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Before the Invasion

We lack reliable sources that explain what the pre-Islamic Arab world and the early Muslims knew about the Gothic groups who entered the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire via the Danube at the end of the fourth century and, after a migration period of approximately half a century, settled first in Gaul, then on the Iberian Peninsula. Non-Arabic sources and later Arabic-Islamic evidence allow to depict the following picture.

The Roman Empire of the late fourth century may have provided Arab groups with some information on the Goths. A Goth named Munderichus was appointed commander of the Arabian frontier after he had fought against the Huns.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] The Byzantine Empire of the sixth and early seventh centuries may have facilitated the occasional encounter between inhabitants of the Visigothic realm and Arab groups. Byzantine forces were stationed on the Iberian Peninsula since the 550s up to the rule of the Visigothic king Suinthila (ruled 621-31). i2 Thanks to this Hispano-Byzantine connection, John of Biclaro, a late sixth-century annalist from the Visigothic kingdom, recorded the visit of the Ghassanid king al-Mundhir to the court of Tiberios II in Constantinople under the year 575.13 Other evidence is lacking. The Iberian Peninsula is not mentioned in the few extant pre-Islamic texts in Arabic. 14 Notwithstanding, we cannot rule out that pre-Islamic Arab groups in touch with Roman or Byzantine ruling elites received the occasional shred of information about the Goths.

Before the outset of the expansion around 636, the Muslims seem to have had very little knowledge about the contemporary Visigothic kingdom of Toledo. Muslim tradition only mentions the Iberian Peninsula in connection with predictions of conquest and eschatological utterances ascribed to Muhammad (d. 10/632) and the Jewish convert Ka‘b al-Ahbar (d. 32/652-53). 15 Arabic-Islamic historiographers of the late ninth century then ascribe vague knowledge on the Iberian Peninsula and its ‘master’ (sahib al-Andalus) to the ‘righteously guided’ caliphsd6

Latin sources dealing with the decades preceding the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula suggest that the latter slowly came into view. According to the ninth-century Chronicle of Alfonso III, the Visigothic king Wamba (ruled 672-80) repelled an attack of 270 Saracen ships against the coast of Spain. The chronicler obviously contrasts the strength, security, and stability of the Visigothic kingdom under Wamba with the general decline initiated by Wamba’s treacherous successor Ervigius, who is held responsible for the invasion of 711.[7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] However, since Muslim maritime activities are attested in the western Mediterranean of the late seventh century, direct encounters may have taken place. 1® The contemporary acts of the seventeenth council of Toledo (694) imply that the Muslims in North Africa were acquiring information about socio-political conditions on the peninsula. According to the Visigothic king Egica presiding the council, Hispanic Jews had conspired with their brethren from overseas to fight against the Christians^9 Egica may have invented this conspiracy to legitimize confiscations and other anti-Jewish measures in a climate that had become more and more hostile towards Jews in the course of the seventh century.2° Although we must reckon with a traitor topos, it does not seem implausible that groups adversely affected by Visigothic rule established contact with the approaching Muslims via a Jewish diaspora not confined to a single society or polity.21 This could explain why, according to a later chronicle, the Muslim invaders trusted the Visigothic Jews to support the conquest by temporarily handing the stewardship of at least three Iberian cities to the local Jewish community.22

According to a later Arabic-Islamic source, the future conqueror Musa b. Nusayr allegedly had to reassure the caliph al-Walid (ruled 86-96/705-15) that North Africa and the peninsula were separated by a narrow strait that could be crossed without danger to the troops.23 Collaborators are said to have provided the newly arrived with geographic orientation.'[14] [15] The early Andalusian governor al-Samh (ruled 100-02/719-21) then allegedly received the order from Damascus to produce a topographic description of the Iberian Peninsula.'5

Taken together, this material implies that the early Muslims only had very limited knowledge about the Iberian Peninsula, but gradually acquired more and more information the nearer they drew to the Visigothic kingdom. It seems safe to assume that the Arabic-Islamic world only became seriously involved with the latter in the course of the invasion. Even so, the first decades after 711 were not conducive to the production of records on the Visigoths. Both contemporary Latin-Christian and later Arabic-Islamic sources point to the havoc brought about by the political reconfiguration of the peninsula.26 The early governors’ efforts to impose a new fiscal order, infighting between various Arab groups as well as the great Berber revolt of the early 740s, preclude that much energy was invested into historical enquiries^7 in spite of the fact that interaction between the Muslim invaders and the indigenous population must have been intensive from the start.28

  • [1] Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae, ed./trans. Seyfarth, lib. 31, cap. 3,5, p. 252; cf. Woods,‘Marus’ (1998), pp. 333-4.
  • [2] Thompson, Goths (1969), pp. 320-34; Wood, ‘Spain’ (2010), pp. 292-319.
  • [3] Iohannes Biclarensis, Chronica, ed. Mommsen (MGH AA 11), a. 575/3, p. 214; cf. Rotter,
  • [4] Abendland (1986), pp. 135-7.
  • [5] 14 See Chapter 2.1.2. 15 See Chapter 2.1.2.
  • [6] al-Baladhuri, futuh, ed. de Goeje, § 264, p. 226; trans. Hitti, book V,4, § 225-6, p. 355; Howell,‘Notes’ (1978), pp. 3-14; Sayf b. ‘Umar, al-ridda, ed. al-Sammarai, § 103, p. 114; see Chapter 2.1.3.
  • [7] Chronique dAlphonse III, ed. Bonnaz, cap. 1,3, p. 33.
  • [8] 1® Cf. Eickhoff, Seekrieg (1966), pp. 14—30; Bonnaz, Chroniques (1987), pp. 114—16; Claude,‘Untersuchungen’ (1988), p. 336; Picard, Arsenaux’ (2004), pp. 691—710.
  • [9] 19 Concilium Toletanum XVII (a. 694), ed./trans. Vives, p. 524; ibid., can. 8, pp. 534—6.
  • [10] 2° As proposed by Thompson, Goths (1969), p. 247. On anti-Jewish measures in the Visigothickingdom see Konig, Bekehrungsmotive (2008), pp. 405—13; Dumezil, ‘Juifs’ (2009), pp. 327^6.
  • [11] Ziegler, Church (1930), pp. 195—6; Voigt, Staat (1936/1965), p. 151; Katz, Jews (1937/1970),p. 21; Blumenkranz, Juifs (1960), pp. 132—3; Claude, Handel (1980), p. 274; Dumezil, Racines(2006), pp. 301—2; Dumezil, ‘Crime’ (2008), pp. 27^2.
  • [12] akhbar majmua, ed./trans. Lafuente y Alcantara, pp. 12, 16 (AR), pp. 25, 26 (ES), on Elvira,Granada, and Seville. Doubts in Roth, ‘Jews’ (1976), pp. 145—58; Clarke, Conquest (2012),pp. 115—16.
  • [13] akhbar majmua, ed./trans. Lafuente y Alcantara, p. 5 (AR), p. 20 (ES).
  • [14] Ibid., pp. 5, 7, 9-12, 15-16 (AR), pp. 20-1, 23-5, 28 (ES).
  • [15] Ibid., p. 23 (AR), p. 34 (ES).
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