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What did the conqueror of al-Andalus do to motivate his warriors?

Tariq Ibn Ziyad (allegedly) burnt his own fleet after his warriors set foot on Iberian soil. His speech is legendary.

Last updated: 3 days ago

The Islamic conquest of Spain is one of the most important chapters in the history of Islam. There is a famous legend about this conquest. The main character is Tariq ibn Ziyad (طارِق بن زِياد).

Tariq is credited with one of the boldest moves in military history: He burned his own fleet.

Who was Tariq ibn Ziyad?

Tariq ibn Ziyad (~670-679; died: 720 in Damascus) was a convert to Islam from a Berber tribe of Algeria. He was said to be a freed slave. Later, Tariq bin Ziyad led the Muslim con­quest of Spain and conquered al-'Andalus (الْأَنْدلُس‎‎) which is called Andalusia in English. The name denotes those parts of Spain which were Arabized in the .

The legend: The burning of the ships

After his warriors set foot on Iberian soil, Tariq ibn Ziyad burnt his ships to fur­ther motivate his soldiers. He left them with only two choices: to either conquer Spain or to die in honor. His army consisted of around 12,000 sol­diers, and most of them were infantry.

YouTube video
Scene: Tariq bin Ziyad burns his own fleet and sends a warning to his enemy.

The famous speech of Tariq ibn Ziyad

When I was studying Arabic in Egypt and later in other Arab countries, I learned about Tariq's famous speech and the story that he burned his ships many times. It is a true and powerful story of bravery and heroism. So, I wasn't surprised that the director of the film “Boy from Heaven,” which is a thriller about Al-Azhar (الأزْهَر) and the brutality of the Egyptian regime of Al-Sisi, included it in a dialogue.

Let's see what the famous speech is all about.

There are many versions of it. I use the line according to al-Maqqari (أحمد المَقَّرِي التلمساني), a historian of the 17th century of Algerian descent, who is the primary source of the “burning the boats” story in his account Nafh al-Tib (نَفْح الطِّيْب), literally Essence of Perfume, a compendium of the history of Al-Andalus.

أَيُّها النّاسُ، أَيْنَ المَفَرُّ؟ الْبَحْرُ مِنْ وَرائِكُمْ، وَالْعَدُوُّ أَمامَكُمْ وَلَيْسَ لَكُمْ واللَّهِ إلا الصِّدْقُ وَالصَبْرُ

Tariq Ibn Ziyad (allegedly)

“Oh people, where is the escape? The sea is behind you, and the enemy before you, and by Allah, you have nothing (left) but conviction and perseverance.”

Tariq Ibn Ziyad (allegedly)

Video of the speech

If you want to know how it sounds in Classical Arabic, watch this video, which shows the part when Tariq bin Ziyad started to talk to his warriors. Note: You can enable (though some parts are a bit awkwardly translated).

YouTube video
Click here to watch and listen – the famous speech of Tariq bin Ziyad in Arabic.

أيها الناس، أين المَفَرُّ؟ البحرُ من ورائكم، والعدوُّ أمامَكم وليس لكم واللَّهِ إلا الصدقُ والصَبْرُ. واعلموا أنكم في هذه الجزيرة أَضْيَعُ من الأيتام في مَأْدُبَةِ اللِّئام، وقد اسْتَقْبَلَكم عدوّكم بِجَيْشِهِ وأَسْلِحَتِهِ، وأَقْواتُه موفورةٌ ، وأنتم لا وَزَرَ لكم إلا سيوفُكم ولا أقواتَ إلا ما تَسْتَخْلِصُونَه من أيدِي عدوِّكم، وإِن امْتَدِّتْ بكم الأيامُ على افتقارِكم ولم تُنْجِزوا لكم أمراً ذهبتْ رِيحُكم، وتَعَوّضَتِ القلوبُ من رُعْبِها منكم الجَرَاءَةَ عليكم، فادفعوا عن أنفسكم خُذْلانَ هذه العاقبة من أمركم بِمُنَاجَزَةِ هذا الطاغية

Source: نفح الطيب للمَقَّري

What historians say

The sources of what happened at that time are dubious, and much was written down centuries (!) later. So one has to be careful when talking about “facts”. Much is pure narrative, even poetry, numbers are mostly an estimation.

Today, however, the version of the conquest that includes the burning of the ships is widespread in the Arab world. So what do the Arabic sources say?

Let's start with the burning of the fleet:

  • Ibn Abd Al-Hakam (ابن عبد الحَكَم), a famous Egyptian historian of the 9th century, does not mention the burning of the ships. His work The Conquest of Egypt and North Africa and Andalusia (فتوح مصر والمغرب والاندلس) is considered one of the earliest Arabic Islamic histories to have survived to the present day.
  • Also, the tenth-century Andalusian chronicler of the conquest, Ibn al-Qutiyya (ابن القُوطِيّة), does not write about it.
  • The first mention of the event is perhaps in the geographical work called نزهة المشتاق فى اختراق الآفاق by al-Idrisi (محمد الإدريسي), a 12th-century scholar. You can find it in his book with the title نُزْهة الْمَشْتاقّ فِي اِخْتِراق الْآفاق, which basically means The Pleasure Excursion of One Who Is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World. The author was a Mus­lim geo­grapher and Egyptologist who lived in Pa­lermo (Sicily). He published his work almost five centuries after Tariq's conquest.
  • The 15th-century geographer al-Himyari (الحِميَرِي) added that Tariq ordered the burning of the ships.
  • The best known version of Tariq's speech, including the famous quote, appeared in the 17th century in Nafh al-Tib by al-Maqqari (أحمد المَقَّرِي التَّلْمَسانِي) – see the quote above.

However, parts of the famous speech can be found in various sources. The 9th century Andalusian scholar Ibn Habib (ابن حبيب) quoted the most famous first lines of the speech in his brief account of Tariq's conquest. He wrote that when Tariq heard that the Visigothic army was approaching, he gathered his companions (the word (أصحابه is used and not النس), incited them to jihad and martyrdom, and then spoke to them: أين المفرّ

Analysis from an Islamic viewpoint

The motifs of patience and self-assertion are crucial virtues in the face of overwhelming enemies. Especially the words صِدْقٌ and صبر are heavy, important concepts that can hardly be translated with just single words. Their ideas are deeply rooted in Islam. The idea of sabr (صَبْرٌ), for example, can include enduring pain or suffering blows, but it can also express not giving up.

However, from an Islamic point of view, this legend does have some inconsistencies:

  • Ac­cording to Sharī‘a Law burning is unacceptable in Islam (only Allah punishes with fire) and a pious and god-fearing man like Tariq ibn Ziyād would probably not have done such a thing.
  • Most of his ships were borrowed from the ruler of Ceuta (Morocco); Tariq would have gotten into serious troubles.
  • In Jihad (جِهاد) Muslims are not allowed to flee. Tariq either did not know about this rule, or he just didn't want to give his sol­diers a chance to decide.
  • Tariq's brinkmanship seems to be at odds with his previ­ous strategies.
  • Furthermore, this legend in its complete form is only found in Western sources.

What about the Arabic language used?

Tariq bin Ziyad uses many stylistic and rhetorical devices:

  • When he asks Where is the escape?, he uses what we could call a denial question, which can be understood as a negation (استفهام إنكاري). In other words: There is no escape; you will have to meet the enemy.
  • He plays with opposites, with the words before (أمامكم) and behind (ورائكم).
  • Later in his speech, he uses a strong metaphor (كِناية) of humiliation and weakness (أنكم في هذه الجزيرة أَضْيَعُ من الأيتام في مَأْدُبَةِ اللِّئام; it means something like: you are lost on this island like orphans at a feast of the wicked).

Scholars have suggested that a Berber like Tariq would not have been able to produce an Arabic speech as rhetorically sophisticated as the one attributed to him. Moreover, his Berber army, which was probably not fluent in Arabic, might not have understood it. According to one theory, both the traditions of the burning of the ships and the subsequent speech derive from legends about the pre-Islamic conquest of Yemen by the Sasanian general Wahriz (وَهْرِز or بَهْريز) in the sixth century. The Sasanian Empire was an ancient Iranian dynasty that ruled an empire from 224 to 651 CE. The dynasty was named after Sāsān.

Gibraltar means Mount of Tariq

In May 711 Tariq landed on Gibraltar with an army of 7,000 men, consisting mostly of Berbers, Syrians and Ye­menites. Hence, Gibraltar became known as Jabal Tariq (جبل طارق) – literally Mount/rock of Tariq. From this Arabic name, the Anglicized form Gibraltar became popular.

The main battle: conquest of Andalusia

The numbers and details about the battles in Spain are not clear and vague. Spain at that time was under Visigothic rule, ⁣but was dragged into a civil war. The dispossessed sons of the recently deceased king of Spain appealed to the Muslims for help in the civil war, and they quickly responded to this request – to conquer Spain for themselves.

The Visigoth king, Roderic, responded to the Muslim intrusion and organized an army of 100,000 sol­diers.

The two armies met in July 711 at the Guadalete River near the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslims were out­numbered as they had only 12,000 men – but they won nevertheless. 3000 Muslim soldiers died.

King Roderic fled the battle, and Tariq moved on and conquered Toledo, Seville, Jaen and Cor­doba.

The ruler of Morocco, Musa ibn Nusayr (مُوسَى بن نُصَيْر), also entered the Iberian Peninsula with 18,000 soldiers in the fol­lowing year. He conquered Seville, Mareda and Lis­bon. Together, the two generals occupied more than two-thirds of the Iberian Pen­insula.

However, in 714, both Musa and Tariq were summoned by the Caliph to Damas­cus. When they reached the cap­ital, the Caliph was on his deathbed, but he honored them lavishly.

The death of Tariq ibn Ziyad

When Caliph Sulayman (سُلَيْمان بن عَبْد الْمَلِك) succeeded his brother, al-Walid I (الْوَليِد بن عَبْد الْمَلِك), in 715, he turned against the two com­manders. He deprived them of all amenities.

Tariq bin Ziyad died in Damascus in 720 in anonymity.

What happened to Gibraltar later?

Gibraltar had been under the rule of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Visigoths but remained uninhabited until the Islamic invasion in 711.

The Spaniards captured Gibraltar from the Moors in 1462 and retained it until 1704. In that year, it was surrendered to an Anglo Dutch force during the war of the Spanish Succession, and has since remained in Brit­ish hands.

What does the name Tariq mean?

Answer: The Night-Comer.

Tariq (طارِق) – The Night-Comer – is the name of sura 86. The sura was revealed in Mecca and has as the predominant topic the resur­rection from the grave on the Day of Judgement.

Tariq is derived from the Arabic verb taraqa (طَرَقَ) which primarily means he beat (something) or knocked (at some­thing); e.g., taraqa al-Bāb (طَرَقَ الْبابَ), which means he knocked at the door.

In general, the word Tariq signifies anything that comes in the night, because a person who comes to a house at night is expected to knock at the door. In a metaphorical meaning, the word Tariq is used in the Qur'an to show that even in the deepest darkness there will be light.

Some commentators have suggested that what is de­scribed as al-Tariq, meaning that which comes in the night, is the morning-star because it appears towards the end of the night. Others, like Zamakhshari, claim that it is a star in a generic sense.

TV series about the conquest of al-Andalus

If you want a true Arab(ic) version, watch the Fath al-Andalus ( فتح الآندلس) , a Syrian-Kuwaiti production that was shown in 2022.

The historical series tells one of the stories of Islamic conquests that Arabs are most proud of, and the lessons it offers in courage, sacrifice, faith, and sincerity. Also, it is more or less in classical Arabic and the subtitles are really not bad!

You can watch it on YouTube in HD for free:

YouTube video
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3 days ago

Amazing story of courage and bravery

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