Abd al-Rahman III

Abd al-Rahman III (891-961) was the greatest of the Umayyad rulers of Spain and the first to take the title of Caliph. During his reign Islamic Spain became wealthy and prosperous.

Abd al-Rahman III, called al-Nasir or the Defender (of the Faith), was born at Cordova on Jan. 7, 891, the son of Prince Muhammad and a Frankish slave. Like most of his family, he was blue-eyed and blond, but he dyed his hair black to avoid looking like a Goth. In 912 he succeeded his grandfather, Abd Allah, as emir. The first period of his half-century reign was marked by campaigns of pacification against various rebellious groups. Between 912 and 928 he steadily wore down the forces of Umar ibn Hafsun, whose coalition of neo-Moslem peasants from southern Spain proved the most serious challenge yet mounted against Cordova's authority.

During the next phase of his reign Abd al-Rahman was able to concentrate his energies on foreign problems. He applied pressure to his Christian enemies to the north and waged a diplomatic campaign against Fatimid influence in North Africa. In 920 he stopped the southward advance of King Ordoño III of León and in 924 sacked Pamplona, the capital of Navarre. Abd al-Rahman was defeated at Simancas in 939 by Ramiro II of León, who was unable, however, to press his advantage further. In 927 Abd al-Rahman captured Melilla on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco as an advanced defense against possible moves by the Tunisia-based Fatimids; this was followed in 931 by the conquest of Ceuta. From these two bases the Spanish ruler extended an Umayyad protectorate over much of western North Africa which lasted until the end of the century.

An astute politician, Abd al-Rahman adopted the supreme titles of Caliph and Prince of the Believers in 929, a significant political decision designed to legitimize his imperial pretensions over the claims of Abbasid and Fatimid rivals. The assumption of the caliphal title reflected the total pacification of Islamic Spain, for the powerful group of orthodox Islamic theologians had always opposed any challenge to the religious unity of Islam, symbolized in the Abbasid caliphate.

After reigning for 25 years, Abd al-Rahman III launched the construction of a luxurious pleasure palace and administrative city, Madinat al-Zahra, just outside Cordova. Begun in 936, the construction took 40 years, and for a while the Caliph spent one-third of his annual income on it. He occupied the palace in 945, moving most of the governmental administrative bureaus there. Cordova itself, as the capital of Islamic Spain, became during his reign the greatest metropolis of western Europe, rivaling Constantinople.

Abd al-Rahman III died at the apex of his power on Oct. 15, 961. He had pacified the realm, dealt ably with his Fatimid rivals, and stabilized the frontier with Christian Spain.

Further Reading on Abd al-Rahman III

The definitive study of Islamic Spain during the lifetime of Abd al-Rahman III is in French, E. Lévi-Provençal, L'Espagne musulmane au X sièle (1932). For a general survey in English see W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain (1965).

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