Al-Andalus: Phoenix of the East/West

Sama Lateef

By Sama Lateef

Over a span of 700 years (711 -1492), Muslims built a flourishing empire in the Iberian Peninsula. Under the rule of Muslim sultans hailing from Northwest Africa (mainly Morocco), the region flourished and excelled in literature, philosophy, science, mathematics and architecture, leaving behind imprints of a once-formidable civilization that can be observed up to this day. 

During the middle ages, European scholars set out to Spain to continue their pursuit of knowledge. Thousands of books penned by Greek intellects, including Socrates, Aristotle, andPlato were translated into Arabic, studied and expanded. In Cordoba: the capital of Umayyad, Spain, over 70 libraries were built, while Toledo housed one of the largest libraries in the world at that era. 

Prominent and distinguished court poets such as Abbas ibn Firnas, Yahya al-Ghazal, and Said ibn Judi paved the way for further philosophical advancement during the 9th century. A century later, ibn Faraj of Jaen penned the first anthology book of Iberian poets, known as “Kitab Al Hada’iq”. However, the pinnacle of Islamic literature was achieved later on, when Al-Mutami’d established an academy of belles lettres.

The significance of poetry in Arabic culture greatly influenced Spanish perception of the former, giving rise to Hispano-Arabic poetry. Some of these poems were drawn from the Quran or Hadith for inspiration, whilst others bore traces of the characteristics of Eastern poetry, most notably those of ghazal (love poetry), ritha’ (elegy), hija’ (satirical poetry) and madih (paean poetry). Of these works, “Tawq al-hamamah” (Ring of Dove) by Ibn Hazm of Cordoba remains relevant up to this day.

Other works of literature addressing numerous significant matters include Kitab al-Fisal, which chronologized the history of religion, and Ibn Malik of Jaen’s poem Alfiyya, a meaningful grammar manual. As for the history of Al-Andalus, much of it was supplied by Ibn Khaldun and Al-Maqqaari.

The Arabic presence influenced language in Iberia in ways that -though subtle- are forever present. During the Golden Ages, the multicultural and bilingual society gave rise to Mozarabic (مستعرب), a dialect which employed both archaic Latin terms as well as numerous Arabic words. Though little is known of Mozararabic, its successor, Modern Spanish, is heavily influenced by Arabic. Over 4000 Spanish words are of Arabic origin, with some relating to military, agriculture and crops, and science: fields which the Arabs drastically improved in Al Andalus. A simple example would be that of the word sugar. Its Classic Arabic equivalent is sukkar, and its Hispanic-Arabic name is assúkkar, giving rise to its modern name azúcar. Lastly, the fusion of al (a definite article in Arabic) with Spanish nouns continues to this date.

The Golden Age gave rise to some of the greatest Andalusian philosophers: Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn Tufayl, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). The former studied the works of Aristotle and al-Farabi, rising to fame because of his book “Tadbir al Mutawahid”, which offered insight into his perception of the amoral nature of society. Ibn Tufayl delved deeper into Neoplatonism in his profound narrative “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”. Meanwhile, Ibn Rushd epitomized the peak of Andalusian philosophical advancement. His analysis and commentaries on the works of Aristotle and Plato influenced many European scholars, such as the Italian theologist St. Thomas Aquinas and the Belgian philosopher Siger de Brabant. 

Mulsim Andalusians excelled notably in the fields of astronomy, chemistry, and most prominently, medicine. Al-Zarqali sought and succeeded in creating al-safiha, a simplified version of the astrolabe, and preceded Johannes Kepler with the theory that planetary orbits are ovular and not circular. Meanwhile, Al-Majriti excelled in the field of chemistry. Hailing from Madrid, he was the first scientist to prove the principle of conservation of mass. He also worked extensively on methods of purifying valuable metals as well as exploring synthetic chemistry. His book “De Aluminibus”, among others, chronicled his discoveries. In regards to medicine, Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahrawi of Cordoba penned the major medical encyclopedia “Al-Tasrif” and established many surgical techniques. Ibn Zuhr’s book “Al-Taisir Fil-Mudawat Wal-​Tadbeer” and Ibn Rushd’s book ” Kitab al-Kulyat fi al-Tibb ” addressed many diseases, their cures and their preventative actions, with the former physician accredited as the first scientist to perform a tracheostomy. Meanwhile, Ibn Al-Khatib became the first scientist to suggest the contagiousness of certain diseases and the means by which they spread centuries before Louis Pasteur’s scientific trials to prove so. He illustrates his views in-depth in his book on the Black Plague, titled: Muqni’at al-Sā’il ‘an al-Maraḍ al-Hā’il”.

The impact of Arab and Andalusian mathematicians extended far beyond the borders of Al-Andalus and the period of the Golden Ages. Arabic numerals, which are currently globally used, spread to Europe through Spain, replacing the archaic Roman numerals, which proved to be tiresome to use during mathematical calculations. But that was not all. Abūl Hasan ibn Alī al-Qalasādi of Granada paved the way for further mathematical progression. In his most famous book “Tafsīr fi-Ilm al-Hisāb”, he became the first mathematician to do both: create new algebraic symbols and develop a system of algebraic notation. He represented arithmetic operations with symbols and was the first to separate the numerator and denominator by a line. His emphasis on the importance of the method of successive approximation would prove essential in calculus and problem-solving. Al-Qalasadi resorted to unusual means of sharing his knowledge, writing an entire book of poetry in which he explained algebraic rules.

Perhaps the most noticeable indication of the Arabic presence in Iberia is the Moorish Islamic architecture that spread throughout the Peninsula. Named after the Moors (Moroccans), Moorish architecture is known for its breathtakingly beautiful and elaborate geometrical designs, arabesque motifs, intricate domes, muqarnas, poetry-inscribed tiles and elegant arches. The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba -with its remaining 856 columns- is a quintessential example of such a style. Other remnants of the Golden Ages include Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo, The Synagogue of Córdoba, Alcázar and Gardens of the Alcázar of the Reyes Cristianos, The Alcazar, The Golden Tower, La Giralda, Madinat al-Zahra, The Synagogue in Toledo and Cristo de la Luz, which range from mosques, cathedrals, royal palaces, forts, and minarets, to spectacular cities. However, a more glorious sight to behold would be that of Alhambra Palace. Perched atop the hill of Al-Sabika near the snow-capped mountain chain of the Sierra Nevada and overlooking a valley, Alhambra housed the Nasrid rulers for nearly three centuries. Initially, the red fort was composed of three main sections: a military base in which guards and their families dwelled (The Alcazaba), palaces where the sultans and their kindreds resided (The palatial zone) and a district where the court administrators lived and worked (The Madina). Amongst countless other complex and sumptuous structures of the palace is the Hall of Abencerrajes, where it was rumoured that an aristocratic family had been assassinated and, the magnificent Courtyard of the Lions, named after the central fountain, which is encompassed by a dozen lions spewing water. As of today, the Alhambra palace attracts over 2.7 million tourists annually, serving as a reminder to all of the might and majesty of the Andalusian Empire.

All in all, the Golden Age in Al- Andalus marked a turning point in the course of humanity’s intellectual advancement. The widespread freedom of thought and self-expression, innovation and tolerance, hand-in-hand with the much-encouraged endeavours to satisfy the unquenchable thirst for knowledge built an empire of wisdom. One whose ingenuity, discoveries and inventions would continue to mould the world we live in aeons after its fall from power.

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