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Abd-ar-rahman III

Abd-ar-rahman III, (912 - 961) was the greatest and the most successful of the princes of the Ummayad dynasty in Spain. He ascended the throne when he was barely twenty-two and reigned for half a century. His life was so completely identified with the government of the state that he offers less material for biography than his ancestor Abd-ar-rahman I. Yet it supplies some passages which show the real character of an oriental dynasty even at its best. Abd-ar-rahman III was the grandson of his predecessor, Abdullah, one of the weakest and worst of the Spanish Umayyads. His father, Mahommed, was murdered by a brother Motarrif by order of Abdullah. The old sultan was so far influenced by humanity and remorse that he treated his grandson kindly.

Abd-ar-rahman III came to the throne when the country was exhausted by more than a generation of tribal conflict among the Arabs, and of strife between them and the Muslims of native Spanish descent. Spaniards who were openly or secretly Christians had acted with the renegades. These elements, which formed the bulk of the population, were not averse from supporting a strong ruler who would protect them against the Arab aristocracy. These restless nobles were the most serious of Abd-ar-rahman's enemies. Next to them came the Fatimids of Egypt and northern Africa, who claimed the caliphate based on descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and who aimed at extending their rule over the Muslim world. Abd-ar-rahman subdued the nobles by means of a mercenary army, which included Christians. He repelled the Fatimids, partly by supporting their enemies in Africa, and partly by claiming the caliphate for himself. His ancestors in Spain had been content with the title of sultan. The caliphate was thought only to belong to the prince who ruled over the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. But the force of this tradition had been so far weakened that Abd-ar-rahman could proclaim himself caliph on January 16, 929, and the assumption of the title gave him increased prestige with his subjects, both in Spain and Africa. His worst enemies were always his fellow Muslims. After he was defeated by the Christians at Alhandega in 939 through the treason of the Arab nobles in his army (see History of Spain) he never again took the field. He is accused of having sunk in his later years into the self-indulgent habits of the harem.

When the undoubted prosperity of his dominions is quoted as an example of successful Muslim rule, it is well to remember that he administered well not by means of but in spite of Muslims. The high praise given to his administration may even excite some doubts as to its real excellence. We are told that a third of his revenue sufficed for the ordinary expenses of government, a third was hoarded and a third spent on buildings. A very large proportion of the surplus must have been wasted on the palace-town of Madinat-al-Zahra, built three miles to the north of Cordova, and named after a favourite concubine. Ten thousand workmen are said to have been employed for twenty-five years on this wonder, of which only ruins now remain. The great monument of early Arabic architecture in Spain, the mosque of Cordova, was built by his predecessors, and not by him. It is said that his harem included six thousand women. Abd-ar-rahman was tolerant, but it is highly probable that he was very indifferent in religion, and it is certain that he was a thorough despot. One of the most authentic sayings attributed to him is his criticism of Otto I of Germany, recorded by Otto's ambassador, Johann, abbot of Gorze, who has left in his Vita an incomplete account of his embassy. He blamed the king of Germany for trusting his nobles, which he said could only increase their pride and leaning to rebellion. His confession that he had known only twenty happy days in his long reign is perhaps a moral tale, to be classed with the omnia fui, et nil expedit of Septimius Severus.

From an old 1911 Encyclopedia