Christians in early Muslim Spain

One of the big questions people ask about the medieval years when Islam was ascendant is, “Is it true that they were much more tolerant of Christians and Jews? Was it a “golden age” of co-existence?”

Part of the answer to this question lies in the way Abd al-Rahman I chose to structure Andalusia. Before his arrival at the head of a Berber army, Muslim Spain was governed on the same principles as anywhere: Arabs were at the top of the social pyramid, and anyone similar to Arabs came next. Arabs were the biggest threat to every sitting government and had to be pacified. One of the cheapest ways to pacify even unsuccessful Arabs (or Yemenis, or Muslim Syrians) was to make sure they felt better than their non-Muslim neighbors. “Unfunded mandates” that restricted what Christians and Jews could do, build, wear and buy were the easiest way to make sure Arabs always felt superior.

But Abd al-Rahman changed that dynamic. He came into a territory that was seething with potential revolts; each city governor was setting up on his own and striking deals with Christian neighbors. He moved quickly to replace as many governors as possible with his own surviving relatives. It was soon apparent to him that the baseline cause of division was that units of the Muslim army were loyal to their own tribes: Yemenis, Berbers, Syrians, Arabs, Persians and many others. Pacifying them was impossible and wearying. So he raised his own standing army out of tax receipts. They were all imported from Yugoslavia or black Africa. Captured as young men and trained rigorously as fighting units, they were loyal only to him. They successfully put down an Abbasid-inspired rebellion in a major battle, and from then, al-Rahman’s power grew more secure.

During his reign, the old regional nobles lost much power and some of them went home. Many Berbers disliked farming and also went home. Additionally, Abd al-Rahman only permitted one school of thought on Islamic law to become established. Andalusia was the only Muslim territory that was not torn by sectarian strife.

Some Christian Visigoths had converted to Islam immediately and had now spent several generations working their way into government. The majority of the farmers and townsfolk were still Christians, and with more of the foreign invaders drifting back to their homelands, land again opened up to the native Christian farmers. While the dhimmi laws remained on the books, they don’t appear to have been enforced as much as in other places. The jizya non-Muslim tax had to be paid, but churches were not forced into dilapidation and Christians often served in the Emir’s army. Abd al-Rahman and his descendants were simply pragmatic, not dogmatic. They wanted maximum tax revenues. Cooperation clearly worked better.

It’s during this time that the term “Mozarab” described Christians who dressed and talked like Muslims but worshiped in churches. There were many mixed marriages and children grew up exposed to both religions, as well as to Latin-Spanish and Arabic in a bilingual way. Christians and Jews wrote Arabic poetry and scientific treatises. The general movement was toward Muslim conversion; to most people in all times, religion is not about personal belief as much as about group identity. It was easy to convert during this easygoing time, and for those who didn’t convert, the Christian and Jewish hierarchy tried to support the al-Rahman dynasty’s policies.

Several generations after Abd al-Rahman I, the first major Christian revolt occurred. It may have been spurred by seeing more and more of their children growing up Muslim. It was a civil disobedience movement: walk into public and denounce Mohammed. Capital punishment was the official law, but at first the Qadi (Islamic judge) was reluctant to impose it; that’s not really what Andalusia was all about. Then martyr after martyr was beheaded, his body disgustingly displayed for birds to pick at. First it was a few men, then some women, then more men and more women. We don’t know the total; it was more than ten but probably less than fifty. It was enough to keep the city in an uproar during the 850s. Full Christian rebellion seemed possible; identity became a sharper-focused issue with corpses on display.

The Islamic judges refused to change the law of death for blasphemy. The government began to enforce the dhimmi laws more harshly. Christians serving in the army were fired; so were Christian officials. Churches couldn’t be remodeled or rebuilt. Christian businesses began to fail. There was widespread concern that the whole arrangement might fall apart. The official Church condemned deliberate martyrdom, both by turning suspected leaders in and by an official ruling.

Things were never quite the same after that. Andalusia continued to be a place where dhimmis did not need to be sacrificed to pacify Yemeni pride. It was still probably a much better place to be a religious dissenter than anywhere else. But Christians were never again trusted in the same naive way. During the rest of the (over 200) Umayyad years, it was a bit harder to be a Christian. Jews had not participated in the martyrdom movement and did not lose status as much. While nominal Christians continued to convert to Islam in each younger generation, a hardened core of the Church began to dream of someday not being ruled by foreigners, and the seeds of the eventual Reconquista were planted.



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