Al-Andalus. Dhimmis.

Al-Andalus: Dhimmis.

In the 8th century, Christian Hispania underwent a radical change with the demise of  Visigothic rule. A new religion, Islam, accompanied by new languages (Arabic, and Berber dialects) and different cultures (e.g. different foods, clothes, buildings), implanted itself on an already rich and varied soil. The combination produced a complex social mix as different groups intermingled, intermarried, were assimilated or resisted assimilation.

The new arrivals, made up primarily of Berber soldiers under their Arab leaders, constituted a small minority of the whole population of the peninsula. The land they occupied they called al-Andalus, a geographical area that covered almost all the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century but which by the mid-13th century had been whittled back to a slice along the south coast.

The early years of occupation were politically unstable with internal rivalries among the Moors (the name generally applied to the newcomers, irrespective of ethnic origin), and a large majority of Christians and smaller Jewish communities adjusting themselves to their presence.

One adjustment both communities were spared: changing their religion. Both Christians and Jews could convert, if they wished, but the victorious Muslims did not force either group to do so since according to Islamic law they were dhimmis, i.e. they enjoyed protection because they were Ahl al-Kitab, “Peoples of the Book” whose faith was founded on revelation. (The “Book” was the Bible, a partial and incomplete revelation of God’s word, which was fully disclosed in the Qur’an.) 

This protection afforded to Christians and Jews was a religious obligation founded on sharia, or traditional Islamic law, and not subject to the whims of politics, at least in theory.

Although protected, the dhimmis were nevertheless the lowest on the Andalusi hierarchical totem pole, which was headed by Arabs, followed by Berbers and Muwallads (Christian converts to Islam). In other words, they were second class citizens, although some individuals did enjoy social and even political success (see below).

Christians and Jews were free to follow their own traditions and laws in religion and related matters such as marriage and divorce.  But they were prohibited from building new churches or synagogues (or repairing those already built), and public displays of faith –such as processions or bell ringing— proselytising, insulting Muhammad or openly refuting Islam were not allowed. And any disagreements between dhimmis and Muslims would be settled according to Islamic laws.

Many of these restrictions were evidently not strictly imposed. In the 9th century, for example, the writings of an eminent Christian cleric, Eulogius, refer to some churches built in and around Córdoba after the Muslim conquest.  He also alludes to the curses of Muslims living near churches in reaction to the ringing of bells.

Neither Christian nor Jewish males could marry Muslim women, to avoid the probable conversion of the wife to her husband’s faith (children would also follow their father’s religion). Nor were Christians and Jews permitted to own Muslim slaves or exercise authority over Muslims. 

Nevertheless, forbidding authority over Muslims does not appear to have been uniformly imposed, since there are documented instances of Christians and especially Jews occupying positions of substantial influence and power in the Umayyad and Taifa** courts as secretaries, translators, emissaries, doctors, tax collectors  etc., e.g. the Christian bishop, Recesmund, or the Jew, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, both of whom exercised many offices for Abd al-Rahman III in the 10th century.

** The Umayyads were a dynasty that ruled
al-Andalus from Córdoba from 756-1031. The
taifas (1030s to 1086) were small states which
sprang up after the fall of Córdoba in 1031.

Amongst the many Jewish dhimmis who rose to prominence in the  taifa kingdoms, the most notable is Samuel ibn Naghrila (or Nagrela, 993-1055). Born in Córdoba, he fled to Granada in 1013, just as the caliphate of Córdoba was imploding. 

A consummate politician, scholar and poet, Naghrila navigated his way to power during the turbulent years when Granada became an independent taifa.  From 1038 –the year that the taifa of Granada was consolidated– until 1056 –the year of his death–Naghrila was the de facto chief minister of the kingdom.  He was also an accomplished soldier, even commanding the Muslim army of Granada into battle.

His son, Joseph, inherited his father’s position but both, in a quick turn of fortune, died violently in a pogrom in which some 4,000 (the number varies) Jews perished. The reason?  The Jews had acquired too much influence and power over Muslims, contrary to Islamic law. Previous attacks on Jewish quarters (juderias) took place in Córdoba in 1013 and in Zaragoza in 1039.   These are telling examples of the volatile situation of the dhimmis, and a reminder of their inferiority and dependence on Muslim tolerance for their welfare.

Muslim tolerance of Christian and Jews was not simply a matter of recognising the relationship of Christianity and Judaism to Islam, it also obeyed practical considerations.

Non-Muslims living in Islamic lands were subject to certain taxes, e.g the kharaj (basically permission to cultivate their lands) and the jizya (a poll tax); these provided the state with an important source of revenues. For the dhimmis, on the other hand, freedom from such taxes would be an incentive to adopt the new faith. 

Christian converts to Islam (i.e. the Muwallads) included prominent nobles, whose family members, dependents, slaves etc. also followed suit.  In addition, other factors such as job opportunities, especially within governmental bureaucracy, helped to favour conversion to Islam.

This applied primarily to the cities or larger towns where most of the important decisions were made. By virtue of isolation, rural areas contained a substantial number of Christians, even a majority according to the observation made by the Arab geographer, Ibn Hawqal, on a visit to al-Andalus in 948.

Although demographic statistics for early times are notoriously unreliable and numbers vary widely, it appears that the percentage of Christian dhimmis living in al-Andalus was still fairly high as late as the 11th century, as much perhaps as 20%. The percentage of dhimmis was reduced radically during the rule of the fundamentalist Almoravids (1086-1145) and the even more zealous Almohads (1146-1212). Persecution, especially by the Almohads, resulted in a mass exodus of dhimmis to Christian lands, many of whom settled in Toledo.


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Collins, Roger Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity 400-1000 Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd. ed. 1995
Dodds, Jerrilyn et al The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture  New Haven, London 2008
Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain  London 1994
Lowney, Chris  A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain Oxford 2005