When a ‘Mustard Seed’ Delivered Christian Spain from Islamic Tyranny

Today in history, May 28, 722 A.D.

By Raymond Ibrahim Published on May 28, 2023

On this day, 1301 years ago, an immensely decisive battle between Christians and Muslims took place in Spain — a clash that today is taking on renewed significance.

Eleven years earlier, in 711, hordes of North African Muslims (“Moors”) “godlessly invaded Spain to destroy it,” to quote from the Chronicle of 754. They did not pass “a place without reducing it, and getting possession of its wealth,” boasted al-Hakam, an early Muslim chronicler, “for Allah Almighty had struck with terror the hearts of the infidels.”

Such terrorism was intentionally cultivated in keeping with the Koran (e.g., 3:151, 8:12). In one instance, the invaders slaughtered, cooked, and ate — Muslim historiography says they only pretended to eat — their Christian captives, prompting hysteria among the people “that the Muslims feed on human flesh,” and thereby “contributing in no small degree to increase the panic of the infidels,” wrote another Muslim chronicler.

Swarms of Jihadis Poured in

Emboldened by their coreligionists’ initial victories in Spain, swarms of African jihadis “crossed the sea on every vessel or bark they could lay hold of,” the Muslim chronicler continues; they so overwhelmed the peninsula that “the Christians were obliged to shut themselves up in their castles and fortresses, and, quitting the flat country, betake themselves to their mountains.”

By 712, one year after the Islamic invasion, the Muslims had, in the words of the Chronicle of 754, “ruined beautiful cities, burning them with fire; condemned lords and powerful men to the cross; and butchered youths and infants with the sword.” Several other early sources corroborate the devastation and persecution. The oldest account, the Tempore belli, tells of Muslims “sacking Christian temples [churches] and homes, burning the cities of those who resisted, and taking their young women as sexual slaves, all creating an indescribable terror.”

A Refuge for Christ in the Mountains

Eventually, Pelagius, better known as Pelayo (685–737), a relative of the last Visigothic king (Roderick) who was killed by the Muslims, fled to the mountains of Asturias in the furthest northwest of Spain, where he “joined himself to as many people as he found hastening to assemble.” There, the Christian fugitives declared Pelayo their new king; and the Kingdom of Asturias — the first Christian kingdom after the Islamic conquest of Spain — was born.

Before long, a large Muslim army was sent to bring these infidel rebels to heal. Oppa, a clergyman now serving the Muslims as a dhimmi, was sent to parley with Pelayo at the mouth of a deep cavern: “If when the entire army of the Goths was assembled, it was unable to sustain the attack of the Ishmaelites [meaning Arabs, during their initial invasions in 711], how much better will you be able to defend yourself on this mountaintop? To me it seems difficult. Rather, heed my warning and recall your soul from this decision, so that you may take advantage of many good things and enjoy the partnership [of the Arabs].”

The Church of God Is Compared to a Mustard Seed

“I will not associate with the Arabs in friendship nor will I submit to their authority,” Pelayo responded. Then the rebel made a prophecy that would be fulfilled over the course of nearly eight centuries: “Have you not read in the divine scriptures that the church of God is compared to a mustard seed and that it will be raised up again through divine mercy?” (Mark 4:30-21)

The invaders slaughtered, cooked, and ate — Muslim historiography says they only pretended to eat — their Christian captives.

The dhimmi affirmed that it was so; continued the fugitive:

Christ is our hope that through this little mountain, which you see, the well-being of Spain and the army of the Gothic people will be restored. … Now, therefore, trusting in the mercy of Jesus Christ, I despise this multitude and am not afraid of it. As for the battle with which you threaten us, we have for ourselves an advocate in the presence of the Father, that is, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is capable of liberating us from these few.

Discussions were over. There, at Covadonga — meaning “Cavern of the Lady” — battle commenced on today’s date, May 28, 722, 1,301 years ago. A shower of rocks rained down on the Muslims in the narrow passes, where their numbers counted for nothing and only caused confusion. Afterward, Pelayo and his band of rebels rushed forth from their caves and hiding places and made great slaughter among them; those who fled the carnage were tracked and mowed down by other, now emboldened, mountaineers.

A Decisive Blow

In the words of one historian:

A decisive blow was dealt at the Moorish power … . The advancing tide of conquest was stemmed. The Spaniards gathered heart and hope in their darkest hour; and the dream of Moslem invincibility was broken.

Several subsequent Muslim jihads were launched to conquer the Asturian kingdom, and the “Christians of the North scarcely knew the meaning of repose, security, or any of the amenities of life.” Even so, the mustard seed would not perish. “A vital spark was still alive,” Edward Gibbon wrote; “some invincible fugitives preferred a life of poverty and freedom in the Asturian valleys; the hardy mountaineers repulsed the slaves of the caliph.” Moreover, “all who were dissatisfied with Moorish dominion, all who clung to the hope of a Christian revival, all who detested Mahomet,” were drawn to this life of poverty but also freedom.

A Symbol of Resistance

By the mid-eighth century, the “vital spark” had spread to engulf the entire northwest of the Peninsula; over the following centuries, various kingdoms, whose core identity revolved around Christian defiance to Islam — later manifested as the Reconquista — had sprouted from this mustard seed. “Covadonga became the symbol of Christian resistance to Islam and a source of inspiration to those who, in words attributed to Pelayo, would achieve the salus Spanie, the salvation of Spain.”

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After several more centuries of brutal warfare, by 1492, the last Muslim-held territory in Spain, Granada, was liberated. And it all came to pass thanks to Pelayo’s Asturian mustard seed, planted nearly eight hundred years earlier at the battle of Covadonga.

Only One Side Now Is Fighting

Today, history is repeating itself — though only in one direction. Ongoing reports indicate that hordes of seaborne Muslim migrants from North Africa are illegally entering and flooding Spanish territory. In just 2020, 23,000 migrants invaded Spain’s Canary Islands, representing a 234 percent increase. In just one day in 2021, some 6,000 North Africans invaded Ceuta “by sea, either swimming or with inflatables, all in a bid to eventually get to mainland Europe.”

Once arriving on Spanish territory, such migrants often engage in unsavory and downright criminal behavior, such as gang-rape, and create enclaves, or ribats, where police fear to tread. Violent crimes targeting churches and Christians are especially common. Earlier this year, for example, a sword-waving Muslim migrant shouting the jihadist war-cry, “Allahu akbar,” attacked two churches, seriously injuring the priest of one, and slaughtering a sacristan of the other.

Another Muslim Conquest

In other words, North Africa’s Muslim invaders are following the same strategy that led to the Islamic conquest of Christian Spain in the eighth century. The only difference is that those being invaded are not offering a shred of resistance — lest they be called “racist”— not even that of a mustard seed.


Historic quotes in the above account were excerpted from chapters 3 and 6 of the author’s book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West and Sword and Scimitar is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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