Hidden History: When Muslims Ruled in Europe

When the Moors Rules in Europe

Bettany Hughes (2011)

Film Review

When the Moors Ruled in Europe corrects many common misconceptions about Muslim rule in Spain between 711 and 1492 AD. Historical and archeological evidence contradicts the prevailing belief that this 700 year rule represented a violent military occupation. At the time Muslim Berbers from North Africa invaded Spain, the Christian/Visigoth cities were collapsing into chaotic anarchy – all the evidence suggests the inhabitants welcomed the Berbers for the security they provided.

Owing to its favorable climate, Spain quickly became the primary agricultural hub for a Muslim Empire that extended from North Africa to the Chinese border. After introducing irrigation, Muslim rulers also introduced citrus, avocado and other exotic crops which quickly spread across Europe. Owing to a faith committed to learning, the Moors also introduced universal literacy (in contrast to the rest of Europe where only clerical elites were taught to read). They also introduced advanced architecture, modern medicine, astronomy, Arabic numerals*, algebra, geometry and classical Greek philosophers which the Catholic church had banned in the rest of Europe.

During the 12th century, scholars from all over Europe flocked to the great libraries at Toledo to translate (into Latin) classical Greek and Arabic texts. These scholars would introduce a new approach to knowledge, based on rational inquiry, that would inspire the founding of prestigious universities at Oxford, Paris and elsewhere.

Christian Armies Retake Spain and Launch the Spanish Inquisition

Inspired by the Crusades to the Holy Lands, during the 12th century, Christian armies from northern Spain began slowly retaking Moorish cities from their Muslim rules. By 1250, only Grenada at the southern tip of Spain remained under Muslim rule.

In 1469, Isabella, Queen of Castille, married her second cousin Ferdinand, who was king of Aragon. In 1492, a siege which had begun 100 years earlier was successful and they seized Grenada to unify Spain.

Soon afterwards they launched the Spanish Inquisition to arrest, torture and kill Muslims, Jews and Christian heretics suspected of not practicing the “true” Catholic faith. Initially Muslims (who were mainly ethnic Spaniards) were offered the option of conversion. However in 1609, 300,000 were forcibly removed Most resettled in North Africa.

The Inquisition also burned more than a million Muslim texts.


*Arabic numerals also made multiplication and division possible – both are virtually impossible with Roman numerals. It was also via Spain that numerous Arab terms for scientific concepts were introduced into English and other European languages (eg al-cohol, al-gebra, al-gorithm, al-chemy).

The Crusades: Europe’s First Imperialist War of Colonization

The Crusades: An Arab Perspective

Al Jazeera (2016)

Film Review

The Crusades is a fascinating history of a subject that was quite new to me, as Americans rarely study the Crusades in school. Despite the title, the expert commentators represent a balance of French and English historians, as well as Muslim scholars from various Middle Eastern universities. Most of the documentary series consists of historical re-enactment of papal enclaves, battles, sieges, treaty signings and other historical events. The filmmakers use a series of maps to plot the progress of European occupation of Jerusalem and the Levantine* coast, as well the eventual liberation of these territories in the 13th century.

The documentary leaves absolutely no doubt that the Crusades were an imperialist campaign of colonization – and not religious wars, as is commonly claimed. Whenever European crusaders conquered a specific city or region, they indiscriminately slaughtered most of the inhabitants, whether they were Muslims, Jews or fellow Christians. The entire fourth Crusade (1203) was devoted to sacking the greatest Christian city in the world (Constantinople), whose residents were mainly Byzantine Greeks.

Part 4 is my favorite because it focuses on the role of the Crusades and Muslim influence in facilitating the European Renaissance of the 14th-15th centuries. When the Crusades began in 1085, the vast majority of Europeans (99%) were illiterate, whereas Middle East cities enjoyed an advanced flourishing civilization (as did India, China, Africa and North and South America prior to European colonization). When occupying crusaders were finally defeated and forced to return to Europe in 1291, they took with them advanced knowledge of Arab military tactics and agriculture, sugar cultivation, medicine, algebra, glass manufacturing and Greek philosophers ( whose work had been translated and preserved by Muslim scholars.

Part 1 – covers the role of Pope Gregory and Pope Irwin in instigating the disastrous Peoples Crusade and the first Crusade (1086-1099), resulting in the sacking and occupation of Jerusalem (lasting nearly 200 years).

Part 2 – covers the fragmented Muslim resistance to the expansion of European occupation, hindered by both religious (Sunni vs Shia) conflict and tribal rivalries. It’s during this period (1100-1127) the term hashshashin (origin of the English words assassin and hashish) came into usage, owing to the Shia assassins hired to secretly kill Sunni military commanders. Between 1127-1143 a Muslim revival led to the liberation of numerous crusader strongholds, and the launch of a second crusade by Pope Eugene, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany.

Part 3 – describes the rise of Salah Ad-Din (known in in Europe as Saladin), who unified rival Muslim armies and by 1187 retook all crusader strongholds except Jerusalem. This led to the launch of the third Crusade by Philip II (France), Frederick I (Germany) and Richard the Lion Hearted (England) This was followed by the fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople; the failed fifth Crusade (1213); the sixth Crusade in which Frederick II (Germany) retook Jerusalem by treaty and the failed seventh Crusade, led by Louis IX of France (1248). In 1244, Muslim armies retook Jerusalem, which remained under their control until it became part of the British protectorate of Palestine with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.

Part 4 – in addition to outlining the cultural riches Europe gained from the Crusades, Part 4 also explores how Europe’s medieval colonization of the Middle East laid the groundwork for the eventual European colonization of North Africa and the Middle East (in 1917), with the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 representing a major milestone in this re-colonization.


*Levantine – a term describing a region on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea north of the Arabian Peninsula and south of Turkey, usually including the area of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.