Arab Intellectual Leadership in Islamic Cordova: When Arabs Were a Beacon of Light in the Dark Ages

During the Dark Ages when Europe kept almost no records of any kind and made few remarkable achievements, Arabs and Muslims led the world in bridging that civilizational gap. Cordova, the Umayyad capital in Muslim Spain, became the vibrant heart of Europe where peace, science, and learning thrived.

Arab Intellectual Leadership in Islamic Cordova: When Arabs Were a Beacon of Light in the Dark Ages

During the Dark Ages when Europe kept almost no records of any kind and made few remarkable achievements, Arabs and Muslims led the world in bridging that civilizational gap. Cordova, the Umayyad capital in Muslim Spain, became the vibrant heart of Europe where peace, science, and learning thrived.

Human civilization has evolved to what it is today through an amalgamation of centuries of intellectual pursuit and creative and critical thinking by people from various parts of the world and various historical eras.

The material advances and huge body of knowledge we cherish today have been shaped by, and have built upon what our ancestors contemplated and tried to create before us. Thanks to cross-cultural interaction and communication, ideas grow and cross-pollinate as the future becomes the present; some grow amazingly fast, some take a long time, and others die out before they have a chance to evolve. Civilization today, as sophisticated as it may now be, owes much to the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, and all the civilizations which preceded it.

Civilizations complement each other: each one contributes a new brick to the edifice we call human civilization today. Cross-cultural interaction bridges the gap between different historical stages, and between the “self’ and the “other,” rendering the world more interconnected, and human knowledge transferrable and disseminable.

Arabs and Muslims were the leaders of intellectualism and the bearers of light and enlightenment during the Dark Ages which, in Europe, were characterized by an abysmal deterioration in culture, economy, and demography. The era of the post-Roman centuries up to the beginning of the Italian Renaissance around 1350 AD is recorded in western history as an era of prevalent ignorance, barbarism, superstition, and stagnation. The Dark Ages were, however, dark only for Western Europe, which was then wallowing in a multi-faceted crisis following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Arab Intellectual Leadership in Islamic Cordova: When Arabs Were a Beacon of Light in the Dark Ages

In Islamic history, this same era is known as the “Golden Ages,” when Muslims prospered at all levels both in Muslim Spain and Baghdad during the Umayyad and Abbasids Caliphates respectively. It is said that when bathing was considered a blasphemous and immoral act by the Catholic Church, the Muslim city of Cordova had more than nine hundred public baths! Cordova at that time was also a cultural hub and the home of more than twenty public libraries and more than a hundred madrasas accessible free of charge to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

By the 10th Century A.D., the city was a paradise for scholars, translators, philosophers, and intellectuals of all disciplines who flocked there in great numbers and made it Europe’s intellectual hub. Translation thrived during the reign of Al-Hakam II, the Umayyad Caliph of Cordova, who ruled from 961 to 976 and who encouraged the translation of ancient Greek texts into Arabic. By the end of his reign, the shelves of the Royal Library contained more than 400,000 volumes (some say 600,000 volumes) spanning disciplines as diverse as philosophy, religion, literature, science, mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, alchemy, geometry, architecture, medicine, and more.[1]

What is even more staggering is that al-Hakam II allegedly read and commented in the margins of all the books in the Royal Library. This claim is probably hyperbolic, but it shows the extent to which Caliph al-Hakam II loved books. The Caliph’s love for books and reading ultimately made his city the center of learning for the world. S.P Scott writes in The History of the Moorish Empire in Europe that

[T]here were knowledge and learning everywhere except in Catholic Europe. At a time when even kings could not read or write, a Moorish king had a private library of six hundred thousand books. At a time when ninety-nine percent of the Christian people were wholly illiterate, the Moorish city of Cordova had eight hundred public schools, and there was not a village within the limits of the empire where the blessings of education could not be enjoyed by the children of the most indigent peasant, . . . and it was difficult to encounter even a Moorish peasant who could not read and write.[2]

What promoted the spirit of research and knowledge-seeking in Cordoba were the supportive measures taken by the Caliph al-Hakam II to bolster education and learning in his kingdom. Writers, translators, and book-makers were exempt from participation in wars and conquests. They were also given precious gifts in return for their work and provided with suitable working conditions. One day, he sent one thousand Dinars of pure gold to Abi al-Faraj al-Asfahani (from the city of Esfahan in Persia) for a copy of his book entitled al-Aghani (Chants).

Arab Intellectual Leadership in Islamic Cordova: When Arabs Were a Beacon of Light in the Dark Ages

Other writers also benefited from Al-Hakam’s generous gifts, such Abi Bakr al-Abhari al-Maliki, Mohamed Ibno Chaaban Ibno al-Kacim, Mohamed Ibn Youssef al-Warrak, and many others.[3] Moreover, al-Hakam II dispatched book hunters to Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Constantinople, Basra, and other knowledge centers in search of the rarest books. He preferred to stockpile books rather than arms, and books were the best gifts with which other kings could buy his friendship.

The Royal Library first occupied part of the royal palace, but with the increasing number of written and translated books, it was soon overflowing, and the library had to be moved to another location near the palace. The library consisted of different sections, the most important of which, besides the writing section, was the translation section. A number of polyglot translators worked here, especially those mastering Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Among those translators were Abdullah Sqalli, Muhamed Ennabati, Abu Othmane Al-Jazzar, Muhamed Ibn Said, Abderrahman Ibn Isaac, and a Jewish translator called Hasdai Ibn Shaprut.[4]

The massive efforts undertaken by the Caliph al-Hakam II to promote education, learning, and science in Cordoba contributed to the flourishing of the Arabic language which became the language of the learned. Scholars, researchers, and students from all over Europe headed to Cordova to learn this language which would provide them with ample learning opportunities. Later on, these Western scholars would translate the works of Muslim scholars during the seventh and eighth centuries, providing the foundation of modern scholarship. European philosophers would probably not have known Aristotelian philosophy had it not been translated, studied, analyzed, and commented on by Muslim philosophers such as Averroes, Avicenna, and Al-Farabi whose works exerted a great influence on Western philosophy for several centuries.

In parallel with this cultural and intellectual renaissance whose radiance glowed over all Europe in the following centuries, the city of Cordova which was the capital of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate in Muslim Iberia was also a place of dazzling cultural, religious, and ethnic coexistence. The city was home to more than 100,000 people of various cultural and national backgrounds[5] who were offered the freedom of worship without discrimination. “Christians,” for example, says James Carroll, “were welcome to hold their worship services in the Great Mosque, and they did so.”[6] Besides, the committees commissioned by Al-Hakam to copy, translate, and write books comprised not only Muslims but also Mozarab Christians,[7] and Jews who compatibly worked in teams to preserve the human cultural, scientific, and intellectual legacy to be bequeathed to future generations.

The Arabs, Berbers, Jews, and Christians of medieval Cordova gave stunning evidence that societies flourish when they embrace diversity and make room for difference, instead of seeing differences as a threat. The spirit of convivencia[8] and cultural interaction that marked the reign of Abd al-Rahman III and his son al-Hakam II was a strategic choice by the Caliphs themselves who appointed a Jew — Hasdai Ibn Shaprut — as their vizier (minister of state). This symbolic act speaks volumes of their vision for their kingdom as well as of their tolerance, openness, and long-term strategic thinking. The inclusive and peace-oriented policy they adopted contributed to resolving internal and external conflicts and establishing a period of manifest peace, especially during the reign of Al-Hakam II. The multiple ethnicities that Cordova hosted lived harmoniously under the law, fulfilling their duties and cherishing their rights in harmony and peace. Cordova achieved the successes it did because of many contributing factors, perhaps the most important of which was the strength of its cultural diversity.

Cordova Muslims also excelled in architecture and design, introducing the most complex forms of architectural geometry to Europe. The Cordova Mosque which continues to fascinate its visitors to the current day is an example of the expertise and dexterity of Muslim artisans in using brick, plaster, wood, and ceramic to create perfect integrations and original forms. The streets of Cordova were well paved with brick and lit at night for miles just like any modern city today. Victor Robinson makes a series of comparisons between Europe and Cordova in terms of urbanization and progress. He states:

Europe was darkened at sunset, Cordova shone with public lamps; Europe was dirty, Cordova built a thousand baths; . . . Cordova changed its undergarments daily; Europe lay in mud, Cordova’s streets were paved; Europe’s palaces had smoke-holes in the ceiling, Cordova’s arabesques were exquisite; Europe’s nobility could not sign its name, Cordova’s children went to school; Europe’s monks could not read the baptismal service, Cordova’s teachers created a library of Alexandrian dimensions.[9]

The success story of Cordova, though short-lived, would remain a bright page in the history of Arabs and Muslims who rose from an arid desert land to founding an empire stretching across three continents. Their language, spoken originally only by a few thousand people in Arabia, quickly became the universal language of science; some of its terminology infiltrated into other languages and is still used even today, in words such as algebra, alchemy, alcohol, soda, admiral, cotton, coffee, and the list goes on. The number of books and scholarly documents which were burnt and destroyed during the wars of the Reconquista, if handed down to us, might have changed the course of history as know it.

Given that the Arab World today is plagued with political and social instability and turmoil from Tangier to Aden, Arabs should perhaps harken back to this Golden Age of their history not only to find solace in the glories of their ancestors, but also to draw lessons from the past; lessons that might help to overcome the sectarianism, fanaticism, intolerance, and violence that afflict the Arab World today.

While today, illiteracy rates in the Arab World are the highest, we should learn from the history of Cordova that education is the key to prosperity, productivity, and progress. It was in Cordova that Averroes, Ib Hazm, Al-Zahraoui and the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, among many others, found the fertile soil and appropriate climate to sow the seeds of learning through their ever-living books and intellectual contributions. Today that difference is feared and disavowed to the degree that a person may be the subject of discrimination within his or her own family. Yet, the Golden Age informs us that Muslims, Christians, and Jews shared not only spaces and walls, streets and baths, libraries and madrassas, but also dreams and aspirations in the jewel city of Cordova.

[1] Brain A. Catlos, Infidel Kings and Unholy Wars: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusades and Jihad. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), p. 30.

[2] Quoted in: Mohamed Noordin Sopieen Man and his Ideas (Malaysia: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 2006), p. 618.

[3] Hamza Mohamed Al-Hassan, “Johoud Hokm al-Mostansir al-Ilmiya wal-Takafiya” in Majallat al-Oloum wal-Dirassat al-Insaniya, No. 4 (Benghazi: University of Benghazi Press, 2015), p. 4.

[4] Muhamed Turki Mohamed Chatnaoui, “Maktabat al-Khalifa al-Amoui al-Hakam al-Mostansir fi al-Andalus”, in Al-Majalla al-Ordoniya li-lttarikh wal-Adab, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2016), p. 11.

[5] Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 28.

[6] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (New York: A Mariner Book, 2001), p. 322.

[7] Mozarab Christians were Iberian and Hispanic Christians who lived under the Islamic rule and were highly influenced by the Arabic culture and language.

[8] Convivencia is a concept used by historians Pidal and Castro to describe the spirit of co-existence among Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain.

[9] Quoted in: Aidil Adha Sulaiman, Dari Andalusia ke Amerika (Malaysia: Karya Bestari, 2015), p. 62.