Abd ar-Rahman I: Wikis


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Statue of Abd ar-Rahman I. Almuñécar, Spain.

Abd ar-Rahman I (Arabic: عبد الرحمن الداخل; known as "the Immigrant", also the "Falcon of Andalus" or "The Falcon of the Quraish"[1]; 731 - 788) was the founder of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba (755)[2], a Muslim dynasty that ruled the greater part of Iberia for nearly three centuries (including the succeeding Caliphate of Córdoba). The Muslims called the regions of Iberia under their dominion al-Andalus. Abd ar-Rahman's establishment of a government in al-Andalus represented a branching from the rest of the Islamic Empire, which had been usurped by the Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyads from Damascus in 750.

Variations of his name include Abd al-Rahman I and Abderraman I.




Abd ar-Rahman was the grandson of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, the tenth Umayyad Caliph. He was the son of Mu'awiyah, son of Hisham, grandson of Abd al-Malik. His family was originally from the holy city of Mecca. His mother was a berber slave from the Nafza tribe.[3][4] The child-prince, said to be tall and slender, was groomed from an early age to be a caliph. According to sources, Abd ar-Rahman was unable to see from one of his eyes, had a distinctive mole on his face, and had a poor sense of smell.[5]

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 750. Abd al-Rahman and a small selection of his family fled Damascus, where the center of Umayyad power had been; people moving with him include his brother Yahiya, his four-year old son Sulayman, and some of his sisters, as well as 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, as 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.[6]

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: Abd ar-Rahman and his companions then 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, who 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"![7] 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-Maqqari 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.[8] Only he and Bedr were left to face the unknown.

Exile years

After barely escaping Syria with their lives, Abd ar-Rahman and Bedr continued south through Palestine, the Sinai, and then 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 northwestern Africa (Maghreb), the land of his mother, which had been partly conquered by his Umayyad predecessors. 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. 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 unnoticed.[9]

In 755 Abd ar-Rahman and Bedr reached modern day Morocco near Ceuta. Next step would be to cross to sea to 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, 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 supports of the umayyad were in al-Andalus, and Abd ar-Rahman hoped to appeal to their 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.

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, he 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 him 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[10].

Abd ar-Rahman landed at Almuñécar in al-Andalus, to the east of Málaga, in September 755; however his landing site was unconfirmed.

Fight for power

Abd ar-Rahman was greeted by local chieftains upon landing in al-Andalus. During his brief time in Málaga, he was able to amass local support quickly. Waves of people made their way to Málaga 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 Málaga. The gift was a beautiful young slave girl, but Abd ar-Rahman humbly returned her to her previous master.

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 to marry Abd ar-Rahman into their family. If that did not work, then Abd ar-Rahman would have to be killed. 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 feuds and dissensions. However, before anything could be done, trouble broke out in northern al-Andalus. Zaragoza, an important trade city on the Upper March of al-Andalus, 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, since 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 Zaragoza, al-Fihri turned his army back south to face the "pretender". 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 Córdoba on the plains of Musarah.

The river was, for the first time in years, overflowing its banks, heralding the end of a long drought. Nevertheless, food was still scarce, and Abd ar-Rahman's army suffered from hunger. In an attempt to demoralize Abd ar-Rahman's troops, al-Fihri ensured that his troops not only were well fed, but also 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, however, 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. And the prince's mettle was untried in battle, after all! The Yemenis observed significantly that such a fine horse would provide an excellent mount to escape 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 named "Lightning". Abd ar-Rahman averred that his horse proved difficult to ride and was wont to buck him out of the saddle. He offered to exchange his horse for the mule, a deal to which the surprised chief readily agreed. The swap quelled the simmering Yemeni rebellion. Soon both armies were in their lines on the same bank of the Guadalquivir. Abd ar-Rahman had no banner, and 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”[11]. 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, Córdoba. Danger was not far behind, as al-Fihri planned a counterattack. He reorganized his forces and set out for the capital Abd ar-Rahman had usurped from him. Again Abd ar-Rahman met al-Fihri with his army; this time negotiations were successful, although the terms were somewhat changed. In exchange for al-Fihri's life and wealth, he would be a prisoner and not allowed to leave the city limits of Córdoba. 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 who would have liked to see him back in power.

Al-Fihri eventually did make another bid for power. He quit Córdoba and quickly started gathering supporters. While at large, al-Fihri managed to gather an army allegedly numbering to 20,000. It is doubtful, however, that his troops were "regular" soldiers, but rather a hodge-podge of men from various 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; once there, he was promptly killed. Al-Fihri's head was sent to Córdoba, 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 performed, however: al-Fihri's general, al-Sumayl, had to be dealt with, and he was garroted in Córdoba's jail.


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 (also known as 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 told his men that time had come to go down fighting than die of hunger. 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”![12] 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)[13].

Despite such a tremendous victory, Abd ar-Rahman had to continuously put down rebellions in al-Andalus[14]. 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 Córdoba 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[15]. 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 Zaragoza 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

Zaragoza proved to be a most difficult city to reign over for not only Abd ar-Rahman, but his predecessors as well. In the year 777-778, several notable men including Sulayman ibn Yokdan al-Arabi al-Kelbi[16], the self-appointed governor of Zaragoza, met with delegates of the leader of the Franks, Charlemagne. "(Charlemagne's) army was enlisted to help the Muslim governors of Barcelona and Zaragoza against the Umayyad (emir) in Cordoba..."[17]. 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 Zaragoza, 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 inspired the epic Chanson de Roland)[18].

Now Abd ar-Rahman could deal with Sualyman and the city of Zaragoza without having to fight a massive Christian army. In 779 Abd ar-Rahman offered the job of Zaragoza'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 Zaragoza with the expectation that he would always be a subordinate of Córdoba. Within two years, however, al-Husayn broke off relations with Abd ar-Rahman and announced that Zaragoza 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 Zaragoza. 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[19]. Zaragoza's famous white granite defensive walls were breached under a torrent of ordnance from the Umayyad lines. Abd ar-Rahman's warriors spilled into the city's streets, quickly thwarting al-Husayn's desires for independence.

Military and social reforms and constructions works

After the aforementioned period of conflict, Abd ar-Rahman continued in his improvement of al-Andalus' infrastructure. He ensured roadways were begun, aqueducts were constructed or improved, and that a new mosque was well funded in his capital at Córdoba. Construction on what would in time become the world famous Great Mosque of Córdoba was started circa the year 786. 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. He 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[20] as well as slaves from other areas. The total number of army-men under his command were nearly 40,000. 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"[21]. However, other scholars have argued that though 80% of al-Andalus converted to Islam, it did not truly occur until near the 10th century[22].

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: for example, Sarah, the granddaughter of the Visigoth king Wittiza, married a Muslim man and bore two sons who were later counted among the ranks of the highest Arab nobility.[23]


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-Maqqari 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 Córdoba, 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.


In his lifetime, Abd al-Rahman was known as al Dakhil ('the immigrant'). But he was also known as Saqr Quraish ("The Falcon of the Quraish"), bestowed on him by one of his greatest enemies, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur.

According to the chroniclers, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur once asked his courtiers who deserved the exalted title of "Falcon of the Quraish" (foremost leader of the Prophet's tribe). The obsequious courtiers naturally replied "You, oh Commander of the Faithful!", but the Caliph said no. Then they suggested Mu'awiya (founder of the Umayyad Caliphate), but the Caliph again said no. Then they suggested Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (one the greatest of the Umayyad caliphs), but again no.

"The falcon of Quraysh", the Caliph al-Mansur told his courtiers, is Abd al-Rahman, the man "who escaped by his cunning the spearheads of the lances and the blades of the swords, who after wandering solitary through the deserts of Asia and Africa, had the boldness to seek his fortune without an army, in lands unknown to him beyond the sea. Having naught to rely upon save his own wits and perseverance, he nonetheless humiliated his proud foes, exterminated rebels, organized cities, mobilized armies, secured his frontiers against the Christians, founded a great empire and reunited under his scepter a realm which seemed already parcelled out among petty chieftans. No man before him ever did such deeds. Mu'awiya rose to his stature through the support of Umar and Uthman, whose backing allowed him to overcome difficulties; Abd al-Malik, because of previous appointment; and the Commander of the Faithful [i.e. myself] through the struggle of his kin and the solidarity of his partisans. But Abd al-Rahman did it alone, with the support of none other than his own judgment, depending on no one but his own resolve."


  1. ^ Abd ar-Rahman I
  2. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 2
  3. ^ "Abd-ar-Rahman had lived for some time with his Berber mother's tribe", William Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain, Edinburgh University Press, 1996, p.29.
  4. ^ Pierre Stephen Robert Payne, The History of Islam‎, Barnes & Noble, 1990, p.150
  5. ^ Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari. 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. VOL. II. Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York, NY. 1964. Pages 58–94 (Book VI, chapters 1 & 2). al-Maqqari quotes from historian Ibn Hayyan's Muktabis when describing Abd al-Rahman's physical features.
  6. ^ Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari. The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, 96. It should be noted that al-Maqqari quotes from historian Ibn Hayyan's Muktabis when detailing Abd al-Rahman's flight from Syria.
  7. ^ Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari. The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, p. 60.
  8. ^ Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, p. 60.
  9. ^ Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain. Again al-Maqqari cited Ibn Hayyan for the vast majority of the preceding information, 58-61.
  10. ^ Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain. pp. 65-68.
  11. ^ Philip K. Hitti. Makers of Arab History. (New York. St Martin’s Press), 1968. p. 66
  12. ^ Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, p. 81
  13. ^ Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain. p. 82
  14. ^ W. Montgomery Watt. Islamic Surveys 4: A History of Islamic Spain. (Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press, 1965), p. 32
  15. ^ Thomas F. Glick. Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages. (Princeton, Princeton University Press), p. 38
  16. ^ Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, p. 85
  17. ^ 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, Saint Martin's Press, 1999), p. 56
  18. ^ Philip K. Hitti. Makers of Arab History. (New York. St Martin’s Press), 1968. p. 68
  19. ^ José Luis Corral Lafuente. Historia de Zaragoza: Zaragoza Musulmana. (Zaragoza; Ayuntamiento de Zaragoza, 1998), p. 14
  20. ^ W. Montgomery Watt. Islamic Surveys 4: A History of Islamic Spain. (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1965), p. 33
  21. ^ Philip K. Hitti. Makers of Arab History. (New York. St Martin’s Press), 1968. p. 71
  22. ^ Thomas F. Glick. Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages. (Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press), pp. 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".
  23. ^ Marianne Barrucand & Achim Bednorz. Moorish Architecture in Andalusia. (London, Taschen, 2002)

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

Abd ar-Rahman I
Cadet branch of the Banu Quraish
Died: 788
Preceded by
Marwan II
Emir of Cordoba
756 – 788
Succeeded by
Hisham I

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