Three monotheistic faiths lived and thrived side by side for eight centuries, from 711 when Muslims first entered the Iberian Peninsula to their expulsion in 1492. Al-Andalus was an astoundingly liberal and open multicultural society where Muslims, Jews and Christians collaborated to produce a period of unsurpassed intellectual development and artistic and cultural ferment. The science, philosophy, poetry, music and architecture, as well as the fashion and culinary delights, of al-Andalus are wonders to behold. Islam has not seen or experienced anything better than the brilliance of al-Andalus. The fountains of al-Andalus fertilised the dry intellectual life of Europe, transformed the uncouth barbarians beyond the Pyrenees, and changed the course of western civilisation. Yet our knowledge of this incredible period of human history, ignored by Islam and suppressed by the West, is rather limited.
Al-Andalus is not a culture and a period that exists simply in a remote past. Its achievements can be experienced when we visit a restaurant, admit ourselves to hospital, travel around the world, yearn for spiritual enlightenment, argue about religion and science, and struggle for a multicultural society.
Here then is a reminder of some of the different ways al-Andalus intervenes in the present: a list, in chronological order, of our favourite Andalusian personalities.
1. Ziryab (789-857)
His real name was Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Nafi, but he was better known by his nickname, Ziryab, meaning blackbird; and he could sing like one too! Ziryab was a brilliant musician, poet, cosmetician, gourmet cook, and fashion icon. He left Baghdad to settle in Cordoba, where he established one of the first schools of music. He is credited with adding an extra string to the Oud, establishing beauty parlours for women, and introducing the idea of a three-course meal that should be eaten properly, sitting down, on a well laid-out table, accompanied by fine beverages that should only be drunk in crystal glasses. He disapproved of people who did not take a daily bath or use deodorants (of which he concocted many types), shampoos or hair preparations (he developed a special one from rose water and herbal salts). Men who did not shave received a reprimand. Clearly the ‘civilising mission’ was travelling in the wrong direction.
2. Abbas ibn Firnás (810-887)
This Andalusian Leonardo was always forging instruments and bubbling with ideas. When he wasn’t building a planetarium, designing a water clock, cutting rock crystals or setting up astronomical tables, he was writing poetry. In 875, he built himself a glider and flew from a tower: the flight was successful but the landing, on the main street of Cordoba, was less so. His critics suggested he hadn’t paid enough attention to how birds pull up into a stall; like the birds, his glider should have been equipped with a tail. He died twelve years later, probably from the injuries he sustained. Fittingly, after the departure of Saddam Hussain, the Iraqis named an airport after him.
3. al-Zahrawi (936-1013)
Considered ‘the father of modern surgery’, al-Zahrawi was a brilliant physician and surgeon. His thirty-volume encyclopaedia of medical practice, Kitab al Tasrif, was a standard text in Europe for five centuries. He was the first to describe the life-threatening condition of ectopic pregnancy and the use of forceps in childbirth, he introduced new and effective methods to treat a dislocated shoulder, recognised that haemophilia was passed down through families, and used catgut for internal stitching. He invented a number of surgical instruments which continue to be used in operating theatres today.
4. Recemundus (d. 961)
Or Rabi ibn Zaid, was Bishop of Elvira and Secretary to Abder Rahman III (812-961), Emir of Cordoba. A man of immense wisdom, he was renowned for his tremendous diplomatic skills. In 953, Recemundus stepped in to sort out a rather undiplomatic exchange of letters between the Emir and Otto I (912-973), the founder of the Holy Roman Empire. After patching up the relationship between Islam and Christianity, he became ambassador to Christendom and took the message of peace to Constantinople and Jerusalem. In between his diplomatic missions, he developed an Arabic calendar of Christian holidays, which included days commemorating the martyrs of Cordoba.
5. Ben Nagrella (993-1055)
Prime minister of Granada and prolific Jewish poet, was also an expert calligrapher. His Diwan includes over 1700 poems, mostly of a secular nature. In Hebrew, he is known as HaNaguid, prince of the Andalusian Jewry.
6. Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058)
The renowned Jewish poet and philosopher tried to reconcile Jewish theology with Neo-Platonism, although his theory of emanation is held by some to be irreconcilable with the Jewish doctrine of creation. His philosophy is summed up in Fountain of Life (Fons Vitæ), regarded by many as a seminal text. He is also credited with creating a golem, the animated anthropomorphic being of Jewish folklore, now a standard feature of cartoons and Hollywood blockbusters. We blame him for crafting the genre of self-help literature – how to improve yourself while going through menopause, how to attain enlightenment by wearing a dhoti and beating drums in a shopping mall – the kind of books which now emanate from the US and litter bookshops all over the world, promoting the idea that good citizens can best look after themselves by denying social relations. If only ibn Gabirol knew where his intellectual efforts would end!
7. Azarquiel (1029-1087)
Old ‘blue eyes’, as he was called, was a brilliant astronomer, instrument maker, and all round genius. He perfected an astrolabe known as ‘the tablet of al-Zarqali’, built a water clock capable of indicating lunar months, invented compasses as well as a great gadget known as Azafea that served to locate a traveller in motion – a sort of Google Map for the eleventh century. He was the first to demonstrate the motion of the solar apogee relative to the fixed stars, to estimate the correct length of the Mediterranean, and to show that the orbit of Mercury is elliptical. His famous Almanac enabled its users to find the days on which Coptic, Roman, lunar, and Persian months begin. No wonder they named the moon’s Arzachel crater after him. But Muslims today still find it difficult to spot the new moon of Ramadan, and pass their time arguing about the correct length of beards and which trousers to wear for prayers.
8. Ibn Quzmán (1078-1170)
The most famous and original poet of al-Andalus, known for his use of colloquial language, and not infrequent use of bawdy jokes. His Diwan contains 149 songs which were sung in the streets of Cordoba, where he was born, and in the alleyways of Seville, where he spent most of his life. His work is a fusion of Arabic oral strophic poetry known as zajal and the medieval romance tradition of western Europe. Some of his poems celebrate music and dance, while others describe his numerous relationships with young men: ‘To the Souk went a boy/You know his name/ but I dare not name him’. Et cetera.
9. Ibn Tufayl (1110-1185)
Polymath, physician, vizier, and an all-round genius, ibn Tufayl was the author of the first ever philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, and the father of the pedagogical novel (or Bildungsroman) in Europe. His novel had a profound impact on both Islamic and modern Western philosophy, and became the foundational text of scientific revolution and the European Enlightenment, influencing Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, and a string of imitators, such as Daniel Defoe. There would be no Europe as we know it without Hayy.
10. Ibn Rushd (1126-1198)
Another all-round genius and polymath, ibn Rushd was a mathematician, geographer, psychologist, musical theorist and expert on Islamic jurisprudence. He has left an indelible impact on human history as a commentator on Aristotle, defender of reason, harmoniser of philosophy and religion, establisher of scholasticism in medieval Europe, catalyser of the Renaissance, and inspirer of a ‘dangerous school’ of free-thinkers in Europe, called Averroism. Quite simply the greatest Muslim philosopher who ever lived.
11. Maimonides (1135-1204)
One of the most influential figures in Jewish history, Maimonides was a physician and a philosopher. He is an indispensable religious authority in times of trouble, and an invaluable guide for the bewildered. His Mishneh Torah, exceptional for its logic and learning, codified Jewish law and ethics, and produced the thirteen principles of faith. Maimonides is embraced by traditionalists but also claimed by modernists and postmodernists. Driven out of al-Andalus by fanatics, he became the chief physician to Salahuddin Ayyubi (Saladin). His The Guide for the Perplexed, originally written in Arabic, is essential reading for all self-respecting intellectuals.
12. Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240)
Thinker, traveller, poet and visionary, ibn ‘Arabi is the greatest mystic of all time. He spent a long while living in Mecca, where he fell in love with both a woman and the Kaaba, and wrote his famous work, The Meccan Revelations. In Cordoba, he had a mystical vision in which he met all the Prophets in their spiritual forms. His Diwan, or anthology of poetry, runs to five volumes; its mystical outpourings, exploring the essence of the soul and its mystical annihilation, and covering the essentials of the mystical path and purpose, are both bewildering and immense. If you are fortunate enough to fathom any of his numerous books, do let us know what he is on about.
Great achievements only emerge within a society and polity that provides appropriate support. Al-Andalus was brimming with rulers who appreciated thought and learning, science and innovation, and cultural refinement. Rulers like Muhammad al-Mu’tamid (r.1069–1091), the King of Seville, who loved poetry and liberalism in equal measure; Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf (r.1163–94), also of Seville, whose love of philosophy and learning knew no bounds, and who befriended ibn Tufayl and ibn Rushd; and Caliph al-Hakim II (915–976) of Granada, the patron of al-Zahrawi, who was himself an accomplished scientist in possession of a library of 600,000 books. And let us not forget Alfonso the Wise (1221–1284), king of Castilla, sometimes considered the last king of Western al-Andalus because of his respect for and determination to preserve and translate the legacy of Muslim Spain. He was the kind of multiculturalist that Europe direly needs today.