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Medieval Sourcebook:
Ibn Said:
Book of the Maghrib, 13th Century


Ibn Said was a Spanish Muslim writer of the 13th century. He describes the Moorish culture of Spains in much of its richness, and also explains the divisions within that culture which were to allow the Christian conquest of the areas.

Andalus [the Iberian peninsula], which was conquered in the year 92 of the Hijra, continued for many years to be a dependency of the Eastern Khalifate, until it was snatched away from their hands by one of the surviving members of the family of Umeyyah (Umayyad), who, crossing over from Barbary, subdued the country, and formed therein an independent kingdom, which he transmitted to his posterity. During three centuries and a half, Andalus, governed by the princes of this dynasty, reached the utmost degree of power and prosperity, until civil war breaking out among its inhabitants, the Muslims, weakened by internal discord, became every where the prey of the artful Christians, and the territory of Islam was considerably reduced, so much so that at the present moment the worshippers of the crucified hold the greatest part of Andalus in their hands, and their country is divided into various powerful kingdoms, whose rulers assist each other whenever the Muslims attack their territories. This brings to my recollection the words of an eastern geographer who visited Andalus in the fourth century of the Hijra (tenth century A.D.), and during the prosperous times of the Cordovan Khalifate, I mean Ibnu Haukal Annassibi, who, describing Andalus, speaks in very unfavourable terms of its inhabitants. As his words require refutation I shall transcribe here the whole of the passage. "Andalus," he says, "is an extensive island, a little less than a month's march in length, and twenty and odd days in width. It abounds in rivers and springs, is covered with trees and plants of every description, and is amply provided with every article which adds to the comforts of life; slaves are very fine, and may be procured for a small price on account of their abundance; owing, too, to the fertility of the land, which yields all sorts of grain, vegetables, and fruit, as well as to the number and goodness of its pastures in which innumerable flocks of cattle graze, food is exceedingly abundant and cheap, and the inhabitants are thereby plunged into indolence and sloth, letting mechanics and men of the lowest ranks of society overpower them and conduct their affairs. Owing to this it is really astonishing how the Island (i.e., peninsula) of Andalus still remains in the hands of the Muslims, being, as they are, people of vicious habits and low inclinations, narrow-minded, and entirely devoid of fortitude, courage, and the military accomplishments necessary to meet face to face the formidable nations of Christians who surround them on every side, and by whom they are continually assailed."

Such are the words of Ibnu Haukal; but, if truth be told, I am at a loss to guess to whom they are applied. To my countrymen they certainly are not; or, if so, it is a horrible calumny, for if any people on the earth are famous for their courage, their noble qualities, and good habits, it is the Muslims of Andalus; and indeed their readiness to fight the common enemy, their constancy in upholding the holy tenets of their religion, and their endurance of the hardships and privations of war, have become almost proverbial. So, as far as this goes, Ibnu Haukal is decidedly in error, for as the proverb says, "the tongue of stammering is at times more eloquent than the tongue of eloquence." As to the other imputation, namely, their being devoid of all senses, wisdom, and talent, either in the field or in administration, would to God that the author's judgment were correct, for then the ambition of the chiefs would not have been raised, and the Muslims would not have turned against each other's breasts and dipped in each other's blood those very weapons which God Almighty put into their hands for the destruction and annihilation of the infidel Christian. But, as it is, we ask-were those Sultans and Khalifs wanting in prudence and talents who governed this country for upwards of five hundred years, and who administered its affairs in the midst of foreign war and civil discord? Were those fearless warriors deficient in courage and military science who withstood on the frontiers of the Muslim empire the frightful shock of the innumerable infidel nations who dwell within and out of Andalus, whose extensive territories cover a surface of three months' march, and all of whom ran to arms at a moment's notice to defend the religion of the crucified? And if it be true that at the moment I write the Muslims have been visited by the wrath of heaven, and that the Almighty has sent down defeat and shame to their arms, are we to wonder at it at a time when the Christians, proud of their success, have carried their arms as far as Syria and Mesopotamia, have invaded the districts contiguous to the country which is the meeting place of the Muslims, and the cupola of Islam, committed all sorts of ravages and depredations, and conquered the city of Haleb (Aleppo) and its environs, and done other deeds which are sufficiently declared in the histories of the time? No, it is by no means to be wondered at, especially when proper attention is paid to the manner in which the Andalusian Muslims have come to their present state of weakness and degradation. The process is this: the Christians will rush down from their mountains, or across the plain, and make an incursion into the Muslim territory; there they will pounce upon a castle and seize it: they will ravage the neighbouring country, take the inhabitants captive, and then retire to their country with all the plunder they have collected, leaving, nevertheless, strong garrisons in the castles and towers captured by them. In the meanwhile the Muslim king in whose dominions the inroad has been made, instead of attending to his own interests and stopping the disease by applying cauterization, will be waging war against his neighbours of the Muslims; and these, instead of defending the common cause, the cause of religion and truth,-instead of assisting their brother, will confederate and ally to deprive him of whatever dominions still remain in his hands. So, from a trifling evil at first, it will grow into an irreparable calamity, and the Christians will advance farther and farther until they subdue the whole of that country exposed to their inroads, where, once established and fortified, they will direct their attacks to another part of the Muslim territories, and carry on the same war of havoc and destruction. Nothing of this, however, existed at the time when Ibnu Haukal visited Andalus; for although we are told by Ibnu Hayyan and other writers that the Christians began as early as the reign of 'Abdu-r-rahman 11 (912-961) to grow powerful, and to annoy the Muslims on the frontiers, yet it is evident that until the breaking out of the civil wars, which raged with uncommon violence throughout Andalus, the encroachments of the barbarians on the extensive and unprotected frontiers of the Muslim empire were but of little consequence.

But to return to our subject. During the first years after the conquest the government of Andalus was vested in the hands of military commanders appointed by the Viceroys of Africa, who were themselves named by the Khalifs of Damascus. These governors united in their hands the command of the armies and the civil power, but, being either removed as soon as named, or deposed by military insurrections, much confusion and disorder reigned at all times in the state, and the establishment and consolidation of the Muslim power in Andalus were thwarted in their progress at the very onset. It was not until the arrival of the Beni Umeyyah in Andalus that the fabric of Islam may be said to have rested on a solid foundation. When 'Abdur rahman lbn Mu'awiyeh had conquered the country, when every rebel had submitted to him, when all his opponents had sworn allegiance to him, and his authority had been universally acknowledged, then his importance increased, his ambition spread wider, and both he and his successors displayed the greatest magnificence in their court, and about their persons and retinue, as likewise in the number of officers and great functionaries of the state. At first they contented themselves with the title of Benti-l-khaliyif (sons of the Khalifs), but in process of time, when the limits of their empire had been considerably extended by their conquests on the opposite land of Africa, they took the appellation of Khalifs and Omara-l-mumenin (Princes of the believers). It is generally known that the strength and solidity of their empire consisted principally in the policy pursued by these princes, the magnificence and splendour with which they surrounded their court, the reverential awe with which they inspired their subjects, the inexorable rigour with which they chastised every aggression on their rights, the impartiality of their judgments, their anxious solicitude in the observance of the civil law, their regard and attention to the learned, whose opinions they respected and followed, calling them to their sittings and admitting them to their councils, and many other brilliant qualities; in proof of which frequent anecdotes occur in the works of Ibnu Hayyan and other writers; as, for instance, that whenever a judge summoned the Khalif, his son, or any of his most beloved favourites, to appear in his presence as a witness in a judicial case, whoever was the individual summoned would attend in person-if the Khalif, out of respect for the law-and if a subject, for fear of incurring his master's displeasure.

But when this salutary awe and impartial justice had vanished, the decay of their empire began, and it was followed by a complete ruin. I have already observed that the princes of that dynasty were formerly styled Omard-bnci-l-khalafa (Amirs, sons of the Khalifs), but that in latter times they assumed the title of Omara-l-mumenin (Princes of the believers). This continued until the disastrous times of the civil war, when the surviving members of the royal family hated each other, and when those who had neither the nobility nor the qualities required to honour the Khalifate pretended to it and wished for it; when the governors of provinces and the generals of armies declared themselves independent and rose every where in their governments, taking the title of Moluku-t-tawdyif (Kings of small estates), and when confusion and disorder were at their highest pitch. These petty sovereigns, of whom some read the khotbah [Friday sermon] for the Khalifs of the house of Merwan-in whose hands no power whatsoever remained-while others proclaimed the Abbasid Sultans, and acknowledged their Imam, all began to exercise the powers and to use the appendages of royalty, assuming even the titles and names of former Khalifs, and imitating in every thing the bearing and splendour of the most powerful sovereigns,-a thing which they were enabled to accomplish from the great resources of the countries over which they ruled,-for although Andalus was divided into sundry petty kingdoms, yet such was the fertility of the land, and the amount of taxes collected from it, that the chief of a limited state could at times display at his court a greater magnificence than the ruler of extensive dominions. However, the greatest among them did not hesitate to assume, as I have already observed, the names and titles of the most famous Eastern Khalifs; for instance, Ibnu Rashik Al-kairwini says that 'Abbad Ibn Mohammed Ibn 'Abbad took the surname of Al-mu'atadhed, and imitated in all things the mode of life and bearing of the Abbasid Khalif Al-mu'atadhed-billah; his son, Mohammed Ibn 'Abbad, was styled Almu'atamed; both reigned in Seville, to which kingdom they in process of time added Cordova and other extensive territories in the southern and western parts of Andalus, as will hereafter be shown.

As long as the dynasty of Umeyyah occupied the throne of Cordova, the successors of 'Abdurrahman contrived to inspire their subjects with love of their persons, mixed with reverential awe; this they accomplished by surrounding their courts with splendour, by displaying the greatest magnificence whenever they appeared in public, and by employing other means which I have already hinted at, and deem it not necessary to repeat: they continued thus until the times of the civil war, when, having lost the affections of the people, their subjects began to look with an evil eye at their prodigal expense, and the extravagant pomp with which they surrounded their persons. Then came the Benf Hamud, the descendants of ldris, of the progeny of 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib, who, having snatched the Khalifate from the hands of the Benf Merwin, ruled for some time over the greatest part of Andalus. These princes showed also great ostentation, and, assuming the same titles that the Abbasid Khalifs had borne, they followed their steps in every thing concerning the arrangements of their courts and persons; for instance, whenever a munshid wanted to extemporize some verses in praise of his sovereign, or any subject wished to address him on particular business, the poet or the petitioner was introduced to the presence of the Khalif, who sat behind a curtain and spoke without showing himself, the Hajib or curtain drawer standing all the time by his side to communicate to the party the words or intentions of the Khalif. So when Ibnu Mokond Al-lishboni (from Lisbon), the poet, appeared in presence of the Hdjib of ldris Ibn Yahya Al-hamyudi, who was proclaimed Khalif of Malaga, to recite the kassidah of his which is so well known and rhymes in min, when he came to that part which runs thus-

 

The countenance of ldrfs, son of Yahya, son of Alf, son of Hamild, prince of the believers, is like a rising sun; it dazzles the eyes of those who look at it-

Let us see it, let us seize the rays of yonder light, for it is the light of the master of the worlds- The Sultan himself drew the curtain which concealed him, and said to the poet-"Look, then," and showed great affability to Ibn Mokena, and rewarded him very handsomely.

But when, through the civil war, the country was broken up into sundry petty sovereignties, the new monarchs followed quite a different line of politics; for, wishing to become popular, they treated their subjects with greater familiarity, and had a more frequent intercourse with all classes of society; they often reviewed their troops, and visited their provinces; they invited to their presence the doctors and poets, and wished to be held from the beginning of their reign as the patrons of science and literature: but even this contributed to the depression of the royal authority, which thus became every day less dreaded; besides, the arms of the Muslims being employed during the long civil wars against one another, the inhabitants of the different provinces began to look on each other with an evil eye; the ties by which they were united became loose, and a number of independent states were formed, the government of which passed from father to son, in the same manner as the empire of Cordova had been transmitted to the sons and heirs of the Khalifs. Thus separated from each other, the Muslims began to consider themselves as members of different nations, and it became every day more difficult for them to unite in the common cause; and owing to their divisions, and to their mutual enmity, as well as to the sordid interest and extravagant ambition of some of their kings, the Christians were enabled to attack them in detail, and subdue them one after the other. However, by the arrival of the Beni 'Abdu-l mumen all those little states were again blended into one, and the whole of Andalus acknowledged their sway, and continued for many years to be ruled by their successors, until, civil war breaking out again, Ibn Hud, surnamed Almutawakel, revolted, and finding the people of Andalus ill-disposed against the Almohads, and anxious to shake off their yoke, he easily made himself master of the country. Ibn Hud, however, followed the policy of his predecessors (the kings of the small states); he even surpassed them in folly and ignorance of the rules of good government, for he used to walk about the streets and markets, conversing and laughing with the lowest people, asking them questions, and doing acts unsuitable to his high station, and which no subject ever saw a Sultan do before, so much so that it was said, not without foundation, that he looked more like a performer of legerdemain than a king. Fools, and the ignorant vulgar seemed, it is true, to gaze with astonishment and pleasure at this familiarity, but as the poet has said- These are things to make the fools laugh, but the consequences of which prudent people are taught to fear. These symptoms went on increasing until populous cities and extensive districts became the prey of the Christians, and whole kingdoms were snatched from the hands of the Muslims. Another very aggravating circumstance added its weight to the general calamity, namely, the facility with which the power changed hands. Whoever has read attentively what we have just said about the mode of attaining and using the royal power in Andalus, must be convinced that nothing was so easy, especially in latter times, as to arrive at it. The process is this: whenever a knight is known to surpass his countrymen in courage, generosity, or any of those qualities which make a man dear to the vulgar, the people cling to him, follow his party, and soon after proclaim him their king, without paying the least regard to his ascendancy, or stopping to consider whether he is of royal blood or not. The new king then transmits the state as an inheritance to his son or nearest relative, and thus a new dynasty is formed. I may, in proof of this, quote a case which hasjust taken place among us: a certain captain made himself famous by his exploits, and the victories he won over the enemy, as likewise by his generous and liberal disposition towards the citizens and the army; all of a sudden his friends and partisans resolved to raise him to the throne, and regardless of their own safety, as well as that of their families, friends, and clients residing at court, and whose lives were by their imprudence put in great jeopardy, they rose in a castle, and proclaimed him king; and they never ceased toiling, calling people to their ranks, and fighting their opponents, until their object was accomplished, and their friend solidly established on his throne. Now Eastern people are more cautious about altering the succession, and changing the reigning dynasty; they will on the contrary avoid it by all possible means, and do their best to leave the power in the hands of the reigning family, rather than let discord and civil dissensions sap the foundations of the state, and introduce dissolution and corruption into the social body.

Among us the change of dynasty is a thing of frequent occurrence, and the present ruler of Andalus, Ibnu-1-ahmar, is another instance of what I have advanced. He was a good soldier, and had been very successful in some expeditions a ainst the Christians, whose territories he was continually invading, sallying out at the head of his followers from a castle called Hisn-Aijanah (Aijona), where he generally resided. Being a shrewd man, and versed in all the stratagems of war, he seldom went out on an expedition without returning victorious, and laden with plunder, owing to which he amassed great riches, and the number of his partisans and followers were considerably increased. At last, being prompted by ambition to aspire to the royal power, he at first caused his troops to proclaim him king; then sallying out of his stronghold he got possession of Cordova, marched against Seville, took it, and killed its king Al-baji. After this he subdued Jaen, the strongest and most important city in all Andalus, owing to its walls and the position it occupies, conquered likewise Malaga, Granada, and their districts, and assumed the title of Amiru-1-moslemin (Prince of the Muslims); and at the moment I write he is obeyed all over A-ndalus, and every one looks to him for advice and protection.

From Ibn Said, Book of the Maghrib, in Ahmed ibm Mohammed al-Makkari, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, translated by Pascuual de Gayangos s, (London: Oriental Translation Fund, 1840), 1, 95-102

 


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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(c)Paul Halsall Jan 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu