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ISLAMIC SPAIN

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Diversity Abounds Under Muslim Rule

The arrival of Muslims in Iberia in 711 CE created ethnic and religious persity unknown elsewhere in Europe.

At the time of conquest, the majority of the population was Christian. This native Christian population was largely Romanized. They governed according to the Germanic customs of the Visigoths. Meanwhile, small Jewish communities inhabited such key cities as Toledo and Córdoba.

With the extension of Umayyad rule to Al-Andalus, Christians and Jews were accorded the customary dhimmi, status, with certain legal protections and obligations in exchange for a poll tax collected annually.

The Arabs and Amazighs (Berbers) who conquered the peninsula were members of organized tribes. They tended to settle in Iberia as intact groups.

The Arabs were fewer in number but formed the cultural elite. They also exercised the most power in Andalusi society. They often settled in the cities and acquired the best farmlands from the Visigothic elites they overthrew.

The Amazighs (Berbers) outnumbered the Arabs but were relatively new converts to Islam and subordinate to them politically. They typically were given land in the countryside and in mountainous regions, where they could continue their pastoral traditions.

As soldiers and officials began adapting to settled life, they established trades, raised crops, and interacted with the local populace with increasing frequency. They sought familial alliances and marriage with Hispani-Roman women. Conversely, many local families sought upward mobility. They searched for a connection to the new arbiters of cultural and economic power.

Christians retained their faith but increasingly adopted Arabic language and Muslim customs. They came to be called Mozarabs. Their daughters often bridged the social worlds of the rulers and the ruled.

New Muslim immigrants also spurred interaction and intermarriage. For many decades, bureaucrats, scholars, merchants, and artists made their way to Al-Andalus from Egypt, Syria, Persia, and other eastern lands. They were pioneers seeking their fortunes in a distant land that had quickly acquired a reputation for beauty and abundance.

The Umayyad caliphate's decline allowed ethnic rivalries to flare up. This downturn ushered in the Era of the Petty Kings. Yet, despite the political fragmentation, Islamic Spain's population at large came to share a distinct culture, which they regarded as uniquely Andalusi. This shared culture included Andalusi Jews and Christians.

From the late 11th century on, the Christian resurgence and conquest placed large numbers of Muslims and Jews under Christian rule. Initially, they accorded religious minorities respect, legal protection, and a high degree of autonomy.

However, the provisions for Jews and Muslims eroded over time. Christian leaders increasingly equated religious difference with cultural difference, no matter what level of acculturation. Within their mindset, the moro [Arab or Amazigh (Berber)] and the cristiano (a Christian) were divided into distinct religious and cultural categories that were difficult to bridge.

In sharp contrast, in Al-Andalus, it was often difficult to distinguish between Christian, Jew, and Muslim. Thus, the safeguards afforded to the "People of the Book" remained largely in effect. 

Competition among Christian kingdoms drove them to push relentlessly southwards into Muslim territory, a movement which was given historical justification as a reconquest of lands which were rightfully Christian.  As Christian society grew more sophisticated and numerous, minorities came to be increasingly marginalized, legally, socially, and economically.

By the 1300s, it was increasingly common for non-Christians to be restricted to certain neighborhoods and banned from practicing many professions, such as medicine. Public manifestations of their faith came to be forbidden. They became targets of popular violence in times of tension or during important religious festivals. They were obliged by law to wear special items of clothing or hairstyles, which marked them off from the Christian majority, in order to prevent accidental social and religious contamination.  Such marginalization, coupled with aggressive missionizing -- and occasional violence -- prompted many Jews to convert under duress, while Muslims tended to close ranks.

Christian reactionism against the converts and suspicion of their motives prompted the establishment of the Inquistion and the establishment of blood purity laws.  In an effort to solve the false-convert problem all of the Jews of Castile and Aragon were ordered to become Christian or face expulsion in 1492. 

Between 1502 and 1525, the increasingly isolated and reactionary Muslim population was ordered to convert. The descendents -- numbering some 300,000 -- were expelled en masse to North Africa between 1609 and 1613 for resisting integration and rebelling against their ever-more precarious position.

Since the death of General Francisco Franco, Spain has adopted a liberal democratic outlook. Franco served as the country’s head of state from the end of the Civil War in 1939 until 1975. Spain also has become an increasingly important participant in European affairs.

Many Spaniards exhibit a spirit of openness and pride in their rich heritage, particularly in Andalucia. There, inhabitants continue to trace their roots, family and cultural, to the time of the Muslims centuries ago. What's more, new communities of Jews and Muslims in Spain are shaping and challenging the modern state’s views of its past and its vision for a pluralistic future.

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