Islamic History, Part 18: the conquest of Iberia (711-759)

Islamic History Series

In contrast the decline of the Umayyad Dynasty in Syria, a period that I’m sure was as confusing for you to read about as it was for me to write about (imagine living through it), the conquest of Spain is considerably more straightforward, and takes place at a time when the rest of the Umayyad enterprise isn’t going so well. Muslim Iberia, or Andalusia (Al-Andalus), quickly gets off on its own political and, to a lesser extent, cultural track from the rest of the Islamic World, coming back into contact with North Africa later on but always autonomous from other great centers of Islam like Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad. For that reason we’ll be revisiting Andalusia periodically rather than following its development as a regular part of the larger narrative. This essay will take us from the earliest Arab-Berber crossings into Iberia in 711 to the Siege of Narbonne in 752-759, when Frankish armies drove the Muslims out of Gaul and made the Pyrenees the Western European limit of Islamic expansion.

The Strait of Gilbraltar separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. It is named for the Rock of Gibraltar that sits along the northern side of the Strait. The name “Gibraltar” comes from the Arabic phrase Jabal Tariq, or “Tariq’s mountain,” and is named for Tariq b. Ziyad (d. 720), the (probably) Berber commander of the first Islamic military expedition to cross the Strait from North Africa and enter Iberia. Gibraltar’s twin on the southern side of the Strait is called Jebel Musa, named for Musa b. Nusayr (d. 716), the Arab governor of North Africa who sent Tariq into Iberia and later joined him in conquering it. It should not be confused with the other Jabal Musa, Mount Sinai, whose name should be clear (“Musa” is the Arabic form of “Moses”). So just by looking at a map of the area you can learn about the two key figures in the story we’re about to tell, but before we really begin to tell it I think we need to talk about the Arab conquest of North Africa and the incorporation of a new ethnic group into the Caliphate: Berbers.

The first thing we should know about Berbers is that the name “Berber” is really kind of terrible even though I’m going to keep using it. It derives from the same derogatory Greek root that gave us “barbarian,” and refers to the babbling sound that ancient Greeks perceived all non-Greek (and therefore inferior) languages to be. The Greeks and Romans applied that term to the native tribes of North Africa, and it was picked up by the Arabs when they arrived in the region, though the Arabs probably had no idea that the term was originally meant to denigrate its object. Berbers refer to themselves collectively as “Imazighen” (singular “Amazigh”), a term whose origins are considerably more obscure. Berbers have most likely inhabited North Africa for thousands of years, but are first encountered in history when North Africa becomes Romanized during the first millenium BCE.

“Berber” is also a lousy term because it assumes collectivity where historically there wasn’t any. It’s unlikely that the ancient Tuareg, Numidians, or Gaetuli would have identified their neighbors as part of one common people with themselves. This is, of course, a problem with any ethnic collective; when do these terms actually start to mean something historically? When did “Arabs” become “Arabs”? When did “Germans” become “Germans”? The usual solution to this problem, when all else fails, is to rely on language, so a “Berber,” historically (and today, really), is someone whose native tongue is one of the Berber languages. There are a whole bunch of problems with that, of course. For one thing, what do we call a child of Berber parents, raised in, say, France, who learns only French? Are they French? Does their ancestry mean nothing? For another thing, what can language really tell us about ethnicity in the case of the many Berber languages, very few of which are mutually intelligible? It’s one thing to make the Arabic language a defining characteristic of being an “Arab”; Arabic, despite its considerable regional variations, still holds together as a more or less common tongue. But the the last time there was a common Berber tongue was at best about 3000 years ago, and its descendant languages have naturally drifted pretty far apart from one another. This is a little like assigning a common nationality to all Romance language speakers, or all Indo-European language speakers, which nobody would think of doing. But if there’s value in studying the history and culture of native North African peoples as a unit, and it sure seems like there is, then grouping them by language, however inexact or over-generalized, is probably the best we can do.

Much of what we know about Berber history comes to us through the filter of Arab historians, in particular the brilliant 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun, whose famous world history, Kitab al-ʿIbar, was originally intended to be a history of the Berber people. The first Arab expedition west of Egypt had to contend with lingering Byzantine power in the region, which was it did decisively, overwhelming a Byzantine army near the modern Tunisian town of Sbeitla (its Roman name was Sufetula) in 647. The conquest didn’t hold, thanks to a total breakdown in order at the center of the empire (maybe you’ve heard about it), but by the 660s the Arabs were on the march again under the command of the able general ʿUqbah b. Nafʿi (d. 683). In 670, he established a regional capital called Qayrawan (modern Kairouan, about 150 miles north of Tunisia), which comes from the same (Persian) root as “caravan,” so it was very much intended as a way point for armies (and later merchants) heading further west. ʿUqbah had a back and forth rivalry with another commander, Abu al-Muhajir Dinar, for control of the North African (called Ifriquiyah, “Africa,” which was the Roman name for the province covering modern Tunisia and parts of Western Libya) theater, until both men were killed in battle with a Berber leader named Kusaila (or Aksel) in 683.

An Arab expedition defeated and killed Kusaila in 686, but the Arabs didn’t return to Ifriqiyah to stay until 698, when a new commander named Hasan b. al-Nuʿman (d. sometime after 704) conquered Carthage and then (eventually) defeated a new Berber threat, the queen Kahina (or Dihya). By this point the Arabs were beginning to learn that it was much better and easier to cultivate the support of Berber tribes than to fight them, so they began to offer the Berbers a chance to convert and join the conquests, and North Africa become a much less hostile place to the newly arrived Arabs. Hasan was replaced by our friend Musa in 705, probably because the governor of Egypt, ʿAbd al-ʿAziz b. Marwan, found his success too threatening. Musa pushed the borders of the empire further west, reaching modern Tangiers by 708, mostly by pursuing the more peaceful path of negotiation, conversion, and alliance with the Berber tribes of the region.

We have to switch over to talk about the situation in Iberia now. The peninsula was ruled by the Visigoths, whose method of succession was inheritance pending ratification by the nobility. In essence a ruler could designate his son as heir, but the nobles had some right to overrule that selection if they chose. If that sounds like a recipe for a catastrophic breakdown, well, read on. King Witiza had succeeded his father, Egica, in 702, and designated his son Akhila as his heir, but when Witiza died in 710 the nobles balked. Instead they elevated Roderick, who seems to have been totally unrelated to the ruling family, to the throne. Legally this was probably within their rights, but in practice it naturally led to civil war. The man Musa had made governor of Tangiers, our other friend Tariq, took the initiative and crossed the strait that would forever bear his name to invade Iberia in 711. He was aided in this by Julian, the Christian count of Ceuta, who actually ferried the Arab-Berber army across the strait either because he had a personal enmity with Roderick, because he saw which way the wind was blowing and wanted to be on the winning team, or just because it was the only way he could save his own hide.

Muslim conquests in North Africa and Iberia, 7th-8th centuries

Muslim conquests in North Africa and Iberia, 7th-8th centuries

The Battle of Guadalete, in either 711 or 712 (but probably 711) and probably near the modern city of Medina-Sidonia, ended in a clear victory for the invaders. Tariq’s army was outnumbered by Roderick’s, but a considerable portion of Roderick’s army was made up of people whose real loyalty was to Akhila, and they deserted Roderick, hoping Tariq would defeat him and then go away, for some reason, and leave Akhila in power. Of course, Tariq didn’t go away; why would he? What happened instead is that Musa, undoubtedly afraid of being upstaged by his subordinate and wanting some sweet conquered loot for himself, put together another army and sailed over to Iberia to take charge of the invasion. There’s still no great explanation as to why the Visigoths didn’t organize another full-scale defense of their territory after Guadalete. The fact that they inexplicably hoped the Muslim armies would up and leave probably contributed, as well as the fact that the invaders offered pretty generous terms of surrender to the Visigothic nobles (they were allowed to retain their lands and promised some level of autonomy). Tariq’s forces had a pretty easy time capturing the major cities — Cordoba, Granada, Toledo, Guadalajara — even before Musa arrived with reinforcements.

Musa and Tariq, who by this point may have really hated each other’s rotten guts, were both recalled back to Damascus in 714, whereupon Musa was unceremoniously stripped of rank and prestige by the caliph, Sulayman b. ʿAbd al-Malik, for the terrible crime of being more popular than the caliph. Before he left, Musa put his son, ʿAbd al-ʿAziz b. Musa, in charge of the newly conquered province. He married a Visigothic woman, was rumored to have converted to Christianity, and was consequently assassinated by his men (718 is the latest date given for this, but it may have been earlier) and had his head sent off to Damascus, where Sulayman promptly displayed it for Musa. Nice guys, these late Umayyad caliphs.

Iberia was so far from Damascus that it was administered by a governor who was appointed by the governor of Ifriqiyah, who was himself usually appointed by the governor of Egypt. As the periphery of a periphery of a periphery, it would be understandable if Andalus, as it was known (either based on the Visigothic name for the region or on a pre-Roman name for it), never really came under Damascus’ tight control. But the caliphs, particularly Umar II, seem to have been able to ensure that their fiscal and administrative policies were implemented even in Andalus, and the sikkah and khutbah always paid proper deference to whomever was running the empire back east.

The Berbers had another rebellion in them, and an uprising against Arab rule that began in North Africa in 740 spilled into Andalus in 741. The cause seems to have been a decision by the increasingly strapped for cash Umayyads to begin taxing Berbers as dhimmis, despite the fact that most of them had by now done whatever conversion there was for the admittedly still-immature Islamic faith. Recall that the overtaxation of non-Arab converts was a serious issue that engulfed much of the empire in this period, and the Berbers were especially angry that they had previously been afforded the lighter tax burden meant for Muslims, only to have Damascus suddenly change the rules on them. They organized in North Africa under Kharijite principles, which were popular among non-Arabs since they held that piety, not tribal or ethnic affiliation, should determine political leadership (this is something we’ll talk about next time, but the upshot is that, under Kharijite doctrine, a pious non-Arab could actually rule over Arabs). A Berber army attempted to take Qayrawan, but failed; even so all of North Africa west of Qayrawan, plus Andalus, was in rebellion. An army was raised in Syria of some of the most seasoned warriors in the whole empire, and they marched west, quieting the rebellion in 742-743, with many of its soldiers eventually choosing to settle in Andalus. I say “quieting the rebellion,” rather than “defeating the rebellion,” because although the fighting stopped, for all practical purposes the caliphate lost control of the western part of North Africa at this point.

Andalus thus changed very quickly from a mostly-Berber region to a mostly-Arab one, and the majority of those Arabs were now Syrian, with strong loyalties to the Umayyads, which helps to explain why Andalus became a welcome refuge for the deposed Umayyads after 750. The new arrivals, however, also brought with them the poisonous Qays-Yaman rivalry, and once the Berber uprising was put down the Arab army dissolved into warring factions. This infighting allowed the tiny and besieged kingdom of Asturias in the north, the last remaining Christian polity on the peninsula, to stabilize itself and actually expand under King Alfonso I (d. 757), conquering Galicia and Leon and ensuring that there would continue to be a Christian presence in Iberia. As you probably know, that would turn out to be a Very Big Deal over the course of the next seven centuries or so.

Attempts were made to expand the conquests beyond the Pyrenees Mountains and into France, but Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel (d. 741), who was Prince of the Franks and Mayor of the Palace under the last of the Merovingian kings, put an end to their incursions twice: once at the Battle of Tours in 732 and again in a campaign from 736-739, after another Muslim incursion in 735. Charles Martel’s son, the first Carolingian King of France, Pepin the Short (d. 768), finally removed the last Muslim presence north of the Pyrenees when he captured the city of Narbonne in 759 after a seven-year long siege. By that point, Andalus was politically independent of the caliphate, which was now seated in Baghdad and no longer belonged to the Umayyads, but once again we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Further Reading

I’m a big fan of Hugh Kennedy, who is a brilliant academic but also writes in a style that is accessible to popular audiences. His Muslim Spain and Portugal is a good source here and really for the entire history of Muslim Andalus.

There’s little available on the Amazigh/Berbers as far as I know; I used the fittingly titled The Berbers: The Peoples of Africa, by Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, in preparing this piece and filling in my spotty knowledge of Amazigh history and culture.

Jamil M. Abun-Nasr’s A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period is more useful for later periods, but still indispensable if you’re interested in the history of Islamic North Africa.

8 thoughts on “Islamic History, Part 18: the conquest of Iberia (711-759)

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