History of the Disappearance of Islam from the Iberian Peninsula

The history of the Iberian Peninsula is a vivid tapestry woven with the threads of various ruling empires, among which the Muslim rule stands out for its duration and impact.

From the early 8th century, the lands now known as Spain and Portugal were under Muslim control, a period characterized by religious, cultural, and scientific prosperity.

However, by the 17th century, the visible practice of Islam had almost completely vanished from the peninsula. This drastic change was the result of centuries of political shifts, religious conflicts, and social transformations.

In the article below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the disappearance of Muslim majority from the Iberian Peninsula.

Image: A 2003 satellite image showing the Iberian Peninsula.

Early Muslim Conquest and the Establishment of Al-Andalus

The Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula began with the invasion led by the Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad in 711 AD. This event marked the start of an era that would see the peninsula under Islamic rule for the next 800 years, known as Al-Andalus.

The Muslims quickly established a sophisticated civilization known for its architectural marvels, such as the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and its significant contributions to various fields of knowledge.

The Christian Reconquista

Parallel to the flourishing of Islamic culture and society in Al-Andalus, the northern Christian kingdoms were slowly gaining strength. This period saw the beginning of the Reconquista, a series of campaigns by Christian states to reclaim territory from the Muslim rulers.

The Reconquista is characterized by a slow but steady north-to-south push by the Christian forces, which culminated in the capture of Toledo in 1085, a significant blow to Muslim power in the peninsula.

Over the centuries, the balance of power continued to shift until 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold. This event marked the end of Muslim political rule in the Iberian Peninsula but not the end of the Muslim presence.

The Status of Muslims Post-Reconquista

After the fall of Granada, Muslims in the newly Christian territories, now called Moriscos, were initially allowed to continue practicing their religion. However, this tolerance was short-lived.

The late 15th and early 16th centuries saw a growing sentiment of religious uniformity driven by the Reconquista’s ideological and religious underpinnings. In 1492, the same year Granada fell, the Alhambra Decree forced the expulsion or conversion of Jews, setting a precedent for the treatment of Muslims.

By the mid-16th century, all Muslims in Spain were decreed to convert to Christianity or face expulsion under the policies of forced conversion. These converted Muslims, or Moriscos, were suspected of secretly practicing Islam, which led to tensions with the Christian majority.

Muslim rule in Iberia ended after centuries of Christian Reconquista, culminating in forced conversions and the expulsion of Moriscos by 1614. Image: An artwork depicting the Moriscos departing Spain.

Cultural Resistance and Forced Conversions

Despite outwardly adopting Christianity, many Moriscos maintained their Islamic practices in secret. This clandestine adherence to Islam included subtle resistances such as dietary preferences, marriage customs, and clandestine religious gatherings. The Spanish Inquisition, established to enforce Catholic orthodoxy, often targeted Moriscos, intensifying the scrutiny and persecution they faced.

The situation escalated to a point where the mere retention of Muslim customs, such as the Arabic language and Islamic dress, was seen as a threat to the Christian social order. This resulted in increasing legislative pressures and social ostracism against the Moriscos.

Expulsion of the Moriscos

The final blow came in the early 17th century when King Philip III signed a decree in 1609 ordering the expulsion of the Moriscos. This decision was influenced by the fear of an internal threat more than any proven disloyalty.

The expulsion process, which lasted until 1614, was brutal and thorough, effectively removing the majority of the Morisco population from the Iberian Peninsula.

It is worth mentioning the fact that the expulsion had severe demographic and economic impacts, as the Moriscos had been integral to the agricultural and artisanal economy of the peninsula. Their removal led to a significant loss of population and expertise, which affected the local economies for decades.

Image: A portrait of Philip III (1578 – 1621)

Legacy

The disappearance of the Muslim majority from the Iberian Peninsula is a poignant chapter in European history, illustrating the profound impacts of religious and political upheaval.

The legacy of this period is still evident in the architectural, cultural, and linguistic traces that pepper the landscape of modern Spain and Portugal.

FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about the history of Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula:

  1. Who were the Moors?

The term “Moors” refers broadly to the Muslim inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and the Mediterranean islands during the Middle Ages. Originating mainly from North Africa, specifically the Berbers and Arabs, the Moors played a crucial role in the Islamic rule of Al-Andalus from the 8th to the 15th centuries.

  1. What was Al-Andalus?

Al-Andalus refers to the Muslim-ruled territories in the Iberian Peninsula. At its peak, it included most of present-day Spain and Portugal. Al-Andalus was known for its high level of cultural and scientific achievements, and its capital, Córdoba, was one of the largest and most advanced cities in Europe at the time.

  1. What led to the decline of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula?

The decline of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula was primarily due to the Christian Reconquista, a series of campaigns by Christian states to reclaim land from the Muslims. This process started shortly after the initial Muslim conquest and lasted until 1492, culminating in the fall of Granada.

  1. How were Muslims treated after the Reconquista?

After the Reconquista, Muslims in the remaining Christian territories, known as Moriscos, were initially permitted to practice their religion. Over time, however, they faced increasing pressure to convert to Christianity, culminating in decrees that forced their conversion or expulsion. Many Moriscos continued to practice Islam in secret.

  1. What was the Morisco Expulsion?

The Morisco Expulsion, ordered by King Philip III in 1609, was the forced removal of the Moriscos from Spain. Believed to be secretly practicing Islam, the Moriscos were seen as a threat to the Christian state. The expulsion, which lasted until 1614, led to the departure of hundreds of thousands of Moriscos to North Africa and other locations.

  1. What impact did the Muslim presence have on Spanish and Portuguese culture?

The Muslim presence left a lasting impact on various aspects of Spanish and Portuguese culture, including language, architecture, agriculture, and cuisine. Words of Arabic origin are common in the Spanish language, and architectural styles can be seen in famous sites like the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.

  1. Are there any remnants of Muslim culture in modern Spain and Portugal?

Yes, remnants of Muslim culture are still evident in various cultural practices, architectural styles, and the Arabic influence on the Spanish and Portuguese languages. Festivals and culinary traditions also retain influences from the Muslim period.

  1. How is this historical period viewed in contemporary Spain and Portugal?

This period is often viewed with a mixture of pride in the rich cultural legacy and complexity due to the historical conflicts between different religious and ethnic groups. It is a subject of significant academic interest and cultural reflection, especially concerning issues of religious tolerance, cultural integration, and identity.

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