The Umayyad Caliphate, the second of the four major caliphates established after the death of Muhammad, has fallen. In their place, a new dynasty has arisen. The Abbasid family now occupied the palace of their predecessors, the clan that they had overthrown. The Umayyad Caliphate had ruled the Muslim world for over a century, expanding the boarders of their Empire into “the farthest reaches of the known world.” At the time of the insurrection, the Islamic Empire controlled much of North Africa, the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula, as well as parts of India. Though they contributed much to the Islamic Empire, there was really one aspect of their rule that would stand the test of time: religious tolerance. They were able to maintain a relatively peaceful rule, by letting conquered populations continue their own religious and cultural practices. However, this tolerance led to their downfall.

Many Muslims felt that the Umayyad’s policy of religious tolerance was making the Caliphate become “too secular” and they were straying from “the ways of Islam.” Several groups (this includes non-Arab Muslims, followers of Ali, and Kharijites, who believed that any Muslim could qualify for the role of caliph) began to rebel and cause turmoil until, in 750, the Abbasids, a rival clan, rose to power and overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate.

As the Caliphate was dynastic with its succession rites, a son of the previous ruling clan could turn up and claim himself as the true heir. This made the surviving Umayyads a looming threat for the new rulers. So, it was decided by the Abbasids, that everyone within the Umayyad family must die.

After their succession, the Abbasids invited the Umayyads back to the palace for a supposed reconciliation. But, in truth, it was all a ruse. In a move reminiscent to the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones, the Abbasids gave a signal to their guards and, with the clap of a hand, they fell upon their unwitting guests and killed them all. All, except one.

A lone Umayyad prince, Abd al Rahman, fled his pursuers across North Africa until he came to be under the protection of the Berber tribe that his mother had hailed from. Even though he was finally safe, a disquiet stirred in his soul. This should come as no surprise. He was a Prince, after all. Should he remain among his mother’s people, reduced to a humble leather worker, and hunted for the rest of his days? Or, should he chance the wrath of the Abbasids to regain his throne and legitimacy?

Across the straits of Gibraltar, Abd al Rahman gleaned the Iberian Peninsula – the distant land that his people called Al-Andalus. Originally controlled by the Visigoths, Muslim armies arrested control of the lands in 711. Now, it existed as a part of the greater Caliphate, which was ruled both from Damascus, and then, from Baghdad. Due to the distance from the capitals, the people of Al-Andalus “enjoyed relative autonomy.”

Abd al Rahman turned his eyes, and his ambitions, to the land of Al-Andalus, and set off to accomplish his impossible dream.

PBS’s Ornament of the World “retraces the 800-year period in medieval Spain when Muslims, Christians, and Jews forged a common cultural identity that frequently transcended their religious differences, revealing what made this rare and fruitful collaboration possible and what ultimately tore it apart.”

This documentary is available through the Library’sFilms on Demand” database.

Originally posted in the Freeman/Lozier Library’s quarterly newsletter, More Than BooksV. 26 No. 2, Spring 2023.

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