While a promising Christian Hispano-Visigothic civilization was developing in Spain, Islam was born amid the tents of largely illiterate Bedouin nomads in the Arabian peninsula. In the latter half of the seventh century, Muslim warriors overran the northern coast of Africa, destroying the Christian kingdoms that had previously existed there. In 711, a mostly Berber Muslim army under the command of Musa bin Nusayr crossed over to Spain and conquered almost the entire peninsula within ten years.
Arabic chronicles record the astonishment of the uncultured Muslim invaders at the splendor of the Spanish cities, and dwell lovingly on the “unimaginable” treasures of gold and jewels the conquerors were able to carry off. An Arab chronicler records, e.g., that when the conqueror Musa visited Damascus to pay homage to the caliph, he took with him
all the spoil… consisting of thirty skins full of gold and silver coin, necklaces of inestimable value, pearls, rubies, topazes and emeralds, besides costly robes of all sorts; he was followed by eleven hundred prisoners, men, women, and children, of whom four hundred were princes of the royal blood.
In response to the plundering, many Christians buried valuable religious art from the invaders, and archeologists still occasionally dig up such testimonies to the advanced material culture of Visigothic Spain.
The Muslim invaders of 711 were numerically far inferior to the natives, and many historians have expressed surprise at their rapid success. Factors playing into their hands included the inability of the Visigoths to assemble rapidly, and the existence of a discontented royal faction willing to side with the invaders against King Roderigo.
Spanish Jews, subjected by Christian Visigothic rulers to significant legal restrictions, also allied themselves with the invading army in the hope of improving their condition. For a time, they succeeded: Jews were employed guarding captured cities as the Muslims went on to new conquests, relieving the conquerors of concern for protecting their rear and allowing them to show up unexpectedly at key strategic points. Once the Muslims were firmly in control, however, Jews were reduced to a position similar to Christians.
Muslim commanders also offered “pacts” to Christian lords who agreed not to resist the invasion, allowed to keep their lands, servants and religion—for a time. As with the Jews, Muslim rulers reneged upon these agreements when it became convenient to do so. The only reason they were offered in the first place was the numerical weakness of the invaders; they are not indicative of Muslim “tolerance.”
Andalusian legal texts give us an idea of what the conquest must have been like, making clear that both the burning down and the flooding of infidel towns were permissible as part of jihad. So was “cutting down their trees and their fruits, killing their animals, and destroying their buildings and everything that can be broken down.” Whether the defeated were allowed to live or were massacred was entirely up to the victorious Muslim commander; there are a number of recorded cases of outright extermination.
A Christian chronicle described the conquest as follows:
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 they could not conquer they tricked them and conquered them with false treaties.
Many modern historians seek to deny that the Muslim invasion of Spain (which they prefer to call a mere “expansion”) was religiously motivated. This view is contradicted by all medieval sources. But the contemporary academy is heavily devoted to a materialist interpretation of history derived from Marxism, and scholars of this tendency prefer to emphasize economic factors such as the quest for booty.
Yet it is difficult to separate economic from spiritual motivations within the terms of Islamic thought: the Muslim soldier wins booty if he returns home successful and is promised a paradise filled with sensual enjoyment if he is killed. Martyrdom in the cause of Islam is highly praised by Andalusian writers; according to one of them, Muhammad himself once said: “I would like to fight in the way of Allah… and be killed, then brought to life so I could be killed, then brought to life so I could be killed.”