Al Andalus and the golden age of Islam (Convivencia)

I’ve just read this cringe worthy article by Mehdi Hasan.

Then there is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The Somali-born author, atheist and ex-Muslim has a new book called Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. She’s been popping up in TV studios and on op-ed pages to urge Muslims, both liberal and conservative, to abandon some of their core religious beliefs while uniting behind a Muslim Luther.

I have not read Ayaan’s book so I don’t know exactly what the core religious beliefs are that she is asking Muslims to abandon, but I can suggest a few myself. However, before I do I’d like to make it clear that I don’t think Muslims are a massive homogeneous group. Some of the beliefs I am about to go on to list are not held by all Muslims, therefore I am only criticising those individuals who hold them.

  1. Non Muslims are morally inferior; who live their lives like animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire (Mehdi Hasan).
  2. Jews are apes and pigs.
  3. It is okay to take women and children as spoils of war.
  4. It is okay to force Islamic rule on others by way of invasion and violent oppression.
  5. Sex with brides as young 9 years of age is acceptable as part of an absolutely immutable morality and should be permitted today (UK charity iERA).
  6. Keeping female captives of war as concubines.
  7. The right of a man to physically discipline his wife (UK charity iERA).
  8. Women being inferior to men both in religion and intelligence.
  9. Homosexuals deserve to be killed for admitting they have had sex with each other.
  10. Muslims who lose their faith deserve death unless they keep quiet and pretend to practice Islam.
  11. Thieves should have hands and opposing feet cut off.
  12. Adulterers should be stoned to death.

It’s not common to find an individual who holds all of these beliefs to be true at the same time (Anjem Choudhary), but at the same time it is not uncommon to find a Muslim who holds at least one of these beliefs to be true.

I am guessing that these are the kinds of issues Ayaan is calling for change on, and rightly so in my opinion. Rather than addressing those issues, Mehdi instead criticises the author rather than her arguments, and completely misrepresents the call for an ‘Islamic Luther’.

Yet the reality is that talk of a Christian-style reformation for Islam is so much cant. Let’s consider this idea of a “Muslim Luther”. Luther did not merely nail 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, denouncing clerical abuses within the Catholic church. He also demanded that German peasants revolting against their feudal overlords be “struck dead”, comparing them to “mad dogs”, and authored On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543, in which he referred to Jews as “the devil’s people” and called for the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues.

Now, I may be wrong here, but my understanding is that when people call for a Luther reformist figure they are simply saying that a person is required to stand up to those who have arranged the system to give themselves power. It doesn’t mean a call to strike-dead dissenters of the state, to see others as animals, or to demonize Jewish people or calling for their destruction. To some extent this is the situation we currently have in some Islamic parts of the world, and are exactly the kind of ideas that suggest reformation of some people’s understanding of Islam is needed. Martin Luther is merely a name well known for challenging established power to bring about reform, using his name is merely a jargon, not a suggested strategy.

Islam isn’t Christianity. The two faiths aren’t analogous, and it is deeply ignorant, not to mention patronising, to pretend otherwise – or to try and impose a neatly linear, Eurocentric view of history on diverse Muslim-majority countries in Asia or Africa. Each religion has its own traditions and texts; each religion’s followers have been affected by geopolitics and socio-economic processes in a myriad of ways. The theologies of Islam and Christianity, in particular, are worlds apart: the former, for instance, has never had a Catholic-style clerical class answering to a divinely appointed pope. So against whom will the “Islamic reformation” be targeted? To whose door will the 95 fatwas be nailed?

Of course Islam and Christianity aren’t entirely analogous. Claiming Islam, like Christianity of the past, needs to reform its approach to dealing with humans when in a position of power isn’t saying that it is the same as Christianity, it is merely highlighting the fact that it needs to go through the same reformation of views and actions that Christianity went through in the past. Pretending to have your feelings hurt because you infer being patronised isn’t going to change the fact that the world does see the kind of abuse in the name of Islam that Europe once saw in the name of Christianity.

Being a Shiite you possibly do not accept the authority of Muhammad’s friend and father-in-law Abu Bakr who, after Muhammad’s death, went to war against numerous previously conquered communities who wanted to leave Islamic rule in what is known as the apostasy wars (Riddah wars). But that point aside, there may not be an ultimate single leader of the Muslim world, but that doesn’t stop people bringing about reforms within their own communities, mosques, towns, or even countries. There is no single door to nail 95 demands to, there are many doors.

Don’t get me wrong. Reforms are of course needed across the crisis-ridden Muslim-majority world: political, socio-economic and, yes, religious too.

At last Mehdi gets to the admission that Islam needs reform. Of course, after first placing the blame on geopolitics, socio-economic processes, and colonialism; but he finally addresses the reforms needed within Islam with three words “yes, religious too”. A brilliant piece of work there Mehdi! I can envision Muslims throughout the world reforming their “yes, religious too” in the way you have suggested….rather than blaming every possible cause other than Muslim perception of Islam itself. Of course, I am being facetious.

You may not like Ayaan, but her effort to reform Islam is, I am sure, more useful than your article which seems to say Islam needs religious reformation, although being entitled ‘Why Islam doesn’t need a reformation‘.

But here is the part of the article that annoyed me enough to sit down and vent in the form of this blog post.

Muslims need to rediscover their own heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect – embodied in, say, the Prophet’s letter to the monks of St Catherine’s monastery, or the “convivencia” (or co-existence) of medieval Muslim Spain.

If only Islam could be like the good old days, eh? Before all the European colonialism? Those days based on the co-existence of people living in medieval Muslim Spain? The co-existence often cited as some kind of golden age for Islamic peace rather than what it really was, forced domination of a foreign country and subjugation of its people with the aid of a group of people called The Berbers.

I made notes of from the book Kennedy, Hugh (2014-06-11). Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of Al-Andalus Taylor and Francis – now seems like a good time to share them.

Despite being part of the invading party, Christian and Pagan Berbers were made to pay the Jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims by the Muslim state), this acted as an incentive to become a Muslim because upon doing so they would earn themselves a share of war booty from invasions (or regular booty raids), and as a Muslim could qualify to be a governor (Mawla) of a conquered area, something non-Muslims were not permitted to do.

Non-Muslims were not permitted to build new places of worship, proselytise, openly wear symbols of their religious beliefs, or perform audible prayers.

The Jews certainly suffered severe legal disabilities and intermittent persecution and it is clear that they preferred to remain in their cities and accept Muslim rule than to join their Christian fellow countrymen in flight, but there is no reliable evidence that they actively supported or encouraged the invaders.

The conquest of Al-Andalus (714) resembled, on a smaller scale, the Muslim conquest of Iran where the main cities and lines of communication were first secured and only later were agreements reached with the inhabitants of outlying areas.

Here is a brief timeline of some of the events of medieval Spain, a.k.a. Al Andalus


  • Tariq sent force under Mughith al Rumi to Cordoba. Serious resistance was encountered from within one church for 3 months, until the occupants surrendered were and executed.
  • Tariq moved on to Toledo. Most people, except Jews, had fled and he spent winter 711 through to 712 there.


  • Mūsā bin Nusayr (Tariq’s superior) set out with 18,000 men to capture the fortress of Carmona.
  • Mūsā bin Nusayr then went on to take Seville, which is said to have resisted for some months before being taken by force. Then went on to subdue neighbouring towns.
  • Mūsā bin Nusayr went north to Merida. Here there was serious resistance, the garrison made a sortie, and siege engines were required to force it into submission in July 713.
  • Mūsā bin Nusayr sent son Abd al Aziz east to Orihuela, then the most important city in the Murcia (the city of Murcia itself was another later foundation ) district, he was met by the local commander, Theodemir, with whom he made a treaty whose lenient terms meant effective local autonomy and freedom of Christian worship in exchange for goodwill and a modest tribute to be paid in cash, wheat, barley, thickened grape juice, vinegar, honey and oil.


  • After the fall of Merida, Mūsā headed for Toledo whence Ṭāriq came to meet him. Inevitably, when the two forces did join at Talavera there were tensions and reproaches, but they patched up their relationship and wintered together in Toledo.


  • In the spring of 714 campaigning began again with expeditions which led to the nominal subjection of Galicia and the Ebro valley.
  • September – Mūsā bin Nusayr and Tariq summoned to Damascus by Caliph. Leaving Mūsā’s son ‘Abd al-Azīz as governor.
  • When the Muslims arrived at Orihuela the governor, Theodemir, had so few men that he had to dress up women as soldiers and put them on the ramparts.
  • On the whole the Muslims offered generous terms which certainly made surrender a more attractive option, whereas unsuccessful resistance could, as the unfortunate defenders of Cordoba found, lead to death. In Merida the inhabitants were allowed to keep their possessions (except those who fled, and the land of churches was taken) the local people were allowed to remain in possession of their lands as long as they paid a land tax and a poll-tax to the conquerors.


  • Al-Samh b. Mālik al-Khawlānī led an expedition against Toulouse (France) on which he himself was killed.


  • ‘Anbasa b. Suḥaym al-Kalbī led a lightning raid right up the Rhone valley to Burgundy where the army pillaged Autun.


  • Governor of Al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Abd Allāh al-Ghāfiqī, led an expedition through western France which was finally and disastrously defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers.


  • Qaysis Muslims revolted and took control


  • Abbasid revolution. Al-Andalus was no longer part of a wider Muslim empire:


  • Al-Ṣumayl was besieged in Zaragoza by Yemeni elements, Yūsuf was powerless to help him and he was only saved by an expedition of Qaysī volunteers from the south.


  • Abd Al Rahman had recruited an army of about 2,000 Umayyad mawālī and Yemeni jundis and marched on Cordoba. Here his supporters fought and defeated the Qaysī army of Yūsuf and al-Ṣumayl and, in May 756, he entered the capital. The arriving members of the Umayyad family needed estates and, as the Syrian jundīs were not property owners, lands had to be confiscated from the Baladis and the Christians.


  • Abassid caliph Abū Ja’far al-Manṣūr made a serious attempt to regain control of Al-Andalus.


  • It was seven years before ‘Abd al-Raḥmān felt strong enough to challenge their hold on Toledo. In 764 he sent two of his most trusted commanders, Badr and Tammām b. ‘Alqama, against the city where Hishām b. ‘Urwa al-Fihrī was holding out and he was captured and executed.


  • One Sa’īd al-Maṭari rebelled in Niebla and took over Seville before being killed by the Amir. In the same year he had another leader from the area, Abū’l-Ṣabbāḥ Yaḥyā al-Yaḥṣubī, executed in Cordoba. The dead man’s followers sought revenge and the people of Seville joined his cousins in an attempt to take Cordoba by surprise. It was not until 774 that the rebellion was finally defeated by ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Umar.


  • A Berber of the tribe of Miknāsa called Shaqyā b. ‘Abd al-Wāḥid led a revolt, claiming to be related to the ‘Alids. His rebellion began in Santaver, in the hills around Cuenca, but for the next nine years he dominated much of the sparsely inhabited upland country between Santaver and Coria and Medellin far to the west. It was a guerrilla war, the Berbers retreating to the mountains on approach of the Amir’s army and returning to the villages and plains when they had gone. The rebellion was an irritant, but the soi-disant Fatimid seems to have attracted no support amongst the Arabs or the town dwellers and ‘Abd alRaḥmān was also able to make an alliance with Hilāl al-Madyūnī, described as head of the Berbers in the east of Al-Andalus. In the end, in 776-77, Shaqyā was taken by treachery and killed.


  • Amir ‘Abd al-Raḥmān led a military expedition to demand the submission of al-Ḥusayn b. Yaḥyā and to re-establish Muslim control in the Upper Ebro valley. At first al-Ḥusayn accepted the Amir’s authority and was confirmed as governor of the city, but the next year he threw off this allegiance. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān returned and assaulted the city with siege engines (manjanīq), and al-Ḥusayn was captured and executed and severe measures taken against the townspeople. The whole complex episode shows how the Umayyad Amir tried to establish his authority over the local magnates by a mixture of diplomacy and occasional force but that, as long as they were content to accept his overlordship, he was prepared to leave them in peace.


  • Almost at the end of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s reign, Yūsuf al-Fihrī’s son Muḥammad gathered an army in the Toledo area. Defeated by the Umayyad troops, he fled west towards Coria where he was isolated and killed.


  • {While Abd al Rahman was dying} It only took six days for Hishām to come from Merida, and ‘Abd Allāh greeted him as ruler and handed over the seal of office, but his other brother was not prepared to accept this verdict and gathered his supporters to march south. There was a short, sharp conflict near Jaen and Sulaymān’s men were defeated. It took almost two months for Hishām to reduce Toledo and oblige his brother to surrender, but in 789 Sulaymān was paid 60,000 dīnārs in cash, possibly half the annual income of the amirate at this time, and was forced to leave for North Africa and promise not to return: Umayyads were defeated and disgraced but, at this time, they would not be executed like any common rebel, for that would undermine the status of the whole ruling house.


  • Sa’id b. al-Ḥusayn al-Anṣārī, whose father had held Zaragoza against the Umayyads in the previous reign, took the city again, proclaiming himself Amir.


  • Zaragoza was taken over by Maṭrūh, the son of Sulaymān b. Yaqẓān, and an expedition was sent from Cordoba to drive him out. The problem was solved, however, when Matrūḥ was murdered by one ‘Amrūs b. Yūsuf while he was out hunting and the city was handed over to the Umayyad forces.


  • Unlike the Christians they were fighting, the Muslims made no substantial territorial gains, but they launched numerous raids on Christian lands.


  • Hishām died on 17 April 796. He was careful to leave no uncertainty about the identity of his chosen successor and his son al Hakam, now 26 years old, was duly accepted as Amir in Cordoba.
  • Al Hakam’s uncle (Hisham’s brother) Sulayman spent the next four years wandering the country, attempting to build up enough support, largely among the Berbers of the south, to dislodge his nephew. He was defeated in a number of encounters and was finally surrendered to al-Ḥakam by the Berber governor of Merida, Aṣbagh b. Wansūs. He was executed in 800,


  • There was a conspiracy among certain notables of Cordoba to mount a coup d’état and put al-Ḥakam’s cousin Muḥammad b. al-Qāsim on the throne. Unfortunately for the conspirators, Muḥammad did not share their enthusiasm for the project, which he revealed to the Amir.


  • There was a widespread uprising in the populous suburb, usually referred to simply as al-Rabad (the suburb), which lay to the south of the city itself, across the Guadalquivir river.


  • Al Hakam died. Son Abd al Rahman II named as his successor


  • Raid on Christian land for booty


  • Another raid on Christian land for booty


  • Another raid on Christian land for booty.


  • Muwallad, Ibn Marwān al-Jilliqī (the Galician), ruler of Merida in the Lower March killed by a Berber.


  • Abd Al Rahman II sent troops and appointed an Umayyad Mawali as governor.


  • Toledo was finally occupied by Umayyad troops.


  • Intermittent raids for booty were resumed until the end of his reign.


  • Zaragoza was conquered by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II in person in 844 and entrusted to his son Muḥammad


  • There was no intention of conquering the Christian north, though attempts were made to regain lost lands like Pamplona and Barcelona . When the Leonese abandoned their city when faced by the mangonels of the Muslims in 846, the conquerors simply made breaches in the walls and then left the site abandoned; of course, it was soon reoccupied and fortified again by the Christians. Destruction and booty were the main objectives,


  • Governor of Valencia, Ibn Maymun led an expedition which forced the submission of the Balearic Islands


  • The government of Al-Andalus was now a palace-based bureaucracy, not a successful war-band.


  • Upper March leader (appointed by Muhammad) killed in conflict with the Banū Sālim Berbers of Guadalajara. Muhammad sent his four sons to rule, who were able to capture the Umayyad governors of Tudela, Huesca and Zaragoza, where the occupation is said to have been followed by a massacre of the Arab population, and restore the family’s power in the area.


  • The Amir launched a surprise attack on Merida, which had been defying the authority of Cordoba under the leadership of the muwallad ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Marwān al-Jillīqī, whose father had been governor of the city until his murder in 828. After some brisk fighting the city was taken and the leading horsemen (fursān – the word has a social significance here, somewhat like the English ‘knight’) were obliged to come and settle in Cordoba with their families, where it was presumably intended that these formidable warriors should form part of the Umayyad army. Muḥammad installed an Umayyad governor, Sa’īd b. al-‘ Abbās al-Qurashī, in the citadel his father had built , but the rest of the city is said to have been destroyed, and certainly for a later historian this event marked the end of Merida as an important urban centre: ‘no vestige’, he wrote, ‘remained of that once opulent city’.


  • Mūsā’s four sons were able to capture the Umayyad governors of Tudela, Huesca and Zaragoza, where the Banū Qasī occupation is said to have been followed by a massacre of the Arab population, and restore the family’s power in the area.


  • Amir Muhammad died. Succeeded by his son Al-Mundhir


  • Mūsā b. Dhī’l-Nūn led an army of 20,000 against Toledo and defeated the army of the city. In total the struggle for Toledo took 150 years of fighting


  • Al-Mundhir died, succeeded by his brother Abd Allah


  • He encouraged his son Al-Mutarrif to stab to death his eldest son Muhammad.


  • Al-Mutarrif accused of conspiring with rebels in Seville. Under siege in his house for 3 days, then killed. The vindictive Amir also had two of his brothers, Hishām and al-Qāsim, killed.


  • Annual tax collection – Aḥmad b. Abī ‘Abda and sons Isa and Abbas sent with 300 soldiers; rebel fighting and tax collecting.

Hisn Qamarat Jaysh

  • Ravaged agricultural lands
  • Cut down trees
  • Battle commenced and they won
  • Former leader’s father sent as a hostage to Cordoba


  • Found deserted
  • Took harvest and then burned it


  • Fought battle and won
  • Burned the suburb
  • Former leader’s son taken as hostage
  • Given written agreement to continue to run the place

Munt Shaqir
Hisn al-Liquwn

  • Quickly defeated
  • Took horses + equipment + food


  • Rested
  • Received Ushr (tithes) from Pechina
  • Received Jibaya (taxes) from Hisn Bashira


  • Fought locals
  • Destroyed houses and fruit trees


  • Collected taxes (Magharim)


  • Ibn al-Qiṭṭ of Umayyad family declares himself Mahdi to lead Muslims back to “true Islam” – tried to siege Christian Zamora and was killed


  • Grandson (via eldest son Muhammad) of Abd Allah took control – Abd al-Rahman III.
  • Abd al-Rahman III inherited and army that was more like a war-band living off the proceeds of annual pillaging


  • Melilla was taken
  • Built permanent siege camp at Bobastro


  • Bobastro was captured


  • Abd al Rahman III took the title of Caliph (Commander of the faithful)
  • Beja put under siege
  • Badajoz put under siege
  • Lord of Ocsonoba surrendered but was able to keep Ocsobona on condition he paid tribute


  • Built permanent siege camp at Toledo
  • Badajoz surrendered


  • Ceuta taken


  • After two years Badajoz submitted due to famine


  • Caliph allied with Christian forces from Alava to defeat Zaragoza leader Muhammad al-Tujibi.


  • Tangier was taken


  • Caliph Abd al-Rahman III died leaving Al-Hakam {not related} as named successor


  • Al-Hakam died leaving son Hisham as named successor (aged 14/15). New crops + irrigation techniques had left Andalusi rich through agriculture.
  • An attempt was made to replace Al-Hakam with his brother al-Mughira. It failed. al-Mughira was strangled in front of his family despite knowing nothing of it.

No reform needed because Islam already went through one in medieval Spain?

One comment

  • Khalil

    The link for what Mehdi Hasan said is broken, so I looked it up again and found it, and watched the iERA videos.
    I think it’s an utter disgrace that this man gets a stage on mainstream media in Britain, and even is invited to debate in Oxford.
    This signifies the self-loathing of the west, a vastly superior culture to every Islamic culture and yet funds and celebrates charachters like Mehdi Hasan.
    When will westerners demand respect, gratitude and recognition of their culture from foreigners? from the looks of it, it’ll never happen.


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