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🕌🇪🇸 A History of Islamic Spain by W. Montgomery Watt and Pierre Cachia

Not a Book Report

I enjoy reflecting on the movies, TV, books and other media that I consume. I’m notoriously sentimental. This series documents the books that I read. These aren’t reviews or recommendations. Just a list. For me. Mostly so that I can page through what I read, where I was, and when.

Why did I read it?

I live surrounded by Catholic churches on the Iberian Peninsula about a ten minute walk from a neighborhood with an Arabic name. Lisbon was part of an Islamic empire and then kingdom for centuries. The narrative here tends to treat that like a brief setback - a time when the Portuguese lost what was theirs and then took it back.

If you read anything about the time period you’ll appreciate that this story is not accurate. The communities here mingled, exchanged, and converted (first one direction, then another, and sometimes back again). I saw a tweet by Paul Graham that he was reading this book and I picked it up given my interest in the history of where I live.

What is it?

Category Value
Title A History of Islamic Spain
Author W. Montgomery Watt and Pierre Cachia
Year Published 2017
Format Kindle
Pages 183

Publisher Summary

The period of Muslim occupation in Spain represents the only significant contact Islam and Europe was ever to have on European soil. In this important as well as fascinating study, Watt traces Islam’s influence upon Spain and European civilization - from the collapse of the Visigoths in the eighth century to the fall of Granada in the fifteenth, and considers Spain’s importance as a part of the Islamic empire. Particular attention is given to the golden period of economic and political stability achieved under the Umayyads. Without losing themselves in detail and without sacrificing complexity, the authors discuss the political, social, and economic continuity in Islamic Spain, or al-Andalus, in light of its cultural and intellectual effects upon the rest of Europe.

Medieval Christianity, Watt points out, found models of scholarship in the Islamic philosophers and adapted the idea of holy war to its own purposes while the final reunification of Spain under the aegis of the Reconquista played a significant role in bringing Europe out of the Middle Ages. A survey essential to anyone seeking a more complete knowledge of European or Islamic history, the volume also includes sections on literature and philology by Pierre Cachia. This series of Islamic surveys is designed to give the educated reader something more than can be found in the usual popular books.

Each work undertakes to survey a special part of the field, and to show the present stage of scholarship here. Where there is a clear picture this will be given; but where there are gaps, obscurities and differences of opinion, these will also be indicated. Full and annotated bibliographies will afford guidance to those who want to pursue their studies further. There will also be some account of the nature and extent of the source material. The series is addressed in the first place to the educated reader, with little or no previous knowledge of the subject; its character is such that it should be of value also to

How did I read it?

Category Value
Date Started April 23, 2024
Date Finished April 28, 2024
Places Read Lisbon, Sintra

Notes - No Spoilers

  • Popular (Portuguese) accounts of this time period talk about the “Muslim occupation” as if it were a temporary loss for a displaced people. That just is not the case. The Portuguese who “reconquered” Portugal were not the same people group that lost the territory (and the same is true with the Spanish in the rest of the Peninsula). The Umayyad caliphate began conquering Iberia in 711 by taking it from squabbling Visigothic tribal chiefs and kings. Those Visigoths started their journey in the Balkans, sacked Rome, and then settled in Iberia after cutting a peace treaty with the Romans. The local Catholic hates the Visigoth’s Arian faith. This place, like all places, has changed hands repeatedly.
  • The speed of Islamic conquest is truly baffling. Within 100 years of Muhammad’s death in Arabia, the Umayyad Caliphate’s empire stretched all the way to the Iberian border with France.
  • One of the most classic tropes in history has to be “elite ruling class enlists help of less advanced tribe to accomplish military goals. tribe eventually usurps ruling class.” This is how the Turks became leaders of the Ottomon Empire and the Berbers did the same thing in Iberia. I did not fully appreciate the “primacy” of the Arab race within the Islamic social hierarchy in the 700s and 800s. The Arab elites took North Africa, converted the Berbers to Islam, coopted them into forming an invasion army, and then rewarded them by making them second class citizens in Iberia. Until the Berbers took charge…
  • Again, the “reconquista” tries to create this black-and-white narrative about the loss and reconquest of the region, but many of the Christians in Iberia saw the Arab invaders as “liberators” who were more advanced and civilized than the Visigothic kings.
  • The Christians didn’t just flee only to return as reconquerers centuries later; huge swaths of the local population just converted to Islam and kept going about their lives.
  • I appreciate that the book does not dwell on the Battle of Tours for too long - the event is lionized in Christian history as being the point at which Western Europe curtailed the Islamic invasion, but this book is about Islamic Spain and keeps its focus on that.
  • The science and philosophy of these communities really outpaced anything else happening in Western Europe; Averroes’ contribution to the study of Aristotle, the scholars at Cordoba, the art and architecture.
  • “Spain” didn’t really exist, even during the Reconquista. A confederation of Christian kingdoms made up what we think of as Spain in this time until Ferdinand and Isabella linked up.
  • Again, like the other historical books I’ve been chewing through lately, the world was so much smaller than we think. It was not uncommon for leaders in Islamic Spain as far back as the 800s and 900s to drop by Damascus for meetings or study.
  • The last Muslim state, the Kingdom of Granada, existed until 1492 - you and I are closer to an Islamic kingdom in Spain than the rulers of that place were to the first Islamic kingdom of Spain.
  • I really appreciate the depth to which the book explores the art, literature, poetry, and architecture of the region.

Published Apr 28, 2024

Austinite in Lisbon. VP of Product at Cloudflare.