Catholic Iberia and the of rise of Islam

By the year 475, Euric, the Visigoth’s second king, had subdued and unified all the factions of the Visigoth tribes and forced Rome to grant them independence. They ruled from Toulouse in Gaul and their territory stretched from the Loire in the north, to the very southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula. They were considered to be the most civilized of the barbarians and the logical successors to Rome’s rule. Euric died in 484 and was followed by his son Alaric II. The Franks and Bergundians challenged his claim to the lands in Gaul, and Alaic was killed fighting them near to Poitiers.  By 508 the Visigoths had lost nearly all their lands in Gaul, retaining only a narrow strip called Septimania along the southern coast.

Alaic’s son Amalaric was only a boy when his father was killed, but his father’s supporters secretly took the child to Narbonne, which was the last Gothic outpost in Gaul, and later across the Pyrenees into Hispania. The centre of Visigothic rule shifted first to Barcelona, then inland and south to Toledo and from 511 to 526, the Visigoths were ruled by Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths, who acted as regent for the young king-to-be. The succession of the king was disputed, and to arbitrate between the factions, troops of the Byzantine Empire under emperor Justinian I were invited into Visigoth lands.  

Justinian saw the invitation as an opportunity to re-establish the Roman Empire in Iberia and before the Visigoths could control them they had taken Granada and southern Hispania Baetica, which Justinian claimed as a new province called Spania. The Visigoth king, Liuvigild, rallied his kingdom and conquered the Suevic (Galicia) kingdom in 585 as well as most of the northern regions (Cantabria) in 574 and regained part of the southern areas lost to the Byzantines. It was a later king, Suintila, who finally forced the empire out of Iberia in 624.

The warring Visigoth tribes had been united and had outgrown and replaced the Roman Empire in Iberia. They had their own laws, the Breviarium Alarici, drafted by Aclaric in 500, based on the old Roman laws, and which is still the basis for Spanish law today. But the real power in Iberia now was the Church. After much infighting over the actual form and creed of the religion, the dominant doctrine had become Nicene Christianity, replacing the old Arian Christianity which the Visigoths had been following for 200 years.

During the 500 years since the birth of Christ, Rome had ceased to be the centre of the empire, which had moved to Constantinople. Christianity had grown in power and extent over the centuries, and Theodosius I was the last emperor to rule over both the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. He died in 395 AD, after making Christianity the official religion of the empire.

In 589 King Reccared converted the Visigoths to Catholicism. The Catholic bishops increased in power, until, at the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633, they took upon themselves the nobles’ right to select a king from among the royal family. Until this time, the dispossessed Jews who had fled persecution under Rome had been accepted by the majority of Visigoths. But Visigothic persecution of Jews followed their conversion to Catholicism. In 633, the same synod of Catholic bishops  declared that all Jews must be baptized.

The Visigoths were once again subservient to a higher power.   

The rise of Islam

While the Visigoths of Iberia were converting to Catholicism, and the Byzantium Empire was ruled from Constantinople, (Modern day Istanbul) the world was about to be rocked by the birth of another religion.

At this time the Arab world was in turmoil, with religious divisions being the major part of the unrest. In the Persian Gulf, Christianity was spreading, whilst in the Yemen, Judaism was gaining ground. The remaining lands were largely polytheistic, as they had been for centuries, but there was a growing need for a new approach to changing cultures in Arabia.

The people had a reluctance to change faith, but the newer religions offered more enlightened and spiritual teachings than the old ones.

Anarchy was rife in western Arabia, and mutually agreed “sacred months” were established during which it was safe to travel without fear of robbery or violence. The polytheistic Kaaba shrine in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, was a popular pilgrimage for worshipers.

Twenty one years after the Visigoths of Iberia converted to Catholicism, a man  named Muhammad had a series of visions. Muhammad had become a recluse, and spent much of his time away from his family meditating in a cave three miles north of Mecca. Born around the year 570, Muhammad belonged to the Quraysh tribe and sometime around his fortieth birthday he began receiving what Muslims consider to be divine revelations delivered by the angel Gabriel, later be written down in the form of the Koran. Gabriel told him to proclaim a strict monotheistic faith and warn his compatriots of the impending Judgement Day. He was told that he must expose and castigate the social injustices of his city.

After the vision, he was disturbed, and left the cave to tell his family what he had seen. He spoke with men learned in the Jewish and Christian scriptures who confirmed to him that his experience had been spiritual. Shortly after he had another revelation, which prompted him to begin preaching. At first, Muhammad’s message won over a handful of followers and was met with increasing opposition from the elders of Mecca. In 618, he lost the protection of his influential uncle, Abu Talib who died, and after receiving death threats, Muhammad took flight to the city of Yathrib, which was soon renamed Madīnat an-Nabī, (The city of the Prophet) then shortened to Medina. Muhammad was later joined by his followers and this event, known as the Hijra, has become recognized as the start of the Islamic era. The Islamic faith had spread with amazing speed, and by the year 700, only eighty years after the birth of Muhammad, it encompassed as many countries as the old Roman Empire, but this time on the southern banks of the Mediterranean

During this expansion, the Great Muslim Army besieged Jerusalem in 636, two years after Muhammad's death. Until then, it had been  under the control of the Catholic Byzantine Romans. After four months, Jerusalem, fell and the custodian of the city, Sophronius, an Arab himself, surrendered the city to caliph Omar and negotiated a contract of religious freedom for the Christians and Jews who lived there. From then on, the Caliphs of Damascus were tolerant princes, and many Christians and Jews held high offices in their courts.