One of the most fascinating events of the middle ages was the Reconquista. The Reconquista is a roughly 800 year stretch of time of Muslim incursion into the Iberian Peninsula, which is present day Spain. During the time between 711-1492 AD, there were various stretches of conflict between Muslims and Christians. Skirmishes would sporadically break out along various borders, relatively long eras of peace would ensue, and then larger campaigns by one side or the other would flare up again.
The back and forth nature of the events, both in terms of military as well as diplomatic efforts, is incredibly complex and warrants entire volumes. However, in a treatise on the tolerance of Muslims, the following quote appears on several Islamic web sites portraying the Reconquista this way,
This situation lasted for nearly 800 years until eventually the Catholics regrouped and, showing that old habits die-hard, expelled both the Jews and the Muslims out of Spain. [i]
The Reconquista is a period in history that I happen to know something about. So in an effort to clarify the situation, I felt compelled to offer a more objective rendition of why and how the Muslims left Spain, particularly during the last few centuries of this period. In an effort to be completely fair on the subject, all quotations in this article come from resources found in my local mosque library.
Why did Muslims leave these territories? Was it predominately from oppression by Christians, or from directives from their own authorities? It turns out many Muslims left the newly formed Christian territories, not because they were forced out, but because they were obeying the dictates of the Muslim scholars and leaders of the day. The Muslim leaders themselves felt strongly that Muslims should not stay in Christian owned territory. The rulings were clear and unambiguous. “The teaching of the Muslim religious leaders was overwhelmingly in favor of emigration to Muslim territory.” [ii] Many of these rulings and fatwahs have been recorded. While too numerous to list here, two representative declarations come from Al-Wansharishi and Yusuf III of Granada. Al-Wansharishi wrote that “what is required of the believer is faith in God, in the last day, and an effort to distance oneself from the enemies of God.” [iii] Yusuf III of Granada put it this way, “O Brethren, manifest your devotion to the service of God through emigration [hijra] as is enjoined on all Muslims by God Almighty.” [iv]
These fatwahs caused many Muslims to move southward to Muslim owned territories, while others left the peninsula completely, emigrating to North Africa. This ultimately did lead to the furthering of territorial advances of the Christians. However, it must be noted that this was not due to the intolerance of the Christian leaders. Rather, expulsion of the Muslims from the region was in large part due to the mandates of other Muslims! Once again, upon investigation, the irony emerges. Much of why the Muslims left Spain is exactly the reverse of what is stated; rather than Christians removing the Muslims, the Muslims removed themselves.
Revisionist historians in Muslims camps may assert that the Christians were cruel to the Muslim subjects. However, the documents of the time show their response to the Muslims was mixed. Was there oppression and subjugation of Muslims by Christians? Certainly there was. However, there was also protection and harmony at numerous stages as well. L.P. Harvey sums up the situation this way,
“To sum up, Christian legislation with respect to Muslims had tolerant and intolerant aspects, it sought to drive Muslims out and to keep them confined, it guaranteed the free exercise of the religion of Islam and sought to stamp it out” [v]
In other words, there was no systematic oppression of Muslims. Some aspects of the Christian law were there to guarantee certain rights of the Muslims. That doesn’t mean the Christians were always in the right, or even mostly in the right. However, the story isn’t quite so simple. In the end, the reasons why the Muslims left Spain were not just from Christian crusades. The reasons why Muslims left Spain was also because the Muslims themselves were ordered to do so by other Muslims of the time period. This piece of the equation is conveniently left out when this period in history is referenced by Muslims.
[ii] Harvey, L.P. Islam in Spain 1250 to 1500. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p 12
[iii] ibid, p 57.
[iv] ibid, p 59.
[v] ibid, p 136.