Factors that Led to the Decline of Islamic Spain

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  • 0:03 Decline of Islamic Spain
  • 2:08 Taifas
  • 3:19 Crusaders
  • 4:43 Southern Intervention
  • 6:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Islamic Spain was once the most advanced and open civilization in Europe or the Middle East. This lesson explains how the societies there eventually succumbed to a variety of internal and external pressures.

Decline of Islamic Spain

For more than 700 years, Islamic Spain was one of the most enlightened societies in the Western world. Unfortunately, it would not last. Today we will examine three reasons for the cause of the fall of Islamic Spain, namely internal strife, Christians to the north, non-Spanish Muslims to the south. First, let's look at how Islamic Spain became so unique.

Ever since Tariq ibn Ziyad had arrived in Spain at the head of a Muslim army in 711, the Iberian Peninsula had been a quite different place than the rest of the Islamic world. Much of this was because after the year 750, when the Umayyad Caliphate was defeated by the Abbasids, the Muslims in Spain refused to acknowledge them as rightful leaders of the Muslim world. Instead, they declared their independence, forming the Emirate of Cordoba and welcoming the exiled Umayyads as rightful leaders of Spain.

Islamic Spain, or al-Andalus as the Arabs called it, had something else that set it apart and that was geography. Yet, it wasn't that Spain was so far away from the heartland of Islam. Instead, it was who the Muslims in Spain had as neighbors. When they conquered the peninsula, they didn't finish the job. To the north, in the most mountainous areas of Spain, Christians were left in their own kingdoms.

Even more shocking was the fact that not everyone in al-Andalus converted to Islam. In other places in the Muslim world, converting to Islam was heavily incentivized due to trade connections, education, and other social connections. However, in al-Andalus, those incentives did not exist because Europe was equally close as even the closest major Muslim cities of Marrakesh and Fez. In fact, due to large numbers of Jews and Christians left in cities throughout the Iberian Peninsula, a Golden Age started that would make al-Andalus the richest part of Europe.


Alas, wealth attracts jealousy and al-Andalus was no exception. When the Crusades began in 1095, those Christians in the northernmost parts of Spain saw this as their chance to attack to the south. The Muslim government in Cordoba couldn't handle this sort of attack and soon lost all real power to the provinces. These taifas, or small provinces of Spain ruled by local rulers, were the real power centers in al-Andalus. The problem was that they soon spent as much time fighting each other as the Christians.

As you can imagine, this constant internal strife made conquest pretty easy for the Christians to the north, whom had soon gained by sizable chunks of the Iberian Peninsula. Rather than band together, the leaders of the taifas kept arguing with each other, refusing to unite against a common enemy. This had a spiral effect of further weakening the resistance against the Christians, which meant more arguing happened among the Muslims, which meant that more land was then lost, and so on.


From the perspective of the Crusaders, those Western Europeans who were trying to defeat Islam, it was probably a good thing that the Muslims couldn't stop arguing with themselves, as the Christians were doing the same thing. If this is starting to remind you of siblings arguing, then you're more correct than you'd think. Often when a king died without an heir, his kingdom would be split amongst his sons, with each often arguing who should be in charge.

In fact, one of the greatest tales in Spanish folk lore, the story of El Cid, recounts the story of a hero, known as El Cid, who ultimately began his struggle against a Northern king, King Alfonso, because that king murdered another king, King Sancho, who just happened to be King Alfonso's brother and El Cid's boss.

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