Early (very early) Islam

Christianity wasn’t the only religion in western Europe in the eighth century. It was certainly the dominant religion on the continent, but it was Islam that covered the southern Mediterranean, and, as we will see, even extended into modern France. A movement, a religion, and a military force that powerful deserves our exploration. But let’s not get bogged down in the movement’s first flowering in Arabia. If you are interested here are plenty of histories to chose from. Rather, let’s survey the state of Islam at the opening of the eighth century, and then trace developments from that point.

The Islamic world in the year 700 was ruled out of Damascus by the Umayyad dynasty.1.Arabic transliterations are all over the place with proper names. Even among academics you will find various spellings of important persons. For simplicity I will use the most common spelling found on Wikipedia. In the east the Islamic empire had spread out of Arabia and encompassed the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, to the eastern tip of the Black Sea. To the south the faith had spread across north Africa. In the year 661 the Umayyads came to power and continued the pattern of conquest. By 702 they could see the northern Pillar of Hercules (Gibraltar, to those of us living in a less legendary age) from the shore of Tangier in modern-day Morocco.

In the east the Umayyads did not expand their faith much into Armenia (although they brought their rule to the banks of the Indus river and the Aral Sea). But in the Mediterranean they soon turned their gaze north. A fleet in 707 passed through the Balearic Islands, whose residents promised homage. In Morocco a leader named Tariq ibn Ziyad heard of a war within the Visigothic kingdom that ruled Spain, and, ever mindful of opportunities to spread the faith, landed a raiding party on the mainland in 711. The Visigoths put up limited resistance to the spirited invaders, and by 718 the whole of Spain had been conquered by Musa bin Nusayr. The next year saw Septimania fall to Al-Samh ibn Malik, as the conquerors squeezed around the eastern bounds of the mountains and spread along the Mediterranean coastline. “Afterwards he made Narbonne his own and harassed the people of the Franks with frequent attacks.”2.Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, The Chronicle of 754, ch.69, p.138.

The Pyrenees formed a natural barrier to further expansion, but it was not for lack of trying that the first decades of the eighth century marked the high water line of Islamic expansion in Europe. Over the next twenty years various Muslim leaders tried to expand their reach into Aquitaine, but were, in the main, stymied. In 721 the same Al-Samh besieged Toulouse, but he was defeated by Eudo of Aquitaine. Stung but not cowed, the Arabs conquered Carcassonne in 725, and moved toward Autun.

It was in 732 (maybe) that most historians mark a moment that changed the world (although that interpretation has come under a steady challenge over the years). Abd ar Rahman Al Ghafiqi led a strong raiding party out of Spain and headed north. He brushed Eudo aside and aimed for the rich church at Poitiers. Charles, Mayor of the Palace of the Franks, met him south of Poitiers and inflicted a significant defeat. Abd ar Rahman was killed, Charles was given the sobriquet “The Hammer” (Martel), and the last significant Muslim incursion in Europe was over. I’ve got plenty more in an older post.

There was one last expansion, but it was by invitation, not the sword. Duke Maurontus of Provence in 734 invited Abd al Rahman al-Fihri, governor of Narbonne, to take over his city of Avignon. Charles did not find that to his liking, and in 737 he came down and kicked out al Rahman, and, for good measure, burned the city. Thereafter a tentative peace held between Christendom and Islam. But in 750 a coup fifteen hundred miles away set in motion a series of events that would result in one of the greatest works of medieval literature.

In Damascus the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids, who established their capital in the new city of Baghdad. The last Umayyad caliph, Abd ar Rahamn, made his way to Spain, where, in 756, he established the caliphate of Cordoba, which would endure in Spain for another three centuries. Under ar Rahman the conquests of Toledo, Zaragossa, Pamplona, and Barcelona took another 25 years. During the internal turmoil Pepin took advantage of the situation and captured Narbonne in 759.

It had been almost fifty years since Tariq ibn Ziyad had landed in Spain. There was no friendship between the Franks and the Umayyads. What now unfolded was an early experiment in transnational, trans-ideological power politics. The Franks, perhaps working under the age-old principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, reached out to the Abbasid caliphate. Pepin sent an ambassador to Baghdad in 765, who returned three years later, loaded with gifts.3.What a travelogue that must have been! Alas, nothing, if anything existed, survives. An ambassador from Baghdad duly greeted the Frankish ruler in 768.

The conflict between Umayyad and Abbasid in Spain continued for decades, largely unseen (or at least, unremarked) in the Carolingian kingdom. But in 777 an Abbasid delegation arrived at Paderborn to present a proposal to King Charles. If Charles would support their efforts against the Umayyad holdouts, and oust the last remnants of a dying caliphate, they would in turn submit themselves to the Frankish king. Charles, never one to pass up an opportunity, mustered an enormous army the next year and marched on northern Spain.

Not only did the expedition’s goals evaporate in a long summer in the valley of the Ebro river, but a good part of Charles’ army was annihilated in a Basque ambush in the Pyrenees. The defeat was so great that it became the only setback mentioned by Einhard in his Life. Several centuries later the tale emerged as a heroic rearguard action against the despised Saracens in the greatest of the chansons des geste, The Song of Roland.

The rest of the century illustrates an ever greater alliance with the Abbasids, and continued conflict with the rump Umayyad caliphate. The Royal Annals record more contacts between Baghdad and Aachen (including the gift of an elephant!), while Charles wrestled to maintain a “Spanish March” south of the mountains. This effort was only partially successful, as the Muslims sacked Narbonne in 793, and killed William of Gellone, count of Toulouse, near Carcassone.

During this time economic contacts also grew between the Franks and the Arabs. Timber, slaves, iron and weapons went east, and gold flowed west. Arabic gold coins have been found throughout the Frankish empire.

The Mediterranean itself remained something of an Islamic sea. While Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, and Sicily remained within the Byzantine empire, all were subjected to Muslim raids throughout the century. Around 737 Boniface warned an English abbess to be wary of the “threats of the Saracens who have recently appeared about Rome.”4.Boniface, Letters of St Boniface, n.XIX, p.34. The Franks made no attempt to expand into the Mediterranean. “The continental power of the Franks could never hope to wrest control of the Mediterranean from the Arab fleets.”5.Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire, p.13.

As we wrestle with questions of confrontation and coexistence between west and east today, it is interesting to see what the Franks did. They fought back fiercely when invaded, but otherwise saw no fault with diplomacy, and certainly took advantage of disputes in the other camp. Nuance never goes out of style.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Arabic transliterations are all over the place with proper names. Even among academics you will find various spellings of important persons. For simplicity I will use the most common spelling found on Wikipedia.
2. Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, The Chronicle of 754, ch.69, p.138.
3. What a travelogue that must have been! Alas, nothing, if anything existed, survives.
4. Boniface, Letters of St Boniface, n.XIX, p.34.
5. Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire, p.13.

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