The Arabs Conquest and the Spanish Colonization’ Comparison

Even though the Muslim rule in Iberia and the Spanish colonization of the New World may seem to have had very little in common, at least in the spatial sense of this word, this is far from being the case. After all, it is not only that a number of historical parallels can be drawn between the both, but also that the mentioned developments appear to be closely interrelated. This simply could not be otherwise – the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (8th century A.D.) and the Spanish Imperial presence in what later became known as Latin America, represent the organically interrelated elements of Hispanidad (Spanish cultural/civilizational legacy).

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The same can be said about the historical legacy of Al-Andalus (as a part of the Umayyad and Almohad Caliphates through 718-1031 AD) – even today most Shiites and Sunnis of the Arabic descent believe that it had a strong effect on the formation of Muslim civilization, as we know it. At the same time, however, the conquest of Iberia by the Arabs and the colonization of the New World by the Spanish are hardly comparable, in the sense of what were the actual effects of both historical developments. After all, if it was not the case, the former would not be strongly associated with the notion of ‘progress’ and the latter would not evoke the notion of ‘depravity’, as it happened to be the case nowadays. In this paper, we will explore the above-mentioned phenomenon at length while promoting the idea that the inconsistency in question is best addressed within the context of what was the varying influence of Greco-Roman antiquity on early Islam and Christianity through the 15th-16th centuries.

As of today, there can be only a few doubts that if anything, the conquest of Iberia by Moors (or ‘Saracens’) had very little to do with the classical connotations of the concerned term. That is, even though there was indeed a strongly defined coercive quality to the historical development in question, the actual process of the Peninsula’s Christian inhabitants having been subjugated by the Muslim invaders from Northern Africa was anything but genocidal. Partially, this explains both – the fact that it only took the Arabs eight years to conquer 90% of the Iberian Peninsula and the fact that, throughout the entirety of the Islamic rule in Iberia, there has not been recorded even a single instance of the native people’s armed rebellion against the ‘Saracens’.

There are a few reasons, as to why this was the case.

First, by the 8th century AD, at least a good half of the Peninsula’s population consisted of the adherents of Arianism – one of the early versions of Christianity that used to renounce the doctrine of the ‘holy trinity’ while claiming that Jesus was merely a prophet and most certainly not the ‘Son of God’. It is understood, of course, that this did contribute rather substantially towards ensuring the fast pace of the Muslim conquest of Iberia – the mentioned theological postulate is thoroughly consistent with how Muslims think of Jesus.1

Second, it did not take too long for the representatives of the Visigothic nobility to realize that they would be so much better off agreeing to submit to the Muslim rule and to form vassalage-alliances with the newly arrived Arabic conquerors, as the mean of winning an upper hand in the domestic quarrels with each other. According to Bennison, “Within a few years of the conquest, there is evidence of agreements and alliances being struck between Muslim commanders and Visigothic notables”.2 The terms of some of these alliances used to allow much religious and economic liberty to the conquered: “Treaty of Theodemir… allowed the Visigothic dux of Murcia to retain control of his lands and his people to practice Christianity, in return for a stipulated tribute in kind”.3 This provides yet another explanation as to why the Muslim conquest of Iberia proceeded rather smoothly.

Third, there used to be a clearly defined progress-facilitating quality to the formation of the religious Umma (community) in the Umayyad Caliphate (including Al-Andalus). Consequently, this made it possible for Iberian Christians to refrain from considering the invading Arabs ‘pure evil’ – quite contrary to how the Spanish historians would refer to the invaders after the end of the Reconquista in 1492. Probably the clearest indication that has indeed been the case has to do with the fact that under the Umayyads, the supposedly religious functions of the state used to serve the essentially secular purposes. As Berkey noted, “The Umayyads… have been accused of corrupting the polity and the new religion, abandoning the path laid down by the Prophet and followed by the first four ‘rightly-guided’ caliphs, and transforming the caliphate into mulk, ‘secular kingship’”.4 As a result, there were indeed many objective prerequisites for Al-Andalus to remain on the leading edge of the scientific and cultural progress in Europe, well after the decline of the Umayyad dynasty.

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The validity of the above-stated can be illustrated, in relation to the following historically proven facts: Throughout the 8th-13th centuries AD, Al-Andalus accounted for the most culturally, scientifically and socially advanced part of Europe. Whereas, the overwhelming majority of people in the North of Al-Andalus consisted of nothing short of uneducated and superstitious barbarians, preoccupied with trying to survive physically on a daily basis, most Al-Andalusians were in the position to enjoy the unprecedentedly high (as for the historical period in question) standards of living. Moreover, they were allowed to have unrestricted access to a high-quality education. Through the middle part of the historical period in question, the population of Cordova (founded by the Arabs) has reached 100.000, which made it the largest city in Europe. The town also had a fully operational sewer system – something unheard of in medieval Europe.

During the reign of Caliph Hakam II, the number of public baths and public libraries in Al-Andalus has reached 900 and 70, respectively.5 At the time, most people in the semi-barbarian Christian kingdoms did not even know why to bathe, in the first place – not even to mention that due to being overwhelmingly illiterate, they did not know how to read or write. While taking practical advantage of the Greco-Roman antiquity’s scientific legacy, Al-Andalusian scientists have made many groundbreaking discoveries in the fields of Chemistry, Astronomy, Geography, Physics and Mathematics. Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that contemporary historians tend to refer to the Caliphates of Almohad and Umayyad as having been the de facto descendants of the Roman/Byzantium Empires.

After all, these Islam-driven geopolitical entities succeeded rather spectacularly in incorporating the imperial ideals of cosmopolitism, urbanism, secularism and rationalism into the very core of their functional paradigm. As Lázaro pointed out, “Contemporaries raised the collaboration of Almohad ideology and Aristotelian-inspired science as complementary pillars of the Maghrib-West’s success… true science (‘ilm) —both theological and natural/philosophical—was to be found in the Maghrib-West”.6 This point of view is consistent with how the Arab conquerors of Iberia used to think of their role in history – even though they were affiliated with the religion of Islam, these people truly believed that it was up to them to preserve the intellectual inheritance of ancient Greeks and Romans. In this respect, Bennison came up with a valuable observation, “Although Muslim references to the Roman or Visigothic past were often implicit rather than overt, it is clear that the rulers of al-Andalus in general, and the Umayyads in particular, envisaged themselves as its heirs”.7 This alone predetermined the situation that while exercising political and religious control over the Iberian Peninsula (prior to the beginning of Reconquista), Muslims used to refrain from enforcing their cultural and religious customs upon the native population of Christian Iberians in the strongly atrocious manner.

Another reason for this was that in full accordance with the Mosaic tradition (incorporated in the theological doctrine of Islam, Judaism and Christianity); the affiliates of both monotheistic religions pray to essentially the same God.8 The above-mentioned explains why, after having been conquered by the ‘Saracens’, native Iberians began to convert to Islam at an alarmingly high rate. Apparently, in the aftermath of the concerned historical development, the Peninsula’s native inhabitants began to perceive Islam and the Arabic culture ever more appealing.

The conquest of the New World by the Spanish proceeded in a rather divergent manner. Whereas the Arabs have brought to Iberia science and culture, the Spanish initial ‘contribution’ to the making of the New World had to do with triggering the drastic reduction in the number of ‘Indians’. This simply could not be otherwise – while in the New World, Spanish conquistadors were solely preoccupied with seeking gold and silver, without trying to make any secret of it. As the famous conquistador, Francisco Pizarro pointed out, “I have come to take their gold away from them (Incas)”.9 In this respect, the religion of Christianity (Catholicism) came in utterly handy – throughout the early phases of the Spanish colonization of the ‘Indies’, it was used to justify the richness-seeking and consequently genocidal endeavors of Spaniards in this part of the world. After all, according to many Catholic theologians of the time, the only indication that the natives of the New World were human was their human-like appearance.

According to the former, however, this could hardly be considered a good enough reason for ‘savages’ to be treated humanely. The validity of this statement can be illustrated, with respect to the clearly genocidal rhetoric of one of such Spanish theologians Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, “His (Sepúlveda’s) argument hinged on the image of the Indians as subhuman creatures, filthy, ignorant, ‘like pigs with their eyes fixed always on the ground,’ lascivious and idolatrous, given to unnatural practices such as incest, cannibalism, and human sacrifice”.10 It is understood, of course, that the discursive dehumanization of ‘Indians’, perpetrated by the representatives of the Spanish intellectual elite through the 16th century, could not result in anything else but in legitimizing the barbaric colonial practices of Spaniards. The Catholic Church has helped such a development even further by confirming that the Holy Inquisition indeed had the right to expand its ‘operational field’ to include the newly found ‘savages’ in the New World.

Nevertheless, there can be only a few doubts that, as compared to how the Anglo-Saxon Protestants used to treat the Natives in North America (this ‘treatment’ involved a wholesale extermination of the ‘Indians’), the Spanish approach to dealing with aboriginal populations was much more humane. After all, throughout the concerned historical period, more and more Spanish theologians and priests were becoming awakened to the fact that there could be hardly any justification to the greed-driven barbarity of their countrymen in the ‘God’s given new land’. The most prominent of them was Bartolomé de las Casas – a Dominican friar, known for the fact that he did apply much of an effort while trying to reduce the severity of the Spanish colonial ‘excesses’ in Latin America.

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Las Casas never ceased reminding his contemporaries that they were nothing but the descendants of ancient pro-Iberians (who were forced to submit to the Roman rule in 218 BC), “Las Casas was attempting to inspire in his Spanish readers a chastened sense of shared humanity between the New World natives and the ancient—and hence also the modern—‘Spaniards’”.11 What is quite noteworthy here is that while promoting the humane treatment of ‘Indians’, las Casas preferred to refer to the Spanish ancestral memories of the Roman conquest of Iberia, without mentioning too much the sub-sequential Muslim invasion of the Peninsula. Such las Casas’ stance may appear somewhat illogical. After all, according to the Spanish official historiography of the time, the latter historical event has been much more detrimental to the agendas of the Peninsula’s native inhabitants.12 Apparently, there was a strongly defined subliminal sounding to las Casas’ line of argumentation, regarding what should be have been considered the morally appropriate strategy for dealing with ‘savages’ in the newly discovered ‘Indies’. This once again suggests that even though there are indeed many parallels between the Arabic and Spanish colonial expansions, the concerned similarity is essentially technical and not qualitative.

To add to the validity of this suggestion even further, we can refer to what was the ultimate effect of Spain having secured access to the virtually unlimited source of gold and silver in the New World – the eventual decline of the Spanish Empire due to the gold-induced economic and functional inefficiency. As Padgen aptly observed, “Spain’s problems could all be attributed to the failure to understand that the increase in the production of bullion could only lead to its devaluation”.13 What it means is that unlike what it used to be the case with the Muslim rulers of Spain, the Spanish rulers of the ‘Indies’ were not capable of indulging in the systemic/rational type of thinking, associated with the ways of Greco-Roman antiquity. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that in the 16th century’s Spain, the intellectual legacy of the ancient Greeks and Romans continued to be assessed within the theological framework of medieval scholasticism – something that prevented the Spaniards from being able to benefit from their awareness of it to its fullest, in the practical sense of this word.

In Al-Andalus, on the other hand, this legacy used to be seen as such that represents a useful asset for tackling the challenges of life. Ironically enough, this was exactly what has brought about the end of the Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula – Al-Andalusian Arabs tended to limit the effects of their knowledge of ancient science/philosophy on the theological doctrine of Islam.14 Consequently, this prevented them from being able to develop the sense of national identity through religion – something that predetermined the eventual triumph of Spanish Reconquista. After all, it was specifically the continuation of the formally theological, but essentially tribal squabbles among the Arabic rulers of Al-Andalus, which contributed towards weakening the Islamic grip on the Iberian Peninsula more than anything else did.

Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to explain the mentioned specifics of the Muslim conquest of Iberia and the Spanish colonization of Latin America, within the context of what accounted for the influence of both peoples’ awareness of the Greco-Roman intellectual vestige on the very workings of their psyche. In the case of Spaniards, such their awareness enabled them to develop into a nation – even if not very friendly towards the notions of ‘progress’ and ‘science’. Quite to the opposite – such awareness, on the part of Al-Andalusian Arabs, did make it possible for them to advance science and culture. At the same time, however, it did not help them to become less tribally minded – something that made it only a matter of time before they would be expelled out of Europe. I believe that this conclusion is fully consistent with the initially provided thesis. Apparently, the ways of history are not quite as straightforward, as most people tend to think of them.


Bennison, Amira. “The Peoples of the North in the Eyes of the Muslims of Umayyad Al-Andalus (711-1031).” Journal of Global History 2, no. 2 (07, 2007): 157-174.

Berkey, Jonathan. The Formation of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987.

Lázaro, Fabio López. “The Rise and Global Significance of the First “West”: The Medieval Islamic Maghrib.” Journal of World History 24, no. 2 (2013): 259-307.

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Lupher, David. Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Pagden, Anthony. Peoples and Empires: Europeans and the Rest of the World, from Antiquity to the Present. London: Phoenix Press, 2002.


1 Jonathan Berkey, The Formation of Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 74.

2 Amira Bennison, “The Peoples of the North in the Eyes of the Muslims of Umayyad Al-Andalus (711-1031).” Journal of Global History 2, no. 2 (2007): 162.

3 Ibid., 163.

4 Berkey, 79.

5 Bennison, 166.

6 López.Lázaro, “The Rise and Global Significance of the First “West”: The Medieval Islamic Maghrib.” Journal of World History 24, no. 2 (2013): 284.

7 Amira Bennison. “The Peoples of the North in the Eyes of the Muslims of Umayyad Al-Andalus (711-1031).” Journal of Global History 2, no. 2 (2007): 162.

8 Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987), 56.

9 Anthony Pagden, Peoples and Empires: Europeans and the Rest of the World, from Antiquity to the Present (London: Phoenix Press, 2002), 65.

10 Ibid., 69.

11 David Lupher. Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 197.

12 Bennison, 161.

13 Padgen, 77.

14 Lázaro, 280.

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