifteenth century (which was the one Galland translated into French). Consequently the wonderfully intricate and playful Chinese-box structure of the original core stories of the Nights was probably quite unknown in medieval Spain. If one is looking for precedents for the framing of stories within a story, as found in Boccaccio or Chaucer, they may be discovered in Homer, Ovid, or Petronius’s Satyricon.

Maqamat (plural; maqama singular) does not mean “frame tale.” It translates literally as “standings” and refers to a peculiarly Arabic genre of fiction that features a series of performances by a wily and highly eloquent rogue in disguise who seeks to use rhetoric and literary allusion to scrounge money from his audience before making his escape. The best examples of the genre offer serious lessons in Koranic exegesis, grammar, lexicography, and rhetoric. Although the maqama genre cannot really be seen as an ancestor of the European frame tale, its resemblance to the Spanish picaresque novel as it evolved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has often been noted by literary scholars.

In the late eleventh century, the taifa kingdoms were losing ground to the Christians. In 1085 Toledo fell to the Castilian Alfonso VI. The Spanish Muslims appealed to the Almoravids in Morocco for assistance, but, though the Almoravids won a great victory over the Christians at Zallaqa, in southwestern Spain, in 1086, they were later more successful in annexing taifa kingdoms than they were in resisting the Christian Reconquista. The presentation of the Almoravids as barbarous and fanatical puritans has long been one of the clichés of Spanish historiography. But Catlos argues that the “dour” image of them has been exaggerated and that they were important patrons of the religious sciences: study of the Koran, prophetic traditions, and religious law. If they had been important patrons of poetry rather than religion they would probably have received more favorable treatment by modern historians.

By the early twelfth century Almoravid control in the Maghreb was being undermined by yet another religiously inspired, puritanical Berber movement, that of the Almohads. In 1145 the Almohad leader ‘Abd al-Mu’min, having taken over Almoravid Morocco, sent an army across the Straits and occupied most of what was left of Muslim Spain. In The Ornament of the World, María Rosa Menocal described the Almohads as “even more fanatic” and as “Islamic fundamentalists.” Catlos places less emphasis on Almohad ideology and argues that, though the Almohads did for a time strictly enforce discriminatory measures against Jews and Christians, sectarian attacks on non-Muslims were more likely to have had economic rather than religious motivations and, contrary to some reports, Jewish communities survived under Almohad rule. Moreover, despite the stern branch of Islam espoused by the Almohads, the great Muslim philosophers Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd wrote under the patronage of the ruler Abu Ya’qub Yusuf (though Yusuf’s son briefly gave in to pressure from the religious elite to exile Ibn Rushd and have his books burned).

Slowly the Reconquista took on the quality of a crusade, with papal indulgences and the creation of crusading military orders. However, this Spanish crusade was punctuated by long intervals of peace, and Christian campaigning was often halted by Muslim offers of tribute. In 1212 Christians won a great victory against the Almohad army at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Though the Muslims were roundly defeated, this battle was not decisive, and the Almohads continued to win fights against the Christians. The problem for Islamic Spain’s survival was that, broadly speaking, the Almohads in Spain fought in observance of jihad and for plunder and glory, but they did not actually campaign to regain territory. They were more concerned with conserving their territory in North Africa. Yet colonization projects were an important part of the Christian Reconquista. Castile and Aragon encouraged immigration from the south of France, and military orders were organized not only to fight but also to cultivate the lands they occupied.

Cordova fell to the Christians in 1236, Valencia in 1238, and Seville in 1248. Eventually only the Nasrid Emirate of Granada remained in Muslim hands. It owed its survival in part to its numerous heavily fortified strongholds in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The late fourteenth century was its Indian summer, for this was when the spectacularly beautiful Court of the Myrtles and Court of the Lions were added to the Palace of the Alhambra. It was also when Lisan al-Din Ibn al-Khatib, the vizier of the Nasrid ruler Muhammad V, produced his Sufi treatise, as well as poetry, maqamat, letters, chronicles, a travel narrative, and a biographical dictionary.

Ibn al-Khatib was the last great chronicler of Muslim Spain, and so the history of subsequent Nasrid rulers of Granada is somewhat conjectural. It has to be constructed from Christian sources. For example, it is uncertain whether Muhammad X ever reigned, though Muhammad IX and Muhammad XI certainly did. For some time the Nasrid rulers managed to set one Christian kingdom against another and buy them off with tribute. But the marriage in 1469 of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile put an end to this tactic. The increasing effectiveness of cannon in siege warfare was no less damaging to the Nasrids. In 1492 Granada surrendered, and Muhammad XII, also known as Boabdil, handed over the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic monarchs.

Muhammad XII had agreed to terms that included the free practice of the Muslim religion by his subjects, but those terms would not be honored. In 1499, Cisneros, the archbishop of Toledo, had five thousand books publicly burned in Granada. This sparked a series of rebellions in the countryside, and after they had been suppressed the defeated Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity or leave the country. But suspicions remained about those Muslims, known as Moriscos, or “little Moors,” who had apparently converted, and in 1609 they too were forcibly expelled. In the long century that had preceded their expulsion, the Inquisition conducted a culture war against such detestable things as washing, the veil, the avoidance of pork, and writings in Arabic. In the sixteenth-century topographical compendium of marvels, Tuhfat al-muluk (Precious Gift of Kings), its Egyptian author, Ibn Zunbul, described meeting a Spanish Muslim who told him that all the Arabic manuscripts in Spain had been locked up in a house and that, if one put one’s ear to the keyhole, one could hear the munching of bookworms feasting on Arabic literature.

Catlos has produced an excellent political history of al-Andalus. Still, he says, “no book can claim in good faith to be the ‘definitive,’ ‘true,’ or ‘real’ history of Islamic Spain; there are simply too many factors to account for and too many uncertainties clouding the past.” This must be right. New sources may emerge, and certainly there are more Arabic sources on al-Andalus than have so far been properly studied. As Catlos is well aware, histories are written for their times, and each age poses its own questions about the past. It is hard not to read Kingdoms of Faith without reflecting on such contemporary matters as Spain’s national and regional identities, multiculturalism, assimilation, and repatriation. It has been said that history is written by the victors, but when one looks at the historiography of medieval Spain one is struck by the readiness of so many modern historians to champion the “losers” and even to question what victory really meant.