How Did Christianity Survive?
FOR ALMOST 800 YEARS, THEY LIVED UNDER THE YOKE OF ISLAM. Between 711 and 1492 AD, Spain was occupied by the North African Muslim. Yet somehow, against seemingly impossible odds, the Faith did not die.
By Peter De Trolio III
In fact, one could argue that Christianity was immeasurably strengthened by the Spanish experience – almost immediately after they regained their ancient land, the Spanish fanned out over the world to spread their ancient Faith.
How did this happen? Peter De Trolio is an American who has been living in Spain for more than two decades. A lawyer and a teacher, he has taken a great interest in this from his unique perspective of an ex patriate living deep in the heart of Andalucia.
Before the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, the Ibero/Romanos were a wholly Catholic population that had only a just over a century before overcome Arianism in their country.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes — Swabians, Goths and Visigoths — ran roughshod over the Peninsula and established themselves as the sovereigns. These coarse barbarians were followers of the Arian heresy. Over time and with the help of luminaries such as Saint Isidore of Seville they were won over and brought to the true Faith. What the Moors found when they invaded was a unified Christian people actively practicing their Faith.
In 711 a Muslim Army of mostly Berbers led by Tariq ibn Ziyad “El Tuerto” crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa and landed at Gibraltar at the head of an invading army proportedly to place the heirs of Witiza the deposed Visogothic King of Hispania back on the throne. They defeated, and probably killed, the King, Roderic, at the battle of Guadalete and they began an unstoppable run North, due mostly to the fact that there was no way for the remaining nobles to enthrone a new King and get organized. They were not stopped until a stand was made in extreme northern Spain in a place called Covadonga by a man named Pelayo.
Tariq never had any intention of placing Witiza’s heirs on the throne. He soon took control over the Kingdom and imposed Islam on the population.
Overnight the population that had had to convert their Kings from Arianism to Catholicism were subjected to the yoke of Islam. Some theorize that Witiza’s heirs went to the Islamic Caliphate for help because of the theological connection between Arianism and Islam. The real reason will never be known. Certainly they never imagined that they were about to enslave their own people.
The imposition of Islamic law meant that not only the majority Catholic population but as well the minority Jewish population could no longer practice their religion freely and were subject to harsh restrictions and heavy taxes. Curiously, many Christians and Jews had helped the advance of Tariq, believing he would liberate them from the heavy taxation imposed by the Visigoths; nothing could have been farther than the truth.
NOW THE ANCIENT INHABITANTS OF THE IBERIAN PENINSULA were foreigners in their own homeland. Their new overlords did not take kindly to the people’s resistance to conversion to Islam.
Strangers In Their Own Land
Most of the people remained true to the Faith and therefore were required to pay extraordinary taxes and were not allowed to hold any government posts. Some who were afraid to lose their places of importance apostatized. As part of the imposed restrictions no new churches were allowed to be built and those extant were not allowed to be repaired. These Christians became known as “Mozarabe,” or the “Arabized.”
For some time during the early occupation, the Church survived mostly intact with dioceses remaining and Bishops allowed to attend Councils. This situation was not to last for very long. There were many pogroms, including the famous “dia de la Hoya,” where five thousand Christians received the crown of martyrdom. There also began a movement in the Muslim world to purify and reform. These Muslims believed that their co-religionists on the Peninsula were too lax, much like the radical Islamic movements of today.
In 1086 the Almoravid dynasty, North African Berbers, came across the Strait to aid their co-religionists against the constant attacks of the re-conquering Christian kingdoms. Once they arrived they overthrew the ruling class with the permission of their religious superiors in Baghdad and began a religious reform of the type we are seeing the radical Islamic terrorists use today in the Middle East. There were immediate consequences for the surviving Christians.
During the first 300 years after the Muslim conquest, slowly but surely the Christians began to drift away from the Faith.
Apostasy or Flight
Some had converted to Islam to gain personal advantage, others emigrated to North Africa where they could practice their religion more freely, oddly enough. Still others escaped over the border to the Christian Kingdoms.
Those Christians who were left after the arrival of the Almoravid were forced to either flee, be deported to North Africa, convert or be put to the sword. Their Churches were destroyed and all signs of Christianity were erased.
Not a Christian remained in the Muslim-controlled territories. Much like we see today in areas controlled by the Islamic State, Christians were slaughtered and the land became void of the light of Christ.
OUR LADY OF WAR: Spain’s Christians carried this image of Our Lady into the battle for Jerez de la Frontera fought in 1231 between the forces of Ferdinand III, king of Castile and León, and the Moors. The Moors were led by Ibn Hud, successor of the Almohads. The Christians were victorious and after 500 years, the city was finally freed.
The Long, Grim Fight Back
By 1086, the Kingdoms of Castilla-Leon, Aragon and Navarra had taken back a large portion of Spain. Toledo had been re-taken and was safely within the Kingdom of Castilla-Leon. As the re-conquest made its slow progression south the re-conquered territories would be repopulated by Christians from the North and suspended dioceses would cease to be Inpartibus Infidelium, although some would take centuries to restore.
Christianity survived in Spain, not because the Christians in Muslim-held territories were able to practice their religion, but because the Christian kingdoms began to move south and re-conquer lost territory.