What Happened to the Muslim Majority of Portugal and Spain?

For centuries, the regions now known as Spain and Portugal were dominated by Muslim states. During this era, known as Al-Andalus, Islam thrived culturally and religiously. However, by the 17th century, the Muslim presence had nearly vanished from the Iberian Peninsula. The question that begs to be answered is: What happened to the Muslim majority of those territories?

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

The historical narrative of how the Iberian Peninsula transitioned from a predominantly Muslim region to one largely inhabited by Christians is a complex and multifaceted story that spans several centuries. Image: A 2003 image of the Iberian Peninsula.

Early Islamic Conquest and Establishment

In 711 AD, Muslim forces, primarily composed of Moors from North Africa, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into the Iberian Peninsula. This marked the beginning of the Islamic conquest of Hispania, a territory that was under the rule of the Visigothic Kingdom.

The initial conquest was rapid and decisive, leading to the establishment of Al-Andalus, a Muslim-ruled territory that at its zenith included most of what is now Spain and Portugal.

Al-Andalus and the Flourishing of Islamic Culture on the Iberian Peninsula

The Muslim rule in Al-Andalus is noted for its significant cultural, scientific, and economic achievements. It became a center for education and scholarship, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars together contributed to the advancement of science, medicine, philosophy, and art. Major cities like Córdoba, Seville, and Granada became renowned centers of learning and culture.

The Christian Reconquista

Parallel to the flourishing of Al-Andalus, the northern Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula began a slow and intermittent process of reconquest, known as the Reconquista.

This was not a continuous series of battles but a gradual push over centuries, marked by periods of warfare interspersed with long intervals of peace. The Christian kingdoms—among them Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and León—slowly expanded their territories at the expense of Muslim states.

Decline of Muslim Rule

The Muslim territories in Iberia saw periods of fragmentation and internal strife, which weakened their ability to resist the Christian advances.

The taifa kingdoms, small rival Muslim states that emerged following the collapse of the initial caliphate of Córdoba, were often embroiled in conflicts that made them vulnerable to Christian conquests or manipulation.

The Fall of Granada and Aftermath

The final stronghold of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula was the Kingdom of Granada. In 1492, it fell to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, effectively ending Muslim rule in Spain. This event also coincided with the discovery of the Americas, marking 1492 as a pivotal year in Spanish history.

The Muslim dominion began in the 8th century and endured significant challenges over time. Christian forces, in a series of campaigns known as the Reconquista, gradually reclaimed their territories, pushing Muslim rulers progressively southward. Image: The Great Mosque of Córdoba, which was converted into a church after the Reconquista.

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Conversion and Expulsion

Post-1492, the situation for Muslims in Spain changed drastically. The policy of religious tolerance that had occasionally marked the periods of Muslim and earlier Christian rule gave way to a stricter enforcement of Christianity.

The Treaty of Granada initially promised religious freedom for Muslims, but this agreement was soon disregarded. Muslims (and Jews) were forced to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Those who converted, known as Moriscos, were often suspected of secretly practicing Islam and faced persecution.

In 1609, under King Philip III, a significant and tragic decision was made to expel the Moriscos from Spain. This expulsion was carried out in waves, resulting in the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes to various locations across the Mediterranean, particularly North Africa.

The expulsion had detrimental effects on the Spanish economy and demography but was driven by the desire for religious and cultural homogeneity.

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The long process of taking back Al-Andalus from Muslim rule reached its zenith in 1492 with the capture of Granada, the last Muslim bastion, by the Catholic Monarchs.

Legacy

The legacy of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula is profound, influencing the region’s architecture, language, and culture.

Even today, many architectural marvels, such as the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, serve as reminders of this vibrant period in Spanish history.

The transition from a Muslim majority to a predominantly Christian population in what are now Spain and Portugal was a result of prolonged conflicts, demographic changes, and policies aimed at religious unification.

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FAQs

What was Al-Andalus?

Al-Andalus refers to the Muslim-ruled territories in the Iberian Peninsula, spanning from the 8th to the late 15th century. It was a center for cultural, scientific, and economic prosperity under Islamic rule.

What triggered the Reconquista?

The Reconquista was a response to the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. It began as a series of small battles led by Christian kingdoms in the north, aiming to reclaim their lands, and evolved into a larger movement to recapture the entire peninsula.

What happened to the few Muslims that were left after the Reconquista?

Afterwards, the remaining Muslim population, referred to as Moriscos, faced intense coercion to convert to Christianity or face expulsion under Christian rule.

While many converted, they often continued to discreetly practice Islam. The situation escalated when, in 1609, King Philip III mandated the expulsion of the Moriscos.

This decree led to the forced removal of a significant portion of practitioners and descendants of the Islamic faith from the peninsula, effectively erasing the prominent Muslim identity that had flourished there for over 700 years.

Moriscos were Muslims in Spain who were forced to convert to Christianity after the Reconquista but often secretly continued to practice Islam. They faced severe discrimination and scrutiny under Christian rule. Image: A photo of the Madrid Central Mosque, in Spain.

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Why were the Moriscos expelled from Spain?

The Moriscos were expelled by King Philip III in 1609 due to fears of insurrection, their apparent insincerity in their conversion to Christianity, and political pressure to maintain religious and cultural homogeneity in Spain.

What was the impact of the Muslim expulsion on Spain?

The expulsion of the Moriscos had significant economic and demographic impacts. It led to a loss of agricultural knowledge and labor, contributing to economic decline in certain regions of Spain. Socially and culturally, it marked the end of significant Islamic influence in Spanish territories.

Are there still influences of Muslim culture in modern Spain and Portugal?

Yes, Muslim influence remains evident in the architectural heritage, such as the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, as well as in the Spanish language, which contains many words of Arabic origin.

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