How did the Muslim conquest change Spain?

A Muslim and a Christian warrior greeting from an illuminated manuscript

One of the greatest periods of Islamic history was that of Muslim Spain or Al-Andalus, as it was known in Arabic. Muslim Spain was undoubtedly one of the great civilizations in the Medieval world and its culture influenced both Europe and the Arab world. Spain was conquered by the Muslims in the 9th century and it is commonly held that they transformed Spanish society. For example, there are those who argue that the Muslims changed the language, religion, and society of Spain. This article will discuss how in the early centuries of Islamic rule there was much continuity with the past in Spain and that at least initially the Arabs did not drastically change Medieval Iberian society. It will demonstrate that there were many changes but also many continuities after the Muslim invasion of Spain in the period from 720-900 AD.

Background to the Muslim invasion and conquest

A Muslim and a Christian musician

Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) had been occupied by Germanic invaders after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Visigoths emerged as the most powerful group and they established a kingdom that ruled all of Spain and Portugal except for the mountainous northern regions. The Visigoths established a centralized administration and they became the dominant political and military elite in Iberian society.[1] However, the kingdom was never stable and was constantly disturbed by civil wars which seriously weakened it by the start of the 8th century. This happened at the same time as the Arabs inspired by the Prophet Muhammad and their new religion had burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and had conquered much of the Byzantine Empire. By the early 8th century they had spread out across North Africa and after a long conflict had subdued the Berbers of North Africa. In 712 AD an Arab force landed near modern Gibraltar. It appears that it was initially a raid but soon became an all-out invasion.[2]

The Arab invasion army was composed of Arabs from all over the Muslim world and recently converted Berber tribesmen. The Visigoth King Roderic advanced to meet the invasion army and he met them at the River Guadalete, which is believed to be in modern Granada. Roderic’s army outnumbered the Muslim forces but the Visigoths were decisively defeated, and the king was killed in the battle. This left the Visigoth Kingdom in disarray as without a monarch the highly centralized kingdom could not function. Various Visigoth warlords defended their territories in the Iberian Peninsula [3]. However, within a space of three years, the Muslims had conquered all of Iberia. The newly conquered territories were incorporated into the vast Umayyad Empire and were initially ruled by a governor based in North Africa.

After the collapse of the Umayyad Empire, a member of the Umayyad dynasty fled to Spain and he created a kingdom that was independent of the new Abbasid Empire. The Muslims formed a political and a military elite in the Peninsula. They were a minority in their new territory and most of the population were Christians, at least in the first centuries of their rule. There was also a large Jewish population in what is modern Spain and Portugal. The new Muslim state was not only home to several religions but was also home to several different ethnic groups. The Muslims were divided between Berbers and Arabs and there were often tensions between them that occasionally flared into civil war [4]. The ruler of the Muslim state was a self-styled Emir and later Caliph and posed as the rival of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. The Umayyad ruler was, in theory, an absolute monarch, in reality, he ruled over a feudal state where local had considerable autonomy.

Socio-Economic changes after the invasion

Muslim soldiers from a Spanish Medieval manuscript

Islamic Spain was under the control of one religious group, namely the Muslims, who ruled Iberia in their own interests and who frequently exploited the population. To maintain their position, they had to dominate the other groups especially the majority Christian population. [5]. Christians and Jews were expected to pay a poll tax that was used to support the Muslim army and administration. It also seems that the Arabs appropriated many of the lands of Christians and they seemed to have taken over the vast estates of the Visigoths.

The invasion saw a revolution of who owned the land in Iberian society. Christians were no longer privileged and they were now subjects of a foreign ruling class who had a different religion. The Christian community was in many instances reduced to the status of serfs. As the Muslims entered the local society they caused great disruption and they destroyed an Iberian society that had been in large measure like that which had existed under Roman rule. Muslim rule brought some rapid changes to Spanish society and no aspect of life was left untouched. The Muslims re-defined the relationships between the Christian and the Jews and the Peninsula became integrated into the Muslim Empire. The Peninsula became part of the Muslim world politically and economically. This was to benefit the Spanish economy enormously. The invaders introduced many new crops and advanced irrigation technologies.

After Spain became part of the Muslim world, there was a marked increase in trade. This led to an increase in wealth and to the growth of towns and cities. Soon cities like Toledo were sprawling metropolis and they became major centers of culture. Another of the areas where there was a rapid change was in the legal code. As in other societies that they conquered the Muslims imposed their own legal code. The traditional laws were overturned, and this impacted on every aspect of society. Before the Muslim conquest the law was structured to represent Christian values but now it reflected the conquerors' religion. The Christian’s were now classed as the Dhimmi. They enjoyed legal protection in the eyes of the law and their person and body were fully protected[6].

However, they legally inferior to their Muslim overlords. The Arabs introduced a new language into the territories that they conquered, and Latin went into decline. Arabic became the official language, and this was the lingua franca of the bureaucracy and the army. This led to the emergence of a scribal class that was versed in Arabic and a culture that was decisively influenced by Islamic culture.

Continuities after the Muslim Invasion

Some historians argue that over time there was a blurring of the distinctions between the three main religious groups and this produced ultimately a tolerant and pluralistic society. Many revisionist historians have criticized this as a myth. However, there is some agreement on the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the conquest, there were ‘obvious differences between conquerors and conquered and Muslims and non-Muslims’ [7]. There was as a result little interaction between the various communities. The invaders did not influence their new subjects, at first because they lived in separate military settlements or ‘cantonments’ [8].

The three main religious groups in Islamic Spain were reluctant to enter marriages that could lead to assimilation and the loss of their religious and ethnic identity. It appears that sexual unions were generally frowned upon by all religions groups because this could undermine a communities’ religious identity. This was typical, and it was indicative of the limited contacts between the conquerors and their subjects in the first century or so of their rule. This meant that the majority Christian community was not really influenced by the Muslims, because there was little social interaction and cultural exchange between them. This is also very similar to the case of the Zoroastrian population of Persia who were not influenced by Muslim culture and mores until some two centuries after the Arab conquests [9].

For many ordinary Christians who lived in isolated villages and communities the Muslims overlords were distant and had no real impact on their lives. In fact, it could be argued that the Muslims made the local Christians more attached to their faith and this even confirmed the power of the Spanish Church. For the large Jewish community, the Muslim conquest only meant exchanging one ruling class for another. By and large they benefitted from Muslim rule, but they were arguably still not the equal of Christians [10].. The Muslim writer Al Jahiz claimed in the 8th century that ‘Christians were more favored than Jews’ [11].

The Jews continued to suffer a level of discrimination as they had done under the Visigoths. The Muslims were in very many ways like the Visigoths especially in the early years of their rule. Like the Visigoths they were distinct from most of the population by religion. The old rulers of Iberia were Arian Christians while the majority were Catholics. The Arab conquerors also like their predecessors established a feudal system with contingents of armed colonists situated throughout the land to maintain control of the local peasantry. To many peasants there was no real difference between the Muslims and the old Visigoth regime. It would have appeared to them that one foreign military elite had been replaced by another one.

A new religion

Religion was central to medieval life. The invaders brought with them a religion that was a polytheizing faith and this greatly complicated the religious situation in Iberia. Traditionally the Muslim Conquest of Spain was believed to have resulted in many conversions from Christianity to Islam. However, these were not as numerous as many have believed and it was mainly members of the Visigoth elite who converted in the first decades after the Muslim invasion and this was done to retain their lands.

The majority of the Christian population did not convert to Islam. This was in part because they were strongly attached to their faith but also the simple fact was that the Muslims did not really seek to convert them. The traditional view is that the Arabs forcibly converted the populations they ruled. This has been proven to be untrue. It was often hard for a Christian to convert. The Dhimmi paid a poll tax, and this was essential for the treasury and this gave the Arab overlords every incentive to dissuade conversions [12]. It seems that in the first few centuries of Islamic rule that there were relatively few conversions. There were only mass-conversions during the 9th and especially the 10th century and these were all voluntarily conversions. The Muslim invasion changed the religion of Spain, but it did so over time. This was once again similar to the situation in Persia, where the conversion of Zoroastrians to Islam which was also a gradual process [13].


The Muslim Civilization in Spain is rightly regarded as one of the world’s great cultures. It enriched both European and Middle Eastern civilization and this makes it unique. This diverse and cultured society was very slow to emerge. The Arabs did not simply sweep away the existing Christian civilization. Rather they sought to exploit the prevailing culture and administrative system to maintain their rule, this is understandable as they were a minority in Spain. There was simply not enough Arabs or their Berber allies to make significant changes to the existing ways of life of the people that they had conquered. Rather we should see the influence as creeping slowly over time over the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslims even influenced those who remained Christians, as seen in the emergence of the Mozarabs, these were Spanish Christians who adopted many Arabic practices. The evidence shows that while Iberia was conquered by the Muslims in a short space of time that it took centuries for them to change the lives and thinking of the indigenous peoples. This was also the case in the other lands that they conquered. Then there is the issue of religion. The Muslims did introduce a new religion, but it was many decades before there were a great number of conversions to Islam.


  1. Collins, Roger. The Conquest of Spain (John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1995), p. 67
  2. Collins, p. 15
  3. Collins, p. 13
  4. Marazin Guzman, Roberto. ‘Ethnic and social groups in Islamic Spain’ Islamic Studies, 30 (1991) 37-66
  5. Roth, Norman, The Jews in the Muslim Conquest of Spain. Jewish Social Studies, 38, 2, (1986) 145-158
  6. Bernard Lewis. History of the Middle East; a brief history of the last 2000 years (Touchstone Books, University of Michigan, 2008), p. 45
  7. Collins, p. 56
  8. Collins, p. 57
  9. Kennedy, Hugh, The Great Arab Conquests how the spread of Islam changed the world (De Capo Press, Philadelphia, 2007), p. 78
  10. Roth, Norman, The Jews in the Muslim Conquest of Spain. Jewish Social Studies, 38, 2, (1986) 145-158
  11. Al-Jahiz (d. 869 C.E.). A Reply to Christians. Translated by Joshua Finkel. Reprinted in N. A. Newman, ed., The Early Christian-Muslim Dialogue, 689-[718]
  12. Kennedy, p. 114
  13. Kennedy, p. 79