Islam’s Lasting Influence on Cordova

Just as Islam began to gain a formidable reputation in the West in terms of the technological advancements its scholars had produced, the message of Islam was being brought to other parts of the world that knew little about the Prophet (SAW) or Allah (SWT) . One of the first areas introduced to Islam after Arabia was the continent of Africa. By 790 AD, a series of campaigns ventured by the Umayyad dynasty against the Byzantines had claimed almost all of northern Africa for Islam, leaving a religious legacy that is still felt today.1

But before all of Africa had been conquered, the Islamic Emire had expanded to include the Iberian Peninsula, composed of present-day Spain and Portugal, lying just north of Morocco. In 711 AD, while the Visigoth King Roderic was busy waging civil war against the Basque peoples to the north, Tariq ibn Zayid crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with his army and conquered the entire peninsula within eight years. These Muslims of African descent, who would later be known by the Europeans as Moors, named their new conquered land al-Andalus.

The city of Córdoba in present-day Spain was an important part of Andalus. Abd-ar-Rahman I of the Umayyad dynasty claimed the city as the seat of his power in 756 AD, six years after the deposition of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus. His grandson Abd-ar-Rahman III was able to regain control over all of Andalus, extend his power to North Africa, and formally relinquish the title of “emir” in favor of “caliph.”

Under the caliphate, Córdoba became the cultural and economic center of al-Andalus. The Moors’ use of irrigation to water crops made Córdoba a successful agricultural center, while the advent of prestigious universities and centers of learning invited both Muslims and non-Muslim scholars to study there. Córdoba was also the birthplace of Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes) and Moses Maimonides, notable sages who were learned in both in the sciences and philosophy, as well as their respective faiths. With such prosperity, Córdoba eventually surpassed Constantinople as the most populous city in Europe.

Among the most well-recognized sites in Córdoba is the Great Mosque of Córdoba. Originally a Visigoth site built on top of an earlier Roman temple, the Emir Abd-ar-Rahman I constructed the masjid between 784 and 786 AD. Its beautiful alternating red and white spiral arches were, alongside the Alhambra in Granada, yet another manifestation of Islamic architecture with its calligraphic motifs and elaborate symmetrical patterns.2

In fact, as the Moors continued to build more buildings in Andalus, this Moorish style merged with Christian and Visigoth architecture to create a new form known as mudéjar, characterized by “the perfect integration of the materials used (brick, plaster, wood and ceramic), the specific techniques used to work them and the decorative motifs taken from Islamic aesthetics.”3 Even after the Christians ousted the Moors and other non-Muslims in 1492 AD’s Reconquista, mudéjar survived in Spanish architecture with the Muslim artisans who chose to stay in a Christian Spain.

Although the Moors certainly left their architectural mark on the Iberian Peninsula, they also made an impressive contribution to the region’s native languages. With Arabic as the official language of commerce and government in Andalus, Arabic grammar and vocabulary heavily influenced the Latin-based Spanish. It is estimated that roughly 40% of all Spanish vocabulary traces back to some sort of Arabic root word. The prefix “al-” found before common Spanish words such as almacén (Arabic: al-makhzan) and algodon (Arabic: al-qúţun) is taken from Arabic. The most famous interjection in Spanish, ¡ole!, is thought to be derived from the Arabic wa-llah, meaning “by Allah!” Even the name given to southern Spain, Andalucía, is taken from Andalus.

Islam had an overwhelming impact on the societies and cultures present in regions far beyond Arabia. Muslim rulers were able to develop Cordova into, at that time, one of the most famous and flourishing cities in the world. Today, it is still distinguished by its breathtaking architecture and timeless beauty. Without the influence of the Islamic Empire, many often-overlooked aspects of our lives and the historical legacies we take for granted today would never have existed.

1 History of North Africa
2 Great Mosque of Córdoba
3 Mudéjar Art