A man of many talents
There were many groups of Muslims in Cordova. In this unit, we explore some of the different ways of life that these groups adopted. The text begins by describing the life of the ruling group and nobles in al-Andalus who valued a life of culture and refinement. The example of Ziryab, a talented poet, musician and entertainer, provides us with insight into the cultured life of the Cordovans.
‘The most noble among you’An important group in Cordova consisted of the ulama or religious lawyers and scholars. In some periods, they exercised great influence over the rulers. At other times, they were given less importance by the amirs and caliphs. The text provides us with the examples of two such scholars who reminded the caliphs of their religious and ethical duties.
An inner journeyThe Sufis were another group of Muslims in Cordova who led a different way of life. They emphasised the inner life in Islam and the importance of understanding the deeper meanings of Allah’s message. The text describes some of the key beliefs and practices of the Sufis. We also learn about Ibn al-Arabi, an Andalusian philosopher who had great interest in mystical ideas.
The boy who learned to think far himselfA final group of Muslims we explore in the text were the philosophers. We become aware of some of the issues that philosophers of this time were interested in answering. The text highlights Ibn Tufayl as one of the philosophers who lived in al-Andalus. His story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan is used in this section to illustrate how philosophers tried to answer some of the questions that were important to them.6.1 A man of many talentsWe are in the Madinat al-Zahra, in the very palace of the caliph. We stand on a glittering white marble floor, next to the enormous fountain with its green marble basin.Here, the caliph and his wives and the courtiers feast and are entertained by acrobats, magicians and jesters. Here, the best of the poets in al-Andalus recite their verses and dazzle their royal audience with their clever words. Here, the most unusual performances take place which remain in the memories of the courtiers for many years.Some of the courtiers in the palace of Madinat al-Zahra still talk about Abbas ibn Farnas who lived in the time of Abd al-Rahman II. He was a poet, a scientist and a master magician, all rolled into one.On one occasion, he made a costume to which he attached a frame of wings covered with silk feathers. Watched by a large crowd of Cordovans, among whom were many from the amir’s court, Firnas climbed one of the hills overlooking the Guadalquivir.Stepping off from the top of the hill, Firnas leapt into the air, flapping his arms wildly. For a moment, the crowd was convinced that he was about to soar away like a huge bird. But it was not to be. Firnas tumbled down the hill, his silk feathers all ruffled up, with the crowd in stitches of laughter. Fortunately, Firnas lived to perform yet more tricks for his admirers.
The skilled musicianThe courtiers also remember someone else from the time of Abd al-Rahman II who was far more outstanding than Firnas. Ziryab was one of the best poets, musicians entertainers of his time who came from Baghdad. He began tutoring the young men and women to become skilled musicians by introducing them to new themes and styles.Ziryab modified the four-string lyre by adding a fifth string; allowing to introduce new notes and tunes. He composed catching melodies that became popular in the palace and villas.We remember the flamenco dance that we watched while having our meal in the small Spanish town. Some say
it was Ziryab who introduced this dance. Others disagree, arguing that the flamenco is a mixture of the music of many lands.
A fine taste for foodZiryab was not only a talented musician but also had a very fine taste for food. He experimented with different ingredients to create new recipes. Many of his ideas came from the foods of different cultures — Arab, Jewish, Persian and Greek.Ziryab felt
that food served on a bare wooden table, all lumped together in a large, flat dish, was not very attractive. The food had to appeal to both the mouth and the eye. Ziryab insisted that the serving table should be covered with a cover of fine leather. Drinks had to be served in delicate glass crystal rather than clumsy gold and silver goblets.But this was not all. The meal had to be introduced in a particular order, beginning with soup and proceed to the dish made of lamb, fish or fowl. Then followed a sweet dish usually, cakes of almond and honey or fruit dishes & flavoured with vanilla, and howls of pistachios and other nuts.
New hairstyles and costumesThe way people presented themselves
did not escape Ziryab’s sharp eyes. He noticed that the wealthy ladies of Cordova used to wear their hair by parting it in the middle, with the temples and forehead covered, and braids at the back. Ziryab introduced a new hairstyle where the hair was cut short to reveal more of the forehead and the neck.Ziryab also suggested changes in the clothes worn by the Cordovan nobles. He thought it more appropriate for the costumes to be brightly coloured in the springtime — silks in blues, greens and yellows worn over the tunics. In the summer, white was his favourite colour, possibly because of the very hot weather. In the winter, he recommended long cloaks trimmed with fur.
A life of tasteZiryab was a man with very delicate taste, and he was gifted with bringing about refinements in the lives of the wealthy Cordovans. Some people say that such was Ziryab’s influence that his ideas about food, music and clothes spread rapidly from palaces to villas, then to the Christian kingdoms in the north, and finally to the rest of Europe.This is quite a big claim to make. In the Middle Ages, it was difficult for any one person to change the lifestyle of a whole continent All we can say is that Ziryab was a refined man who made a deep impression on the nobles of al-Andalus.KEY QUESTIONWhat kind of life did the rulers and nobles of Cordova lead?ACTIVITYImagine that a caliph in Cordova has invited you to be a tutor to his princes and princesses. What kinds of things would you teach the royal children that give them a good education?REVIEW POINTThe nobles who lived in
Cordova in the tenth century enjoyed a life of refinement and culture
MAKING CONNECTIONSCompare the life that rulers and nobles led in different civilisations in the Middle Ages. What qualities were cultured people expected to have in these civilisations?DICUSSING ISSUESIn today’s times, people lead many kinds of lifestyles. Are there some ways of living that are better than others, or are they all the same? Discuss each view point.6.2 The most noble among you”
Good music, food and clothes are a delight to the nobles of Cordova. Other Cordovans, however, frown upon the life of the powerful and the wealthy. Among the people who disapprove the life of pleasure are the ulama or religious scholars and lawyers.The religious scholars feet that the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus have left the right path which was revealed by Allah to Prophet Muhammad. The Amirs and caliphs, of Cordova have failed to create a just and righteous community. They have forgotten to take care of the poor and those in need.Instead, the rulers have built vast palaces and spent their wealth on unnecessary luxuries. They are more concerned with this world than the world of the hereafter. Some of the religious scholars feel that the teachings of the Quran have been forgotten. They recite the verse in the Quran which says:‘Surely the most noble among you in the eyes of Allah are the best in conduct. ‘(49:13)Yahya and the court poetThere have always bee people in Cordova who have disapproved of the rulers. In the time of Abd aI-Rahman II, one of his close advisers was an old man named Yahya ibn Yahya. He was a stern man who introduced harsh punishments in the city through the judges and market inspectors. Yahya also did not like the poets at the court who seemed to have no regard for what was decent.On one occasion, a court poet made fun of pious people like Yahya in his verses, throwing the old man into a rage. He stormed to the amir, complaining to him about the, insults.The amir was too fond of the poet to get rid of him. But he also knew Yahya had great influence over religious scholars and lawyers in Cordova. They were a powerful group who could easily rise against him. After giving the matter some thought, the amir announced that there would be no music and poetry in his palace during the month of ramadan.
The golden and silver roofIn the time of Abd al-Rabman Ill, the religious scholars are not happy with the money that the caliph has spent in building Madinat al-Zahra. They think that this money could have been better used on the needy and the poor.One of these men is Said al-Balluk, an old teacher and lawyer in the caliph’s court.
On one occasion, the caliph asked him what he thought of the gold and silver roof that was being put up on one of the royal buildings.The old man replied, ‘I would never have thought that some demon turned you into an disbeliever.’ The caliph was taken aback, and ordered the gold and silver to be removed from the roof.In al—Andalus, as in other lands, there are occasions when rulers and other groups
do not always agree
over what is right and wrong. People have different views about important issues. Sometimes, they try to arrive at a compromise to settle their differences. At other times, a disagreement may lead to a more serious dispute or conflict.
KEY QUESTIONWhat kind of life did the religious scholars in Cordova want the Muslims to
WORDS TO LOOK UP
• Ramadan • Ulama
ACTIVITYWrite a dialogue between the caliph and the religious scholar regarding the complaint about the court poet. What would the religious scholar have said to the caliph? How would the caliph have responded? What would the poet have said to defend himself?
REVIEW POINTReligious scholars were an important group of Muslims in Cordova who wanted people to follow Allah’s message in their lives.
MAKING CONNECTIONSWhat was the position of religious scholars and priests in other civilisations? What were some of the main concerns of this group in the societies in which they lived?
DISCUSSING ISSUESSome people claim that people in modern times have become less caring than those who lived in the past. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
THINKING FURTHERWhat does it mean for Muslims to lead noble lives and to do good in today’s times?6.3 An inner journeyWe are inside the great mosque of Cordova. The light from the open courtyard fills the mosque with brightness. We sit down amid the rows of marble pillars that hold up the horseshoe arches. The red-and-white stones of the arches reach up and out like the rays of the sun.The spaces between the pillars provide a large area for people to worship together, as well as quiet areas where individuals can pray alone. At night, thousands of oil lamps cast a soft glow on the floor of the mosque.The SufisAmong the Muslims who visit the mosque are the Sufis. The Sufis are Muslims who lead a mystical way of life. They pray regularly, give alms to the poor, and carry out their religious duties, just as the other Muslims of Cordova.For the Sufis, these practices are, important but they are not enough to lead a truly religious life. They believe that these outer actions have inner meanings.It is important to wash before prayers, but it is also important to have a pure heart. Bowing down in prayers is an empty action if one does not also follow Allah’s message. Going on a pilgrimage to Mecca has not much meaning if one does not undertake the journey of the soul.
The journey of the soulWhat do the Sufis mean by the journey of the soul’? It is an inner journey of a believer towards God. Many Sufi poets and thinkers have written about this journey and described it
in different ways. One of them was Farid al-Din Attar who presented his understanding of the journey in the Conference of the Birds, a story about a group of birds trying to find the Simurgh, the king of birds.Some of the valleys that the birds had to cross were the valleys of love, understanding and unity. These valleys are the poet’s way of trying to describe the inner feelings of a mystic.
One God, many paths
A great Muslim thinker and mystic who was born in al-Andalus was Ibn al-Arabi. He travelled widely through North Africa and Asia, meeting famous scholars and Sufis and visiting holy places. One of his books is called the Sufis of Andalusia and contains interesting stories about mystics that Ibn al-Arabi met in his travels.
While travelling in al-Andalus, Ibn al-Arabi must also have met many Jews, Christians and Muslims. They were all following different religions, but all were seeking the same Cod. For Ibn al-Arabi, there is no single path to the Cod. Each religion teaches about God in its own way.
Shaykhs and murids
In order to embark on a journey of the soul, a person needs a spiritual teacher. The spiritual teacher is called a Shaykh, and his followers are called murids. One shaykh may have many murids.
The nuber of murids of a shaykh may grow over many years to form a large group of followers called a tariqa. A tariqa means a ‘path’. Different tariqas follow different spiritual paths, but they all lead to the same goal – oneness with God.
Sufis gather at special places of worship known as Khanqah or zawiyyas. Here, they remember the beautiful names of God by chanting them in a rhythmic manner. This practice is known as dhikr.
The Sufis also recite poetry of the great masters, such as Mawlana Rumi. The poetry contains short stories, anecdotes and examples from the lives of the prophets and saintly people. They may also be stories about animals and birds that have inner meanings.
Listening to these poems helps the Sufis to reflect on their life as a spiritual journey towards God.
place did the mystical way of life have in Cordova?
TIMELINE• 12th century CE: Farid al-Din Attar• l2th-l3th century CE: Ibn al-Arabi
Imagine you are one of the birds in the Conference of the Birds, setting off on a search for the Simurgh. Describe your journey through one of the seven valleys. What meaning do you give to each of the valleys in the story?
Among the Muslim communities in al Apdalus were the Sufis who chose to follow a mystical life
WORDS TO LOOK UP
• Dhikr • Mystics •Khanaqah •Pir •Murids •ShaykhMAKING CONNECTIONSCompare the lives of two mystics from different religions. What do they have in common? What is different about them?DISCUSSING ISSUESPeople in all ages and cultures have had a deep need to search for meaning in their lives. In modern times, it is science rather than religion that answers all our questions. Debate this view.6.4 The boy who learned to think for himselfThroughout the Mediterranean lands, there are individuals who call themselves philosophers. Philosophy means love of knowledge’. The philosophers claim that through the use of reason, people can come to have a better understanding of themselves and their world. In al-Andalus, some individuals have chosen to follow the path of philosophy.
Ibn TufaylOne of the Muslim philosophers who lived in al-Andalus was Ibn Tufayl. He wrote a very interesting story which was entitled Hayy ibm Yaqzan. The story is about a child called Hayy who grows up on an island where there are no people. At first, he is looked after by a gazelle. As he grows older, he begins to learn bow to take care of himselfHayy has to find out about many things on his own. Since there are no other people on the island, he has to make use of his mind to find answers to the questions he has. As he grows up, he begins to think more deeply about himself and what he sees around him.Hayy discovers that he is different from all the other living things on the island. He can
reason, a skill which animals do not appear to have. He begins to group things into non-living things, plants and animals. By observing the animals on the island, he finds out that living things are born and die. Hayy wonders what it is that keeps .living things alive and what happens when they die.At night, Hayy watches the stars in the sky, far above the island. After much thought, he comes to the conclusion that there must be a Creator who has made all living and non-living things. Gradually, by reasoning what has to be true and what is false, he is able to come to deeper understanding about creation and the purpose of life on earth.Many years later, when Hayy has grown up, he receives a visitor on the island whose name is Asal. Asl comes from an inhabited island and has been brought up to believe in one of the revealed religions. He comes to the island to get away from the busy ways of the world so that can reflects on the mysteries of Allah’s creation.Hayy and Asal become good friend and start sharing their knowledge. To their surprise, they find that both have the same understanding of the world. Asal has acquired his understanding from his faith, while Hayy has achieved it though the reason.
What part did philosophy play among the Cordovans?
WORDS TO LOOK UP
TIMELINE • 12th century CE: Ibn Tufayl
REVIEW POINTIn al Andalus some individuals chose to live as philosophers. They followed the path of reason.
Two types of knowledgeIbn Tufayl wrote this story because the thinkers of his time were trying to understand the difference between the knowledge that prophets received through revelation, and the knowledge that people acquired through the use of their minds.Some of the thinkers argued that knowledge only from revelation could be true because it came from God. The minds of human beings are limited, and likely to make mistakes. The knowledge from reasoning was therefore not to be trusted.Another group of thinkers disagreed. They felt that the mind was as important gift that had been given to human beings. God wanted human beings to exercise their minds and to think about their world. He did not want people to follow their faith blindly.These thinkers claimed that revelation and reason were not opposed to each other. Rather they led to the same truths. Ibn Tufàyl is one of these thinkers. It was because he wanted to convince others of his view that he decided to write Hayy ibn Yaqzan.
Being a MuslimIn modern times, we ask the question, ‘What does it means to be a Muslim today?’ In the Middle Ages, different groups of Muslims placed emphasis on different aspects of their understanding of Islam.Some Muslims preferred a life of culture. They tried to acquire a good taste for the finer things in life.Others placed emphasis on leading moral lives. The good Muslim according to them was one who tried to help create a society which was just. A good Muslim performed all the religious duties taught by the Prophet.Other Muslims valued a life which saw deeper meanings in these religious duties. They saw their lives as an inner journey of the soul towards its Creator.A few thinkers argued that by using the mind, people could arrive at the same truths as those revealed by God to His prophets. It was through the use of reason that a better way of living could be found.The above ways of understanding Islam were not totally separate from one another, and often overlapped. However, the emphasis that different groups placed on one aspect over another varied.These examples show that, for the Muslims of al-Andalus, there was no single answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Muslim?’ Rather, different groups of Muslims had found different ways of understanding the message of Allah. This was as true in other Muslim lands as it was in al-Andalus, and it
is as true in the modern times as it
was in the Middle Ages.ACTIVITYWrite a story about a boy or a girl living in the modern times who tries to gain a greater understanding of the world by using his or her other mind. What kinds of questions would a young person ask today? How would he or she go about answering those questions?
MAKING CONNECTIONSFind out more about great philosophers who lived in Muslim and other lands. What types of questions were these philosophers interested in answering? What types of answers did they give to their questions?
D1SCUSSING ISSUESSome people claim that being religious means following your faith without questions. Discuss this view. What role does reason have in understanding one’s faith?
THINKING FURTHER‘Is there a need for philosophers today? What kinds of questions would philosophers seek to answer in the modern age?Review questions
- A man of many talents
Who was Ziryab, and what kinds of things did he teach in the caliph’s court?
What impact did Ziryab have on how the nobles of Cordon led their lives?
What kind of life did the rulers and nobles of Cordova prefer to live?
Who was considered to be a cultured person in those times?
- ‘The most noble among you’
What complaints did the religious scholars make to the Muslim rulers? Why were they displeased with the rulers?
Who did the religious scholars feel were the most noble of people?
What did they want all Muslims to do?
- An inner journey
Who are the Sufis and what do they. believe?
What do the Sufis mean by the ‘journey of the soul’?
How does a shaykh help a murid in his spiritual quest?
What kinds of practices do the Sufis observe in their khanaqahs?
Who was lbn al-Arabi, and what kind of book did he write about the Sufis?
- The boy who learned to think for himself
Who were the philosophers and what did they emphasise?
Who was Ibn Tufayl and what story did he write?
In the story, who was Hayy’? What conclusion did he reach when he grew up?
What question was Ibn Tufayl trying to answer through the story? How did he answer this question?
How important today is the debate between reason and revelation for Muslims?
What do the four examples of the nobles, religious scholars, mystics and philosophers teach us?