Arab-Muslim Influence on the Iberian Peninsula

Juan Castilla Brazales, professor of Arabic Studies at the Escuela de Estudios Árabes in Granada, discussed Arab-Muslim influence on the Iberian Peninsula for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 16, 2017)—How much of Spanish culture comes from the Arab Muslims who centuries ago ruled the country? Professor Juan Castilla Brazales professor of Arabic Studies at the Escuela de Estudios Árabes in Granada, Spain, attempted to answer the question during a lecture at BYU. “Arabs have influenced Spanish architecture, design, food, science and philosophy. Even some very common Spanish words have come from Arabic,” he began.

“Most people in North America and even in Europe believe that Arab Muslims have only affected [the culture] of a small region of Spain, mostly in the south – they are wrong,” said Brazales. “In reality, the Muslim influence in the Iberian peninsula was extremely far reaching” because of the amount of territory controlled and the duration of political power—800 years.

Brazales described the territorial relations between Christian and Muslim kingdom to be like an accordion, always expanding and contracting. “It started out large and then compressed, sometimes adding small parts again to its territory, but eventually it became very small,” he said. Around 1000 C.E. Islamic Iberia, also known as Al-Andalus, comprised  much of what is now modern-day Spain and Portugal.

Though Granada, the last of the Muslim-ruled cities, fell in 1492, Spanish Christians adopted many Arabic customs, including architectural design motifs and Arabic words modified for their Romance languages. The influence of Arab Muslims increasingly became part of the Spanish identity so that even now, Brazales said, their influence “can be clearly traced.”

“I use the term Arab Muslims because not all Muslims are Arab and not all Arabs are Muslim,” explained Brazales. He avoids the more common word for Muslims in Spain – Moors – because the term technically refers only to those Muslims of Moroccan origin and because it often is used in a pejorative sense.

One of the most famous examples of Arab-Muslim influence is the Great Mosque at Cordoba, now a Catholic cathedral. “You’ve probably all seen its stripped arches in history textbooks,“ commented Brazales. The red and white voussoirs are a striking feature, possibly inspired by the design of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Brazales also pointed to floral and geometric patterns in many buildings throughout Granada, Seville and Toledo, all common motifs seen in Muslim mosques.

Other evidence of the influence of Arabic culture in Spain is the common use of water features in living spaces and public areas. “[Muslims] came from the desert, they experienced extreme temperatures often. It was important for them to have a reliable source of water where they were going,” he said. He showed an example of the Acequia del Generalife, which features a long pool with spouting fountains along the length. Brazales continued, “Even the handrails on stairways might have a channel of water that you could dip your hands in going down the stairs.”

“Something that many people do not realize is how many words in Spanish are influenced by Arabic,” said Brazales. One example is azúcar, the Spanish word for sugar, which originates from the Arabic assukkar, which was likely introduced during the trade along the Silk Road. Another is Usted, the formal way of addressing someone, which derived from the formal Spanish expression vuestra merced, but is extremely similar phonetically to ustadh, which is Arabic for doctor or professor.

Brazales also mentioned the importance of Arabic culture in the evolution of  philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and even food. “[Many Christmas dishes] served in the south of Spain are Arabic in origin.”

“The Iberian Peninsula has been profoundly affected by Arabic culture. That influence can still be seen today in the words and architecture we have adopted,” he concluded.

—Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Images: Great Mosque of Cordoba and Acequia del Generalife from WikiCommons