Abd ar-Rahman I

Abd ar-Rahman I Arabic: (عبد الرحمن الداخل), (known as the "Falcon of Andalus" or "The Falcon of the Quraish") [ [http://www.idir.net/~suede/successor1.html Abd ar-Rahman I ] ] (born 731; ruled from 756 through his death circa 788) was the founder of a Muslim dynasty that ruled the greater part of Iberia for nearly three centuries. The Muslims called the regions of Iberia under their dominion al-Andalus. Montgomery Watt said that the name al-Andalus "was used exclusively for that part of the peninsula under Muslim rule". [1] Abd ar-Rahman's establishment of a government in al-Andalus presented a break from the rest of the Islamic Empire, which was ruled by the Abbasids.

When researching Abd ar-Rahman, variations of his name will be found such as Abd al-Rahman I and Abderraman I.


Abd ar-Rahman was the grandson of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, the tenth Umayyad Caliph. Abd ar-Rahman was a prince and was groomed from an early age to be a caliph. More specifically, he was the son of Mu'awiyah, son of Hisham, grandson of Abd al-Malik. The child-prince was said to be tall and slender. His mother was a Christian Nafza Berber slave, and from her he inherited red hair. Interesting features attributed to Abd ar-Rahman are that he was unable to see from one of his eyes, had a distinctive mole on his face, and had a poor sense of smell. [2]

Flight from Syria

Abd ar-Rahman was sixteen when his family, the ruling Umayyads, were overthrown by a popular revolt known as the Abbasid Revolution, occurring in the year 749. Abd al-Rahman and a small selection of his family fled Damascus, where the center of Umayyad power had been. Some of the family which fled with Abd ar-Rahman were his brother Yahiya, his four-year old son Sulayman, and some of his sisters. Also fleeing with Abd ar-Rahman was his former Greek slave (a freedman) Bedr. The family fled south from Damascus following the River Euphrates. All along the way the path was filled with danger. The Abbasids had dispatched horsemen across the region to try and find the Umayyad prince and kill him. The Abbasids were merciless with all Umayyads that they found. While hiding in a small village, Abbasid agents closed in on Abd ar-Rahman and his family. He left his young son with his sisters and fled with Yahiya. Accounts vary, but Bedr likely initially escaped with Abd ar-Rahman. Some histories indicate that Bedr met up with Abd ar-Rahman at a later date. [3]

Abd ar-Rahman, Yahiya, and Bedr quit the village narrowly escaping the Abbasid assassins. Later, on the way south, Abbasid horsemen again caught up with the trio. In what must have been a desperate attempt to save themselves, Abd ar-Rahman and his companions threw themselves into the River Euphrates. While trying to swim across the dangerous Euphrates, Abd ar-Rahman is said to have become separated from his brother Yahiya. Yahiya began swimming back towards the horsemen, possibly from fear of drowning. The horsemen beseeched the escapees to return, and that no harm would come to them. 17th century historian Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari poignantly described Abd ar-Rahman's reaction as he implored Yahiya to keep going: "O brother! Come to me, come to me"! [4] Yahiya returned to the near shore, and was quickly dispatched by the horsemen. They cut the head off their prize, leaving Yahiya's body to rot. Al-Makkari quotes prior Muslim historians as having recorded that Abd ar-Rahman said he was so overcome with fear at that moment, that once he made the far shore he ran until exhaustion overcame him. [5] Only he and Bedr were left to face the unknown.


After barely escaping Syria with their lives, Abd ar-Rahman and Bedr continued south through Palestine, the Sinai, and into Egypt. Abd ar-Rahman had to keep a low profile as he traveled. It may be assumed that he intended to go at least as far as the land of his mother; that is northwestern Africa. Muslims referred to that part of the Islamic Empire as the "Mahgreb", or the "west". His Umayyad predecessors had conquered parts of the Mahgreb and Iberia. The journey across Egypt would prove perilous. Ibn Habib was the governor of East Africa, and had been a former supporter of the Umayyad Dynasty. However, with the Abbasids now in control Ibn Habib dispatched spies to look for the surviving Umayyad prince. With his red hair, Abd ar-Rahman would not be difficult to discern. Abd ar-Rahman and Bedr stayed at the camp of a Berber chieftain friendly to their plight. Ibn Habib's soldiers one day entered the camp looking for the wayward Umayyad. The Berber chieftain’s wife Tekfah hid Abd ar-Rahman under her personal belongings to help him go un-noticed. [6]

It would take several years for Abd ar-Rahman to slowly make his way into the west. In 755 Abd ar-Rahman and Bedr reached modern day Morocco near Ceuta. It was probably from here that he first glanced upon a thin strip of land on the horizon: al-Andalus, where Abd ar-Rahman could not have been sure if he would be welcomed or not in that far-flung province of the empire. He eventually sent Bedr to Iberia with a message; a message in which he proclaimed himself the rightful Umayyad heir to the land. Al-Andalus had been conquered during Abd al-Rahman's grandfather's reign. A great many Syrians were in al-Andalus, and Abd ar-Rahman hoped to appeal to their inherent Umayyad loyalty. The province however was in a state of confusion caused by the weak rule of the current Emir, Yusef al-Fihri. The Muslim community was torn by tribal dissensions between the Arabs and racial tensions between the Arabs and Berbers. Abd ar-Rahman probably saw an opportunity he had failed to find in Africa for power.

Bedr made haste to return to Africa.At the invitation of loyal Umayyad followers, Abd ar-Rahman was told to go to al-Andalus. Shortly thereafter, Abd ar-Rahman set off with Bedr and a small group of followers for Europe. When some local Berber tribesmen learned of Abd ar-Rahman's intent to set sail for al-Andalus, they quickly rode to catch up with him on the coast. The tribesmen might have figured that they could hold Abd ar-Rahman as hostage, and force him to buy his way out of Africa. He did indeed have to hand over some amount of dinars to the suddenly hostile local Berbers. Just as Abd ar-Rahman launched his boat yet another group of Berbers arrived, also with the intent of making Abd ar-Rahman pay a fee for leaving. One of the Berbers held on to Abd ar-Rahman's vessel as it made for al-Andalus, and allegedly had his hand cut off by one of the boat's crew. [7] Abd ar-Rahman landed at Almuñécar in al-Andalus, to the east of Málaga, in September 755; however his landing site was unconfirmed.

The Fight

Abd ar-Rahman was greeted by local chieftains upon landing in al-Andalus. During his brief time in Malaga, Abd ar-Rahman quickly amassed local support. Waves of people made their way to Malaga to pay respect to the prince they thought was dead, including many of the aforementioned Syrians. One famous story which persisted through history related to a gift Abd ar-Rahman was given while in Malaga. The gift was a beautiful young slave girl, but Abd ar-Rahman humbly returned her to her previous master while saying, "I will not indulge in any distraction, be it of sight or of the heart, until Spain is within my grasp”. [9]

News of the prince's arrival spread like wildfire throughout the peninsula. During this time, emir al-Fihri and the commander of his army, al-Sumayl (who was also the vizier and al-Fihri's son-in-law), pondered what to do about the new threat to their shaky hold on power. They decided to try and marry Abd ar-Rahman into their family. If that did not work, then Abd ar-Rahman would have to be killed: “if he refuse, we shall strike his bald (un-helmeted) head with our swords”. [10] Abd ar-Rahman was apparently sagacious enough to expect such a plot. In order to help speed his ascension to power, he was prepared to “take advantage of the mortal feuds and dissensions” [11] However, before anything could be done, trouble broke out in northern al-Andalus. Sarakusta (Zaragoza), an important trade city on al-Andalus' Upper March made a bid for autonomy. Al-Fihri and al-Sumayl rode north to squash the rebellion. This might have been fortunate timing for Abd ar-Rahman, as he was still getting a solid foothold in al-Andalus. By March of 756, Abd ar-Rahman and his growing following were able to take Sevilla without violence. After settling his bloody business in Sarakusta, al-Fihri turned his army back south to face the "pretender". [12] The fight for the right to rule al-Andalus was about to begin. The two contingents met on opposite sides of the River Guadalquivir, just outside the capital of Cordova on the plains of Musarah. [13]

The river was, for the first time in years, overflowing its banks; heralding the end of the long drought. Nevertheless, food was still scarce, and Abd ar-Rahman's army went with hunger. In an attempt to demoralize Abd ar-Rahman's troops, al-Fihri ensured his troops were not only well fed, but that they ate gluttonous amounts of food in full view of the Umayyad lines. An attempt at negotiations soon followed in which it is likely that Abd ar-Rahman was offered the hand of al-Fihri's daughter in marriage, and great wealth. Abd ar-Rahman would settle for nothing less than control of the emirate, and an impasse was reached. Even before the fight began, dissension spread through some of Abd ar-Rahman's lines. Specifically, the Yemeni Arabs were unhappy that the prince was mounted on a fine Spanish steed. The prince's mettle was untried in battle after all!

The Yemenis scoffed that such a fine horse would provide an excellent escape vehicle from battle. Being the ever-wary politician, Abd ar-Rahman acted quickly to regain Yemeni support, and rode to a Yemeni chief who was mounted on a mule. Abd ar-Rahman said that his horse proved difficult to ride, and was wont to buck him out of the saddle. Abd ar-Rahman offered to exchange his horse for the mule, a deal which the surprised chief took advantage of. A possible Yemeni rebellion was stopped with the swap. The mule's name was 'Lightning'. [14] Soon both armies were in their lines on the same bank of the Guadalquivir. Abd ar-Rahman had no banner, so one was improvised by unwinding a green turban and binding it round the head of a spear. Subsequently the turban and the spear became the banner and symbol of the Andalusian Umayyads. Abd ar-Rahman led the charge toward al-Fihri's army. Al-Sumayl in turn advanced his cavalry out to meet the Umayyad threat. After a long and difficult fight “Abd ar-Rahman obtained a most complete victory, and the field was strewn with the bodies of the enemy”. [15] Both al-Fihri and al-Sumayl managed to escape the field (probably) with parts of the army too. Abd ar-Rahman triumphantly marched into the capital, Cordova. Danger was not far behind, as al-Fihri planned a counter-attack. He reorganized his forces and set out for the capital usurped from him. Again Abd ar-Rahman met al-Fihri with his army; however this time negotiations were successful. In exchange for al-Fihri's life and wealth, he would be a prisoner not to leave the city limits of Cordova. Al-Fihri would have to report once a day to Abd ar-Rahman, as well as turn over some of his sons and daughters as hostages. For a while al-Fihri met the obligations of the one-sided truce, but he still had many people loyal to him; people that would have liked to have seen him back in power.

Al-Fihri eventually did make another bid for power. He quit Cordova and quickly started gathering supporters. While at large, al-Fihri managed to gather an army allegedly numbering to 20,000! However it is doubtful that his troops were 'regular' soldiers, but rather a hodge-podge of men from different parts of al-Andalus. Abd ar-Rahman's appointed governor in Sevilla took up the chase, and after a series of small fights, managed to defeat al-Fihri's army. Al-Fihri himself managed to escape to the former Visigoth capital of Toledo in central al-Andalus; however once there he was promptly killed. Al-Fihri's head was sent to Cordova, where Abd ar-Rahman had it nailed to a bridge. With this act, Abd ar-Rahman proclaimed himself the emir of al-Andalus. One final act had to be committed however: al-Fihri's general, al-Sumayl, had to be dealt with. He was garroted in Cordova's jail.

A Tenuous Rule

Indeed, Abd ar-Rahman only proclaimed himself as emir, and not as caliph. This was likely because al-Andalus was a land besieged by many different loyalties, and the proclamation of caliph would have likely caused much unrest. Abd ar-Rahman's progeny would, however, take up the title of caliph. In the meantime, a call went out through the Muslim world that al-Andalus was a safe haven for friends of the house of Umayya, if not for Abd ar-Rahman's scattered family that managed to evade the Abbasids. Abd ar-Rahman probably was quite happy to see his call answered by waves of Umayyad faithful and family. He was finally reacquainted with his son Sulayman, whom he last saw weeping on the banks of the Euphrates with his sisters. Abd ar-Rahman's sisters were unable to make the long voyage to al-Andalus. Abd ar-Rahman placed his family members in high offices across the land, doubtless that he felt he could trust them more than non-family. The Umayyad family would again grow large and prosperous over successive generations. However, by 763 Abd ar-Rahman had to get back to the business of war. Al-Andalus had been invaded by an Abbasid army!

Far away in Baghdad, the current Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, had long been planning to depose the Umayyad who dared to call himself emir of al-Andalus. Al-Mansur installed al-Ala ibn-Mugith (AKA: al-Ala) as governor of Africa (whose title gave him dominion over the province of al-Andalus). It was al-Ala who headed the Abbasid army that landed in al-Andalus, possibly near Beja (in modern day Portugal). Much of the surrounding area of Beja capitulated to al-Ala, and in fact rallied under the Abbasid banners against Abd ar-Rahman. Abd ar-Rahman had to act quickly. The Abbasid contingent was vastly superior in size, said to have numbered 7,000 men. The emir quickly made for the redoubt of Carmona with his army. The Abbasid army was fast on his heels, and laid siege to Carmona for approximately two months. Abd ar-Rahman must have sensed that time was against him as food and water became scarce, and his troops morale likely came into question. Finally Abd ar-Rahman gathered his men as he was "resolved on an audacious sally" [15] . Abd ar-Rahman hand-picked 700 fighters from his army and led them to Carmona's main gate. There, he started a great fire and threw his scabbard into the flames. Abd ar-Rahman allegedly said, “Let us throw our scabbards into the flame and swear to fall like soldiers if victory cannot be ours. We conquer or we die”! [16] The gate lifted and Abd ar-Rahman's men fell upon the unsuspecting Abbasids, thoroughly routing them! Most of the Abbasid army was killed. The heads of the main Abbasid leaders were cut off. Their heads were preserved in salt, and identifying tags pinned to their ears. The heads were bundled together in a gruesome package and sent to the Abbasid caliph who was on pilgrimage at Mecca. Upon receiving the evidence of al-Ala's defeat in al-Andalus, al-Mansur is said to have gasped, “God be praised for placing a sea between us”! [17] Al-Mansur hated, and yet apparently respected Abd al-Rahman to such a degree that he dubbed him the "Hawk of Quraysh" (The Umayyads were from a branch of the Quraysh tribe). [18]

Despite such a tremendous victory, Abd ar-Rahman had to continuously put down rebellions in al-Andalus. [19] Various Arab and Berber tribes fought each other for varying degrees of power, some cities tried to break-away and form their own state, and even members of Abd ar-Rahman's family tried to wrest power from him. During a large revolt, dissidents marched on Cordova itself! However, Abd ar-Rahman always managed to stay one step ahead, and crushed all opposition; as he always dealt severely with dissidence in al-Andalus. [20] Despite all the this turmoil in al-Andalus, Abd ar-Rahman wanted to take the fight back east to Baghdad. Revenge for the massacre of his family at the hands of the Abbasids must surely have been the driving factor in Abd ar-Rahman's war plans. However his war against Baghdad was put on hold by more internal problems. The seditious city of Sarakusta on the Upper March revolted in a bid for autonomy. Little could Abd ar-Rahman have known that as he set off to settle matters in that northern city, his hopes of warring against Baghdad would be indefinitely put on hold.

Problems in the Upper March

Sarakusta proved to be a most difficult city to reign over for not only Abd ar-Rahman, but his predecessors as well. In the year 777-8, several notable men including Sulayman ibn Yokdan al-Arabi al-Kelbi [21] , the self-appointed governor of Sarakusta, met with delegates of the leader of the Franks, Charlemagne. "(Charlemagne's) army was enlisted to help the Muslim governors of Barcelona and Saragossa against the Umayyad (emir) in Cordoba..." [22] . Essentially Charlemagne was being hired as a mercenary, even though he likely had other plans of acquiring the area for his own empire. After Charlemagne's columns arrived at the gates of Sarakusta, Sulayman got cold feet and refused to let the Franks into the city. It is possible that he realized that Charlemagne would want to usurp power from him. Charlemagne's force eventually headed back to France via a narrow pass in the Pyrenees, where a his rearguard was wiped out by Basque and Gascon rebels (this disaster is, of course, noted in the epic Chanson de Roland). These events worked out perfectly for Abd ar-Rahman, who did not even have to strike a blow [23] . Now Abd ar-Rahman could deal with Sualyman and the city of Sarakusta without having to fight a massive Christian army. In 779 Abd ar-Rahman offered the job of Sarakusta's governorship to one of Sulayman's allies, a man named al-Husayn ibn Yahiya. The temptation was too much for al-Husayn who murdered his colleague Sulayman. As promised, al-Husayn was awarded Sarakusta with the expectation that he would always be a subordinate of Cordova. Within two years, however, al-Husayn broke off relations with Abd ar-Rahman and announced that Sarakusta would be an independent city-state! Once again Abd ar-Rahman had to be concerned with developments in the Upper March. He was intent on keeping his important northern border city within the Umayyad fold. By 783 Abd ar-Rahman's army advanced on Sarakusta. It appeared as though Abd ar-Rahman wanted to make clear to this troublesome city that independence was out of the question. Included in the arsenal of Abd ar-Rahman's army were thirty-six siege engines [24] . Sarkusta's famous white granite defensive walls (indeed she was at one time called "the White City") were breached under a torrent of ordinance from the Umayyad lines. Abd ar-Rahman's warriors spilled into the city's streets, quickly thwarting al-Husayn's desires for independence.


After the aforementioned period of conflict, Abd ar-Rahman continued in his improvement of al-Andalus' infractructure. He ensured roadways were begun, aqueducts were constructed or improved, and that a new mosque was well funded in his capital at Cordova. Construction on the mosque was started circa the year 786. It would in time become world famous and deemed a major holy site for many Muslims; later to be known as the Mezquita de Cordova. Abd ar-Rahman knew that one of his sons would one day inherit the rule of al-Andalus, but that it was a land torn by strife. In order to successfully rule in such a situation, Abd ar-Rahman needed to create a reliable civil service and organize a standing army. Abd ar-Rahman felt that he could not always rely on the local populace in providing a loyal army; and therefore bought a massive standing army consisting mainly of Berbers from North Africa [25] as well as slaves from other areas. As was common during the years of Islamic expansion from Arabia, religious tolerance was practiced. Abd ar-Rahman continued to allow Jews and Christians and other monotheistic religions to retain and practice their faiths. They did, however, have to pay a tribute tax for this privilege. Abd ar-Rahman's policy of taxing non-Muslims, which was often carried out by later rulers, changed the religious dynamic of al-Andalus. Possibly because of excessive tribute taxes "the bulk of the country's population must have become Muslim" [26] . However, other scholars have argued that though 80% of al-Andalus converted to Islam, it did not truly occur until near the 10th century [27] . Christians more often converted to Islam than Jews although there were converted Jews among the new followers of Islam. There was a great deal of freedom of interaction between the groups and Sarah the Goth (grandaughter of Wittiza married a muslim man and bore two sons who were later counted among the ranks of the highest Arab nobility. [Marianne Barrucand & Achim Bednorz. "Moorish Architecture in Andalusia". (London, UK; Taschen, 2002)]


Near the end of his life, it is said that Abd ar-Rahman became increasingly paranoid and would sequester himself to his palaces. In the final pages of his account of the life of Abd ar-Rahman, writer al-Makkari (in the bibliography below) mentions that the emir treated many of his early friends, such as Bedr, with cruelty. He put some of his main supporters to death, exiled others, and reduced the rank of yet others. The date of Abd ar-Rahman's death is disputed, but is generally accepted to be sometime around 785 through 788. Abd ar-Rahman died in his adopted city of Cordova, and was supposedly buried under the site of the Mezquita. Abd ar-Rahman's alleged favorite son was his choice for successor, and would later be known as Hisham I. Abd ar-Rahman's progeny would continue to rule al-Andalus in the name of the house of Umayya for several generations, with the zenith of their power coming during the reign of Abd ar-Rahman III.


1. W. Montgomery Watt. "Islamic Surveys 4: A History of Islamic Spain". (Edinburgh, Scotland; Edinburgh University Press, 1965), page 17

2. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari. "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain; extracted from the Nafhu-T-Tib Min Ghosni-L-Andalusi-R-Rattib Wa Tarikh Lisanu-D-Din Ibni-L-Khattib". Translated by Pascual de Gayangos, member of the Oriental Translation Committee, and late professor of Arabic in the Athenæum of Madrid. In Two Volumes. VOL. II. Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York, NY. 1964. Pages 58-94 (Book VI, chapters 1 & 2). It should be noted that al-Makkari quotes from historian Ibn Hayyan's "Muktabis" when describing Abd al-Rahman's physical features.

3. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari. "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain", 96. It should be noted that al-Makkari quotes from historian Ibn Hayyan's "Muktabis" when detailing Abd al-Rahman's flight from Syria.

4. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari. "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain",60.

5. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari, "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain", 60.

6. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari, "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain". Again al-Makkari cited Ibn Hayyan for the vast majority of the preceding information, 58-61.

7. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari, "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain". 65-68.

Note that several bibliographical citations are missing. They will be placed back as time allows.

15. Philip K. Hitti. "Makers of Arab History". (New York, New York. St Martin’s Press), 1968. Pg 66

16. Philip K. Hitti. "Makers of Arab History". (New York, New York. St Martin’s Press), 1968. Pg 66

17. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari, "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain". Pg 81

18. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari, "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain". Pg 82

19. W. Montgomery Watt. "Islamic Surveys 4: A History of Islamic Spain". (Edinburgh, Scotland; Edinburgh University Press, 1965), pg 32

20. Thomas F. Glick. "Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages". (Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press), pg 38

21. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari, "The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain". Pg 85

22. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz. "Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Perception and Other". Edited by David R. Blanks and Michael Frassetto. (New York, New York; Saint Martin's Press, 1999), pg 56

23. Philip K. Hitti. "Makers of Arab History". (New York, New York. St Martin’s Press), 1968. Pg 68

24. José Luis Corral Lafuente. "Historia de Zaragoza: Zaragoza Musulmana". (Zaragoza, Spain; Ayuntamiento de Zaragoza, 1998), pg 14

25. W. Montgomery Watt. "Islamic Surveys 4: A History of Islamic Spain". (Edinburgh, Scotland; Edinburgh University Press, 1965), pg 33

26. Philip K. Hitti. "Makers of Arab History". (New York, New York. St Martin’s Press), 1968. Pg 71

27. Thomas F. Glick. "Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages". (Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press), pgs 33-35. Glick based this work on a prior scholar's work (Bulliet). On page 33 of this book, Glick writes that Bulliet said, "that the rate of conversion to Islam is logarithmic, and may be illustrated graphically by a logistic curve".


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