Kingdoms of Faith

A New History of Islamic Spain


By Brian A. Catlos

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A magisterial, myth-dispelling history of Islamic Spain spanning the millennium between the founding of Islam in the seventh century and the final expulsion of Spain’s Muslims in the seventeenth

In Kingdoms of Faith, award-winning historian Brian A. Catlos rewrites the history of Islamic Spain from the ground up, evoking the cultural splendor of al-Andalus, while offering an authoritative new interpretation of the forces that shaped it.

Prior accounts have portrayed Islamic Spain as a paradise of enlightened tolerance or the site where civilizations clashed. Catlos taps a wide array of primary sources to paint a more complex portrait, showing how Muslims, Christians, and Jews together built a sophisticated civilization that transformed the Western world, even as they waged relentless war against each other and their coreligionists. Religion was often the language of conflict, but seldom its cause — a lesson we would do well to learn in our own time.



Readers will have to contend with many strange and foreign-sounding names in this book. Arabic (and Hebrew) names consist of several elements, normally a first name and a series of patronymics (e.g., ibn for “son of” or bint for “daughter of,” in Arabic), as well as titles, honorifics, and other components relating to place of origin or residence, profession, clan, tribe, or accomplishment. A given individual might be referred to by any of these. For example, the caliph ‘Abd al-Rahman III was ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Nasir li-Din Allah. He is typically referred to as “‘Abd al-Rahman” or “al-Nasir” (but never “‘Abd” or “Rahman”). The “III” is a modern addition; rulers were not typically referred to numerically in this era. The patronymic can function like a surname, particularly if it relates to an ancestor regarded as illustrious or the founder of the family. For example, ‘Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Sa’id ibn Hazm is usually referred to as “Ibn Hazm.” His larger family might be known as the “Banu Hazm” (the sons, descendants, or clan of Hazm).

Latin Christian names can also be confusing, if only because of the propensity for certain ones to become popular at certain times, making for proliferations of Alfonsos, Pedros, and Sanchos that can drive even a seasoned medievalist to distraction. To alleviate some of the potential frustration, I have usually used the form of each name that corresponds to the individual’s region of origin or identification. Hence, an Alfonso from Castile or León is “Alfonso,” from Portugal, “Afonso,” and from Catalonia, “Alfons.” The names of the Arista family are given in Basque; as per convention, Castilian versions are used for their successors as rulers of Pamplona and Navarre. Exceptions are made for the names of popes, for individuals who have standard names in English, and for some minor characters. Thus, you will encounter Count Julian, Charlemagne, Pope Innocent III, Thomas Aquinas, and the emperor Charles V.

In order to help keep track of the myriad individuals, groups, and non-English terms, a table of Umayyad caliphs and a table of Nasrid sultans are provided at the end of the book, together with a glossary that lists the main dynasties, clans, and ethnic groups, as well as other foreign vocabulary.

A SIMPLIFIED FORM of Arabic transliteration has been used. Special characters have been avoided, and both hamza and ‘ayn are represented by a single quotation mark. The suffix -un or -in is a frequent plural form, while the suffix -i can turn a noun into an adjective (e.g., the Shi’a faith versus a Shi’i imam).

REGARDING PLACE-NAMES, the general rule I have followed is to refer to places by the name used by their modern inhabitants. So, you will read of Córdoba, Zaragoza (as opposed to Saragossa), and Lleida (as opposed to Lérida). Exceptions are made for some places that have a standard name in English, such as Seville (Sevilla), Fez (Fas), or Mecca (Makka). The Arabic names of places in al-Andalus are provided in parentheses, normally the first time they appear in the text.

ALL DATES IN the text are provided in the calendar of the “Common Era” (BCE/CE), an adaptation of the Christian Gregorian calendar (BC/AD) that superseded the Julian calendar in 1582. It is based on a solar year of 365.25 days that begins on January 1 and is counted from the notional birth year of Jesus (now reckoned at 4 BCE). In the Visigothic calendar, years were counted from 38 BCE, the beginning of formal Roman dominion over Hispania. Known as the “Spanish era,” this was phased out between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries in favor of the Julian calendar, which reckoned from the time of Christ (AD or Anno Domini, “in the year of Our Lord”). In early Catalonia, dates sometimes used the old Roman reckoning of the indiction, or the regnal years, of Holy Roman Emperors. Using the Julian system, the new year was often counted from March 25, the presumed date of Jesus’s conception, until January 1 eventually returned as the standard.

The hijri, or Islamic calendar AH, has a year of twelve lunar months counted from July 16, 622 CE, which is the date associated with Muhammad’s departure for Medina (the hijra) and is held to mark the foundation of the Muslim umma. Because the hijri year is shorter than the solar year, they do not exactly coincide. Therefore, unless a definite, single date is referred to, one hijri year is usually indicated as spanning two Common Era years; for example, 720 AH is 1320/21 CE. It was not uncommon for Muslims in formerly Christian-ruled lands to also use the Christian calendar, particularly in contexts relating to agriculture, given that it consistently corresponded to the seasons.


The front line of a “clash of civilizations”; a foreign incursion on European soil; the theater of Reconquista, crusade, and Holy War; or a land of multireligious tolerance and convivencia—the history of Islamic Spain has been recounted many times, in many ways. Typically, the narrative begins with the arrival of the commander Tariq ibn Ziyad on the shores of Christian Spain in the year 711 and his dramatic defeat of its Visigothic rulers. Under the rule of Arab Umayyads, al-Andalus—Islamic Spain—blossoms. In this period Muslims, Christians, and Jews live here in concord, turning al-Andalus into a cosmopolitan Arabo-Islamic society, and making Córdoba, “the ornament of the world,” a magnet for scholars and scientists and a model of cosmopolitan enlightenment. Shortly after 1000, the empire collapses, and al-Andalus is fought over by crusading Christians seeking to “reconquer” Spain and by puritanical Berbers who persecute Christians and Jews. As the Christians triumph, the Muslims are corralled in the kingdom of Granada, the final enclave of Islam in Spain. This endures until 1492, when the “Catholic Kings,” Fernando and Isabel, conquer it, sending its defeated king, Boabdil, into exile, bringing to a close the history of al-Andalus and ushering in an age of intolerant oppression.

What almost all these histories share is the presumption that religion was at the heart of this history—that the Muslim and Christian principalities engaged in a contest defined by their religious identity and ideology. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are seen as protagonists in an operatic history, battling it out on the stage of the centuries. Reinforcing their supposed civilizational differences, Christians and Jews are presented as “Europeans” and Muslims as foreign “Moors.” It is a perspective that invites nostalgia and moralizing, and it is appealing precisely because of its melodramatic oversimplifications.

But as history, it has serious limitations. First, the roots of Islamic Spain must be sought not in 711, or even 622, when Muhammad struck out from Mecca, but in the broader world of the Mediterranean of Late Antiquity, of crumbling empires and encroaching “barbarians.” This was an era when Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, each diverse and divided, were only beginning the gradual processes of self-definition, processes in which they remained very much entwined. Nor can the end of Islamic Spain be pegged to January 1, 1492, when Boabdil handed over the keys of the Alhambra to Fernando and Isabel. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims remained in Spain until 1614, suffering discrimination, forced conversion, and eventually, expulsion. As for the Muslim conquest of al-Andalus, it was not part of a deliberate campaign of world domination and holy war. Its causes were complex and spontaneous, and it was driven as much by opportunity as by ideology. Likewise, the ideas of reconquest and crusade were later developments and invoked only occasionally when it suited the agendas of Christian powers. The era from 711 to 1492 was not a time of unremitting religious conflict; the Muslims and Christians of the peninsula spent more time at peace than at war and as much time fighting among themselves as against each other. Christian rulers did not typically expel the Muslims from the lands they conquered but tried to entice them to remain. And for the most part they did, choosing to live in their ancestral lands as subjects of infidel kings.

As for the Moors: the word refers to the inhabitants of Mauritania, the old Roman name for the area the Arabs would call al-Maghrib (“the West”), and which includes most of what is now Morocco and Algeria. People of this region were called Mauri by early Latin chroniclers, and this word emerged in the Spanish vernacular as moro. Eventually, moro simply came to mean “Muslim” in Castilian Spanish, although in English the word took on the additional, racialized baggage of the Elizabethan-era “Blackamoor”—the dark-skinned, African outlaw. The problem with using “Moor” or “Moorish” to refer to Muslims of medieval Spain is that it implies they were foreigners and ethnically distinct from the native population. In fact, relatively few foreign Muslims came to the Iberian Peninsula. Al-Andalus became Islamic through conversion, and the overwhelming majority were of indigenous descent—they were no more foreign and no less European than the Christians of Spain.

Of course, “Spain” itself is a misnomer when applied to the medieval period. The nation of Spain and its culture of today are modern, not medieval, phenomena. If the unity Spanish national culture presumes is ephemeral even today, in the Middle Ages it simply did not exist. For this period, it is better to say “Spains” when referring to Christian-ruled principalities. When “Spain” is used in this book it refers simply to the Iberian Peninsula—what the Visigoths and their Roman predecessors called Hispania, and what the Arabs called al-Andalus (probably a corruption of the Visigothic landahlauts, or “inherited estate”). In other words, the very use of the term “Moorish Spain”—an anachronistic Anglo-American invention—invites a racialized, romanticized, Orientalized, and inaccurate view of the history of al-Andalus and of Islam on the peninsula, one that has fed misconceptions and nurtured misrepresentations of this chapter of European history. The concept of “Europe” is equally thorny. It too is a modern concept. Like Muslims, who defined their larger sphere as the dar al-Islam (“the realm of Islam”), European Christians thought of themselves as living in “Christendom,” not “Europe,” and certainly not as “Europeans.”

Sorting fact from tendentious myths and conjecture is crucial, for Islamic Spain not only is an important element in the history of the Mediterranean world, of Europe, of Islam, and of the West, but also remains of great significance today. Many politicians and public figures—and not a few scholars—continue to view the history of the West as one of a conflict between two fundamentally incompatible civilizations: a Christian (or, very recently, Judeo-Christian) one, and an Islamic one. This view exercises tremendous appeal because of both its simplicity and its self-validating quality, and it is often invoked by pundits and demagogues of all stripes as a justification for aggression and repression. For others, al-Andalus presents an idealized vision of premodern enlightenment that we in today’s supposedly less tolerant world should emulate. But this too is a mirage. In Spain itself, right-wing politicians continue to draw on the ethos of La Reconquista—a potent national myth that conveniently justifies the domination of Castile over the other regions of the peninsula, even as tourist boards promote a sanitized vision of Spain as “the land of the three religions” and of Christian-Muslim-Jewish harmony.

There are good reasons for emphasizing the importance of religious identity in this history, starting with the rather obvious fact that we refer to Islamic Spain as “Islamic Spain.” Religious identity was, in many circumstances, the most important way in which people conceived of themselves. It dictated which legal regime they came under and—in theory—whom they could marry or have sex with, the professions they could practice, their social and economic status, what taxes they owed, what clothes they could wear, the foods they could eat, and all sorts of other details of daily life. There are many historical sources, both Christian and Muslim, that present this history as one of religiously fueled conflict, beginning with the earliest Latin and Arabic accounts of the conquest and continuing through the emergence of the tradition of Saint James “the Muslim Killer” (Santiago Matamoros), the Reconquista, the legend of the Cid, and the appeal to jihad by various Muslim rulers. Many of the wars were consecrated as Crusades by the papacy, and a half-dozen military orders, dedicated in principle to fighting the infidel, were founded here. Ordinary Muslims might serve as mujahidun, stationed in fortress-monasteries that dotted the frontier zone, whereas in Christian Spain, raiding became so much a way of life that historians have characterized it as a “society organized for war.”

That said, people are far too complex to be reduced to living caricatures of their religious ideologies. Religious identity was only one means by which individuals imagined their place in the world. They saw themselves also as members of ethnic groups, subjects of kingdoms, inhabitants of towns and neighborhoods, members of professions and collectives, seekers of knowledge, customers and clients, men and women, lovers and friends. And more often than not, these bonds of association bridged or overcame affinities individuals shared on account of religious orientation. Moreover, in a society divided formally by religion, one’s rivals and competitors, whether in personal, political, or financial matters, were typically members of the same faith community; consequently, one’s natural allies were often members of other groups. Conflict was waged more within these faith communities than between them. Thus, this is also a history rife with episodes of cross-religious and cross-ethnic solidarity; of alliances and friendships, whether of kings or commoners, that were forged between the faiths; and of collaborations carried out among poets, musicians, artists, scholars, scientists, and theologians of different religions.

However, these cross-religious relationships rarely make it into the historical narrative. Part of the problem is the nature of our sources. Most of our written evidence was produced by rulers, bureaucrats, and men of religion—wealthy, privileged males, who were themselves extraordinarily invested in the notion that religious identity was the foundation of society, and who also had vested political and personal interests in portraying history as a moral struggle between the followers of the true religion (that is, their own) and everyone else. In formal terms, the authority of rulers rested on their ability to present themselves as the legitimate upholders of the divine order, and so they tended to express their agendas in the language of faith. In an era in which people generally attributed the workings of the world to the will of God, historical events were often explained in religious terms, as God’s reward or punishment.

At the same time, the chronicles and histories that historians use as their data, and that constitute much of our surviving evidence, were written or compiled many years, often centuries, after the events they describe. As a result, they are distorted by hindsight, as well as by the prejudices, ideals, agendas, memories, aspirations, and convictions of their authors. Moreover, histories were not written as education or entertainment; they were political documents, intended to support the claims of the rulers, families, or individuals by glorifying the memory of their predecessors and establishing historical precedents for their policies. Exaggeration, distortion, and invention were deployed both consciously and unconsciously by medieval writers as they set out to describe the past to justify the present.

One of the jobs of the historian, then, is to assess the biases and inaccuracies built into these sources and to attempt to uncover the reality behind the proclamations, myths, legends, errors of fact, contradictions, and carefully crafted historical fictions that make up the record. The goal is to determine what really made people tick and what forces truly shaped events—even when the details can never be definitively established. The historian should not assess guilt, apportion blame or virtue, or moralize; the aim is merely to understand. Thus, no book can claim in good faith to be the “definitive,” “true,” or “real” history of Islamic Spain; there are simply too many factors to account for and too many uncertainties clouding the past. As enlightened and self-critical as we may be, historians today are not that much less vulnerable than our medieval counterparts to bias and presumption. Whether we realize it or not, we tend to write histories that reflect and reinforce our own ideals or play to those whom we see as our constituencies.

As for the present book, it represents a “new history” of Islamic Spain in two senses. First, rather than following the well-worn storyline of the rise and fall of al-Andalus, I have set out to build a fresh narrative from the ground up and have tried, as much as the economics of publication has permitted, to get behind the scenes and examine dynamics that are often obscured but are crucial in the formation of history: the stories of women, slaves, renegades, and functionaries. Second, I have based this study largely on the tremendous amount of innovative scholarship that has been carried out in recent years, particularly by scholars from Spain, North Africa, and Europe. Our understanding of al-Andalus has been transformed by new studies of texts, archaeology, and art history, but much of this has not yet reached English-speaking readers.

And finally, there is the question of faith. Both the Muslim and Christian principalities of the medieval Spains were consciously defined by their religious orientation, and for their constituents, religious community was the primary pole around which they constructed their social identity. But it was not the only one. And for much of this history, most of the rulers—and most of their subjects—often behaved in ways that defied the mandates of their religious ideologies. So, just how faithful were they? The answer, of course, is that they were no more or less faithful or idealistic than we are. They were people burdened by imperfections and plagued by self-contradiction, people capable of both great cruelty and tremendous generosity, of selfishness and of sacrifice, and of self-serving rationalization; ultimately, they were prisoners of their bodies, their ambitions, their vanities, and their appetites. In short, they were like us, and this is precisely what makes this history worth reading today.


The Beginning of Islam and the End of Antiquity

Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula of the early seventh century, a marginal and largely inhospitable desert region populated by tribes of nomadic herders and oasis dwellers. Yet the Arabs had long been a presence in the antique world of Rome and Persia. Traders and herders had journeyed north for centuries, settling in Syria and Mesopotamia on the margins of and within the Roman/Byzantine and Persian empires. Like other peripheral “barbarian” peoples, they were attracted to the wealth and culture of the great empires and were valued as warriors and traders. Both empires used Arab tribes as proxies in their struggle against each other, and Bedouin nomads had driven their herds throughout the Near East for centuries.

The traditional religion of the Arabs combined paganism and animism, but through contact with the imperial world, Christianity and Judaism penetrated the peninsula. Neighboring Axum, in Ethiopia, had been Christian since the fourth century; the Arab kings of Himyar, in Yemen, had converted to Judaism in the 400s; and some clans of the Arabian peninsula identified as either Christians or Jews. Within this environment, indigenous, monotheistic traditions began to develop, culminating in the emergence of Islam in the early 600s—a consequence of the divine revelations received by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, a merchant from Mecca. The hijra—Muhammad’s departure from Mecca, where he was persecuted and under threat by the city’s rulers, to Yathrib (or Medina) in June 622—marks the beginning of the Islamic era. In 629 he returned in triumph, purging the holy precinct, the Ka’aba, of its idols and accepting the conversion of the Quraysh, Mecca’s leading tribe (and his own).

Muhammad saw himself not as starting a new religion but as the last in the line of prophets who worshipped the one true God, beginning with Adam and continuing through Abraham and Jesus. This accounts in part for the ambivalent relationship Islam had with its sister religions from the outset. The fact that Christians and Jews did not recognize Muhammad as a prophet provoked frustration; nevertheless, both Christianity and Judaism were regarded by Muslims as legitimate, if mistaken, interpretations of the worship of the One God, the God of Abraham—whether called Yahweh, Kyrios, Deus, or Allah. Under Islamic rule, these non-Muslim communities lived as dhimmis (“protected peoples”), secure in their property and free to follow their laws and religion as long as they acknowledged the superior authority of the Muslims.

On a religious level, Islam strove for a return to a pure monotheism, stripped of unnecessary ritual, and to create a just and peaceful society that reflected the will of God as revealed in Arabic to Muhammad in the Qur’an. The guiding principle was surrender of one’s will to God; indeed, this is the meaning of “Islam.” It was to be a religion with no hierarchy, no clergy, and no monks, and in which members of the umma, or “people,” were each responsible for their own salvation. Its simplicity was summed up in the brevity of the shahada, or declaration of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” To create this just world, Islam focused on the regulations needed to create a stable community. This was crucial in a society that had no formal government and in which a culture of vengeance contributed to disorder and anarchy. At the same time, Islam emphasized personal morality and the rewards and punishments of the afterlife. Arabs were in the grips of the same millenarian impulses as contemporaneous Jews and Christians in the Mediterranean world; there was widespread conviction that the end of the world was imminent and that a new age of postapocalyptic justice was nigh—a sentiment the military successes of the early Muslims seemed to confirm.

Islam also developed as an ethnic movement. Despite its universal claims, Arabic was understood to be the language chosen by God, and Arabs had a sense of themselves as a sort of “chosen people.” Their folk beliefs, traditions, and mores strongly informed Islam in its earliest, formative period. Moreover, it was the warrior culture of the Bedouin that enabled Islam to pour forth from the peninsula and to quickly dominate the lands around it. Still, the Arabs were hardly a unified people; indeed, as is typical of nomads, individualism and independence were considered high virtues. The new Muslim society was meant to efface previous divisions of class, clan, and tribe, but instead the factionalism that characterized Arabic society, and even the family of the Prophet himself, came to be expressed in the language of religion.

Islam was thus at once a framework for unity and a platform for divisiveness and conflict. In contrast to Christianity, which developed as a secretive, persecuted cult, Islam was a social and political movement from the outset, and this shaped its internal development and its relations with other religions. The struggle to do good (jihad) could be expressed in improving both oneself and the larger world. The virtue of the warrior became a moral virtue, and in a self-justifying dynamic, the warfare meant to bring the world the opportunity to live under God’s rule also drove the conquests that enriched and empowered the Arab clans and positioned them as the new earthly elite.

Had Muhammad lived a century earlier or later, Islam might never have developed as it did, or perhaps at all. The early seventh century happened to be a pivotal point in the history of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. The Roman Empire, disintegrating from within and beset by barbarian attacks from without, had crumbled in the west. In the east, the efforts of emperors to force religious and political unity on their subjects had left many of the empire’s subjects embittered and resentful. In Persia, the unity of the empire was undermined by religious and class tensions, fueled by the resistance of provincial governors to the central authorities.

Arabia itself was in crisis. Popular satisfaction with the traditional animist and pagan religious traditions seems to have been slipping, and some tribes in the interior began to identify as Christian or Jewish. Thus, Muhammad’s message—as the last Prophet of the God of Abraham—was a potentially attractive and not unfamiliar claim. Islam’s emphasis on social justice also found a ready audience, as did its focus on the coming Day of Judgment. Crucially, once the rulers of the oases and the warriors of the nomadic tribes came to realize that Islam could empower and enrich them, they became enthusiastic adherents of the new faith. Thus, at the precise moment when Byzantium and Persia were most vulnerable, the Arabs were gaining strength. The centuries in which they had settled in and fought on behalf of the two empires laid the groundwork for their swift conquest of the Roman Near East and the whole Sassanian Empire. But this would not take place until after the death of Muhammad in 632.


  • "A brilliant narrative history of the rise and fall of Muslim Spain. This balanced, lucid, and myth-breaking account sheds light on a unique society that has too often been demonised, romanticised or simplified." —Matthew Carr, author of Blood and Faith: The Purging of MuslimSpain, 1492-1614
  • "Spirited, probing and original, this is a key history of Muslim Spain. Its unique perspective illuminates the vexed issue of religious, political and cultural interaction between Christians, Jews and Muslims, revealing its vital importance to the history of modern Europe."—Elizabeth Drayson, University of Cambridge, author of The Moor's Last Stand
  • "Mediterranean studies have been shaped in an informative and innovative way by Brian Catlos's contributions in the recent decades. His incursion now into the history of a specific region and polity--that of al-Andalus (Medieval Iberia under Muslim rule)--brings to the fore the same qualities that characterize his previous work: an inquisitive and incisive mind that homes in on perceptive questions, combined with the ability to recreate past events in an appealing manner for a wide audience."—Maribel Fierro, research professor at the Institute of Languages and Cultures of the Mediterranean, CSIC (Madrid)
  • "Kingdoms of Faith constitutes a fresh and original contribution to the history of al-Andalus, rooted in the author's profound knowledge of medieval Iberian history. Brian Catlos has managed to produce a very well-written and lively narrative that provides an up-to-date synthesis of the most recent developments in this field of history."—Alejandro García Sanjuán, University of Huelva
  • "Brian Catlos's Kingdoms of Faith offers an insightful and nuanced view of Islamic Spain from its origins in the eighth century to the poignant demise of Islamic presence, as exemplified by his brilliant reflection on Cervantes's fictional Morisco character, Ricote. Based upon a masterly command of sources and the secondary literature, Catlos eschews the hyperbolic descriptions of Islam in Iberia and the exaggerated claims of tolerance while, at the same time, showing its many accomplishments and enduring legacy. It is a brilliant, well-written, and well-researched book that will force historians to see the Islamic presence in the peninsula in a new light."—Teofilo F. Ruiz, distinguished professor of history, UCLA
  • "This is a lively and interesting new account of medieval Spain and Portugal which steers away from the usual stereotypes and gives us a new, and much more nuanced, account of relations and interactions between the various communities and faith groups in the peninsula."
    Hugh Kennedy, professor of Arabic at SOAS, University of London and author of Caliphate:The History of an Idea
  • "In Kingdoms of Faith, Brian A. Catlos takes us through the kaleidoscopic interplay of Muslim-Christian relations, bringing clarity to a complex narrative. His deft analysis illuminates the forces brought to bear in creating both the myth and reality of life in 'Moorish' Spain."—Thomas F. Glick,professor of history, emeritus, Boston University

On Sale
May 1, 2018
Page Count
496 pages
Basic Books

Brian A. Catlos

About the Author

Brian A. Catlos is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His books have won numerous awards, including the American Historical Association’s Premio del Rey Award and John E. Fagg Prize. Catlos lives in Boulder, Colorado, and Barcelona, Spain.

Learn more about this author