Book review: Caliphs and Kings

caliphs and kings roger collins

Buy Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031

Or use this affiliate link:

To find more books on the history of Spain, check out the List history of Spain books section.

Disclosure: I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in bringing you the podcast and a long list of books about Spanish history.

Review Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031

Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031 is one of the works of Hispanist Roger Collins on Medieval Spain. Roger Collins talks about the different Medieval states of the Iberian Peninsula before the disintegration of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba. This includes chapters focused on the Caliphate of Cordoba, the Kingdom of Asturias, the Kingdom of Leon, the County of Castile, the Counties of the Pyrenees and the Kingdom of Navarre. But not everything is about politics, in this book Roger Collins also debunks the theory that Muslim-dominated Spain was a place of religious tolerance and harmony between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Nonetheless, he also dmystifies some Christian Spanish nationalists theories about this period.

This is what customers on Amazon say:

“This book SHATTERS the myth that Islamic Spain was a land of tolerance between the Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars is because the book is very scholarly and it’s pretty dry in parts because of it. On a slightly cerebral note, I didn’t count the number of decapitated heads mentioned in this book, but it’d be a very high number. Someone needs to write a popular history of this time period with the same content because more people need to know what really happened in Al-Andalus.” – Anonymous Amazon customer

This new volume in the series “A History of Spain” follows in the footsteps of the two previous ones (“Visigothic Spain 409-711” and “The Arab Conquest of Spain, 711-797”), written by the same author. The later volume was first published in 1989 and the former on the Visigoths in Spain in 2006. Roger Collins uses Caliphs and Kings to revisit the Arab Conquest of Spain some 20 years later, and revisit some of the themes that he developed at the time, in the light of recent historical literature and archaeological findings. His thesis, summarized in the introduction, is that the Visigothic Kingdom was caught at a moment of weakness, rather than being in decline, or even decadent, when the Arab Conquest happened. Moreover, he shows that the Conquest was so swift because of a conjunction of events: a troubled and violent succession coupled with a civil war, the death of the King in battle against the invaders and the swift occupation of Toledo, the Kingdom’s capital, so that no other fully legitimate King could be crowned again.

He also shows that, beyond the Conquest, there were some fundamental changes but also many elements of continuity. Many families belonging to the elite submitted to the invaders were allowed to keep their lands and most of the political and economic power and converted within a few generations. However, Reilly also states that the Arab Conquest put an end, once and for all, to the political unity of the Iberian Peninsula. Never again would it be unified under a single authority. In addition, he also presents the Omayyad regime of Muslim Spain as having to almost continuously fight the separatist tendencies of numerous regional governors and warlords, especially (but not only) in the three Marches. The general impression that is conveyed is that of a relatively divided, heterogeneous and potentially weak Muslim regime that only the strongest among the Omayyad leaders could successfully hold together. Another component is to show what must have been at least one of the reasons for such endemic unrest. The taxes and tributes that the Emirs’ and then the Caliphs’ administration raised were essentially for their own exclusive benefit, and not for that of their subject. Also, the Emirate and then Caliphate was plagued by succession conflicts as all sons of the reigning monarch (and often all of his brothers as well) could stake a claim to the throne.

Despite this, and despite losing the conquered territories beyond the Pyrenees to the Franks by the end of the 8th century, and Barcelona by the beginning of the 9th, the Muslim regime in Spain is shown to have been much stronger than the small Christian kingdoms that were initially entrenched in the mountains of northern Spain. The attitude of the Ommayads and of the Muslims more generally, towards these kingdoms seems to have been rather ambivalent. After an initial failure to conquer them, they raided them regularly in the name of Holy War, destroying and pillaging what they came across but without seeking to conquer and obliterate these kingdoms once and for all. As Reilly shows rather well, this was both because such a conquest was probably not worth the effort and because these regular raids served the political purpose of demonstrating the Ommayads supremacy within their own territory over their own unruly military and often semi-independent and rebellious governors. Over time, however, the Christian kingdoms expanded and became stronger, taking advantage of the periods of weakness of the Caliphate until the later imploded into multiple successor states (the “taïfa” kingdoms).

Despite the author being a scholar and a specialist of the period, but sometimes also because of this, the book is somewhat difficult to read. They are a number of repetitions, especially when considering the various Christian Kingdoms and Counties, as the same event happens to be considered several times when each of the nascent kingdoms is analysed. Further confusion is introduced with many of the Christian leaders bearing similar names, fighting against each other or allying with each other against a third party as least as much as they fought against Muslim raiders and neighbouring warlords, or with them. An additional difficulty for a “general reader” is the book’s structure. In particular, the last four chapters, which cover the 10th and early 11th century, are not entirely chronological since they present an overview of major events and reigns in Al Andalus, Leon, Navarre and the Pyrenean counties and in the County of Castile. As a result, there is some hardly avoidable jumping back and forth which can be nonetheless confusing.

Interestingly, the volume includes a significant amount of discussion on both the Christian and the Muslim sources with the limitations of both categories of sources being highlighted. For the former, which are largely made up of charters, many of these, and in some cases up to half of them, are either 12th century forgeries or have been heavily interpolated during the 12th century in order to make good specific claims. Reilly also shows that some of the chronicles are quite unreliable and tend to “reconstruct” events or even invent genealogies in order to reinforce the claims and legitimacy of some of the monarchs under which they were written. Muslim “historians” are often no more reliable, although they do often preserve excerpts of older sources within their chronicles. This is largely because their purpose was not to tell history as we would understand it nowadays, but to tell – sometimes mythical and mostly embellished – stories. This is why, for instance, Reilly dismisses as a fiction the story of the vengeful “Count Julian”, Lord of Ceuta, who allegedly ferried the Muslim army of Tariq to Spain.

To conclude, this is a valuable book that displays impressive scholarship and develops interesting and, at times, fascinating theses and assumptions. Unfortunately, both the topic itself (Caliphs AND Kings) and the way it is treated also make this book hard to read and somewhat difficult to access for a “general” reader that does not have a particular interest in the topic. Such as reader might prefer to start with other narratives which have the benefit of being simpler and clearer, even if they are less comprehensive than this one, such as Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain.” – JPS (top 1000 reviewer)

And this is what a member of the Goodreads community said:

I don’t know how the hell I always get mixed up with these rigorously academic studies. I think the concept always intrigues me and then when I start reading I’m like Larry David, I just can’t abandon it until I’m done. No offense to Dr. Collin’s either, it’s just that you can tell he’s been grinding through the gears of academia his entire life; the sentences have all the indicative traces of it. Unfortunately this gets my eyes very bleary, and when their at that state I tend to think irrational thoughts, like, “this book deserves a one star rating” or “I should burn down my local university”. Of course, both of these statements are unfair, and, in one case, exceptionally illegal…


In “Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031” (2014), the intention of Roger Collins is, in a broad sense, to lay the framework for a historical understanding of the Umayyad rule in Spain during his chosen time frame (796-1031). Yep, a general history. But rest assured folks, Dr. Collin’s isn’t anywhere near this shallow, he’s got other things on his mind as well. Collins makes it crystal clear that he’s not fond of a popular vein of historiography associated with the period, mainly those that push the notion that this was some sort of perfect ‘golden age’ of mutual toleration (pg.2). Throughout the work Collins always takes great pains to try and argue against such a ‘rosy’ outlook, and the nice thing is, he does so with a fair degree of success. Collins is one of those valuable historians that actually cares a good deal about the scholarly treatment of the sources he is assessing, and he even knows how to point out things that seem particularly misleading.

For those not up to date with the historiographical traditions of Spanish high medieval history (who the hell is), you should know that the idea of convivencio (i.e. ‘La Convivencia), or coexistence, is vitally important to the portions of Collins argument’s that concern the degree of interaction/toleration during the Umayyad rule. Convivencio is something he cannot afford to skip discussing if he wants to be taken seriously, and yet, strangely enough, the actual word is never explicitly mentioned anywhere in the text. Even before the chapter devoted specifically to this topic, i.e. “The Christians of al-Andalus”, we only come into very subtle contact with his thoughts on such perceived collaboration. Collins asserts that, on a political level, Umayyad behavior in the 9th and 10th century, especially there deliberate attempt to not capture more territory (pg.23), is an example, not of Christian/Muslim collaboration or understanding, but rather the lack of aggression (strategic and diplomatic jihad tactic, pg.26) on the side of the Umayyad’s. On a more social level, he says that Muslim influences on Christian ideas were less pronounced then once was thought to believe. He denounces the ‘Mozarabic style’ (pg.119) from having a particularly heavy effect on Spanish architecture, while also claiming that class tensions were higher than ever (pg.169) in the ‘golden age’ of “Abd al-Rahman III”. It should already be easy to see that Collins’ approach doesn’t position itself statically in the comfortable realm of simple political history. If that’s what you wanted out of such a book I suggest looking elsewhere, since he’d rather examine the cultural contact through a constantly questioning investigative lens.

In convivencio arguments he often proves his points by comparing and contrasting scholarly opinions on the ideas put forth, while also heavily criticising what he considers weakness in the source material. Collins will talk in-depth about his thoughts concerning the strength of the sources, an approach that tends to be to his advantage. This is because, more often than not, his position will rely on the ability of his argument to compare and contrast with different scholarly treatment. This type of inquiry can only be executed admirably if the writer has a strong grasp of all of the surrounding causes, secondary authorities, and primary source knowledge, or it would look sloppy and superfluous. Luckily for the reader, Collins usually possesses all three. A case that illustrates this strength can be clearly seen in his ch.7 discussion of the stature of ethnic variance (pg.174-176) in the later Al-Andalus period (‘golden age’). In his analysis he does not concede the idea of a total ethnic convivencio easily. Collins makes it a point to include, not just Christian treatment in the total sum, but rather represent all levels of social variance (Jewish, Arabic, Berbers, etc). By employing this type of comparative approach Collins can argue for a much fuller image of potential coexistence, because it allows him to compare the treatment each social group receives within the realm of the others.

The study isn’t perfect though. A potential weakness in some of Collins’ argumentative chapters can also stem from his heavy reference on sources. Chapter 3 seems to spend too much time trying to compare both Muslim and Christian mental sentiments through the exclusive guiding force of upper class behavior (in the primary source material). The effect this has on his Christian coexistence argument is somewhat negative, as it comes off as forcing a link that is perhaps too exclusive to be as tangible as he would like it to seem. In Chapter 3, he argues that even if the physical reality (i.e. actual attempts) surrounding potential revivals of Christian martyrdom in Al-Andalus was faked or blown out of proportion (pg. 89), the fact that it was a distinctive feature in upper class thought is enough to suggest bad Christian sentiments towards Muslim interaction. This argument is an example of how contrasting too heavily between certain groups can lead the argument into a dead end, as the constant reference to upper class (pg. 86-87) attempts at martyrdom cannot possibly account for the entire social perspective for this behaviour. Furthermore, some of his own arguments in this section tend to go against him, but I won’t press the issue.

Let me just say that the way Dr. Collins organizes his writing is fairly offbeat, switching chapter topics in a way that forces the reader to lose focus. On top of that, some chapters cover history that is in no way related to the previous block of writing (e.g. chapter 6 crammed in between two Al-Andalus discussions). All this makes the work choppy, but I must admit Collins himself has a defense for this when he states that to approach each discussion in the same fashion would be repetitive and “probably impossible” (pg.2) anyway, leaving further inquiry to lean on his bibliography. I guess he assumed this style of approach will suit his work just fine since, as mentioned, one of his key strengths lies in his vast congregation of source material(it has hundreds of footnotes and a forest of a bibliography). I can’t be too angry with his response, simply because of how many things he looks into. His scope is not limited to (often times sketchy) primary source readings but uses basically everything. For example, in his study of the blurry Asturian succession (8th century), he applies the use of legal charters and even physical culture (pg.59) such as coins to come to his conclusions, while in another instance he studies urban planning to a certain degree, so he may figure out the implications of houses that are built over pre-existing Roman roads (29).

Through Collins’ discussion we learn that, if anything, the idea of convivencio is not as clear cut as much of the historiography makes its legacy out to be. Even if we don’t agree with his arguments directly, he’s among an admirable group of new historians who has spotlighted just how much grey area is wrapped around the particular areas of contention in this historical field.

I guess what really irks me about all this is that the book, like the rest of the titles in the History of Spain series it’s featured in, are marketed like popular history and written like extended scholarly papers. If you want a synthesis of academic knowledge on this period, I guess this will work, otherwise, prepare for your eyes to turn grey.” – Petruccio Hambasket IV

Summary of reviews: Roger Collins’ work is criticized for being a bit too scholarly and for some of his arguments against the theory of “convivencia” in the Muslim-dominated Spain, but still his work is considered quite good and everyone recognizes that Collins is a very professional historian.

Leave a Reply