During its nearly 800-year lifespan, Al-Andalus witnessed
the rise, and demise, of numerous dynasties. Other Muslim
lands in the east also experienced transitions of leadership
from one Muslim ruling group to another. However, unlike
these other areas, it was the political and military shifts
in Al-Andalus that ultimately weakened Muslims’ hold on
Initially, almost the entire peninsula came under Umayyad
rule. By the 10th century, the Umayyads projected the image
of a strong and vibrant state that could withstand any
onslaught from the Christian north.
However, from the 11th century onwards, local petty kings
and Amazigh (Berber) dynasties based in Morocco came to rule Al-Andalus.
As a result, the size of Al-Andalus steadily contracted.
Christian rulers claimed cities like Toledo, Valencia, and
Zaragosa, bringing about the birth of Reconquista.
By the mid-13th century, Córdoba, Seville, and other Muslim
cities had been conquered. Al-Andalus was now about
one-eighth its former size. It existed only in areas
controlled by the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada. The surrender
of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 marked the end
of a once-magnificent Hispano-Islamic civilization.
Umayyads (711-1031 CE)
Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, died in 632 CE in Medina.
Following his death, several of his close companions
succeeded him as caliphs. The term caliph is a
transliterated version of the Arabic word for "successor" or
"representative." They included Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and
During this time, Muslims had extended their rule outside
Arabia to include much of today’s Middle East and parts of
North Africa. Thus, they reduced the size of the Byzantine
Empire and brought the Sasanid Empire in Persia to an end.
In 661 CE, opponents of Ali assassinated him. Then-governor
of Syria, Mu’awiya, acquired leadership of the caliphate and
moved the capital to Damascus. He was of a member of the
elite Meccan tribe of Banu Umayya.
Mu’awiya designated his son, Yazid, to be his successor. In
effect, this designation created the first Muslim dynasty:
the Umayyads. During the next century, his descendants
expanded Muslim rule northwards into Anatolia and Central
Asia, eastwards to the borders of India and westward across
In 711, Amazigh (Berber) commander Tariq ibn Ziyad led an Umayyad
force across the Mediterranean into Spain. They defeated the
army of the Visigothic king, Roderic. The caliph in Damascus
appointed an Umayyad governor to rule most of Iberia. The
Muslims called this new land “Al-Andalus.”
In 750 CE, the Abbasid family rallied support among
opponents of the Umayyads and overthrew the dynasty. The
Abbasids were a noble clan descended from one of Muhammad’s
uncles. They took control of the caliphate and established
their new capital at Baghdad.
While many of his relatives were killed, a young Umayyad
prince named Abd al-Rahman sought refuge among his Amazigh (Berber)
mother’s tribe in North Africa. He crossed over to Spain. In
755, he gained control of Córdoba. There, he became amir (ruler) of Al-Andalus, which was independent from the
Others followed Abd al-Rahman's example, such as Idris -- a
descendant of Ali -- who established the Idrisid Dynasty in
Morocco around 788.
The Umayyad amirate lasted until 929 CE. An Umayyad
descendant named Abd al-Rahman (III), who was not content
with the title of amir, declared himself caliph. In doing
so, he openly challenged the Abbasids’ claim. He also
countered the Shi’i Fatimids in North Africa, who had
recently taken the title of caliph, as well.
The 10th century Umayyad caliphate in Spain represents the
pinnacle of unity, power, wealth, and scientific and
artistic achievement in Al-Andalus.
The rise to power of an ambitious palace official, Muhammad
Ibn Abi Amir (Al-Mansur), initially enhanced the Muslims’
military strength in the peninsula. But, Al-Mansur’s
military regime threatened the internal stability cultivated
over several centuries, sowing the seeds for civil war.
In 1013 CE, Amazigh (Berber) troops seized control in Córdoba, killed Caliph Hisham II and sacked the palace city, Madinat
al-Zahra. Amid chaos and tragedy, the leading religious
authorities in Córdoba dissolved the caliphate. This move
opened the way for former governors and city administrators
to become local kings of a fragmented Al-Andalus.
Petty Kings / Muluk
al-Tawa’if (1031-1086 CE)
Competition and political intrigue among Arabs, Berbers, and Slavs in the late Umayyad period contributed
to the fragmentation of Al-Andalus.
With central authority destroyed, local leaders of about 30
cities and surrounding territories declared themselves
independent rulers. Historical sources describe these rulers
as muluk al-tawa’if (petty kings): each represented a
faction or party with its own interests and resources.
For example, the chief judge of Seville became the ruler of that city.
Thus, he founded the Abbadid dynasty, famed for its poet-kings. The
Amazigh (Berber) Zirids founded Granada, after being invited to rule
its region by the populace. Meanwhile, Slavs (former slaves of the
Umayyads) took control of coastal cities, such as Denia and Almería.
The taifa kings competed with one another, attempting to
annex territories and increase their wealth. They often
sought Christian allies in their efforts against other
Despite the collapse of political unity, Umayyad court
culture spread during the taifa period, as each king sought
to style himself as a worthy ruler. The petty kings vied to
recruit the most famous poets to grace their courts, and the
most skilled artisans to adorn their halls.
However, the petty kings' self-absorption ultimately led to
their demise. During this time, Christian rulers became
increasingly unified and began to consider expanding into
the southern peninsula.
Alfonso VI of León-Castile's success in taking possession of
Toledo sent shockwaves through the palaces of the petty
kings, prompting them to call on North African warriors for
Around 1040 CE, Yahya ibn Ibrahim -- a Amazigh (Berber) chief of the
Sanhaja tribe in southern Morocco -- made a pilgrimage to
Mecca. On his return journey, he stopped at Qayrawan in
Tunisia, where he attended scholarly gatherings. Yahya came
to recognize that religious knowledge among his people was
lacking. So, he returned home with a preacher named Abd
Allah ibn Yasin.
Ibn Yasin’s puritanical message met with resistance among
ibn Ibrahim's people. In response, both men retired to the
Sahara and founded a ribat (isolated, fortified retreat) to
attract only committed disciples. The followers of Ibn Yasin
came to be known as al-murabitun, which is Latinized as the
This highly cohesive and disciplined group soon acquired a
military dimension. In 1053, they began spreading their
teachings across southern Morocco.
An Almoravid commander named Yusuf ibn Tashufin founded
Marrakesh in 1062, which served as a base of operations for
northward expansion. Thus, a local religious and political movement grew
into a large North African empire.
The petty kings of Al-Andalus appealed to ibn Tashufin to
defend them against Alfonso VI. In 1085, the Christian king
had conquered the important city of Toledo. Welcoming the
opportunity to help defend Muslims, ibn Tashufin crossed the
straits to Spain. He then inflicted a severe defeat on the
Christians at the Battle of al-Zallaqah.
As ibn Tashufin promised to the petty kings, he returned to Africa.
However, a renewed Christian threat obliged the kings to ask for his
assistance again. When he returned to Iberia in 1090, the Al-Andalus
populace expressed support for Almoravid rule. They hoped he would
depose the Muslim kings. These kings taxed the population heavily to
support their extravagance and make tribute payments to the Christians.
However, not long after the Almoravids came to dominate Al-Andalus,
they became the target of popular resistance among native Muslims for
their foreign and puritanical ways.
By 1094, Ibn Tashufin removed almost all of the petty kings,
reunified a large portion of Al-Andalus, and kept the
Christian rulers at bay. His success garnered praise far and
wide, leading the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad to grant him the
title of Amir al Muslimin (“Prince of the Muslims”) in 1097
Another group of
religious reformers in Morocco, known as al-muwahiddun (“those who proclaim God’s
Unity”), followed on the heels of
Around 1100 CE, the pious Ibn Tumart journeyed as a young
man to Mecca. He was a member of the Masmuda tribe of
Amazighs (Berbers) in the Atlas Mountains. He was expelled from the
city for being overly critical of others. He reportedly went
to Baghdad, where he studied with eminent religious
scholars. He formulated a unique theology that was a
variation on established Sunni doctrine.
After his return to Morocco, he began publicly preaching and
inciting attacks on wine shops and other "objectionable"
businesses. In the city of Fes, he castigated the sister of
the Almoravid ruler for going about unveiled, but he escaped
punishment for such an affront.
Ibn Tumart moved to a ribat at Tinmal in the Atlas
mountains. When he died in 1128, his main disciple, Abd al-Mu’min,
kept his death secret for two years, until his own influence
upon the followers was secure.
Abd al-Mu’min came forward as the lieutenant of the “Mahdi”
Ibn Tumart, a messianic figure who had come to restore peace
and justice. Abd al-Mu’min’s forces steadily eroded
Almoravid power, conquered Marrakesh, and extended their
reach across northern Africa and into Al-Andalus.
In 1170, the Almohads made Seville their regional capital,
signified by the construction of a Great Mosque and the
massive minaret known today as the Giralda.
The Almohads’ emphasis on purity and simplicity is evident
in their aesthetic tastes. Unlike the Almoravids, the
Almohads resisted the allure of the luxurious, sensual
Andalusian lifestyle, preferring to maintain a military
What's more, their policy towards Jews and Christians was in
some ways less tolerant than that of earlier rulers. As a
result, some members of these communities sought refuge
outside Al-Andalus. For example, the family of Moses ibn
Maimon (Maimonides) emigrated from Córdoba to Fes, then on
to Cairo, where Jews thrived under the reign of Salah al-Din
and his successors.
In 1195, Abd al-Mu’min’s descendant, Ya’qub “al-Mansur,”
defeated Alfonso VIII of Castile in the Battle of Alarcos.
However, the Christian states in Iberia were becoming
At the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, the combined
forces of five Christian princes representing Castile, Léon,
Navarre, and Portugal defeated Almohad ruler Muhammad III.
Almohad power declined rapidly. Bitterness towards the Almohads by
native Muslims led them to revolt, deposing and killing some of their
Almohad governors and calling on Christian powers for aid. Fernando III
of León-Castile captured the Andalusi towns of Córdoba in 1236, Jaén in
1246, and Seville in 1248, leaving only Granada as a tributary Muslim
Nasrids (1232-1492 CE)
As Almohad rule in Al-Andalus collapsed in the early 13th
century, Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar (or ibn Nasr) gained control
of Granada. A horseman of Arab lineage, he founded the last
Muslim dynasty in Iberia.
Ibn al-Ahmar sought a truce with Fernando III of
León-Castile. He agreed to assist Fernando in the conquest
of Seville. In return, Granada would be allowed to remain a
Upon returning to Granada, Ibn al-Ahmar proclaimed
despondently that “there is no victor but God,” which became
a slogan closely identified with Nasrid rule.
The Nasrids paid annual tribute to Ferdinand III and his
successors. Yet, Granada continued to prosper due to the
influx of Muslim and Jewish scholars, artisans, merchants,
and farmers from territories newly acquired by the
Christians. Nasrid ceramics, silks, and other luxury goods,
were very popular among the Christian elite in the north, as
they could not produce such items themselves.
During the height of their power in the mid-14th century,
the Nasrids extended the royal residences. They created the
Alhambra, a vast new palace and garden complex, dubbed al-hamra (“the
red”) by the inhabitants of Granada.
By the early 15th century, several factors reduced Nasrid
prestige and power. Two main factors were rivalries between
the palace wazirs (ministers) and military expansion by the
Amazigh (Berber) Marinid Dynasty in Fes.
Then, in 1469, the fateful union of Isabella of Castile and
Fernando II of Aragon launched a concerted effort to unify
all of Spain under a common religious identity. In 1492,
they conquered Granada, raising their banner atop the
Alhambra’s highest tower.
The last king of Granada, Abu Abd Allah (known popularly as
Boabdil), surrendered the city in a formal ceremony. After
handing off the city, he passed into the mountains south of
Granada, sighing as he looked back on what was lost.
The Catholic Monarchs immediately decreed the expulsion of
the Jews from Spain. In 1609, their descendant, Phillip II,
issued a similar decree expelling Moriscos, who had
attempted to resist the Christianizing practices of the
Today, some descendants of Jewish and Muslim émigrés to
North Africa and other Muslim lands keep in their possession
the beautifully-crafted keys to homes that once belonged to
their ancestors in a land called Al-Andalus.