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Shock and Awe, Eighth-Century Style:
The Muslim Conquest of Spain

Winter 2016 - Digital


Scholars, journalists, and politicians uphold Muslim-ruled medieval Spain—“al-Andalus”—as a multicultural paradise, a place where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony. But this widely accepted account is simply false, as Northwestern University scholar (and Modern Age editorial adviser) Darío Fernández-Morera reveals in his new book, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.

Modern Age is proud to excerpt this eye-opening, prodigiously researched book.


A full assessment of Islamic rule in medieval Spain requires examining how the forces of the Islamic Caliphate gained control of this region. The ruthless tactics they often employed foreshadowed some of the measures by which later Andalusian rulers would maintain their power.

The forces of the Islamic Caliphate were unified, skilled, fierce, and well led. Their commanders were experienced, having fought and won against the Christian Greek Roman Empire (usually referred to as the “Byzantine” Empire, a misleading name) and against pagan Berber tribes in North Africa. The Berbers who made up the majority of their troops were particularly ferocious warriors, as even Muslim historians point out.[1] These former pagans were imbued with the religious fervor of the new convert and the hunger for loot of the marauding tribesman.

The invaders used a mixture of “shock and awe” tactics and “peaceful” treaties. In the “peaceful” treaties, the Muslim conquerors granted momentary privileges and autonomy to those Visigoth secular and religious leaders who did not resist and who paid a tribute (as shown in the treatise with the lord Theodomir),[2] allowing them to keep, at least for a time, their land, servants, and religion. This approach was necessary because the invaders were initially far less numerous than the natives.

But as both Muslim and Christian sources attest, the Islamic forces were more ruthless and knew how to demoralize an enemy better than any army since the Roman conquest. Both Muslim and Christian sources mention a story that, even if apocryphal, illustrates the knowledge of the tactical use of terror in psychological warfare. Shortly after the Islamic forces landed, the flesh of the cadavers of some Christians killed in battle were boiled in large cauldrons under the sight of terrified Christian prisoners, who became convinced that the Muslims were cannibals. The Muslims then set loose the prisoners, who, the twelfth-century historian al-Kardabus says, “told every Christian they met what they had seen, so that Allah filled their hearts with panic. Afterwards came the battle against [Visigoth king] Rodrigo.”[3]

Al-Kardabus and another Muslim historian, Abd al-Wahid al-Marrakushi, write that the Arab leader Musa Ibn Nusayr sacked, enslaved, and spent three years waging jihad—holy war—against the Spanish infidels.[4] Along with al-Kardabus, al-Marrakushi and al-Maqqari say that Musa spent as much time “pillaging” as “organizing” the conquered land. These sources also mention that several members of the tabiun (a generation of pious Muslims who were direct disciples of Muhammad’s Companions) entered Spain to direct the jihad and the conversion of the land. The presence of these members of the tabiun underlines the fundamentally religious motivation of the invasion—a jihad.

If Christians resisted, a massacre would follow after a Muslim victory. Near Orihuela, the defeated Christians were punished with extermination.[5]

After the Muslims took Córdoba in a furious assault, the remaining Christian defenders retreated to a church to continue fighting. According to al-Maqqari, the Muslims put the building to the torch and the Christians inside died, without surrendering; according to al-Kardabus, when the Christians surrendered, the Muslim commander had them beheaded.

Toledo, the Visigoth capital, offered no resistance to the rapid advance of the Islamic forces because most warriors had marched with King Rodrigo to meet the enemy. Nonetheless, Musa executed some aged Toledan nobles for reasons that scholars do not agree on, but perhaps it was simply pour encourager les autres.[6] The Muslims force captured Seville after a siege, sending the Christian warriors fleeing to the North. In front of Merida, the Islamic forces followed a victory with a massacre of the fleeing “polytheists.”[7] Back in Seville, when Christians revolted against the occupying Muslim-Jewish garrison, a reinforced Muslim army retook the city and massacred the inhabitants.[8]

Christian sources such as the Chronica mozarabica of 754, written not too long after the conquest, and the History of Spain (Primera crónica general) commissioned by King Alfonso X in the thirteenth century corroborate the carrot-and-stick methods described in the Muslim chronicles. These Christian accounts tell us that Musa offered peace and privileges to those Christian noblemen and church leaders who did not resist but killed those who did. Musa burned any city that resisted, “crucified the nobility and the older men,” and “cut to pieces the young men and the infants (iubenes atque lactantes),” so that towns surrendered in terror and many inhabitants fled to the mountains.[9] Both methods, the ruthless crushing of any opposition and the granting of pacts to those lords who agreed not to fight, as well as the deception involved in the pacts (a deception noted by other Christian sources and by Muslim historians such as Ibn Abd al-Hakam), are recorded by the Chronica mozarabica of 754: “After ravaging the land as far as Toledo, the royal city, Musa conquers with deceitful peace offers the surrounding regions with the help of [Visigoth lord] Opas, son of [former king] Egica, and executes a number of senior [Visigoth] lords that had remained in the city and puts all of them to the sword with his help.”[10]

The peaceful pacts’ “deceitful” nature mentioned in the Christian and Muslim sources was in fact justified by the Islamic legal tradition. An Islamic law scholar quite sympathetic to Islam, Majid Khadduri, has pointed out that the abrogation of pacts in case of necessity was acceptable in medieval Islamic legal practice because

Islam, emerging in the seventh century as a conquering nation with world domination as its ultimate aim, refused to recognize legal systems other than its own. It was willing to enter into temporary treaty relations with other states, pending consummation of its world mission. The Prophet and his successors, however, reserved the right to repudiate any treaty or arrangement which they considered as harmful to Islam. . . . Although the normal relationship between Islam and non-Muslim communities is a state of hostility, it is not considered inconsistent with Islam’s ultimate objective if a treaty is concluded with the enemy, whether for purposes of expediency or because Islam suffered a setback.[11]

Written shortly after the Visigoth defeat, the Visigoth church hymn Tempore belli corroborates what other Christian and Muslim sources tell us regarding the terrifying but effective tactics used against the Christians. As the Spanish historian M. C. Díaz y Díaz put it, this liturgical Latin poem describes an “implacable enemy,” “full of enthusiasm in the exercise of war” (continuo fervida bello), “forcing Christian troops to turn around and flee in panic,” sacking Christian temples and homes, burning the cities of those who resisted, and taking their young women as sexual slaves, all creating an “indescribable terror.”[12] The Chronica mozarabica of 754 echoes these laments about the looting of treasures and the sexual enslavement of beautiful young Christian women (57.1–5).

Alfonso X’s History of Spain (Primera crónica general) also tells how the Muslim conquerors killed the men, burned cities, wasted the land, took young women as sexual slaves, and sacked church treasures, causing bishops to flee with sacred Christian relics. Another thirteenth-century history, written by Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, speaks of how the Muslims burned towns, cut down fruit trees, destroyed churches, regarded sacred music as blasphemy, and profaned chalices. On the other hand, like Alfonso’s History, it describes “treaties” with which the conquerors gained the acquiescence of many Christian leaders—though the Muslims broke these agreements once they had control of the land. The ninth-century Muslim historian al-Hakam also mentions such deviousness: “When the Muslims conquered Spain, they looted it and committed many frauds.”[13] The Chronicon mundi of Lucas de Tuy, written in the early years of the thirteenth century, echoes these descriptions: “the Moors forced into submission, through iron and fire, almost all of Spain. . . . Only those Goths who retreated to the heights of the Pyrenees in Asturias and Galicia escaped. The Moors kept the best places, won with the vengeful knife. . . . And they changed the towers of ancient cities; destroyed castles . . . monasteries; burned the books of the sacred law, and committed many bad deeds.”[14]

As these Muslim and Christian sources indicate, burning Christian churches and sacking their treasures played an important role in the conquerors’ shock-and-awe tactics. This destruction helped demoralize the Christian resistance. Muhammad Ibn al-Razi (887–955), one of the earliest Muslim historians of the Islamic conquest, recounts that the founder of the Emirate of Córdoba, the Umayyad Abd al-Rahman I, consistently burned Christian churches and relics.[15]

As the Spanish Arabist Susana Calvo Capilla has pointed out, when Muslim chronicles mention churches, it is usually to gloat over their destruction or over their transformation into mosques as part of the humbling of the infidels.[16] Christian accounts corroborate the Muslim ones: thus the Crónicas anónimas de Sahagún (twelfth or thirteenth century) tell of the destruction of a chapel and its relics of saints near the Cea River during the jihads; and the Crónica de Alfonso III (ninth century: attributed to Alfonso III, king of Asturias, who lived c. 852–910) tells how Alfonso I of Asturias (693–757) rebuilt churches in the reconquered cities and returned Christians to their fatherland (patria).[17]

It could hardly be otherwise given the injunctions of medieval Islamic law. A legal treatise by the influential Andalusian jurist Ibn Rushd al-Jadd (d. 1126) shows Imam Malik Ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence that dominated al-Andalus, answering questions of Islamic law. Malik answer as follows a question on what to do with the crosses and sacred books of the Christians defeated in jihad:

Question: What should be done with the sacred books that one finds inside the churches of the Rum [that is, “Romans,” one of the generic names Muslims gave to Christians] in enemy land? What should be done with their golden crosses and other objects one finds?

Answer: The [gold] crosses must be broken up before being distributed [as booty to the Muslim warriors] but one must not distribute them directly. As for their sacred books, one must make them disappear.[18]

In his commentary on Malik’s answer, Ibn Rushd al-Jadd clarifies that he has read that the sacred books of the defeated Christians must be burned to make them “disappear”—unless one can erase their content completely so one can then sell the blank pages to make a profit. But if one cannot sell these erased pages, they must be burned.

Archaeology in Spain corroborates all this textual evidence. Thus we have magnificent Visigoth religious treasures found buried along routes leading from southern Spain to the North, confirming what written sources tell us of the Christian population’s fear of and flight from the Muslim looting of the churches.[19] What the kingdom of the Visigoths had met was indeed a “lethal and uncompromising enemy.”[20]

The Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) pointed out how the use of terror was fundamental in the Islamic conquests from the beginning:

One understands Muhammad’s statement: “I was helped through the terror (that befell the enemy). . . .” (The same fact explains) Muhammad’s victory with small numbers over the polytheists during his lifetime, and the victories of the Muslims during the Muslim conquests after (Muhammad’s death). God took care of His Prophet. He threw terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. . . . Terror in the hearts of their enemies was why there were so many routs during the Muslim conquests.[21]

No wonder that Eastern Christian religious polemics against Islam, from the seventh century on, uniformly include the argument that Muslims use violence to extend their religion, and that early Spanish religious polemics against Islam also consistently point out the use of violence by its followers.[22]

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise

*          *          *

The three options Musa gave to the Hispano-Visigoths were the standard ones Muslim conquerors offered Christians: (1) convert to Islam, (2) submit as dhimmis to Islamic supremacy and pay the tribute (jizya) expressly intended to humiliate infidels and remind them of their submission, or (3) be killed (in the case of men) or enslaved (in the case of nonfighting women and children).[23]

Here lies the source of the conflicting interpretations of the Muslim conquest of Spain—those who claim that the Muslim takeover was largely “peaceful,” achieved by means of “pacts,” and others who claim it was largely “violent.”[24] The Muslim conquerors indeed offered peace to those who surrendered without fighting, though under Muslim domination and strict conditions—but they swiftly destroyed those who resisted. Those who surrendered to the Muslims’ “peaceful” system did so knowing full well the consequences if they resisted. The Muslim conquest, then, mixed brutal force and peaceful pacts.[25] The second, however, were inseparable from and a consequence of the first. And the Muslim forces reserved the right to abrogate “peaceful pacts” whenever it was advantageous to do so, because, as the legal scholar Majid Khadduri pointed out, “the normal relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim communities is a state of hostility” until Islam achieves hegemony.

For the Christian faithful, what Musa and his Muslim forces established was a “savage kingdom” (regnum efferum conlocant), as the Chronica mozarabica of 754 puts it.[26] Alfonso X’s History of Spain summarizes the Muslim conquest as described in the medieval Christian sources:

The sanctuaries were destroyed; the churches were broken down. . . . They threw out from the churches the crosses and the altars, the holy oils and the books and the things which were honored by Christendom, all was scattered and discarded. . . . The enemies ravaged the land, they burned the houses, they killed the men, they burned the cities, the trees, the vineyards and anything they found green they cut. So much grew this plague that there remained in Spain no good village or city . . . that was not burned or brought down or taken over by the Moors; and the cities that they could not conquer they tricked them and conquered them with false treaties.[27]

A Muslim chronicle makes the point even more forcefully: according to al-Hakam, so awesome was the conquest of Spain that, when Musa wrote to his caliph, he described it as “not a conquest, but the Judgment Day.”[28]


Darío Fernández-Morera is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University. A former member of the National Council on the Humanities, he holds a BA from Stanford University, an MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD from Harvard University. He has published several books and many articles on cultural, literary, historical, and methodological issues in Spain, Latin America, and the United States.

This essay is excerpted from his new book, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, which is now available from ISI Books.


[1] Abu Muhammad Abd al-Wahid al-Marrakusi: Lo admirable en el resumen de las noticias del Magrib (Kitab al-Muyib Fi Taljis Ajbar al-Magrib), trans. Ambrosio Huici Miranda (Tetuán: Editora Marroquí, Instituto General Franco de Estudios e Investigación Hispano-Árabe, 1955), 149 and n1; Ana Serrano, María Jesús Viguera, et al., Ibn Khaldun: The Mediterranean in the Fourteenth Century: Rise and Fall of Empires (Seville: Legado Andalusí, 2006), 196.

[2] “[Theodomir’s] subjects will not be killed or taken captive nor will they be separated from their children or women . . . and their churches will not be burned down. . . . So long as he acts in good faith and fulfills the conditions that we have imposed upon him. He has agreed to surrender terms covering seven towns. . . . [He has also agreed] that he will not give refuge to any of our runaway slaves, nor shelter any of our enemies, nor make anyone afraid who is safe with us; that he will not conceal information that he has acquired about [our] enemy; and that it is up to him and his people to pay one dinar every year and four mudd (bushels) of wheat, four mudd of barley, four qist (measures) of thickened grape juice, four qist of vinegar, two qist of honey and two qist of oil. Slaves pay half that. Witnessed by Uthman b. Abi Abda al-Qurashi, Habib b. Abi Ubaida, Ibn Maisara al-Fahmi and Abu Qaim al Hudhali. Written in Rajab in the year 94 of the hijra (April 713).” Christians and Moors in Spain: Volume III Arabic Sources, ed. and trans. Charles Melville and Ahmad Ubaydl (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1992), 11–13.

[3] See, among other sources, Ibn Abd al-Hakam, Conquista del Norte de África y de España, 43; al-Qutiyya, 6; The Book of Sufficiency on the History of Khalifs, by Abú Ja’far Ibn Abdi-l-hakk Al-khazráji Al-kortobí, trans. Pascual de Gayangos, in The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, vol. 1, app. D, xliii–1; the quotation is from Ibn al-Kardabus, 64–65; Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, vol. 2, chap. 23.

[4] For this and the following, see Ibn al-Kardabus, 68, 66; Abd al-Wahid al-Marrakushi, Histoire des almohades, 9–14.

[5] For this and the following, see Ajbar Machmuá, 23–30; al-Qutiyya, 8; al-Maqqari in The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, 1:277–87, 531n18, 2:1–2; Ibn Idhari al-Marrakusi, Historia de al-Andalus, 17–42; Crónica mozárabe de 754, 71, 79.

[6] Chronica mozarabica of 754, 54; al-Athir, 46; Ajbar Machmuá, 27.

[7] Ibn al-Kardabus, 63.

[8] Ajbar Machmuá, 30; Ibn Idhari al-Marrakushi, Al-Bayano ’l-Mogrib, 18, 23.

[9] Crónica mozárabe de 754, sections 54–55; Primera Crónica General de España, ed. Ramón Menéndez Pidal (Madrid: Gredos, 1955), 559.

[10] Chronica mozarabica of 754, 54.8–12.

[11] Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955), vii, 202.

[12] M. C. Díaz y Díaz, “Noticias históricas en dos himnos litúrgicos visigóticos,” in Los visigodos: Historia y civilización: Antigüedad y Cristianismo (Murcia) 3 (1986): 443–56. See also García Moreno, España 702–719, 190. One is tempted to compare these terror tactics and their quick results with the ruthless tactics and similarly swift conquests of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria during the twenty-first century.

[13] Primera Crónica General de España, chap. 559; Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, vol. 3, chap. 22; al-Hakam, Conquista de África del Norte y de España, 47.

[14] Crónica de España, por Lucas, Obispo de Tuy, trans. Julio Puyol (Madrid: Revista de Archivos, Bibliotecas y Museos, 1926), 269–71.

[15] Crónica del moro Rasis, 281–82. Some historians have questioned attributing to al-Razi the sections on ancient pre-Islamic history. But modern research has confirmed the authenticity of the text even for the pre-Islamic period: see the introduction by Diego Catalán as well as the historian Claudio Sánchez Albornoz’s Adiciones al estudio de la crónica del moro Rasis (Madrid: Moneda y Crédito, S.A., 1978). Other texts, of course, corroborate the destruction of churches during the Islamic period (see, for example, Susana Calvo Capilla’s research).

[16] Susana Calvo Capilla, “Las primeras mezquitas de al-Andalus a través de las fuentes árabes (92/711–170/785),” Al-Qantara 27, no. 1 (Enero–Julio 2007): 143–79.

[17] Crónicas anónimas de Sahagún, ed. Antonio Ubieto Arteta (Zaragoza: Pedro Garcés de Cariñena, 1987), 9–10; Crónica de Alfonso III in Jan Prelog, Die Chronik Alfons’ III, 34–36: cristianos secum ad patriam duxit. . . . Basilicas construxit et instauravit.

[18] Cit. Cyrille Aillet, Les mozárabes: christianisme, islamisation, et arabisation en péninsule ibérique (IXe–XIIe siècle) (Madrid: Casa de Velázquez, 2010), 122–23. Bracketed material is mine.

[19] Alicia Perea, El tesoro Visigodo de Guarrazar (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 2001); El tesoro Visigodo de Torredonjimeno (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 2009). Curiously, no work on the conquest has pointed out this archaeological evidence.

[20] Lord Dannat, former chief of the British general staff, referring to the swift conquests of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whose success and methods echo those of the early Muslim conquests: “ISIS Slaughters 400 in Ancient Syria City of Palmyra Where Hundreds of Bodies Line the Street,” Daily Mail, May 24, 2015.

[21] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 2:35.

[22] In a document dating back probably to the tenth century but of course expressing views commonly held since the eighth century. See Luis A. García Moreno, “Literatura antimusulmana de tradición bizantina entre los mozárabes,” Hispania Sacre 57 (2005): 11.

[23] The Chronica mozarabica of 754 mentions the taxation Islam imposed on Christians as one of the conditions for allowing them to practice their religion, but under Muslim terms—a probable reference to the Islamic jizya. Moreover, the Maliki school of Islamic law, which was prevalent in Islamic Spain, underscores this meaning and purpose of the jizya.

[24] For a discussion of these two interpretations of the conquest of Spain, see Maribel Fierro and Francisco García Fitz, eds., El cuerpo derrotado: Cómo trataban musulmanes y cristianos a los enemigos vencidos (Península Ibérica, ss. VIII–XIII) (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2008), 23–25. A number of Gothic lords, among them the followers of the Witiza faction, which had allied itself with the invaders, willingly accepted their dhimmitude, which allowed them to continue as Christian lords of their vast estates. Eventually, as sources both Muslim (al-Hakam) and Christian (Lucas de Tuy, Alfonso X’s Primera crónica general) observe, these lords and their successors fell prey to the conquerors’ “frauds” as the Muslim state became stronger and able to violate the terms of the submission. As the historian Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez from the Universidad Autonoma of Barcelona caustically observes: “Whoever pacts does it because he is forced to agree to a pact. No one gives up things because he wants. It is imposed on you.” (Cit. Santiago Belistigoitía, “El cambio histórico de 711,” El País, February 20, 2011.)

[25] This is the soundest statement of the matter, as in Maíllo Salgado, Acerca de la conquista árabe de Hispania, 30. Representative of the pacts was the one through which the Visigoth lord Teodomiro (“Tudmir”) submitted to Tariq. But the “peaceful pact” included the obligation of Teodomiro to pay or else (brackets are the translators’): “[Teodomiro] has agreed [surrender] terms covering seven towns. . . . [He has also agreed] that he will not give refuge to any of our runaway slaves, nor shelter any of our enemies, nor make anyone afraid who is safe with us, that he will not conceal information that he has acquired about [our] enemy; and that it is up to him and his people to pay one dinar every year and four mudd (bushels) of wheat, four mudd of barley, four qist (measures) of thickened grape juice, four qist of vinegar, two qist of honey and two qist of oil. Slaves pay half that.” (Christians and Moors in Spain: Volume III Arabic Sources (711–1501), ed. and trans. Charles Melville and Ahmad Ubaydli [Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1992], 12–13.) In 2013 the city of Orihuela (in Murcia) celebrated the pact in an official commemoration: see Alejandro García Sanjuán, La conquista islámica de la peninsula ibérica y la tergiversación del pasado: Del catastrofismo al negacionsimo (Madrid: Marcial Pons Historia, 2013), 19. García Sanjuán is an advocate of the “peaceful pacts” school and he attacks the “catastrophism” of Arabists like Serafín Fanjul and historians like García Moreno (García Sanjuán, La conquista, 49–50). See also his “Formas de sumisión del territorio y tratamiento de los vencidos en el derecho islámico clásico,” in Maribel Fierro and Francisco García Fitz eds., El cuerpo derrotado: Cómo trataban musulmanes y cristianos a los enemigos vencidos (Península Ibérica, Ss. VIII–XIII) (Madrid: 2008), 61–111.

[26] Chronica mozarabica of 754, 54.

[27] Primera chrónica general, 554.

[28] John Harris Jones, ed. and trans., Ibn Abd el-Hakem’s History of the Conquest of Spain (London: Williams & Morgate, 1858), 23; al-Hakam, 47, where Vidal Beltrán translates it with the equally awesome term “Resurrection.” Al-Hakam also cites Malik as saying that during the conquest of Spain the Muslims looted the place and did many “fraudulent” things (al-Hakam, 47). The seventeenth-century historian Mohammed Ibn al-Raini al-Qayrawani quotes the phrase “End of the World” as used by Musa to describe the conquest in the translation by E. Pellisier: Histoire de l’Afrique de Mohammed-ben-Abi-el-Raini-el-Kairouani, trans. E. Pellisier (Paris: Imprimérie Royale, 1845), 59.