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Al-Andalus under the Umayyads

The Umayyad conquest of Hispania is the initial Islamic Umayyad Caliphate's conquest, between 711 and 788, of the Christian Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania, centered in the Iberian Peninsula, which was known to them under the Arabic name al-Andalus.

The conquest began with an invasion by an army that (according to traditional accounts) consisted largely of Berber Northwest Africans and was commanded by Tariq ibn Ziyad. They disembarked in early 711 at Gibraltar and campaigned their way northward. After the decisive Battle of Guadalete against the usurper Roderic and the defection to the Saracens of the legitimate heirs to the throne, the initial raids became, to the surprise of the raiders themselves, territorial gains successfully conquered and retained. The Visigothic kingdom splintered into client-dominions of the Umayyads. Over the following decade, most of the Iberian Peninsula was further occupied and brought under Umayyad sovereignty. In 714 Musa ibn Nusayr headed north-west up the Ebro to overrun western Basque regions and the Cantabrian mountains all the way to Gallaecia, with no relevant or attested opposition. However, these northern areas drew little interest to the conquerors and were hard to defend when taken. The high western and central sub-Pyrenean valleys remained unconquered.

By 717 the invaders had moved northeast across the Pyrenees to occupy Septimania, then under the client-king Ardo, only to be temporarily halted by Odo the Great´s Aquitanians in the Battle of Toulouse (721). However, massing a larger army they resumed their advance to the northwest, defeating Odo at the Battle of the River Garonne. Charles Martel at the time held the high office of mayor of the palace in Francia, and Odo saw no choice but to seek the help of his former enemy, swear an oath of loyalty to him, and join the Frankish military forces, who after a forced march defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Tours (Poitiers) in 732 (or 733). Muslim control of territory in what became France was intermittent and ended in 759. In the 10th century Al-Andalus became the Emirate (later Caliphate) of Córdoba, but at the outset of the invasion it was merely the westernmost tip of the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus under the rule of the governor of Ifriqiya. In 720, the caliph even considered abandoning the territory.

Though Muslim armies dominated the Iberian Peninsula for centuries afterward, the victory of Pelagius of Asturias at the Battle of Covadonga in 722, considered in Arab chronicles a revolt in subdued territory, preserved at least one Christian principality in the north. The initial status and boundaries of the Duchy of Cantabria, to join Asturias under Pelagius, is also unclear. This battle later assumed major symbolic importance for Iberian Christians as the beginning of the Reconquista.

According to the Islamic rule of law, the sharia, "people of the scriptures" (Jews and Christians) may be permitted to practice their faith if they submit to Muslim domination.[1] For this reason numerous Jewish and Christian sects survived and even prospered through the centuries of Islamic rule in al-Andalus.[2]

Issue of the Caliphate of Cordoba, 807


Precisely what happened in Iberia in the early 8th century is subject to much uncertainty. There is one contemporary Christian source, the Chronicle of 754 (which ends on that date), regarded as reliable but often vague. There are no contemporary Muslim accounts. What Muslim information there is comes from later compilations, which are much coloured by the writers' sense of what was proper, and by contemporary politics—the most prominent such compilation is that of Al-Maqqari, which dates from the 17th century. This paucity of sources means that any specific or detailed claims need to be regarded with caution. What are available are a number of stories that might more properly be described as legends. The manner of King Roderic's ascent to the throne is unclear; there are accounts of dispute with the son of his predecessor Wittiza, and accounts that Wittiza's family fled to Tangier and solicited help from there. Numismatic evidence suggests some division of royal authority, with several coinages being struck. There is also a story of one Julian, count of Ceuta, whose wife or daughter was raped by Roderic and who also sought help from Tangier. However, these stories are legendary and not included in the earliest accounts of the conquest.[3]

As to the initial nature of the expedition, historical opinion takes four directions: (1) that a force was sent to aid one side in a civil war in the hope of plunder and a future alliance; (2) that it was a reconnaissance force sent to test the military strength of the Visigothic kingdom; (3) that it was the first wave of a full–scale invasion; (4) that it was an unusually large raiding expedition with no direct strategic intentions.


The Age of the Caliphs

  Prophet Muhammad, 622–632
  Patriarchal Caliphate, 632–661
  Umayyad Caliphate, 661–750

The Caliphate of Cordoba c. 1000 at the apogee of Al-Mansur.

In 711 a raiding force from North Africa approximately 1,700-strong led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad landed south of present-day Spain.[4] Ibn Abd-el-Hakem reports, one and a half centuries later, that "the people of Andalus did not observe them, thinking that the vessels crossing and recrossing were similar to the trading vessels which for their benefit plied backwards and forwards." They defeated the Visigothic army, led by King Roderic, in a decisive battle at Guadalete in 712. Tariq's forces were thence reinforced by those of his superior, the wali Musa ibn Nusair, and both went on to take control of most of Iberia with an army estimated at approximately 10,000–15,000 combatants.[5] The conquering army was made up mainly of Berbers, who had themselves only recently come under Muslim influence. It is probable that this army represented a continuation of a historic pattern of large-scale raids into Iberia dating to the pre–Islamic period, and hence it has been suggested that actual conquest was not originally planned. Both the Chronicle and later Muslim sources speak of raiding activity in previous years, and Tariq's army may have been present for some time before the decisive battle. It has been argued that this possibility is supported by the fact that the army was led by a Berber and that Musa, who was the Umayyad Governor of North Africa, only arrived the following year — the governor had not stooped to lead a mere raid, but hurried across once the unexpected triumph became clear. The Chronicle of 754 states that many townspeople fled to the hills rather than defend their cities, which might support the view that this was expected to be a temporary raid rather than a permanent change of government.

The Chronicle of 754 states that 'the entire army of the Goths, which had come with him fraudulently and in rivalry out of hopes of the Kingship, fled'. This is the only contemporary account of the battle, and the paucity of detail led many later historians to invent their own. The location of the battle is not totally clear, but was probably the Guadalete River. Roderic is believed to have been killed, and a crushing defeat would have left the Visigoths largely leaderless and disorganized. In this regard, the ruling Visigoth population is estimated at a mere 1 to 2% of the total population,[6] which on one hand led to 'a reasonably strong and effective instrument of government’, however it was highly 'centralised to the extent that the defeat of the royal army left the entire land open to the invaders’.[7] The resulting power vacuum, which may have indeed caught Tariq completely by surprise, would have aided the Muslim conquest immensely. Indeed it may have been equally welcome to the Hispano-roman peasants who, as D.W. Lomax claims were disillusioned by the prominent social divide between them and the 'barbaric' and 'decadent' Visigoth royal family[8] During the period of the second (or first, depending on the sources) Arab governor Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa (714-716) the principal urban centres of Catalonia surrendered. In 714, his father Musa ibn Nusair advanced and raided Asturias via Soria and Palencia all the way to the coastal town of Gijón, where a Berber governor was appointed (or possibly in León). At this time Muslim troops reached Pamplona too. The Basque town submitted too, after a compromise was brokered with Arab commanders to respect the town and its inhabitants, a practice that was common in many towns of the Iberian Peninsula.[9] The Muslim troops met little resistance. Considering that era's communication capabilities, three years was a reasonable time spent almost reaching the Pyrenees, after making the necessary arrangements for the towns' submission and their future governance.[10]

New territorial and civil administration

Northwestern al-Andalus, the Pyrenees and southern Gaul at the time of the Berber rebellion (739-742)

In 713 Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa subdued the forces of Visigothic count Theodomir (or Tudmir) who had taken over southeastern Iberia from his base in Murcia after the power vacuum following king Roderic's defeat. Tudmir then signed a conditional capitulation by which his lands were made into an autonomous client state under Umayyad rule ("the rule of God"). His government and Christian beliefs of his subjects were respected in exchange for a tax and handing over any rebels plotting against Umayyad rule or Islamic religion, in a way that life of many a town dwellers and rural inhabitants remained just about the same as before Tariq´s and Musa's campaigns started.[11] The treaty signed with Tudmir set a precedent for the whole Iberia, and towns surrendering to Umayyad troops followed a similar fate, including probably the muwallad Banu Qasi based in the Ebro valley, and other counts and landowners. On the other hand, some towns (Cordova, Toledo, etc.) were stormed and captured unconditionally by the Umayyads, and were governed by direct Arab rule.[12] However, towns and lands following this pattern became more the exception than the rule. Islamic laws did not apply to all the subjects of the new rulers. On the other hand, Christians were ruled by their own Visigothic law code (Forum Iudicum) as before. In most of the towns ethnic communities did not mix up, but kept segregated and new groups (whether they would be Syrians, Yemenites, Berbers or other) would erect new boroughs outside existing urban areas. However, this would not apply to towns under direct Umayyad rule. In Cordova, the Cathedral was partitioned and shared to provide for the religious needs of Christians and Muslims. This state of things would generally last during about 40 more years until the internal troubles leading up to Abd ar-Rahman's arrival and takeover in southern Spain (756).

An early governor (wali) of al-Andalus, al-Hurr ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Thaqafi, spread the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate up to the Ebro valley and northeastern borders of Iberia, pacifying most of the territory and initiating in 717 the first forays across the Pyrenees into Septimania. In addition, he laid out the foundations of Umayyad civil administration in Iberia, by sending civil administration officials (judges) to conquered towns and lands, so far closely watched by garrisons established usually next to the population nuclei.[13] Moreover, al-Hurr restored lands seized to previous Christian landowners, which may have added greatly to the revenue of the Umayyad governors and especially the caliph of Damascus, since only non-Muslims could be subject to taxation. The task of establishing a civil administration in conquered al-Andalus was essentially completed by the governor Yahya ibn Salama al-Kalbi 10 years later.

Ethnic groups and internal tensions

Northeast of Iberia, Duchy of Vasconia, and Septimania just after its conquest by Pepin (760)

On the first stage of the invasion, the armies were made up of Berbers and different Arab groups. These peoples clustered around the banner of the Umayyads didn't mix together, but remained in separate towns and boroughs. The Berbers, recently subdued and superficially Islamized, were usually in charge of the most difficult tasks and the most rugged terrains, similar to the ones found in their homeland of north Africa, while the Arabs occupied the more gentle plains of southern Iberia.[14] Consequently, the Berbers went on to station in Galicia (possibly including Asturias) and the Upper Marches (Ebro basin), but these lands remained unpleasant, humid and cold. The grievances resented by the Berbers under Arab rulers (attempts to impose a tax on Muslim Berbers, etc.) sparked rebellions in north Africa that expanded into Iberia. An early uprising took place in 730, when Uthman ibn Naissa (Munuza), master of the eastern Pyrenees (Cerretanya), allied with the duke Odo of Aquitaine and detached from Cordova. Those internal frictions continually threatened (or sometimes may, paradoxically, have spurred) the Umayyad ever-expanding military effort in al-Andalus during the conquest period. Circa 739, on learning the news of Charles Martel's second intervention in Provence, Uqba ibn al-Hajjaj had to call off an expedition to the Lower Rhone in order to deal with the Berber Revolt in the south instead. Later next year, the Berber garrisons stationed in León, Astorga and other north-western outposts gave up their positions, and some of them even embraced the Christian religion.[15] The Muslim settlement was thereafter established permanently south of the Douro's banks. The Berber rebellions swept the whole al-Andalus under Abd al-Malik ibn Katan al-Fihri's term as governor. Other ethnic groups with little presence up to that point were then called in a military capacity: the "Syrians" (actually Arabs). The rebellions were quelled in blood, and the Arab commanders came up reinforced after 742. Different Arab factions reached an agreement to alternate in office, but this didn't last long, since Yusuf ibn 'Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri (opposed to the Umayyads) remained in power up to his defeat by Abd-ar-Rahman I in 756, and the establishment of the independent Umayyad Emirate of Cordova. It is in this period of unrest that the Frankish king Pepin could finally capture Narbonne from the Andalusians (759).

In Yusuf's and Abd-ar-Rahman's fight for power in al-Andalus, the "Syrian" troops, a mainstay of the Umayyad Caliphate, split. For the most part, Arabs from the Mudhar and Qais tribes sided with Yusuf, so did the indigenous (second or third generation) Arabs from northern Africa, while Yemeni units and some Berbers took sides with Abd-ar-Rahman, probably born to a north African Berber mother himself. In 756, south and central al-Andalus (Cordova, Sevilla) were in the hands of Abd-ar-Rahman, but it took still 25 years for him to hold sway over the Upper Marches (Pamplona, Zaragoza and all the northeast).[16]


The conquest was followed by a period of several hundred years during which most of the Iberian peninsula was known as the province of Al-Andalus, dominated by Muslim rulers. Only a handful of small Christian states survived in the mountainous north of the peninsula. In 756, Abd ar-Rahman I, a survivor of the then-recently overthrown Umayyad Dynasty, landed in al-Andalus and seized power in Cordova and Seville, proclaimed himself emir or malik, and removed the Abbasid Caliphs of Damascus from the Friday prayers.[17] In the wake of these events, southern Iberia became de jure and de facto independent from the Caliphate.

During the unification of al-Andalus in the reign of Abd ar-Rahman before his death in 788, al-Andalus underwent centralization and slow but steady homogenization. The autonomous status of many towns and regions negotiated in the first years of the conquest was reversed by 778,[18] in some cases much earlier (Pamplona by 742, for example). The Christian Church, whose status remained largely undiminished under the new rulers, fell into decay after the Adoptionist controversy at the end of the 8th century. Meanwhile, the population (especially local nobles who aspired to a share in power) began to embrace Islam and the Arabic language. However, the majority of the population remained Christian (using the Mozarabic Rite), and Latin (Mozarabic) remained the principal language until the 11th century.

Abd ar-Rahman I founded an independent dynasty that survived until the 11th century. That line was succeeded by the Almoravides (in 1002 AD) and the Almohads (in 1138), until the Marinids took over in 1269. From that point, the part of the peninsula under Muslim control fragmented into small emirates (taifas). This fragmentation left the Muslim-controlled region particularly vulnerable to the continuing relentless campaign of military conquest (the Reconquista) pursued by the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, until the last Muslim stronghold of Granada was defeated by the armies of Castile and Aragon under Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492.


As discussed above, much of the traditional narrative of the Conquest is more legend than reliable history. Some of the key events and the stories around them are outlined below.

  • 710 – Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Berber freedman, lands with 400 men and 100 horses on the tiny peninsula now called isle of Tarifa, after his name.
  • 711 – Musa ibn Nusair, Governor of Ifriqiya in North Africa, dispatches Tariq into the Iberian Peninsula.
  • 711 (July 19) – King Roderick's army utterly routed in the Battle of Guadalete somewhere in the Guadalquivir valley.
  • 712 – Musa ibn Nusair joins Tariq after the Battle of Guadalete and both go on to attack towns and strongholds previously avoided.
  • 713 – Theudimer's conditional surrender, allowing him to remain lord of his south-eastern region around Murcia (Tudmir).
  • 715 – Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa announces first wali of Andalus and marries the widow of King Roderick, Egilona. Seville becomes the capital.
  • 717–18 – Al-Hurr ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Thaqafi starts the first military campaigns into Gothic Septimania.
  • 719 – Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, 4th wali, transfers the seat of Governor from Seville to Cordova. Barcelona and Narbonne captured.
  • 721 – An Umayyad army led by Al-Samh crushed by duke Odo's Aquitanian army at the Battle of Toulouse ("Balat Al Shuhada" of Toulouse).
  • 722 – An Umayyad patrol defeated by Pelagius at the Battle of Covadonga in the mountains of Asturias.
  • 725 – Anbasa ibn Suhaym Al-Kalbi subdues all Septimania, raids the Lower Rhone, and captures Autun.
  • 731 – Munuza defeated in Cerdanya by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.
  • Spring 732 – An expedition led by the wali Al Ghafiqi vanquishes duke Odo at the Battle of the River Garonne.
  • October 732 – Al Ghafiqi totally routed by Charles Martel (Mayor of the Palace at the Merovingian court) at the Battle of Tours ("Balat Al Shuhada" of Poitiers).
  • 734 – Count Maurontus calls Umayyad forces on a military capacity into Arles, Avignon, and probably Marseille.
  • 740–42 – Berbers in northern Iberia (Galicia, Leon, Astorga, upper Ebro) give up their positions to join the Berber Revolts.
  • 743-757 – Alfonso I of Asturias raids the territory between the rivers Duero and Ebro but doesn't retain it.
  • 743 – Mudarites and Yemenites agree on choosing alternately one of their numbers each year to rule Al–Andalus.
  • 747 – Governor Yusuf ibn 'Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri, a Mudarite and descendant of Uqbah ibn Nafia, refuses to give turn to the Yemenite candidate and rules autonomously.
  • 755 – Rebellion in Zaragoza quashed, and Yusuf's detachment annihilated by the Basques near Pamplona.
  • 755 – Abd Al-Rahman Al Dakhel ("Saqr Quraysh") lands on the southern coast, taking in a quick succession Granada, Seville and Cordova.
  • 756 – After refusing to compromise with Yusuf, Abd ar-Rahman I independent Umayyad emir of Córdova. Yusuf defeated.
  • 759 – Narbonne captured by the Frankish king Pepin the Short.
  • 763 – Pro-Abbasid army defeated by Abd ar-Rahman I in Carmona.
  • 778 – Charlemagne repelled in Zaragoza by Muslim local lords.
  • 779 – Abd ar-Rahman I campaigns to the Upper Marches and subdues its main city, Zaragoza.
  • 781 – Pamplona and the Basque lords south of the Pyrenean fringes subdued. All Al Andalus unified.
  • 788 – Abd ar-Rahman I dies.

See also

  • Crusades
  • History of Portugal
  • History of Spain
  • Muslim conquests
  • Timeline of the Muslim presence in the Iberian peninsula
  • Timeline of Portuguese history


  1. ^ G. Georgiades Arnakis, "The Greek Church of Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire", The Journal of Modern History 24:3. (Sep., 1952), p. 235 /sici?sici=0022-2801%28195209%2924%3A3%3C235%3ATGCOCA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4 JSTOR
  2. Fletcher, Richard (2006). Moorish Spain. Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-520-24840-6. 
  3. Rucquoi notes that the tale of Count Julian's wife or daughter does not appear in the Chronicle of 754 and considers it to be "probably a legend", but considers there may be more truth in the stories concerning Wittiza's family; Rucquoi, Adèle (1993). "Histoire médiéval de la Péninsule ibérique". Éditions du Seuil. p. 71. ISBN 2-02-012935-3. 
  4. Collins, Roger (1983). Early Medieval Spain. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-22464-8. 
  5. "El País". 2008-12-05. 
  6. Ripoll López, Gisela (1989). "Características generales del poblamiento y la arqueología funeraria visigoda de Hispania" (PDF). Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, S. I, Prehist. y Arqueol., t. 2. pp. 389–418. "En resumen se puede considerar que el pueblo visigodo —sin diferenciar la población civil de la militar— representó de un uno a un dos por ciento sobre la totalidad de la población de Hispania." 
  7. Kennedy, Hugh (1996). Muslim Spain and Portugal: A political history of al-Andalus. Longman. pp. 1–14. 
  8. Lomax, D.W. (1978). The Reconquest of Spain. Longman. pp. 15–16. 
  9. Collins, Roger (1990). The Basques. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell. pp. 116. ISBN 0-631-17565-2. 
  10. Collins 1990, p. 116.
  11. Collins, Roger (1989). The Arab Conquest of Spain 710-797. Oxford, UK / Cambridge, USA: Blackwell. pp. 39–40. ISBN 0-631-19405-3. 
  12. Collins 1989, pp. 42-43.
  13. Collins 1989, pp. 45-46.
  14. Collins 1989, pp. 49-50.
  15. Collins 1989, pp. 158.
  16. Collins 1989, p. 180.
  17. Collins 1989, p. 127.
  18. Collins 1989, p. 174.


  • Kennedy. Muslim Spain and Portugal. 
  • AD Taha. The Muslim conquest and settlement of North Africa and Spain. 

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