The rich ancient history of Islam in Portugal

World Contributor
Islam in Portugal
Closeup view of the historical and colorful Pena Palace of Sintra, Portugal. © Cristian M Balate |

It was a shock for the developers! Well, everyone knew that the 16th century Convento da Graça was a Christian monastery, but nobody ever knew what is hidden beneath it. While converting the shutdown monastery to a luxury hotel, the builders discovered something that canceled the plans for a spa and swimming pool.

What did they discover?

Interestingly, below the old convent and the city walls, the developers found an old street and foundations of a number of houses that were built more than 800 years ago by the Arab Muslims. They used to live in Portugal, they were the rulers! Unfortunately, the total extent of Portugal’s Muslim heritage is in oblivion. So today let’s focus on Islam in Portugal.

The history of Islam in Portugal

According to historians, much of Portugal strived under Islamic rule for over 500 years from the beginning of the 8th century. At that time, North African invaders conquered the Germanic kingdoms which had helped the power over the Iberian Peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire.

From the year 711 to the year 1249, most of Portugal was colonized by Arab Muslims. Portugal was called Gharb Al-Andalus at that time. It was divided into five administrative units named, Andalusia, Portugal and Galicia, Castile and Leon, Navarre, Aragon and Algarve, and Catalonia.

It was considered a province constituted by Umayyad Caliphate. The first ruler of Al-Andalus was Caliph al-Walid I, the emirate of Cordoba. The name al-Andalus is first known by the inscriptions on the coins minted in 716 by the Islamic government of Iberia.

Though the Portuguese Reconquista forced the Arabs out of the Algarve region in 1249, they remained in neighboring Andalusia for another 300 years. The presence of Arab Muslims in this country left some cultural heritage and Islamic art.

The Islamic influence in Portugal

More than seven centuries of Arab rule in Andalusia inflicted beautiful Islamic architectures. For example, the Giralda in Seville and the Great Mosque of Cordoba are two major Islamic architectural treasures. The best-known example of Islamic architecture is in the town of Mertola. There the slick

and smooth columns and outline of a mihrab indicate that the now converted church was a beautiful mosque once.

Under the Caliphate of Cordoba, al-Andalus was a light of learning. The city of Cordoba was one of the leading cultural, educational, and economic hubs throughout Europe and the Islamic world. Most of the Islamic scholars came from this region. Major advancements in Astronomy, Trigonometry, Surgery and Medicine, and Agronomy were discovered under this Caliphate. AL-Andalus was a conduit for educational and cultural exchange among the Islamic and Christian worlds.

The Islamic introduction of new agricultural technology along with hard work made Al-Andalus prosper. Till now, the common Portuguese verb ‘Mourejar’ means ‘to work like a Moor’. It implies extraordinary tenacity and diligence. The Portuguese language is full of thousands and thousands of words of Arabic origin.

The language

The Portuguese language is full of words of Arabic origin. These words are often related to food and farming. One commonly used word is ‘oxala’, which comes directly from inshaAllah. The city called Lisbon derived from the name Al-lshbun. The language continues to borrow many words from Arabic, such as azeitona (olives), azenha (watermill), and so on.

Present-day Islam in Portugal

According to the 1991 census, Muslims are about 0.1% of the total population of the country. Though, the Islamic community of Lisbon stated that the number of the Islamic population is more than 40000 at present. The majority of Muslims are Sunnis, a few thousands are Shia Muslims. There is also a small number of Ahmadiyya Muslims.

The Islamic people live a harmonious and peaceful life in Portugal. Presently, Islam is Europe’s second-largest religion. We pray to Allah that Islam will flourish in Portugal again like the ancient rich past.

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