The origins and growth of Islam are indeed exceedingly difficult to explain; but the facts are not in dispute. Muhammad’s preaching began soon after his earliest revelations in about 610 [C.E.]. In 622 he left Mecca for Medina, the famous Hijra or migration which has ever since featured as Year I in the Muslim calendar. By the time of his death in 632 the community which he had founded had come to embrace many of the tribes which inhabited the Arabian peninsula. A new power had been born. In the following generation the caliphs who succeeded to the Prophet’s leadership — and the Arabic word khalifa means simply ‘successor’ — unleashed the military energies of the tribesmen upon the settled peoples of the Fertile Crescent. At that date the area was dominated by the two superpowers of the ancient world, the Persian and Roman empires. Between 633 and 651 Persia was defeated by Islam and overrun in a series of lightning campaigns: Islamic dominion in the East reached into modern Afghanistan. In the early seventh century the Roman empire had consisted of the eastern and southern Mediterranean lands stretching from Greece and the Balkans through Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and on through North Africa to distant outposts in modern Morocco. (It is often referred to as the Byzantine empire, a name derived from the settlement which underlay the empire’s capital city, Constantinople, but its rulers referred to themselves as Roman emperors. The western provinces of the empire had been taken over by Germanic invaders at an earlier date.) Between 634 and 638 Palestine and Syria were conquered by the Islamic armies. Egypt followed in the years 640-2, and in the following year Arab forces began to stream into the provinces that form the modern state of Libya.Thus within twenty years of Muhammad’s death his followers had destroyed one ancient empire and hacked great chunks off another. Mighty cities such as Antioch and Alexandria had fallen into Muslim hands. The most sacred sites in Christendom, the Holy Places of Jerusalem and Palestine, had been lost: not for over four centuries would Christian armies attempt to recover them.
During the period of anarchy in the public affairs of al-Andalus between 1008 and 1031 [C.E.], as the centre failed to hold, Spain’s centrifugal, fissile tendencies were able to develop unchecked. The poet al-Shaqundi, looking back at this process from the early thirteenth century [C.E.], wrote of “the breaking of the necklace and the scattering of its pearls.” The frail unity of al-Andalus disintegrated into a number of regional successor-states known to historians as the taifa kingdoms—the name is derived from the Arabic word ta’ifa, which means “faction” or “party”. The ruler of one of these states, ‘Abd Allah of Granada, has left us a description in his remarkable book of memoirs of what happened:
When the Amirid dynasty [i.e. Almanzor’s] came to an end and the people were left without an imam [the use of this word recalls the divine sanction claimed by the Umayyad caliphs] every military commander rose up in his own town and entrenched himself behind the walls of his own fortress, having first secured his own position, created his own army, and amassed his own resources. These persons vied with one another for worldly power, and each sought to subdue the other.
Each taifa kingdom was typically based on a town which had previously been the capital of a province or march, such as Seville or Zaragoza, where there already existed a machinery of local administration and a degree of regional solidarity which an opportunist could exploit; Initially, in the period of maximum confusion down to about 1040 [C.E.] or so, there existed some three dozen of these petty principalities. But the big fish swallowed the little ones, and by the mid-century half-a-dozen larger states stood out as pre-eminent: Seville and Granada in the south, Badajoz to the west, Toledo in the centre, Valencia on the east coast, and Zaragoza in the northeast. We are presented with a political scene in mid-eleventh century Spain, the age of [El] Cid‘s boyhood and youth, in some ways reminiscent of pre-Alexandrian Greece or Renaissance Italy or the Germany of the Enlightenment: diverse principalities in a state of constant rivalry with one another.
The wealth of the taifa kings [of Moorish Spain] enabled them to indulge the activity for which they are best remembered, the patronage of literature, learning and art. Of course, other factors alongside wealth were influential in this context. Patronage was the traditional princely activity, shedding lustre on the patron and his court. Competition grew up between courts: which prince could attract the most gifted poets or the most learned scholars, commission the most lavish palace, lay out the most elegant gardens? We should also reckon with the pressure of the distant past. Ibn Ghalib of Cordoba (d. 1044 [C.E.]) wrote a work called “Contentment of the soul in the contemplation of the ancient remains found in al-Andalus.” Contentment for the antiquarian perhaps, but not necessarily for the ruler. Near Seville there still stood the fourth largest amphitheatre of the Roman world.… By what monuments was an eleventh-century ruler to be remembered? There was also the pressure of a more recent past. ‘Abd al-Rahman III‘s palace outside Cordoba might have been razed to the ground, but everyone still remembered its splendor. Emulation of the past was a spur to princely patronage in the eleventh century. There was a sense too in which the passing of the [Umayyad] caliphate released provincial energies. Cultural as well as political life had been centralized in the tenth century. In the eleventh, the removal of that heavy hand which had sought to direct artistic endeavor towards Cordoba released a surge of creative energy in the provinces. By a happy chance the conditions were propitious for a flowering of the arts in Spanish Islam such as had never occurred before and was never to occur again.