The Islamic Warriors' Destruction of a Nascent Civilization: The Catholic Kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain (A.D. 589-711)

By Fernandez-Morera, Dario | Modern Age, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Islamic Warriors' Destruction of a Nascent Civilization: The Catholic Kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain (A.D. 589-711)


Fernandez-Morera, Dario, Modern Age


The Spanish [Muslim] city of Cordova, in the tenth century, was very much like a modern city. Its streets were well paved and there were raised sidewalks for pedestrians. At night one could walk for ten miles by the light of lamps, flanked by an uninterrupted extent of buildings. This was hundreds of vears before there was a paved street in Paris, France, or a street lamp in London, England. ... The marvelous cities of Toledo, Seville, and Granada were rivals of Cordova in respect to grandeur and magnificence.... Education was universal in Moorish Spain, being given to the most humble, while in Christian Europe ninety-nine percent of the people were illiterate, and even kings could neither read nor write.You had Moorish women who were doctors and lawyers and professors.

--John C. Jackson, "The Empire of the Moors," in Ivan van Sertima, ed., Golden Age of the Moor (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1991), 86

We should think of the Muslims, in some way, as a migratory wave, just like the Visigoths, except two hundred [sic] years later.

--David Nirenberg, Johns Hopkins University, in the PBS documentary Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain, 2007

The Muslim conquest of the Spanish Visigoth kingdom during the early years of the eighth century interrupted the process of cultural and ethnic fusion of Hispano Romans and Visigoths, and therefore the emergence of a new Catholic Hispano-Visigoth civilization. (1) But Islam's destruction of Hispano-Visigoth Spain and of its lingering heritage (the "Mozarabs") is often glossed over by today's historians, in contrast to the abundant condemnations they bestow on the Christian West's treatment of "Third World" peoples. Catholic Hispano-Visigoth civilization is caught between the double neglect of those who see the Muslim invasion as bringing enlightenment to a cultural wasteland--the European "Dark Ages"--and those who counter this false belief by insisting on how much more civilized were the indigenous Hispano-Romans compared to the "barbaric" Visigoths.

Never mind that the so-called European Dark Ages were less dark than is usually proclaimed, (2) and certainly quite enlight ened when compared to Muslim culture prior to the Arabs' conquest of the Middle East and North African provinces of the Greek Orthodox Roman Empire ("Byz-antine") in the seventh and eighth centuries; or that the Germanic, or perhaps Baltic, Visigoths were the most Romanized of the nations that took over the Latin Roman Empire; (3) or that Visigoth leaders knew Latin, after generations of service to Rome; or that Visigoth law was no more "brutal" than medieval Islamic sharia; or that Visigoth women enjoyed a political and social freedom impossible under Islam and that, in fact, the Visigoths had several women monarchs. (4)

Contrary to what some historians teach today, the Muslim invasion of Spain in the eighth century differed qualitatively from that of the Visigoths in the fifth century. By the time the Visigoths began to take over Spain from the Latin (or Western) Roman Empire in 415, they had been serving the empire for generations as soldiers, generals, and even political leaders, were culturally Romanized, and considered themselves the continuators of the empire, not its destroyers; this was not the case with the Muslim invaders, whose culture was very different from that of Hispano-Romans and Visigoths. The Visigoths did not make their faith the dominant religion of the land, but instead converted to the existing and prevalent religion, Catholicism; Islam did the opposite. Unlike Muslims, the Visigoths had not been motivated by their religious faith to make the land submit to their religion and make those who did not convert pay a particular tax specifically designated, as Maliki texts from the Middle Ages remind us (the Maliki school of Islamic law, second only to the Han-bali in its rigorous understanding of Islam, was the school of law prevalent in Islamic Spain), to humiliate them and remind them of their submission. …

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