Unit 2: Pre-Colonial Africa (1 A.D. - 1899 A.D.)

Class 2: The History of the Moors (711 A.D. – 1492 A.D.)

Learning Objectives
After completing this lesson, students 
will be able to:
  • Understand the racial, ethnic and religious make-up of the people called Moors.
  • Discuss the contributions the Moors made to European civilization and the nature of Moorish rule in Europe. 

  • Discuss the state of European civilization prior to the invasion of the Moors.

  • Discuss how and why the Moors were finally defeated by the European Christians during the Reconquista and pushed back out of Europe.

Class Overview: 

Who Were the Moors?
Within the African American community there are many misconceptions and misinformation concerning the Moors. Some groups, such as the Moorish Science Temple founded by Noble Drew Ali, even claim that African Americans were descended from the Moors of North West Africa and therefore must be Islamic by faith. Yet, who the Moors were is complicated because the word "moor" and its reference to dark-skinned people preceded the founding of Islam by centuries. In fact, the origin of the English word "moor" is Greek and simply means black - specifically black skin. The word moor was generally used by Greeks and Romans to describe all people with black skin centuries before the creation of Islam and the Moorish invasion of Europe. The word is still used today by some Europeans to negatively refer to black people. 

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD the religion of Islam emerged a little over a century later. Islam was founded in Arabia in 610 AD by Muhammad. In 711 AD Islamized Africans and Arabs, led by the African general Tariq ibn Ziyad al-Gibral, invaded and conquered Spain and Portugal for over 700 years. These Islamic Arabs and Africans were collectively referred to as Moors by white Europeans. Yet Africans and Arabs would not have referred to themselves as Moors. Rather, they would have identified themselves based on their religion, country of birth, or tribe.

Moorish civilization in Europe was a vast improvement of the feudal system established by the white Visigoths who had conquered the Iberian peninsula. So much so that the people of Spain welcomed their black-skinned conquerors as liberators. In fact, the phrase "thank heaven for 711" is a direct reference to the founding of "Moorish" civilization in Europe. Moorish civilization lifted Europe out of the Dark Ages that ensued after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Moorish leaders provided a remarkable degree of religious tolerance, allowing Christians and Jews to continue practicing their faiths. At its peak, the Moorish empire stretched from the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) all the way across the Pyrenees Mountains into France. They also conquered the European islands of Sicily and Malta. The knowledge the moors provided the Europeans set the foundation for the European Renaissance. Yet, today, the history of the Moorish empire in Europe has been virtually erased. The credit for the European Renaissance is given strictly to Europeans without any acknowledgement of the Arab/African knowledge that formed the basis of Renaissance wisdom.

The Arab/African Partnership

The religion of Islam, which was created in the Middle East, swiftly conquered North Africa, which had been conquered and controlled by the Romans for nearly 500 years. The majority of Africans in North Africa were made to either join Islam or die. Most joined, forming the bulk of the military force that invaded and subdued European powers for well over 700 years. Black Africans also held prominent positions of authority within the Islamic administrations of the Moorish empire. Many Moorish rulers were of mixed Arab/African ancestry, such as Almanzor, one of the empire's greatest leaders who ruled Spain from 976 to 1002, and Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, who ruled from 1184 to 1199. In total, over 900,000 North Africans settled in Spain and Portugal during the Moorish occupation, while only 90,000 Arabs  remained. For centuries, this Arab/African partnership brought civilization to Europe and created a religiously and racially diverse society that laid the foundation for European Enlightenment.

The Fall of the Moorish Empire

There were two main reasons for the collapse of the Moorish empire in Europe. Firstly, there was a lot of internal fighting amongst the Islamic Caliphates, which weakened their power. Secondly, the Europeans took advantage of these internal civil wars and unified under Catholicism to expel the Moors from Europe under the banner of the Reconquista, or "re-conquest." Ultimately, it was the disunity of the Muslims and the unity of the Catholics and that led to the end of Islamic rule in Europe. 

Moors In Europe After the Fall of the Moorish Empire

After the last Moorish stronghold was defeated in Granada in 1492, the moors were forced to convert to Christianity. Those who didn't were killed or exiled. All of the great Mosques that were built by the Moors were converted into Cathedrals. Still today, the most elaborate Cathedrals in Spain and Portugal were built by Africans and Arabs - not Europeans. The Muslims who converted to Christianity were absorbed into European society and many continued to hold prominent positions of authority based on their skills and intelligence. However, under the Inquisition, many Muslims who converted to Christianity were still believed to secretly be practicing Islam and were executed or exiled, even though the Muslim rulers of Spain allowed Christians to practice their faith under Islamic rule without persecution. Several moors were even elevated to Sainthood, such as St. Maurice, St. Benedict the Moor, and St. Martin de Porres. It wasn't until the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or the African Holocaust as we Black historians refer to it, that modern racism emerged as a dominant ideology.​ Despite the fact that the Moors established a far more advanced, civilized, just, and tolerant society in Europe, once re-conquered, the Europeans destroyed these vestiges of Moorish rule and created the modern, racist society we live in today.

Class Assignment

Article:  The "Moors" of Europe (20 mins.)

Documentary: When the Moors Ruled in Europe Part 1 (56 mins.)

Video:  Toledo, Spain: Tangled History (4:19 mins.) 


Documentary: When the Moors Ruled in Europe Part 2 (45 mins.)

Video:  Portugal's Islamic/Moorish Influence (23:12 mins.)

Advanced Reading (8th grade+): Who Is the Barbarian? (15-20 mins.)

Map: The Reconquista​: Every Year (3:41 mins.)

Video:  In search of the spirit of Al-Andalus (8:19 mins.)

Additional Supplemental Material:

Advanced Video Lecture (8th grade+):  Dr. John Henrik Clarke: The Rise of Islam (1:29 hour)  ​​
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