[The following- originally published under the headline "The 'Mustard Seed' That Liberated Spanish Christians From Islamic Rule"- is excerpted and adapted from Raymond Ibrahim's book Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and The West].
Exactly 1,300 years ago, in the year 718, a little-remembered kingdom was born in Spain. It soon led to the liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from Islamic occupation. To appreciate the significance of that development, we must travel back seven years earlier, to 711, when Arabs and Africans, both under the banner of Islam, "godlessly invaded Spain to destroy it," to quote from the Chronicle of 754. Once on European soil, they "ruined beautiful cities, burning them with fire; condemned lords and powerful men to the cross; and butchered youths and infants with the sword."
After meeting and beating Spain's Visigothic nobles at the pivotal Battle of Guadalete — "never was there in the West a more bloody battle than this," wrote the Muslim chronicler al-Hakam, "for the Muslims did not withdraw their scimitars from them [Christians] for three days" — the invaders continued to penetrate northward into Spain, "not passing a place without reducing it, and getting possession of its wealth, for Allah Almighty had struck with terror the hearts of the infidels."
Such terrorism was intentionally cultivated, in keeping with the Koran (3:151, 8:12, etc.). For instance, the invaders slaughtered, cooked, and pretended to eat Christian captives, while releasing others who, horrified, fled and "informed the people of Andalus [Spain] that the Muslims feed on human flesh," thereby "contributing in no small degree to increase the panic of the infidels," wrote al-Maqqari, another Muslim chronicler.
Contrary to the claim that Spain capitulated easily, that it reasoned that Muslim rule was no worse and possibly more lenient than that of the Visigoths, even Muslim chroniclers note how "the Christians defended themselves with the utmost vigor and resolution, and great was the havoc that they made in the ranks of the faithful." In Córdoba, for example, a number of leading Visigoths and their people holed themselves up in a church. Although "the besieged had no hopes of deliverance, they were so obstinate that when safety was offered to them on condition either of embracing Islam, or paying jizya, they refused to surrender, and the church being set on fire, they all perished in the flames," wrote al-Maqqari, adding that the ruins of this church became a place of "great veneration" for later generations of Spaniards because "of the courage and endurance displayed in the cause of their religion by the people who died in it."
There, in the deepest recesses of the Asturian mountains — the only free spot left in the Iberian Peninsula — the assembled Christian fugitives declared Pelayo to be their new king. Thus the Kingdom of Asturias was born in 718.
"Hearing this, the king [the Muslim governor of Córdoba], moved by an insane fury, ordered a very large army from all over Spain to go forth" and bring the infidel rebels to heel. The invaders — 180,000 of them, if the chroniclers are to be believed — surrounded Pelayo's mountain. They sent Oppa, a bishop or nobleman who had acquiesced to Muslim rule, to reason with him at the mouth of a deep cavern: "If when the entire army of the Goths was assembled, it was unable to sustain the attack of the Ishmaelites [at Guadalete], how much better will you be able to defend yourself on this mountaintop? To me it seems difficult. Rather, heed my warning and recall your soul from this decision, so that you may take advantage of many good things and enjoy the partnership of the Chaldeans [Arabs]."
Several subsequent Muslim attempts, including three major campaigns, were made to conquer the Asturian kingdom, and the "Christians of the North scarcely knew the meaning of repose, security, or any of the amenities of life," historian Louis Bertrand observed. Constant jihad raids created a wild frontier zone roughly along the Duero River; this became "a territory where one [a Muslim] fights for the faith," one medieval Muslim wrote. As the great Ibn Khaldun affirmed, every Muslim ruler of Andalusia was obligated "to wage the jihad himself and with his armies at least once a year."
The Muslims intentionally devastated the region — they later dubbed it "the Great Desert" — between them and Asturias. Bertrand elaborates:
To keep the [northern] Christians in their place it did not suffice to surround them with a zone of famine and destruction. It was necessary also to go and sow terror and massacre among them. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, an army sallied forth from Córdoba to go and raid the Christians, destroy their villages, their fortified posts, their monasteries and their churches, except when it was a question of expeditions of larger scope, involving sieges and pitched battles. In cases of simply punitive expeditions, the soldiers of the Caliph confined themselves to destroying harvests and cutting down trees. . . . If one bears in mind that this brigandage was almost continual, and that this fury of destruction and extermination was regarded as a work of piety — it was a holy war against infidels — it is not surprising that whole regions of Spain should have been made irremediably sterile. This was one of the capital causes of the deforestation from which the Peninsula still suffers. With what savage satisfaction and in what pious accents do the Arab annalists tell us of those at least biennial raids. A typical phrase for praising the devotion of a Caliph is this: "He penetrated into Christian territory, where he wrought devastation, devoted himself to pillage, and took prisoners." . . . At the same time as they were devastated, whole regions were depopulated. . . . The prolonged presence of the Muslims, therefore, was a calamity for this unhappy country of Spain. By their system of continual raids they kept her for centuries in a condition of brigandage and devastation
Even so, the mustard seed would not perish. "A vital spark was still alive," Edward Gibbon wrote; "some invincible fugitives preferred a life of poverty and freedom in the Asturian valleys; the hardy mountaineers repulsed the slaves of the caliph." Moreover, "all who were dissatisfied with Moorish dominion, all who clung to the hope of a Christian revival, all who detested Mahomet," were drawn to the life of poverty and freedom, as 19th-century historian Henry Edward Watts put it. By the mid eighth century, the "vital spark" had spread to engulf the entire northwest of the Peninsula.
Over the next three centuries, a number of Christian kingdoms — Galicia, Leon, Castile, Navarre, Aragon, and Catalonia, whose significance and names morphed and changed with the vicissitudes of history — evolved from or alongside the Asturian mustard seed. They made slow but steady progress against the forces of Islam.
Just as Muslims had for centuries "purified" captured Christian towns and churches "from the filth of idolatry and . . . from the stains of infidelity and polytheism," so now, tit for tat, Christian conquerors and clergymen engaged in elaborate ceremonies whereby mosques and cities were "cleansed of the filthiness of Muhammad" — a ubiquitous phrase in the chronicles of the conquest of Muslim cities conquered — even as Muslim accounts lament over "dwellings emptied of Islam" and over "mosques . . . wherein only bells and crosses may [now] be found."
Only the remote Muslim kingdom of Granada, at the very southern tip of the Peninsula, remained. Surrounded by mountainous terrain and with the sea behind it, Granada was well fortified, inaccessible, and isolated from the rest of Iberia. Moreover, Christian infighting habitually flared out, as Castile, Aragon, and Portugal increasingly jockeyed for power.