Abdur Rahman I: Architect of Muslim Spain

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By Akbar Ahmed
The story of the origin of the greatest of the dynasties of Andalusia, Spain is as fantastic as if it were taken from the pages of The Thousand and One Nights. Abdur Rahman, a dashing young Arab prince, barely escapes with his life from Damascus following a palace coup and massacre, survives hair-raising adventures with a band of soldiers hard on his heels with orders to kill him, and after crossing many lands establishes his rule on another continent, in Cordoba, Spain. These events took place over a thousand years ago and throw light on the encounters between Islam and Christianity and between Europe, Africa, and Asia. There is courage, heartache, pain, defeat, and triumph here, and even in the darkest hours there are characters from all faiths who inspire us today.
When the youthful Abdur Rahman, the lone surviving member of the royal family following the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids in AD 750, arrived in alAndalus, he would have recognised the tribal identity of the groups who dominated it. Indeed, the name alAndalus-the Arabic name for Iberia-is traditionally thought to be derived from the name of the Germanic tribe, the Vandals, who occupied the region before the Visigoths.
Abdur Rahman, a grandson of the Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled an empire larger than the Roman Empire, came from a tribal background; the very identity of his ruling family, the Umayyads, rested on its lineage links with the Prophet of Islam. His mother was a Berber, a fact that would stand him in good stead when he arrived in the lands dominated by the Berber tribes in the Maghreb in North Africa and southern Spain. He arrived in alAndalus to find a reservoir of goodwill for his Umayyad dynasty; within a year of his arrival, Abdur Rahman would declare himself the emir of Cordoba and be recognised as such. AbdurRahman had grown up in a culture that valued learning, knowledge, and literature. He was thus bringing with him ideas of pluralist societies successfully living together and the appreciation of learning. Abdur Rahman’s dynasty would give Europe one of its most glorious periods of history, culminating in the reign of an illustrious successor, Abdur Rahman III, whose Jewish confidant, for all practical purposes, was his chief minister or vizier and whose ambassador to European courts was a Catholic bishop. Perhaps there is nothing more symbolic of that period and its fate than the ruins of MadinatalZahra on the outskirts of the city of Cordoba. Built by Abdur Rahman III, it was a glittering town that dazzled visitors. The architecture and town planning were breathtaking, and evidence of it can still be seen today.

Abdur Rahman I (statue)

The Andalusian model of Convivencia, a pluralist society encouraging acceptance of others and the pursuit of knowledge, art, and literature, persisted for centuries after Cordoba had changed hands. It was evident in different ways and in different kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula. It was even visible in kingdoms with Christian kings elsewhere in Europe, as in Sicily. Later, the same idea would be evident in the Balkans during the Ottoman Empire. It also had an impact far beyond these areas to shape the very civilization of Europe itself. Let us look more closely at Abdur Rahman, the man whose dynasty more than any other came to represent the idea of pluralist society in Europe. Perhaps there is no greater recognition than that given by a sworn enemy. AlMansur, the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, once asked his fawning courtiers who might best fit the title, Saqr Quraish or “the Falcon of the Quraish.” Surely, the courtiers argued, the Caliph himself deserved the title of the bird that is the swiftest and fiercest predator of the skies. The caliph pondered a while and then replied that the title belonged to his rival, Abdur Rahman.
Abdur Rahman’s reign lasted thirtytwo years, during which he established a dynasty that would be the pride of Europe. It laid the foundations for the Umayyad caliphate of Cordoba that rivaled the other established caliphate in Baghdad, the Abbasids. Its capital, Cordoba, the jewel of alAndalus, was the most populous and resplendent capital of Europe with parks, palaces, baths, and libraries.
Abdur Rahman’s personal story, in addition to his skills as an administrator, created wide sympathy for the man who was known as alDakhil-the immigrant. People were moved by his nostalgic yearning for the home of his youth. He never forgot his days in his Syrian birthplace of Rusafa and would do everything possible to remind himself of it. His greatest architectural triumph, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, contained a thousand marble columns reaching up in arches to the high ceiling in a shape suggestive of palm fronds. Matching them, just outside, was a grove of actual date palms, a tree Abdur Rahman is thought to have introduced to alAndalus. Worshippers in the mosque looking around and above would be forgiven for feeling they were sitting in a forest of palm trees. Abdur Rahman’s poem of exile and longing, inspired by the sight of a palm tree in his Spanish palace named Rusafa after his home in Syria, captures the sensitivity of the man:
“A palm tree stands in the middle of Rusafa,?
Born in the West, far from the land of palms.?
I said to it: How like me you are, far away and in exile,
In long separation from family and friends.?
You have sprung from soil in which you are a stranger;
And I, like you, am far from home.”
This was a man who in his time was a match for the other two titans of the age-Charlemagne, the most powerful Christian ruler in Europe, and Harun alRashid, the Caliph of the mighty Abbasid Empire. Yet today, Abdur Rahman’s name is hardly known in Europe, and few Muslims remember him with any clarity.
Perhaps Abdur Rahman’s greatest contribution would be in laying the foundations of learning and knowledge so that society would reflect one of Islam’s core tenets, the instruction to seek knowledge, or ilm. The ilm ethos in time came to characterize the culture of Andalusia. At a time when Islam is widely seen in the West as backward and violent, it is important to remember this most important of Muslim European dynasties, it’s fascinating beginning, and why it proved to be so influential to European culture and history. It is my hope that through remembering and learning the lessons of Europe’s multicultural past, we can envision a New Andalusia, whereby the different religions and cultures may live together in the 21st century.
The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018)