10th Century Al-Andalus: Abd al-Rahman III (b. 889-d 961)
Following the arrival of Muslim forces in 711, the Iberian Peninsula underwent radical changes with political power passing from the Visigoths into the hands of the newcomers. Although theoretically beholden to the caliphs of the Middle East, al-Andalus –as Muslim controlled Iberia was called–, in fact forged its own destiny, especially following the arrival of the Umayyad prince, Abd al-Rahman I, from the Middle East in 756. Having settled on Córdoba as his capital, Abd al-Rahman methodically imposed his vision on the rest of al-Andalus. Still, internal rivalries were a constant and political stability in the following years depended heavily on the personality and cunning of the incumbent emirs. By the end of the 9th century, al-Andalus was in danger of being fragmented by a weak central authority and challenges coming from all directions: rebellious Muwallads (Christians converted to Islam) within al-Andalus itself, a more forceful Christian presence in the north and a new Muslim dynasty in North Africa. It required a powerful personality to maintain and assert the integrity of al-Andalus: it came in the figure of Abd al-Rahman III (ruled 912-961), the most dominant of all the Umayyad rulers of al-Andalus. Under him, and his son al-Hakam II, and the vizier al-Mansur (de facto ruler under Hisham II), al-Andalus reached the pinnacle of its power, with its influence extending beyond the Pyrenees and well into North Africa.
Abd al-Rahman III (b. 889-d. 961)
Abd al-Rahman succeeded his grandfather, Abdullah ibn Muhammad, as emir at the age of 23, his father having been murdered at Ibn Muhammad’s orders as a result of palace intrigue. (Abd al-Rahman would in turn himself order one of his sons beheaded in his presence; such were the vagaries and severity of palace politics.)
Despite being the greatest Umayyad ruler of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman III’s immediate pedigree was almost as much Christian as it was Moorish, since both he and his father were sons of Christian princesses from Navarra
cousin to some Christian princes, e.g. Sancho
el Craso, king of León, who even went to
Córdoba to seek the help of Abd al-Rahman
in 958 after having been deposed! .
And physically Abd al-Rahman didn’t fit the Moorish mould: he had fair skin, blue eyes and reddish hair, which he used to dye black in order to look more Arabic. He was also a fluent speaker of the early Spanish spoken in those days.
Abd al-Rahman III’s greatest success was to impose his presence on al-Andalus and unite it as it had never been before. By sheer force of personality he reined in dissidents, placed trusted men in control of restless areas and directed his country’s energies against his enemies.
In North Africa a new threat surfaced in the form of the Fatimids, a Muslim state whose leaders claimed to be direct descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fátima. Having established their capital on the North African coast (in modern Tunisia) in 910, they posed a challenge to Umayyad (i.e. Córdoba’s) influence in the Maghreb (North West Africa). In reply, Abd al-Rahman strengthened his navy, and set up or reinforced naval bases along the Mediterranean coast of al-Andalus. He also established outposts in the Maghreb and cultivated friendship with the Berber tribes of the region. The Fatimid threat remained until they transferred their capital to Egypt, and founded Cairo in 969/70. Quite possibly in response to the Fatimid challenge, Abd al-Rahman III declared himself “Caliph,” i.e. successor to Muhammad, in 929, a move that confirmed at the same time what had been the de facto independence of Córdoba from the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad for almost 200 years.
At the same time that he attended to the Fatimid challenge, Abd al-Rahman occupied himself with suppressing rebellion within al-Andalus. In the south, he inherited the insurgence of Ibn Hafsun, an apostate who rallied support from other dissidents and claimed control over a large area of western Andalusia from his mountain stronghold, Bobastro, deep in the Sierra de Ronda. Ibn Hafsun died undefeated in 917 and the revolt was continued by his sons until their defeat in 927. Abd al-Rahman got a measure of personal, if belated revenge, by having Ibn Hafsun’s remains exhumed and strung up in Córdoba between the bodies of his sons. The chronicler Ibn Hayyan (born in Córdoba in 978) later described the scene with some relish: “Al-Nasir (the throne name of Abd al-Rahman) ordered his vile corpse to be brought out of its burial place, and his filthy and impure limbs to be carried to … the Gate in Córdoba, and hung up there on the highest of tall stakes … between the stakes of his two sons who had been crucified there before him….” (Melville & Ubaydli 35).
The situation in the north was somewhat different in that Abd al-Rahman was faced both with continuing incursions by various Christian kingdoms and with dubious loyalty from Muslim governors along the border. A policy of raids (razzias) against Christians sometimes found Abd al-Rahman facing rebel Muslims who had allied themselves with his enemies, e.g. the joint forces of the kingdoms of León and Navarra in the battle of Simancas in 939 (in which Abd al-Rahman not only suffered a heavy defeat but also lost a precious copy of the Qur’an belonging to him; it was also the last battle that he personally headed).
Nevertheless, the defeat at Simancas was a temporary setback, and raids into Christian lands continued, but now headed by his generals. Expeditions of this kind were not unusual under his predecessors, but under Abd al-Rahman they acquired greater significance since by the 10th century the Christians had made considerable territorial gains, especially towards the west where they had repopulated a large part of the Duero valley. And yet the Moorish raids were just that, raids rather than attempts at conquest. Religion was not a major factor in these razzias, although there were indications of religious overtones in, e. g., the comments of Abd al-Rahman’s historian that his lord was a “warrior in a holy cause” (Fletcher 58), or in the common perception in the Muslim world that Spain was “the land of the jihad” (Fletcher 61).
The Muslim raids served several functions, not the least of which were the rewards of plunder, by means of which state treasury could be replenished. In addition, the ransom of captives was always a lucrative business, and northern women were highly prized for the harems. The raids could also serve to punish Christian leaders (e.g. García, King of Navarre) for breaking agreements, at the same time that they provided military experience for Berbers and other newcomers to the army (e.g. mercenaries, volunteers, slaves). Finally, the regular appearance of loyal soldiers crossing border areas was a salutary reminder of Abd al-Rahman’s presence and power, and provided a useful check on the activities of ambitious local governors.
Collins, Roger Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity Basingstone, Hampshire 2nd ed 1995
Constable, Olivia R Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources Philadelphia 1997
Fletcher, Richard Moorish Spain London 1992 (paperback 1994)
Gilmour, David Cities of Spain London 1992
Lomax, Derek The Reconquest of Spain London 1978
Melville, Charles & Ubaydli, Ahmad Christians and Moors in Spain, Vol. III Arabic Sources Warminster, England 1992