Did the Arabs really invade Hispania?

This is my translation, with permission, of an article that appeared in the online edition of El País. It was written by my supervisor, Prof. Eduardo Manzano.

On many websites and forums, it’s easy to find posts and comments categorically affirming that the Arab conquest of the year 711 – which every primary-school pupil learns about – never took place. It was a fairy tale, they say, invented by historians who either meant to disguise the truth, or proved thickheadedly credulous towards what the chronicles recount; chronicles that were written long after King Roderic lost his kingdom.

Then what happened at the famous Battle of Guadalete? The defenders of this theory – who have an answer to everything – assure us that the whole thing was a war between Visigoths, one faction of which was still practicing Arianism: the heresy that Christ isn’t of the same substance as the Father, which every Catholic proclaims when he recites the Nicene Creed. The Arians must have won this conflict, with the result that Hispania broke away from the Catholic orbit, and was progressively arabised and converted to Islam through commercial and cultural contact over the course of the ninth century.

The question of how such nonsense could have such an impact is one of the themes explored by Alejandro García Sanjuán, a professor at the University of Huelva, in an excellent book on the subject, just published. The idea came originally from a writer called Ignacio Olagüe, who in his youth, before the Civil War, had frequented the fascist circles of Ledesma Ramos – as my colleague at the National Research Council, Maribel Fierro, has already shown.

When the struggle was over, Olagüe seems to have become a jobless writer, with the means to, amongst other things, write distasteful treatises on The Decadence of Spain and a few forgotten novels. In 1969 he convinced the French historian Fernand Braudel to support the publication of a no less distasteful book entitled Les arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne, later translated to Spanish in 1974 by the Juan March Foundation; which, at the time, was still directed by Cruz Martínez Esteruelas, who would later become a Francoist minister.

Olagüe’s long-winded argument was meant to persuade the reader that there was no reliable contemporary witness to prove that they got to Hispania: the Arab armies couldn’t possibly have had the logistical capacity to reach a territory so far from their headquarters in the East.

Frostily received at the time of its publication, in the following three decades Olagüe’s work went on to grab the attention of diverse groups of people: scholars keen to show off unforeseen knowledge; fans of conspiracy theory; scatterbrained historians who considered it “demystifying” or “provocative”; and a certain Arabist determined, whatever the cost, to advertise his outlandish personal interpretation of our Andalusian past.

To further complicate matters, the idea was also received enthusiastically by groups of Spanish Muslim converts. Perhaps understandably fed up with having to prove that their views are respectable, and faced with people who only want to put them down, they must have reasoned: if it were proven that Islam had entered the peninsula peacefully, perhaps that would undermine the absurd arguments from every would-be reconquistador that we’ve been exposed to recently in our country.

The historical evidence, however, is stubborn – very stubborn. What it shows, beyond reasonable doubt, is that the Arabs did indeed conquer Hispania around the year 711 C.E.

There’s a lot to prove this. The most obvious are the coins: shortly after setting foot on the peninsula, the conqueror Musa ibn Nusayr began to issue gold coins with legends in Latin and dated to 712 or 713, which bore the Muslim profession of faith: Non deus nisi Deus (There is no god but God). In the following years, the conquerors minted bilingual coins – in Latin and Arabic – and finally coins exclusively in Arabic.

Furthermore, innumerable lead security and emblematic seals have come down to us bearing inscriptions in Arabic that refer to the governors who appear in the written sources. These lead seals have appeared in such interesting places as Ruscino, near Perpignan: definitely a military camp from which expeditions were sent to France and collected tribute.

On the other hand, it’s not true that there are no contemporary written testimonies from the conquest. In far-away England, the Venerable Bede (735) spoke of the coming of the “saracens” as far as the Gauls, just as the redactor of the Liber Pontificalis did in Rome. We possess, furthermore, two Latin chronicles, one written in 741 and the other in 754, which offer a certain amount of information about the new lords, where they’d come from and where they’d conquered.

It’s absolutely true that the Arab chronicles would take six or seven more decades to appear, but this isn’t particularly significant. The conquest was carried out by soldiers, and it would always have taken some time for Arab Andalusian society to take shape. Tito Livio similarly wrote long after the Roman conquest of Hispania, and nobody thinks that’s reason to doubt the arrival of the Roman legions.

As for the old canard that it’s impossible for eighth-century armies to have traversed such vast distances: we shouldn’t take this argument too seriously. We know that, as a general rule, people didn’t move around a lot in the Middle Ages; but when they did, nothing could hold them back.

Besides, if we mean to think about the past within the parameters of what we’re familiar with – sitting in our twenty-first-century armchairs – we could never understand the pyramids of Egypt, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the conquests of the Roman legions or the building of the cathedrals. Try proposing a similar enterprise at your next council meeting and then tell me if it’s possible to understand history within our own framework.

And the next time you hear someone say there are theories stating that the Arabs never conquered Spain, try to offer some of the evidence to show how preposterous that is. Perhaps, in most cases, that’ll get your opponent to see reason; but be prepared as well to come up against the most emphatic and irrational refusal to accept the most clear-cut evidence. It’s as the great Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio said: “No-one ever convinces everyone of anything.”

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

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