Al-Andalus. Mozarabs.

Al-Andalus. Mozárabes.

711 was a key year in Spanish history. It was the year when Muslim (or Moorish) forces crossed the straits of Gibraltar, defeated a Visigothic army somewhere west of Gibraltar, and moved quickly northwards. 

Within a few years they had conquered almost all of the Iberian Peninsula, and Christian Visigothic Hispania was transformed into Muslim al-Andalus (as the Muslims called the land they occupied).  Politically, the transformation was done rapidly, but the change from Christianity to Islam –the new religion that accompanied the Moors— and the social changes that followed took longer.

The newcomers did not impose their religious beliefs on the Hispano-Visigothic Christians and did not insist on conversion (those who did convert were known as Muwallads, literally “those born of two races”).  Those Christians who did not flee to the mountainous north but signed agreements with the Moors were allowed to keep their property and retain their faith.

Still, these agreements did not come without cost: the Christians were required to pay certain taxes and to recognise the superiority of Islam as the last and final revelation from God. Together with the Jews –who were long established in the peninsula– these remaining Christians communities in al-Andalus were granted the status of dhimmis, because both Christianity and Judaism shared with Islam a common bond as descendants of Abraham. As dhimmis, both Christian and Jews enjoyed largely he same rights; the following paragraphs, however, are restricted to the Christians of al-Andalus.

Mozárabes: Who were they?
The most common word used nowadays to describe the Christians of al-Andalus is “Mozárabes” or anglicised as “Mozarabs,” from the Arabic musta’rib, meaning “Arabised,” i.e. Christians who took on the external trappings of Muslims, adopting Muslim clothes, eating the same diet and even speaking Arabic.

Sometimes they are referred to as Andalusi Christians or, within a clear Andalusi context, simply Christians. This seems straightforward enough, but where the word “Mozarab** is concerned, it has become a controversial term, the reasons for which can be found in another page.

**“Mozarab” generally refers to the Christians of al-Andalus, but its meaning might also extend to those Christians who fled from al-Andalus between the 9th and 12th centuries to the  Christian kingdoms of the north, carrying with them their Hispano-Visigothic rites.
Jews who retained their religion in al-Andalus are normally called Jews.  The Jews had suffered under the Visigoths, especially in the 7th century, and were receptive to the arrival of the Muslims, and in all likelihood helped administer many of the towns conquered by the newcomers. Their number even increased following the conquest, with many returning from exile and others attracted by the possibility of establishing trading contacts with fellow Jews along the Mediterranean.

Most discussions about the Mozarabs centre on Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus from 711 to 1031  In 1031 Córdoba’s control collapsed and al-Andalus fragmented into a number of independent mini states or kingdoms called taifas

Of these taifa kingdoms, that of Toledo figures most prominently following the fall of Córdoba.  But we should keep in mind that there were many other prominent cities and their surrounding countryside with Christian communities within al-Andalus, e.g. Zaragoza, Badajoz, Mérida, Córdoba, Valencia, SevilleGranada**, but they scarcely appear in the history of the Mozarabs up to 1031.

**The conquest of these cities by Christian forces gives some idea of the time line for the contraction of al-Andalus: Toledo (1085), Zaragoza (1118), Badajoz (1230), Mérida (1230), Córdoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Seville (1248) and finally Granada (1492).
It should be noted that when the taifa of Granada became the last remnant of al-Andalus (between ca 1250 and 1492), it evolved into a more steadfastly Islamic state with scarcely any Christian presence other than prisoners, slaves, merchants or disaffected Christian nobles seeking support from Granada.

Two quotes from a recent scholarly work by Ann Christys on Christian communities in al-Andalus from 711 to 1000 give an idea of how dominant Córdoba was during the Umayyad period (756-1031): The history of al-Andalus to the fall of the Umayyads is to a large extent the history of Córdoba (Christys 14); … other cities were rarely mentioned in the Arabic sources, and their history in the early Islamic period remains obscure (Christys 17).

Indeed, Badajoz, Zaragoza, Valencia and Seville are not mentioned at all in Christys’s book. And what we do learn about these cities tends to deal with events in the 11th and 12th centuries, when first they became capitals of their respective taifa kingdoms, and later fell under the control of two fundamentalist groups from the Maghreb, the Almoravids (from 1086 to 1146) and Almohads (1146 to 1212).

Mozarabs: Life in al-Andalus.
Christians who had negotiated peace with their Moorish conquerors were allowed to keep their property, and were free to follow their own traditions and laws in religion and related matters such as marriage and divorce.  They had their own municipal organisations, their own bishops, and judges who administered justice following the Visigothic code of laws (Liber Iudicorum: Fuero juzgo). However, any disagreements between Mozarabs and Muslims were settled according to Islamic laws.

Christians 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.

Nevertheless, 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 several monasteries built in the vicinity of Córdoba after the Muslim conquest.  He also alludes to the curses of Muslims living near churches in reaction to the ringing of bells.

Christians could be punished for attempting to convert Muslims to their faith, and could not dissuade fellow Christians from converting to Islam.

Christian males could not marry Muslim women, to avoid any chance of the wife converting to her husband’s faith (children would also then be likely to follow their father’s religion). Nor were Christians permitted to own Muslim slaves or exercise authority over Muslims.

Still, forbidding authority over Muslims does not appear to have been uniformly imposed, since there are documented instances of Mozarabs occupying power in Muslim courts as secretaries, translators, emissaries, doctors, tax collectors  etc., (e.g. the Christian bishop, Recesmund, who exercised many offices for Abd al-Rahman III in the 10th century). And Christians could, and did, enlist in Moorish armies, even serving as personal guards to the rulers.

With time, many Mozarabs adopted the external trappings of Muslims, donning Muslim clothes, eating the same diet and even speaking Arabic. Some also underwent voluntary circumcision. Many used Arab names besides their Hispanic ones, especially if their work brought them into close contact with Muslims.  The Christian bishop, Recesmund (above) was also known as Rabi ibn Said; another bishop, Johannes of Toledo, took on the name Ubayd-Allah ibn Qasim.

Both Mozarabs and Muslims frequently celebrated their respective holidays together, to the point that conservatives from each religion railed against the dangers of “contamination” inherent in such practices.  Mozarabs were also known to attend the hammams (public baths) together with Muslims, a practice that provoked criticism on both sides.   Nevertheless, the baths were enjoyed by both men and women, at different times of the day, for relaxation as well as useful meeting spots.

Although Christian houses should be modest compared to those of Muslims, many had flowered gardens, and inside, abundant tapestries, sofas, curtains and cushions in imitation of their Moorish neighbours.  Similarly, clothes worn by Mozarabs should not outshine those of Muslims, but in practice such impositions were not enforced, especially during the Umayyad period.

Insofar as food is concerned, Christians in al-Andalus shared the benefits of fruits, vegetables, spices introduced by the Muslims, and consequently enjoyed a much better diet than their coreligionists in the Christian kingdoms of north.

The array of new goods was remarkable: fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes, watermelons, figs, pomegranates, almonds, bananas, mangos, apricots, grapefruit; vegetables: artichokes, eggplants/aubergines, spinach, carrot, parsnip;  spices: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, caraway, coriander.

Despite the tolerance practiced by the Moors, life for the Mozarabs was not uniformly tranquil.  True, they enjoyed privileges and some individuals enjoyed social and even political success, but they were all essentially second class citizens.  Their well-being depended on their overlords, on the degree of accommodation they reached with the Muslims, and on external forces beyond their control (e.g. Christian expansionism, or the Crusades –beginning in 1096–, provoked a more intolerant attitude amongst many Muslims).

We have to recognise that at the same time that Christians and Muslims intermingled, lived side by side, traded with each other, there was also plenty of tension. Even within the Mozarabic community itself, there was strained relationship between those who fiercely resisted Arabisation and those who adopted Muslim practices.

The period of greatest tolerance enjoyed by the Mozarabs was under Umayyad rule (756-1031), but even then thousands –headed by monks, priests and devout followers– fled to the Christian kingdoms of the north, feeling their Hispano-Visigothic heritage and religion threatened by acculturation or assimilation.

The situation became more uncertain under the taifa rulers (1031 to ca. 1086).  This was a time when the Christian kingdoms effectively controlled the fate of the taifas, extracting tributes and nibbling away at Andalusi territory. 

The arrival of the fundamentalist Almoravids (1085 to 1146) and the even more zealous Almohades (1146 to 1212) signalled increased repression and discrimination. Mozarabic communities were depleted, many Christians being forcibly exiled to the Maghreb (Morocco), others fleeing to their Christian neighbours, Castile and Aragón.

The story of the Mozarabs doesn’t end with the demise of Muslim Spain. Following the conquest of Granada (the last remnant of al-Andalus) in 1492, the Mozarabs were celebrated in the 16th century for keeping alive their Christian Visigothic heritage. 

In 1500 the pious, anti-Muslim Cardinal Cisneros published a Mozarabic missal and in 1502 a Mozarabic breviary, both of which reaffirmed the continuity of the pre-Islamic church rite practiced by the Visigoths. Cisneros also inaugurated the construction in 1504 of a Mozarabic chapel in the Cathedral of Toledo to ensure the continuity of the Visigothic rite (now known as the Mozarabic rite).

The rite is still practiced nowadays (Google “Mozarabic rite” for a brief Youtube taste), and there exists a Mozarabic Association in Toledo: the Ilustre Comunidad Mozarabe de Toledo.  For Spanish speakers/ readers, there is a very interesting historical blog:

Carr, Matthew Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain New York, London 2009
Christys, Ann  Christians in al-Andalus (711-1000) Richmond, Surrey 2002
Dodds, Jerrilynn, Menocal, Maria Rosa, Balbale, Abigail K  The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture  New Haven, London 2008
Hitchcock, Richard  Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Identities and InfluencesAldershot, Hampshire 2008
Lowney,  Chris A Vanished World: Muslims,  Christians and Jews in Medieval Spain Oxford 2006
Rincón Alvarez, Manuel  Mozárabes y mozarabías  Salamanca 2003