Abd al-Rahman I

Abd al-Rahman I (731-788) was emir of Islamic Spain from 756 to 788. Known as "the Immigrant," he established the rule of the Umayyad dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula.

Born near Damascus, Syria, Abd al-Rahman I was the son of the Umayyad prince Muawiya ibn Hisham and a Berber concubine named Rah. In 750 he was one of the few members of his family to escape slaughter by the Abbasids, and thus, as the Umayyad line was extinguished in the East, he made his way to the western Islamic world to establish a base of power. Accompanied by his freedman Badr, he traveled across North Africa, finally gaining refuge among his mother's tribe, the Nafza Berbers of Morocco. Using this base, he sent Badr to Spain to prepare the groundwork for his political aspirations.

On Aug. 14, 755, Abd al-Rahman landed at Almuñécar and was soon acknowledged as chief by various settlements of Syrian immigrants, still loyal to his family. Finally, after defeating the last governor of Islamic Spain, Yusuf al-Fihri, he entered the capital, Cordova, on May 15, 756, and was proclaimed emir in the main mosque there.

News of Abd al-Rahman's triumph spread quickly across the Islamic world, striking terror in the hearts of the rival Abbasids but gladdening thousands of Umayyad supporters, who soon flocked to Spain. Many of the prince's relations and Syrian aristocrats who had been removed from power in the East became the new upper crust of Cordovan society. During his 32-year reign Abd al-Rahman had to deal with numerous uprisings, several of which were supported by the Abbasids. One of the most serious was the revolt of the Yemenite Arab al-Ala ibn Mugith, whom Abd al-Rahman ordered decapitated. From 768 to 776 the emir faced an even more serious revolt led by the Berber chief Shakya. Later, a coalition of disaffected Arab chiefs called on Charlemagne for help against the Umayyad ruler. The Frankish king vainly besieged Saragossa in 778, and part of his army was wiped out in the Pass of Roncesvalles by a Basque ambush as it returned to France, an episode chronicled in the Song of Roland.

Through his policy of attracting opposing interest groups and dealing sternly with rebellion, Abd al-Rahman achieved a modicum of stability. He perfected the Syrian administrative bureaus introduced earlier in the century and further centralized government operations in Cordova, which by the end of his reign began to resemble a great capital. Blond, habitually dressed in white, and blind in one eye, he was skilled in oratory and poetry no less than in the military arts. On Sept. 30, 788, Abd al-Rahman I died in Cordova.

Further Reading on Abd al-Rahman I

A short biography of Abd al-Rahman I is in Philip K. Hitti, Makers of Arab History (1968). For general background see W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain (1965).