ABD-AR-RAHMAN, the name borne by five princes of the Omayyad dynasty, amirs and caliphs of Cordova, two of them being rulers of great capacity.
Abd-ar-Rahman I. (756–788) was the founder of the branch of the family which ruled for nearly three centuries in Mahommedan Spain. When the Omayyads were overthrown in the East by the Abbasids he was a young man of about twenty years of age. Together with his brother Yahya, he took refuge with Bedouin tribes in the desert. The Abbasids hunted their enemies down without mercy. Their soldiers overtook the brothers; Yahya was slain, and Abd-ar-rahman saved himself by fleeing first to Syria and thence to northern Africa, the common refuge of all who endeavoured to get beyond the reach of the Abbasids. In the general confusion of the caliphate produced by the change of dynasty, Africa had fallen into the hands of local rulers, formerly amirs or lieutenants of the Omayyad caliphs, but now aiming at independence. After a time Abd-ar-rahman found that his life was threatened, and he fled farther west, taking refuge among the Berber tribes of Mauritania. In the midst of all his perils, which read like stories from the Arabian Nights, Abd-ar-rahman had been encouraged by reliance on a prophecy of his great-uncle Maslama that he would restore the fortune of the family. He was followed in all his wanderings by a few faithful clients of the Omayyads. In 755 he was in hiding near Ceuta, and thence he sent an agent over to Spain to ask for the support of other clients of the family, descendants of the conquerors of Spain, who were numerous in the province of Elvira, the modern Granada. The country was in a state of confusion under the weak rule of the amir Yusef, a mere puppet in the hands of a faction, and was torn by tribal dissensions among the Arabs and by race conflicts between the Arabs and Berbers. It offered Abd-ar-rahman the opportunity he had failed to find in Africa. On the invitation of his partisans he landed at Almuñecar, to the east of Malaga, in September 755. For a time he was compelled to submit to be guided by his supporters, who were aware of the risks of their venture. Yusef opened negotiations, and offered to give Abd-ar-rahman one of his daughters in marriage and a grant of land. This was far less than the prince meant to obtain, but he would probably have been forced to accept the offer for want of a better if the insolence of one of Yusef’s messengers, a Spanish renegade, had not outraged a chief partisan of the Omayyad cause. He taunted this gentleman, Obeidullah by name, with being unable to write good Arabic. Under this provocation Obeidullah drew the sword. In the course of 756 a campaign was fought in the valley of the Guadalquivir, which ended, on the 16th of May, in the defeat of Yusef outside Cordova. Ab-dar-rahman’s army was so ill provided that he mounted almost the only good war-horse in it; he had no banner, and one was improvised by unwinding a green turban and binding it round the head of a spear. The turban and the spear became the banner of the Spanish Omayyads. The long reign of Abd-ar-rahman I. was spent in a struggle to reduce his anarchical Arab and Berber subjects to order. They had never meant to give themselves a master, and they chafed under his hand, which grew continually heavier. The details of these conflicts belong to the general history of Spain. It is, however, part of the personal history of Abd-ar-rahman that when in 763 he was compelled to fight at the very gate of his capital with rebels acting on behalf of the Abbasids, and had won a signal victory, he cut off the heads of the leaders, filled them with salt and camphor and sent them as a defiance to the eastern caliph. His last years were spent amid a succession of palace conspiracies, repressed with cruelty. Abd-ar-rahman grew embittered and ferocious. He was a fine example of an oriental founder of a dynasty, and did his work so well that the Omayyads lasted in Spain for two centuries and a half.
Abd-ar-Rahman II. (822–852) was one of the weaker of the Spanish Omayyads. He was a prince with a taste for music and literature, whose reign was a time of confusion. It is chiefly memorable for having included the story of the “Martyrs of Cordova,” one of the most remarkable passages in the religious history of the middle ages.
Abd-ar-Rahman III. (912–961) was the greatest and the most successful of the princes of his dynasty in Spain (for the general history of his reign see Spain, History). 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, Abdallah, one of the weakest and worst of the Spanish Omayyads. His father, Mahommed, was murdered by a brother Motarrif by order of Abdallah. 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 Mahommedans 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 Fatimites of Egypt and northern Africa, who claimed the caliphate, and who aimed at extending their rule over the Mahommedan world, at least in the west. Abd-ar-rahman subdued the nobles by means of a mercenary army, which included Christians. He repelled the Fatimites, 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 the 16th of January 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 Mahommedans. After he was defeated by the Christians at Alhandega in 939 through the treason of the Arab nobles in his army (see Spain, History) 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 Mahommedan rule, it is well to remember that he administered well not by means of but in spite of Mahommedans. 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 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 no trace now remains. The great monument of early Arabic architecture in Spain, the mosque of Cordova, was built by his predecessors, 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 (in Pertz, Mon. Germ. Scriptores, iv. 355-377). 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.
In the agony of the Omayyad dynasty in Spain, two princes of the house were proclaimed caliphs for a very short time, Abd-ar-rahman IV. Mortada (1017), and Abd-ar-rahman V. Mostadir (1023–1024). Both were the mere puppets of factions, who deserted them at once. Abd-ar-rahman IV. was murdered in the year in which he was proclaimed, at Guadiz, when fleeing from a battle in which he had been deserted by his supporters. Abd-ar-rahman V. was proclaimed caliph in December 1023 at Cordova, and murdered in January 1024 by a mob of unemployed workmen, headed by one of his own cousins.