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Five Fascinating Figures from Muslim Spain

By Usman Khokhar

Muslim civilization in Spain lasted almost eight centuries and produced some of the most extraordinary figures in Islamic scholarship, politics, science, the arts, poetry, engineering, architecture and more. Spain was a center of learning; students from all over Christian Europe would come to learn from the great Muslim masters of knowledge. A British orientalist wrote: “under her [Muslim] rulers, Spain set to all Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened State” (Lane-Poole, 2006). Islamic scholars still make reference to the works of famous Ulama of Muslim Spain. 

Here are some fascinating figures from that era  that you should know about:

  1. Tariq bin Ziyad

In the 8th century CE, Spain was under the oppressive rule of the Goths (Lewis, 2001; Najeebabadi, 2001). The oppression was too much to bear so a Spanish nobleman invited the Muslims to take over. Musa bin Nusayr, the governor of Qairawan (in modern-day Tunisia), sent his slave Tariq bin Ziyad with a small force. (Najeebabadi 2001.) 

After crossing a narrow strait between the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) and Morocco,  Tariq consolidated his forces at a mountain now known as Jabal Tariq or Gibraltar. They were immediately attacked by a Christian army, but the Muslims defeated them. However, soon after, another army of one hundred thousand soldiers confronted Tariq’s forces, which numbered a mere twelve thousand. Tariq and his men fought bravely and were able to defeat the larger force (Najeebabadi, 2001.) Tariq marched onwards to Cordoba, then Toledo, and soon, the Muslims had conquered the majority of the Iberian Peninsula (Najeebabadi, 2001.)

The world will remember forever Tariq bin Ziyad, a slave, conqueror of Spain, and the initiator of a marvelous  eight-hundred year legacy. 

  1. Abd Al Rahman I 

When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, one prince, Abd Al Rahman, escaped and made his way to Spain. At this time infighting had begun amongst the various Muslim provinces. Abd al Rahman, gathering support, eventually took over Cordoba and began another chapter of Umayyad rule. (Najeebabadi, 2001; Lane-Poole, 2006)

Abd Al Rahman began construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba; one of the iconic symbols of Muslim Spain. He developed a culture of knowledge by building public schools.  An able administrator, he also curbed the crime rate. Under the Umayyads, Cordoba became one of the most magnificent cities in the Muslim World; rivalling, and some said even surpassing Baghdad. (Hughes, 2004; Najeebabadi, 2001)

  1. Ibn Hazm

Imam Ibn Hazm was great Islamic scholar, historian and poet. He was a major proponent of the Zhahiri School of Islamic Jurisprudence. He wrote extensively on theology, Islamic philosophy, and principles of Islamic jurisprudence.  His work was instrumental in the spread of the Zhahiri School throughout Spain and North Africa. (Philips, 2006) 

Imam Ibn Hazm was born into a life of privilege. His father was a member of the Caliph’s court . However, he dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and teaching; he had a keen intellect and was skilled in debate. (Salahi, 2005)

He wrote refutations to attacks on Islam by non-Muslims; and other works of his included ‘The Ring of the Dove’, a treatise on love.  It is said that Ibn Hazm’s works combined totaled some eighty thousand pages. (Salahi, 2005) 

  1. Al Zahrawi

Abul Qasim al Zahrawi, the “greatest surgeon of Islam,” (Harrison and Galal, 2004) was the physician to the Caliph of Cordoba,  Al Hakam II (Amr and Tbakhi, 2007). Al Zahrawi wrote an encyclopedic work on medicine, consisting of thirty volumes called al Tasrif which was used in Europe until the seventeenth century (Nabri, 1983).

In al Tasrif, al Zahrawi details many medical and surgical procedures that are still in use today; including methods for eye surgery and childbirth (Nabri 1983). It also detailed procedures for urology, dentistry, ENT surgery, obstetrics, pediatric surgery, and treatments for injuries to the head and spine (Nabri, 1983; Amr and Tbakhi, 2007). The first mention of hemophilia is also in Al-Tasrif The volumes also contained 200 diagrams of medical instruments designed by al Zahrawi himself. (Nabri, 1983; Amr and Tbakhi, 2007; Encyclopædia Britannica 2013)

  1. Ibn Khaldun

Being born and raised in Tunis, technically speaking, Ibn Khaldun was not from Spain; but his ancestors had lived there for centuries, and he had spent time there as well. (Dawood, 2005.) One of the greatest intellectuals of Muslim civilization, Ibn Khaldun was a jurist of the Maliki school, a historian, and is considered to be the “founder of modern historiography, sociology and economics” (Stone, 2010). He served in the courts of various rulers in North Africa and Spain, was appointed as a Qadi in Egypt, and even met the ferocious conqueror, Timur.    

Ibn Khaldun is most known for the Muqaddimah, the introduction to his history of the world, entitled Kitab al Ibar (Dawood, 2005). The Muqaddimah is the first work on the philosophy of history; seeking to identify patterns in, and the causes of, the rise and fall of societies (Dawood, 2005). Ibn Khaldun’s economic theory was extraordinarily  detailed, outlining the role of factors such as the importance of the government in creating a business-friendly environment, trading with other nations, expertise in manufacturing, and technological development (Ibn Khaldun, cited in Karatas, 2010).

A Lasting Legacy

This was just a glimpse of some of the heroes that came from Muslim Spain. The Caliphates, emirates and city states may be long gone, but the world still remembers their stunning achievements.  


Amr, Samir S. and Abdelghani Tbakhi. 2007. “Abu Al Qasim Al Zahrawi (Albucasis): Pioneer of Modern Surgery.” Annals of Saudi Medicine 27, no. 3 (May-June): 220-221. Accessed 16 October 2020.

Dawood, N.J. 2005. Introduction to The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun, translated and introduced by Franz Rosenthal, abridged and edited by N.J. Dawood, with a new introduction by Bruce B. Lawrence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Encyclopædia Britannica. 2013. “Abū al-Qāsim.” Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite, DVD-ROM. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica. 

Harrison, Gail G and Osman M. Galal. 2004. “Medicine.” in Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, Volume 2, edited by Richard C. Martin, p. 447. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. 

Hughes, Aaron. 2004. “Andalus, Al.” in Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, Volume 2, edited by Richard C. Martin, p. 46. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. 

Ibn Khaldun. 1958. The Muqaddima: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, 3 vols., Bollingen Series, no. 43. New York: Pantheon. Cited in Karatas, Selim Cafer. 2010. “The Economic Theory of Ibn Khaldun and the Rise and Fall of Nations.” Muslim Heritage. Accessed 17 October 2020.

Lane-Poole, Stanley. (1886) 2006. The Story of the Moors in Spain. New York: G. Putnam’s Sons. Reprinted as, The Muslims in Spain. New Delhi: Goodword Books. Citations refer to the Goodword Books edition.

Lewis, Bernard. (1950) 2001. The Arabs in History. London: Hutchinson’s University Library. Reprint, New Delhi: Goodword Books. Citations refer to the Goodword Books edition.

Nabri, Ismail A. 1983. “El Zahrawi (936-1013 AD), the Father of Operative Surgery.” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 65, no.2 (March): 132–134. Accessed 16 October 2020.

Najeebabadi, Akbar Shah. 2001. The History of Islam, Volume Three, translated by Darussalam Translation Department, revised by Safi-Ur-Rahman Mubarakpuri, edited by Abdul Rahman Abdullah and Muhammad Tahir Salafi. Riyadh: Darussalam. 

Philips, Abu Ameenah Bilal. 2006. The Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law and the Madh-habs. Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House.

Salahi, Adil. 2005. “Imam Ali ibn Hazm.” Muslim Heritage. Accessed 16 October 2020.  

Stone, Caroline. 2010. “Ibn Khaldun and the Rise and Fall of Empires.” Muslim Heritage. Accessed 17 October 2020. First published in Saudi Aramco World, September/October, 2006, 28-39.

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