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Who were the Moors?
The Moors were the population of Muslims that lived in Spain during the Middle Ages who created and lived through the Golden Age of Islam that brought education and culture forth into the world before the Christians walked in and spent centuries destroying them and any evidence of their existence. In a nutshell.
Okay, but who were the Moors before they changed the world? What’s their story? Well, to start, they were a medieval Muslim tribe that lived in Africa. And, historically speaking, the Moors were some of the most important people to ever exist. One day, when they decided to up and cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa to Spain, they changed everything Spanish and Muslim forever.
When you see the word Muslim up there, you might have all sorts of different feelings. The Moors are why the words “Islam” and “Muslim” carry such awful connotations today, depending on who you are. And that’s not to say that they did horrible things. Actually, their story is quite the opposite!
The story of the Moors in Spain starts at the Moors’ origin, Africa, and continues on through centuries’ worth of Moorish conquerors, bringing Islam into the world (among lots of other things) throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The history of the ancient Moorish nation is honestly a hell of a story, and the way we think of Islam today tells us a lot about the people who were involved in this story.
The tribe who invaded Spain in the 8th century
In the year 711, a group of Muslims called Berbers crossed the sea and conquered the Iberian Peninsula (AKA Spain). The story we learn in school today is about these awful, barbaric, vile people who went to the beautiful country of Spain, which was ruled by the Visigoths, and destroyed it, killing all its people and massacring the culture, architecture, etc. This is the story that began the world’s current….let’s call it emotional turmoil…regarding Muslims.
What if I told you that isn’t necessarily what happened? What if I told you that the reason Islam is as hated as it is today is because of the motives of the royal family from hundreds of years ago?
In fact, the Moors ruled land from China to Africa, living in the Golden Age of the Moor, which is a time period responsible for some of the world’s most important inventions. However, thanks to Christian royals, this isn’t what we read in history books. But let’s start from the beginning.
How Islam began
In a time period when lots of people were experimenting with different cults and religious beliefs, one man in Saudi Arabia heard the voice of God. He took this voice, traveling and settling in Medina, Saudi Arabia. From Medina, he and his followers committed to the pursuit of education.
These Muslims developed a society that put literacy and religious education together as a right, as opposed to other beliefs that thought only the rich should be educated. These people built mosques to pray in, as well as to teach grammar and literacy to the people.
Over time, this concept evolved into Madrasas, which is the Arabic word for any type of educational institution. This is where our modern concept of universities began. This push for education gave the Moors such power, they decided to do what everybody else was doing in those days: conquer as much of the world as they could.
Moorish influence in Spain
The Moors’ travels brought them north to Spain, where they managed to conquer almost the entire country in just 4 years. That seems like a long time, but keep in mind this is before automobiles, in a time when they literally had to fight their way through.
They kept going and going, conquering everyone they met, until they were eventually halted in their tracks by the Poitiers in France. The Moors successfully ruled all of Spain except for the very North. If it wasn’t for the Poitiers, they might have continued onto Britain, and Islam might be the world’s foremost religion, and Arabic the most widely-spoken language. Who knows?
Now, keep in mind where the rest of the world is right now, because it’ll give you the sense of how they saw the Moors. While the Moors were expanding, consolidating land and power, and growing into a major civilization, the rest of the world was struggling, just trying to conquer different territories. This time period is what we now know as the Dark Ages.
When the Moors ruled Spain
This part of history is seriously bastardized by the history books, and it’s on purpose. We tend to learn about the Moors as treacherous, violent monsters, but they weren’t. The Moors were educated, progressive people who found Spain, who had been ruled by the Visigoths with fallen infrastructure and unsanitary conditions, and gave them the protection they were in desperate need of.
The Moors transformed the Spanish landscape with the power of irrigation, agriculture, architecture, and more. Cities that were hanging by a thread became major cosmopolitans that were seen as the wealthiest in all of Europe, just because this technology was completely new to Europeans.
When the Brits were still living in wooden houses and throwing their feces into the street, modern-day Córdoba housed 100,000 people with clean running water, and a sewage system. When the Moors ruled Spain (or al-Andalus, as it was called at the time), it was known as the ornament of the world.
When this civilization was at its finest, you have to understand how magnificent it was. The Moors’ passion for education was revolutionary; the city of Córdoba had seventy different libraries in it, and just one of them had half a million books. Half a million books! In one library! These libraries were where you could find the most sophisticated studies in the world, and this is exactly what made Islam so popular.
That’s something a lot of us don’t know: it’s not like Spain was forced to convert to Islam. In fact, the city of Madrid itself was founded by the Moors, and there is no archaeological evidence of forced conversion.
That’s because it was more than just changing the name of the Spaniards’ god, but a shift to a culture where you could find wealth, knowledge, and power. You could be part of the world’s most powerful civilization. You could have a very good education whether you were rich or poor, since they believed that the more education you had, the better Muslim you were.
Islamic Golden Age inventions
The concept of Islam grew like wildfire. The idea of power coming from knowledge, that everyone deserved an education, was incredibly popular. Moorish culture was quickly defined by their passion for science, technology, and foreign bodies of wisdom. They didn’t restrict their sources, but excitedly welcomed any kind of new thought they found. This is how the Golden Age of Islam came to be.
With all this wealth of information, including the Library of Alexandria that they had conquered back in in 641, there was nowhere to go but up. They took all the ancient, most advanced information that had been stored there from centuries of Greek research, which had generally been ignored upto that point, and continued it. They even translated the Bible into Arabic!
Because these Muslims came from a nomadic lifestyle, they developed the study of astronomy using the stars to see where they were going. When trading with the Chinese they got the idea of paper and opened paper-making factories so they could gather information, analyze and develop ideas, and spread the knowledge all around, a revolutionary idea for the 10th century.
Hospitals in Córdoba were performing surgeries that wouldn’t be seen anywhere else for hundreds of years. Contributions of Muslim scientists like this were continued even until the 20th century. They were the first to rent out the land they owned for a portion of the profits. And this wasn’t even in Toledo, where the center of the Golden Age of the Moor was born.
The Moors were sophisticated, progressive, and educated. They were the most intellectual and powerful civilization ever. Here’s some foreshadowing for you: while the Moors were growing in Spain, gaining power and education, the Christians, who were fighting for a monotheistic (the belief that there is only one God) country, saw the entire civilization as blasphemous.
The most famous Moorish temple still stands
The Moors created entire cities that you can still visit today (there’s a reason why the south of Spain is called Andalusia – does that word look close to al-Andalus to you?) and admire the breathtaking architecture, covered in scrolls of Arabic text. I highly suggest you pay a visit if you can, they just don’t make buildings like that anymore.
The most famous of them all is the Great Mosque of Córdoba. Imagine a mosque the size of four football fields. While the original mosque built by the Moors was only a fraction of the size it is today, you can only imagine how amazing it is.
Also known as the Mezquita, this huge Moorish temple still exists, and you can even see it for free. You can see the parts of it that were the original mosque, and you can also see where 3 different rulers expanded the building 3 different times – it’s a strange combination of different styles that look like the completely different time frames in which they were each built.
There are a few theories as to why it kept being built on, one of them being that Córdoba’s various rulers wanted to leave their mark. Probably the most logical reason, though, is to reflect the sheer speed at which Islam was spreading. This was the most amazing mosque in the heart of the Moorish civilization – it had to keep up with the faith’s growth.
Don’t tell a Spaniard, though. Their history doesn’t tend to acknowledge that, for a significant period of time, the bulk of their population was Islam-practicing Arabic people. This is why it’s now called the Mezquita, not a mosque: as the Moors fell and the Christians took over (to be discussed in a second), the mosque was converted into a cathedral.
Toledo, Spain History
At the time, despite Córdoba’s size, it was not the country’s capital: Toledo was. When the Christians arrived and seized the city, it was accomplished so easily that instead of the Christians wiping out any hint of Moorish culture, they decided they would live together harmoniously, and didn’t bother to touch any of the Muslims or their mosques. Even today, if you head to Toledo the city is pretty much untouched, and you can see the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian neighborhoods as they were.
Because of this unique
Depending on your source, this is where history differs; some say that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all lived harmoniously, some say that Jews and Christians were treated second to Muslims….and others say that the Golden Age of Islam didn’t actually happen (mostly conservative Christian websites). So take all this with a grain of salt.
an you imagine doing complex mathematical equations using just
Islam’s effect on the Renaissance
Now, nobody can be entirely sure about when the Golden Age of Islam ended – different historians’ claims vary hundreds of years. Therefore, the theory that the Renaissance, which is traditionally understood to have begun in Italy, only happened because of the mass exchange of information that was happening in Toledo during the Golden Age of Islam, isn’t completely unrealistic. Of course, it’s not what the history books say, but we all know that history books aren’t always 100% correct.
We do know for a fact, though, that we only have the great education institution that is Oxford University because of Toledo. Thanks to the English passing through this city and learning from this time period, Oxford was created as a center of knowledge based on reason and questioning a blind faith in God, which was a revolutionary idea.
Bringing all this new information into a method of formal education inspired the growth of critical thinking, and, as the theory goes, planted the seeds of what we know today as the Renaissance.
Unfortunately, this explosion of information and education couldn’t last forever. While Toledo was exchanging and learning and growing, the radical Christians and the Inquisition were coming ever closer.
The end of the Moorish stronghold
Al-Andalus was a beautiful civilization focused on education, growth, and
Meanwhile, the Crusades had started back in 1096 and would keep on keepin’ on til 1291. In 1258, when al-Andalus had fallen and the people of Córdoba were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, the strong hand of stability that the Christians had to offer was exactly what they needed.
In fact, the Pope had ordered a war to remove Islam all the way back in 1095, and Córdoba was the last Moorish stronghold to keep pushing on for two centuries. While Córdoba had held their own, the rest of Spain had fallen. Now that Córdoba had joined the rest, the Golden Age of Islam had become a bunch of frantic little city-states that dotted the map, with no real structure or strength.
Now that the Moorish community was all but gone, the Christians had an opportunity to strike. They had never left the north of Spain when the Moors came up from Africa, and they now easily conquered the rest of the country again. History now knows this as the Reconquista. It’s a highly celebrated part of Spanish history that’s reenacted throughout Spain as the triumphant conquest. When, really, it’s the time when the Christians found a good thing and burned it.
The extermination of the Moor race
It’s really amazing how some of these medieval worldviews are still alive today in the 21st century. While at the time of Moorish growth and expansion, they brought life and prosperity to a struggling country, the Christians and their history books found it easy enough to completely change our general understanding of what happened.
The Moor race was black. They were straight from Africa, so these people were as black as can be. Even today, life is tough for the black Muslim, and it’s because of ideas that have been broiling and formulating for centuries by the Christians.
Disclaimer: I don’t want you to think I have anything whatsoever against Christians or Christianity. This is not a Christianity hate post or blog. I’m just trying to tell you how these particular Christians in this part of history were, and how it affects our worldview even today.
So at this point, the great land of Moorish Spain has crumbled into tiny little bits of unsustainable communities. At a time when territories aren’t permanent and everybody’s trying to take over the world, this was bad news. It was too easy for an army to walk right in and just announce that Moors were no longer Moors, but *insert new nationality here*.
The Christians, who had long been waiting for the chance to “take their country back”, jumped in with their money and power. They came in and said, “if you pay us we won’t destroy you”.
In response, the Moors called in troops from Morocco to act as their defense. The Moors hadn’t been Africans for quite some time now, but I suppose calling in the people from their home country to help was better than facing the Christians alone. And thus we have Spain’s famous Reconquista.
Unfortunately, the Moors’ faith had evolved so much with their education and progressive culture that their less-educated Moroccan counterparts weren’t pleased. The troops were Muslims, but were strong fundamentalists, and preached that the Spanish Moors should return to the basic Muslim values. The troops felt they had to purify this version of Islam.
So, when you call in your friends to help defend you against the Christians, but your friends decide that your version of your religion is also bad…you’re pretty much SOL.
And thus, the fight between the Moors and the Christians then became a fight between two fundamentalist, violent religious faiths. The Christians believed they were fighting to re-conquer their country back from the Muslims, and the Muslims believed they were fighting to restore the Moors to a more pure faith.
So, even though nowadays the Reconquista is seen as a holy war, in reality it was more of a civil war. Today it’s known as the war in which Spain was returned to its rightful Christian people, but at the time it was a war in which the Christians came in, set fire to the cities, and destroyed centuries’ worth of knowledge, sophisticated agriculture, and culture.
Whatever you call it, the Christians won. This we know. The Moors, the more refined society, had put their focus on education and culture, and thus were significantly less equipped for war than the Christians. They lost everything.
The Unifying of Spain
So there was Spain: after centuries of being ruled by the Muslims, it had been taken over by the Christians once again. Spain worked to clean any hint of Islam from the country, and was highly successful until they got to Granada. Because of the mountainous landscape and very smartly placed watchtowers, the Christians didn’t take Granada for another 200 years.
While Granada still held a Muslim population, the Christians to the north were cooking up a plan. The country was now broken up into three section: Castile, Aragon (two Christian-ruled territories), and Granada. But when the Christian territories married off their kin, the two combined, overpowering little ol’ Granada.
With the help of this marriage and the Spanish Inquisition, Islam was officially removed, the country of Spain was unified under Christian rule, and the west would never have a relationship with Islam again after painting a picture of the Moors that would last millenia.
Islam’s final clapback
As the Christians conquered the Moors, they saw the beauty that had been created under Muslim rule. These were sights that could not be found anywhere else around the world, especially in the middle ages. This was a wealth that would be recognized across the known globe.
Therefore, when Christian rulers settled in Seville, they needed a castle that expressed this wealth, to show how amazing they were. So, they created a Moorish palace in Spain (talk about appropriation!). With geometric corners and scrolls of Arabic carved throughout the castle, there was nothing else like it.
Unbeknownst to the Christians, however, was what these words said. Yes, they talked about their wonderful ruler, and how amazing he was, but they didn’t refer to him as King. Instead, they referred to him as Caliph, a Moorish ruler. And so, the Christians may have conquered the Moors with war, but the Moors won forever with their culture!