What is the Muslim Conquest

Unstoppable triumphal march

Islam spread with unbelievable force in the 7th and 8th centuries. Tarifa and Gibraltar were the first stages of the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The Christian Visigothic Empire collapsed like a house of cards within a few years.

The triumph of Islam has profoundly changed world history. From the Arabian Desert the new religion and the secular rule it established spread to northern India and Central Asia and to the African Atlantic coast. The Mediterranean, once mare nostrum, no longer connected the peoples of the north and the south, but separated them. The Koranic revelation, referred to by the Prophet himself as a “instrument of separation”, divided people into those who “submitted” to it (Arabic Muslim) and those who opposed it.

In a time of spiritual turmoil and religious uncertainty, this young faith spread with elementary force due to its clarity and unconditionality. Humanity was divided into believers and unbelievers. The ancient ecumenism no longer existed; Orient and Occident, the “House of Islam” and the “House of War” faced each other irreconcilably. According to the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, this break-up marked the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Within medieval Europe, Spain was the main theater of this world-historical conflict, the border between the worlds running through the middle of the Iberian Peninsula. It was not until the Islamic conquest of Constantinople (1453) and the Christian conquest of Granada (1492) that the conflict shifted from Spain to southeastern Europe - with that the Middle Ages ended and the modern age began.

The early expansion of Islam is unique in world history. After the death of the Prophet Mohammed (632), who first united the Arab tribes, the new faith and the new social order based on it spread at breathtaking speed. With fresh, unspent strength, the Arab warriors advanced in all directions. The Persian empire fell into their lap like a ripe fruit. They conquered Egypt, Palestine, Syria, former core countries of the Byzantine Empire, and made the ancient Damascus their capital. However, the attempt to conquer Constantinople itself failed; in Italy the Muslims could only take possession of the island of Sicily for a long time.

The advance into North Africa forever changed the geostrategy of the Mediterranean. The Roman province of Africa (Arabic Ifrikija), today's Tunisia, was of great strategic and economic importance with its location in the center of the Mediterranean and its fertile fields. Here the bitter resistance of the native Berbers had to be put down; with the establishment of Kairouan (670), however, a permanent sign of the Muslim seizure of power was set. This city became the starting point for the conquest of the West (Arabic Maghrib), Kairouan is still considered the fourth holiest city in Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. From this base, the Muslim armies attacked Spain around the same time as parts of India in the east and Turkestan, which borders on China, were conquered.

In 708 the governor of Ifrikija, Musa ibn Nusair, headed a force of newly Islamicized Berbers headed west. Tangier was conquered, but Ceuta offered fierce resistance. The city only fell when Count Julian, wounded in his honor by the Visigoth King Rodrigo, defected to the Arabs. From here the Spanish coast was within reach. Musa wanted to translate immediately, but consulted with the government in distant Damascus. The caliph ordered scouts to be sent out first. In July 710, the Berber tariff Abu Sura with 300 foot soldiers and 100 riders on four ships crossed to Spain for the first time. He established a base near the small island of Andalus, after which the entire Iberian Peninsula was to be named; the city that arose there received the name of its founder, it is still called Tarifa today. A year later, Musa's deputy Tarik ibn Sijad moved up with an army of 7,000 warriors; he went ashore at the rock that got his name: Djebel al-Tarik, the mountain of Tarik: Gibraltar. To this day, the stages of the Muslim conquest can be read from the place names in the extreme south of Spain! ...

Literature: Georg Bossong, The Moorish Spain. History and Culture, Munich 2007.

Prof. Dr. Georg Bossong

August 30, 2007

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