This is episode 37 called Umayyads in peril and in this episode you will learn:
- The short reign of Emir al-Mundhir
- The personality of Emir Abd Allah and the big picture of his reign
- The qasi-Taifa states of Murcia and Seville, respectively ruled by Daysam ibn Ishaq and the Banu Hayyay clan
- The story of the maritime Republic of Pechina, in Almería
- The Muslim conquest of the Balearic Islands under Isam al-Hawlani
- The Berber and Messianic movement that ended up in the Day of Zamora
- The peak of Umar ibn Hafsun’s power and the loss of initiative
- Why the Umayyad dynasty of Córdoba managed to survived this turbulent period and an illustrative example of the extreme fragility of Umayyad rule
- A general overview of the situation of Medieval Spain before Abd al-Rahman III’s accession to the throne
- An effort to imagine how the average Andalusi lived during this period
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 37 called Umayyads in peril. In this episode you will learn about the near fall of the Umayyad dynasty during the reign of Abd Allah of Córdoba. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast!
In episode 33 ‘Muladis in Revolt’, we left the narrative of al-Andalus with the rise of rebellious movements led by Muslim Hispano-Goths and other groups against the central authority of Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba. After the death of Emir Muhammad in 886, his son al-Mundhir had to stop his campaign against the Muladi rebel Umar ibn Hafsun to go back to Córdoba and confirm his succession. He was brave and energetic, and he was an experienced general with many expeditions on his record against the Christians and Muladi rebels. Chronicles present al-Mundhir as an extremely effective ruler, both as a military leader and as an administrator, but whose reign only lasted one year, eleven months and ten days. Had he reigned a bit longer, he could have crushed all the rebellions that plagued the Emirate of Córdoba. After reigniting his rebellion, Umar ibn Hafsun began allying with other local malcontents and rural strongmen, thus gaining control over a large portion of modern Andalusia. The Muladi rebel controlled Granada, Málaga, Jaén, Ronda, Baeza, Úbeda, Écija, Algeciras, and other important strongholds. Once on the throne, al-Mundhir launched another campaign to suppress the revolt of Ibn Hafsun, with a carrot and stick approach. Thanks to that smart policy, Umar accepted to submit in return for being appointed governor of the provinces of Málaga and Granada.
Meanwhile, Emir al-Mundhir first tried to reappoint Hashim ibn Abd al-Aziz in the position of hajib, like his father had done. Yes, the same guy who had provoked the rebellions of Ibn Marwan and Umar ibn Hafsun by being a complete dick. Honestly, the only reason I can see to understand this is that Abd al-Aziz had corrupted the institutions of the Emirate and he had built an extensive network of clientage, that’s why it was dangerous to remove him from the office. However, when al-Mundhir saw that this didn’t work, he had Abd al-Aziz executed and confiscated his family wealth. Sensing the vulnerability of the Emir, Ibn Hafsun broke his allegiance and restarted his offensives. Furious and feeling insulted, al-Mundhir personally besieged Bobastro, the main fortress of Umar, but he died from injuries received in battle. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that many Muslim historians suggested that his brother and successor Abd Allah might have poisoned him.
In the chronicles Emir Abd Allah is portrayed as a suspicious, ruthless and indecisive man, austerely pious and frugal with words, although perhaps this was his nature or perhaps the scenario of rebellions didn’t allow him to proceed otherwise. Abd Allah personally attended to the complaints of his subjects, and due to his special attention to justice and religious rectitude he always enjoyed the unconditional support of the ulema, the Islamic jurists and theologians. Nonetheless, he was so paranoid that he constructed a covered passageway to protect him against assassination, as he scurried between his palace and the Great Mosque of Córdoba. He was a recluse in his own palace. Moreover, apart from the possible assassination of his predecessor, Abd Allah of Córdoba was cold-blooded and merciless enough to execute two of his brothers and two of his own sons to secure his position. First, he encouraged his son al-Mutarrif to kill his eldest brother Muhammad, the father of the future Caliph Abd al-Rahman III. Then, it was al-Mutarrif’s turn. The Emir accused his son of conspiring with the rebels of Seville, and although al-Mutarrif defended himself in his house for three days, he finally succumbed. These purges were unprecedented in the history of the Umayyads of Córdoba, and they could be explained by the understandable conspiracies to depose or even assassinate the ineffective Abd Allah. I say ineffective because Abd Allah found his authority restricted to Córdoba and the nearby towns, while all the other provinces were controlled by warlords. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see that during this period there were no new big projects, no more superfluous spending, and no real foreign policy. Every penny was spent to secure the survival of the Umayyad regime.
The last two decades of the 9th century and the early years of the 10th century entailed the ruin and destruction of the Emirate, and I cannot even mention all the revolts and dissidents of this period. This was an age of turmoil, unlawfulness and violence, where the survival of the Umayyad regime was in severe danger. It was an age of fitna, civil war within the Islamic community, with Christian kings and counts beyond the frontier breaking the frontier almost unpunished. The Muladis were the most important protagonists of the rebellions against the Emirate, but they weren’t alone. Mozarabs, Berbers and even Arabs participated too, and autonomous lordships emerged throughout all al-Andalus. We can almost speak about a process of political feudalization, with the emergence of great warlords, minor autonomous lords and local outlaws. The weakness of central authority and rise of regional lords is surprisingly similar to the same process seen with the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire and the counts of the Marca Hispanica. Many minor lords nominally recognized the authority of the Emir Abd Allah and they were recognized a posteriori by the Emir, but they acted de facto independently. As we have already seen with the conflicts of the Upper March, there were widespread local and regional conflicts because warlords fought among each other. These conflicts produced insecurity, and that created a necessity for many Andalusis to seek the protection of a lord.
More important than these small lordships were the quasi-states set up in Murcia and Seville. The ruler of the province of Tudmir, basically present-day Murcia, was a man named Daysam ibn Ishaq, described by the 11th century historian Ibn Hayyan as “loved by all classes of people, a friend of his subjects, open-handed and showering favors on poets and literary men”. Daysam ibn Ishaq even exploited the mines of Murcia to mint his own coins, which allowed him to have an army of 5,000 men. As other principalities like those of Ibn Marwan or the Banu Qasi, the lordship of Daysam ibn Ishaq was an anticipation of the Taifa kingdoms that we will see after the fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba. As you know from episode 33 ‘Muladis in Revolt’, Badajoz continued to be ruled by the family of Ibn Marwan ‘the Galician’, while the Berber Banu Dhi-l-Nun clan was extending their influence in Toledo, Cuenca and Valencia. In the Upper March, the power of the Banu Qasi was greatly contested and Abd Allah invested a member of the Banu Tujib to rule Zaragoza, and from then on they continued to be the masters of the central Ebro valley for 150 years.
On the other hand, Seville was the largest city of al-Andalus after Córdoba and a key trading port. Urban aristocrats who had extensive properties in the nearby countryside dominated Seville. These families were the Arab Banu Khaldun, the mixed Arab and Visigothic Banu Hayyay, and two Muladi families. These four families lived in peace until the anarchy of Abd Allah’s rule. The Banu Khaldun made an alliance with Ibn Marwan and other minor rebels to defeat the Umayyad governor and attack the suburbs of Seville. Then the Banu Khaldun got the support of the Banu Hayyay too to slaughter the leading Muladi families and capture the nearby strongholds of Coria and Carmona, while the Emir Abd Allah desperately tried to at least control the road between Seville and Córdoba, that was plagued of bandits. Apparently, the Emir thought that the revolt of Umar ibn Hafsun was more threatening, so he left Seville alone. The situation of having two strong families cogoverning Seville proved unsustainable, and the patriarch of the Banu Hayyay clan prepared a dinner to massacre his rivals, the Banu Khaldun, and btw the 14th century multifaceted philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun is a member of this prominent family. Anyway, the Banu Hayyay then approached the Emir of Córdoba to secure their wealth and position of power. They were acknowledged as rulers of Seville and Carmona and they controlled the textile state monopoly, in exchange for some revenues and a promise not to help the enemies of Abd Allah. That’s a very good deal, if you ask me, from the perspective of the Banu Hayyay of course.
Aside from all these local warlords, there’s a very interesting story of this period, the story of the confederation of the sailors of Pechina, in Almería. These sailors and merchants formed in 891 a kind of self-governing merchant republic, like the later Republics of Genoa or Venice. They established trading posts and settlements along the coasts of al-Andalus and North Africa, in Oran and Ténès, the main port of the Rustamid dynasty of Tahert. This community successfully defended from an attack of the Arab clans of Granada and from a weird maritime attack of Count Suñer II of Ampurias, and they imitated the urbanism of Córdoba and used their wealth to build mosques, thermal baths, textile manufactures and stores. The maritime Republic of Pechina was an oasis of peace and prosperity, with merchants and sailors, even pirates, from all the backgrounds, Arabs, Muladis, Mozarabs and Jews. Side note here, it’s remarkable how many Andalusis became pirates, and some caused great trouble to Christian kingdoms, like the Andalusis who established the Emirate of Crete or the Andalusis who established in the 890s a fortified settlement in Fraixnetum, in Provence. Going back to the point, the 15th century historian al-Himyari stated: “People from all over al-Andalus came to Pechina. They came from all the places fleeing from the revolts that were generalized in those times. The city was a peaceful residence and a safe haven for all who came to settle or take refuge there.” The port of Pechina became one of the most important ports of the Western Mediterranean, with slaves, handcrafted goods, agricultural products and silk flowing in and out of Pechina. The Republic of Pechina continued to exist as a quite autonomous federation, even after they submitted to Abd al-Rahman III, until the political and economic center of the region moved to the neighboring Almería in 955, which in turn became the leading port of al-Andalus.
Talking about the sea, the definitive Muslim conquest of the Balearic Islands happened during this period, and it was a private initiative led by Isam al-Hawlani in 903. Remember that the Balearic Island, called Eastern Islands by the Andalusis, had already paid tribute to the Emirate of Córdoba a few times, but it wasn’t yet under their direct control. According to chronicles, Isam al-Hawlani was actually going to a pilgrimage to Mecca, but a storm frustrated his journey. Because of that, he ended up in the island of Mallorca, and he made some incursions until he abandoned it and decided to meet the Emir Abd Allah. He proposed the conquest to the Emir and Abd Allah agreed to provide a small fleet, since at this point the Emir would welcome any proposal with the promise of low risk and high reward. The Muslim conquest of the Balearic Islands was successful, although the last fortress to resist didn’t fell until the year 910. The Emir recognized Isam al-Hawlani as governor of the archipelago, and the governor refounded Palma de Mallorca and built an alcazaba where the Palace of the Almudaina is now, as well as mosques and public baths. Slowly, the harbor of Palma de Mallorca gained importance and the Balearic Islands became more prosperous than ever before. Moreover, the Muslims introduced several new crops and they built new irrigation systems and the marjadas, a kind of terrace built with a wall to make agriculture in mountains more efficient.
Quite apart from these lords, merchants and adventurers we can find the Berbers. Remember that the Berbers usually lived in the mountains and dispersed rural communities, many times as shepherds who practiced transhumance and lived a nomadic lifestyle. They barely mixed with the Arab and indigenous communities, and because of that we have very scarce information about where the Berbers exactly lived or their history in the Iberian Peninsula. During the reign of Abd Allah, the Berbers played an important role in Jaén, Granada, central Spain and central and southern Portugal. We have the names of important Berber clans, like the Nafza tribe in Extremadura, the Banu Danis in Portugal, or the Banu Di-l-Nun in Cuenca and Valencia. In fact, the Banu Danis seized and held Toledo for a decade, after marching against the old Visigothic capital with 20,000 men, an army much larger than any Umayyad army of the period.
The most spectacular Berber revolt was the Messianic movement led by two agitators who weren’t Berbers themselves. It all started when the mystic Abu Ali al-Sarray became a kind of religious reformer spreading his message in the countryside, and he later convinced a descendant of Hisham I, prince Ibn al-Qitt, to become the leader of his political and religious movement. Ibn al-Qitt proclaimed himself Mahdi, the eschatological redeemer of Islam who would appear and rule some years before the Day of the Judgment and rid the world of evil. Al-Sarray and Ibn al-Qitt gained supporters among the Berbers of the area around Sierra Morena and the Guadiana river, and in the Middle and Lower Marches. Ibn al-Qitt called for a jihad against the Kingdom of Asturias and predicted that Zamora would fall as soon as they showed up.
The Berber clans had been quite affected by the raids of Alfonso III, so according to the chronicles 60,000 Berbers joined the two charlatans on their way to Zamora. One of the reasons they managed to gather such a massive force was because Ibn al-Qitt used fortune-telling and magic tricks that seemed like a miracle to the perplexed eyes of the Berbers. He must have been the real Mahdi, right? When the two leaders and their fanatic supporters reached the walls of Zamora, Ibn al-Qitt send a bold letter inviting the King of Asturias and his subjects to convert to Islam or die. Alfonso III send his troops against the forces of the false Messiah and they were initially defeated, but the leaders of the Berber tribes started to worry about the popularity of Ibn al-Qitt, so they abandoned him and Ibn al-Qitt lost most of his supporters. Ibn al-Qitt and his few remaining supporters tried to confront the Asturians again, but they were annihilated in 901 in what’s known as the Day of Zamora. Their heads were displayed in the walls of Zamora, where now you can find the Balborraz Street. As a matter of fact, Balborraz comes from the Arabic ‘bab al ras’, meaning gates of the head.
Now let’s go back to the heart of al-Andalus and follow the adventures of the rebel Umar ibn Hafsun. Ibn Hafsun was probably the most dangerous opponent of the Umayyad regime, because he directly threatened Córdoba and he extended his revolt throughout southern Spain, the heart of al-Andalus. This Muladi took advantage of the fragility of the Umayyad dynasty and he claimed to the supreme leader of the people of the south, the man who would liberate his people from the oppression of the Arabs, who would end the high taxes and discrimination that the poor non-Arab Andalusis suffered. Through skillful diplomacy, Umar ibn Hafsun won the loyalties of those who felt marginalized in the Muslim Spain of the Umayyads. It was not a rebellion to remove the Islamic religion, but one to fully integrate the Muladis, Mozarabs, Berbers and Jews into the power structure of the Cordoban state. It was the revolt of the dissatisfied. Despite that, Umar ibn Hafsun was an opportunist, he wasn’t a man with strong convictions or a man with ideals, he only cared about growing his power. That’s why we see him sometimes giving hostages to Córdoba, that he wouldn’t doubt to sacrifice, or supporting local minor rebels to later get rid of them too. He also tried to make alliances with very different people, since he knocked the door of virtually every rebel and enemy of the Umayyads. He tried to get the support of more powerful allies, like Ibn Marwan, the Banu Hayyay of Seville, the Banu Qasi, the Idrisids of Morocco, or even King Alfonso III of Asturias.
As his domains expanded, this Muladi rebel became bolder and more ambitious. For instance, to get the support of the Christians, Ibn Hafsun patronized the building of churches and established a bishopric at Bobastro. To be more than a regional rebel and have more legitimacy, the Muladi rebel sent an envoy to the Abbasids to convert al-Andalus into a client state of the Abbasid Caliphate under his rule. Umar then moved his base from Bobastro to Aguilar de la Frontera, very close to the capital, and from there he raided the countryside around Córdoba and his forces reached the walls of the city itself. This was the high point of the insurgency of Umar ibn Hafsun. In this very dangerous situation, the Emir himself had to lead his men in battle, for the first and last time. Used to his indecisiveness, his subjects were surprised and that boosted their morale. Abd Allah managed to gather a force of 4,000 soldiers and 10,000 volunteers, still less than half the force of the Andalusi rebel. But Abd Allah defeated Ibn Hafsun in 891 and captured his fortress of Aguilar de la Frontera, but the influence and power of this rebel caudillo remained strong. However, his prestige was permanently damaged and some of his followers defected.
After that, Umar ibn Hafsun lost the initiative, although he tried very hard to maintain the momentum and he still controlled much of southern Spain. There were victories and defeats while fighting against the Emir Abd Allah, but the war had become a war of attrition. Eventually, he even tried to establish an alliance with the enemies of the Abbasids, the Shia Fatimids of North Africa, who overthrew in 909 the Aghlabids in Ifriqiya and declared a caliphate to delegitimize the Abbasids. That was the first time the Fatimids dreamed about conquering the Iberian Peninsula, but they didn’t provide any real support to Ibn Hafsun. With the conflict in a stalemate, according to later Umayyad chronicles Umar ibn Hafsun took the bold step of committing apostasy and converting back to the religion of his ancestors, Christianity. According to this story, he even changed his name to Samuel, making his rebellion a revolt against not only Umayyad rule, but Islam. With this interpretation, some historians explain why the rebellion of this intrepid Muladi began to lose intensity thereafter, as this conversion would have provoked disunity among the rebels and many Muladis and Berbers would have abandoned him. However, of this story we cannot be sure. Some historians believe that this allegation was later made up by Umayyad chroniclers to disgrace his memory. I don’t think his conversion would make sense, it would make sense if he had secured the firm support of the prestigious Alfonso III of Asturias, but that wasn’t the case. Maybe Umar ibn Hafsun was ambiguous about his religious affiliation to get as many supporters as he could, because in the end he only cared about power, but it doesn’t make sense at all this story of his conversion.
Brian A. Catlos, author of Kingdoms of Faith, states that Ibn Hafsun’s revolt was doomed to fail. He depicts the revolt of this Muladi as a rural-based revolt in an era were any successful political movement arose in cities, and other major vulnerabilities include the lack of a coherent institutional base and the heterogeneity of his supporters. However, I cannot agree with this view. The Abbasid Revolution or the Great Berber Revolt were successful without being exclusively urban movements, and the supporters of these rebellions were very heterogenous too. Moreover, the success of local and regional clans to establish their own provincial states, the Taifas, when the Caliphate of Córdoba disintegrated is another proof that the revolt of Umar ibn Hafsun could have been successful and that Umayyad rule could have ended with Abd Allah.
Credit for the survival of the Umayyad dynasty in Córdoba should be given to the fact that rebels didn’t form a large coalition and to some Umayyads and some of their faithful clients. For instance, the vizir and general Ahmad ibn Abi Abda, along his sons Isa and Abbas. In the lowest point of Umayyad power, they remained loyal and led many expeditions to protect Córdoba and to do something very important, collect taxes. We have a very illustrative example of how the Umayyads under Abd Allah looked more like a band of gangsters than a state. A small army, only 300 strong, departed from Córdoba at the end of May to collect taxes. These men under Ahmad ibn Abi Abda first ravaged the countryside of Jaén until the strongman of the area appeared to do battle, who was defeated and sent his father to Córdoba as a hostage. Then they moved to Baeza, at this time still loyal to Córdoba, where they found a castle deserted and proceeded to burn it and take the harvest. The high temperatures of summer in Andalusia and the torrential rains demoralized the small Umayyad army, but they continued their journey because they needed to feed themselves. Then they received a caravan bringing the taxes from the Republic of Pechina, before moving to Murcia, controlled by Daysam ibn Ishaq. The Umayyad army had to fight Daysam and ravage the countryside to force them to pay taxes.
Then, in late August, they started their journey to return to the capital, but it was not going to be easy. They were thirsty and 30 men and numerous animals died. Ahmad ibn Abi Abda didn’t have the men to take Lorca, a stronghold of Daysam, but the warlord pursued them and there were some skirmishes. Finally, they reached Córdoba via Jaén in late September. This story is a really great example to understand how the tax system had broken down and how little power the Umayyads had at this point. The Cordoban army could only collect some taxes using violence most of the time, and yes, they could take some hostages from minor warlords, but they couldn’t do anything to really impose their authority in Murcia for instance. The objective of these expeditions was not to reimpose central authority, but simply to feed the army and what remained of the central government. This was the tremendously adverse reality that Abd al-Rahman III had to face when he became Emir.
As I’ve said numerous times, it’s this chaos and anarchy in al-Andalus what enabled Christian states to establish themselves on a firmer foundation. The Kingdom of Asturias under Alfonso III expanded greatly with the repopulations of the Desert of the Duero, a new dynasty seized power in Pamplona, the Jimenos, while the Catalan counties managed to become de facto independent under the House of Barcelona of Wifredo the Hairy. It seemed that the Christian rulers would have a bright future again. Then, in 912 Emir Abd Allah passed away without having resolved the crisis that threatened the very existence of Umayyad rule in al-Andalus. The compiler of the Akhbar Majmua summoned the bankruptcy of Abd Allah’s reign in these words: “Public revenues diminished considerably because all the provinces were in the hands of rebels. Disorder spread everywhere and the power of Umar ibn Hafsun was increasing.” Only an incredibly clever and skillful ruler could bring order and prosperity to the Emirate of Córdoba again. Luckily for Muslim Spain, the young Abd al-Rahman III would become the Emir, and later Caliph, that al-Andalus needed.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to imagine how the average Andalusi lived during this period. It’s clear that people suffered from the insecurity caused by the weakness of Umayyad authority and the emergence of warlords. Peasants had to suffer several droughts and floods, followed by famines that decimated the population and incited unrest. People felt that their survival was in danger, so they could only rely on a lord, or join a rebel like Umar ibn Hafsun or even gangs of bandits to rob, sack and have greater chances of survival. Because of this instability and widespread brigandage, many trade routes were blocked and everyone was worse off. What’s funny is that as local and regional lords gained power, some became ambitious and violent conflicts became more and more frequent, thus making the poor peasants more dependent on their lords. Sometimes, townspeople were forced to join rebel armies. I would call that a toxic relationship. Yet, the disorganized common people were powerless, and they could only try to survive and improve their social and economic status, a story as old as humanity. They could only fight and dream about a more egalitarian al-Andalus. And with that, the Verdict ends.
In the next episode I will cover the transformation of the Kingdom of Asturias into León, and the early reign of Emir Abd al-Rahman III. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, that has a fantastic store with merchandising, history books, travel guides, books and materials to learn Spanish, and more. If you love the podcast, you may want to support it by becoming a patron or making a donation, but there are other non-financial ways to support the show, like reviewing the podcast or spreading the word. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more and follow the social media accounts of the podcast, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Medium, because you will find exclusive content that I’m sure you will enjoy. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN. Joseph F. O’Callaghan
CALIPHS AND KINGS, 796-1031. Roger Collins
MUSLIM SPAIN AND PORTUGAL. Hugh Kennedy
THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF MUSLIM IBERIA. Maribel Fierro
HISTORIA DE LA ESPAÑA. ESPAÑA MUSULMANA (711-1031). Ramón Menéndez Pidal
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. AL-ANDALUS: MUSULMANES Y CRISTIANOS (SIGLOS VIII-XIII). Editorial Planeta
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA DE LA EDAD MEDIA. Vicente Ángel Álvarez Palenzuela
SOCIEDAD, POLÍTICA Y PROTESTA POPULAR EN LA ESPAÑA MUSULMANA. Roberto Marín Guzmán
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license