The conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Muslim Empire started in 711, when the last Visigothic King, Roderic, was defeated; only some areas in the north remained independent, the rest of the Peninsula (Al-Andalus) being under the rule of the Emirs (and later Caliphs) of Cordoba. In the following centuries, the Christian territories (Asturias, Castile, Leon, Galicia, Aragon, Catalonia, etc.) became stronger and started their gradual expansion towards the south, which ended in 1492 with the conquest of Granada. All in all, the presence of Muslims in Al-Andalus comprises a period of more than seven centuries, which resulted in an important legacy that is still felt today, e.g. in the Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula, where there are many words from Arabic. Now, what was the linguistic situation in the territories under Muslim rule?
It is generally thought that the Muslim territories were basically bilingual in the first centuries of this period, with one language (Arabic) connected with power, religion and administration, and a series of Romance dialects, generally referred to as Mozarabic, spoken by a high percentage of the population. When the Castilians conquered the city of Toledo in1085, they found a multicultural society, with Christian, Muslim and Jewish elements. However, this situation of relative, diglossic balance in Al-Andalus started to break at the end of the 11th century, with the arrival of the Almoravids, who established their Kingdom from 1085 to 1145. The Almoravids had a more rigorous view on religious matters and pursued a repressive policy against the non-Muslim or non-Arabic. But they were not the only ‘fundamentalists’ who arrived in Al-Andalus. They were followed by the Almohads, who ruled between 1147 and 1227. It is clear that in those years the Romance dialects spoken in Muslim territory were in a very weak position, and some scholars think that by the 13th century their presence in those territories was minimal. It is supposed, for example, that when King James I of Aragon conquered Valencia in 1238, the population of this city was predominantly or (for some scholars) nearly exclusively Arabic-speaking. This, however, has been a matter of hard-fought debate, because of its ideological implications. In general, Arabic continued as a living language in the new Catholic kingdoms, but in a position of inferiority to the languages of the new elite. The repressive measures against the Muslim population increased after the end of the ‘Reconquista’, and culminated in 1606, when the remaining 'Moriscos' (Muslims 'converted' to Christianity) where expelled, ending a nine-century period of Arabic as a spoken language in the Iberian Peninsula.
As we have seen, the emergence of fundamentalist ideologies, triggered by a series of complex historical events, put an end to a long history of cultural hybridization and coexistence in Al-Andalus. If we look at some of the historical figures of this period we can get a rich picture of the times they lived in. One of them is Muhammad Ibn Mardaniś (1124 or 1125- 1172), also known as the Wolf King. He ruled over the Kingdom of Murcia (one of the Taifa Kingdoms into which Al-Andalus was divided at the time) and became an important political figure of his time, and also a controversial one. He expanded the limits of his Kingdom, incorporating new territories in eastern Spain, among them the region of Valencia. King Mardaniś was an example of hybridization. He came from a Hispanic family who had converted to Islam (his surname is supposed to derive from the same source as Martínez or other similar Romance names). His attitude towards the Catholic Kingdoms or the presence of Hispanic elements in his troops, and also some aspects of his private life (for example the clothes he used to wear), reveal the mixture of cultural elements in his personality. During his reign he had to fight the Almohads, who were trying to impose a unified, ultra-orthodox state in Al-Andalus. It was only after his death, in 1172, that the Kingdom of Murcia became a vassal to the Almohads. This defeat can also be seen as the end of an era in the history of the Iberian Peninsula, and the beginning of another. I find it surprising that his life, so full of events and marked by such a rich and controversial personality, has not yet inspired a major literary work or a feature film.
- for more on Ibn Mardaniś you can read this article, by Ignacio González Cavero. In Spanish.
- further reading on the languages of Al-Andalus: Federico CORRIENTE (2008). Romania Arabica. Tres cuestiones básicas: arabismos, 'mozárabe' y 'jarchas'. Madrid, Trotta.
- first picture: Muslim architecture in the Mosque of Cordoba.
- second picture: Castle of Monteagudo, near Murcia, an important place in Ibn Mardaniś's life. Source: here.
Last Edit: 5 March 2009