The Scientific and Cultural Legacy

of al-Andalus

In principle, one may think that the Arabs were the minority in al-Andalus, the Spanish and Berbers forming the majority. Therefore, the spoken language was not Arabic. However, in the course of the 9th c. there was a general Arabization. In al-Andalus, the Arabic language was synonymous with refinement and erudition. Not only the Muslims spoke Arabic, but also the Mozarabs –Christians who remained under the Muslims and who ended up speaking and writing in Arabic– and also the Jews. Both these communities greatly participated in the public life of al-Andalus. In this context, there is an eloquent passage by Alvaro de Cordoba complaining of the expansion of Arabic in the 9th c.: “Many of my coreligionists read Arabic poetry and tales, and study the work of Mohammedan philosophers and theologians, not in order to refute them, but to learn how to express themselves in the Arabic language in a more correct and elegant manner”. Some of the most outstanding linguists of al-Andalus were al-Qali, Ibn al-Qutiyah and al-Zubaydi, all living during the 10th c.

The quantity and quality of sciences, art and letters cultivated in al-Andalus is really admirable, and also the interest many writers showed in raising the basic questions of human existence. Not surprisingly, Andalusi people repeatedly expressed their praise for al-Andalus, such as al-Saqundi when, in the 13th century, shortly before Cordoba and Seville finished belonging to al-Andalus politically, declared in his precious Epistle in praise of al-Andalus the following: “I praise God for he made me born in al-Andalus and granted me the grace of being one of his sons. I can raise my arm proudly, and the nobility of my condition makes me accomplish praiseworthy actions”, or the vizier of Granada, Ibn al-Khatib, when, as early as the 14th century, pondered over the other ones “these Andalusian lands”, the best in the world, he proclaims, “in beauty and vegetation, in extension and goods, in constructions and fortresses, in people and animals, in character and way of being, in customs and way of dressing, in nobility and intelligence, in industries and mines, in courage and zeal, in refinement and grace.”

Education and knowledge had, from the beginning, enormous importance in the Islamic world. Quotations such as: “Search for knowledge from cradle to grave”, or “There is nothing more important in the eyes of God than a man who learns a science and teaches it to the people”, were among the maxims of greatest influence at that time. Caliphs and emirs such as Abd­al-Rahman II, Abd-al-Rahman Ill and al-Hakam II were great scholars who surrounded themselves by other learned men and made learning available to all. They had the principal classical works translated, they created public and private libraries –some as renowned as that of al-Hakam II– and built mosques and madrasas, where religion and law were taught. Some were excellent poets, such as king al-Mu’tamidof Seville and his friend and vizier, Ibn Ammar.

Much writing was devoted to the study of knowledge and learning, to the classification of sciences, such as that by Ibn Abd Rabihiin the 10th c.: al-Iqd al-Farid, (The Only Necklace). The author expressed himself concerning knowledge in this words: “it is the pillar upon which rests the axis of religion and of the world. It distinguishes man from animal, and the rational being from the irrational”. The well-known Ibn Hazm (994-1064) devoted countless pages to classifying the sciences in books such as Maratib al-ulum, or Kitab al­ajlak. This author was one of the most prolific in Islam, being outstanding as a poet, theologian, jurist, historian and philosopher. He wrote not less than four hundred books. He had such a critical and caustic tongue against power and the lack of spirit. On him, it was said that “his tongue was as sharp as the sword of al-Hach-chach”. He wrote the following on knowledge: “He who searches for knowledge in order to boast or praise, or to acquire riches and fame, is far from finding success, for its object is to reach something that is not knowledge”.

Prose, Poetry and Music

The Andalusi people valued prose and poetry highly. The Taifa kingdoms brought about a “decentralization” of knowledge. The Taifa kings competed amongst themselves to reach an ever higher degree of erudition and to have the wisest court; and they were particularly devoted to poetry. One of the most famous poets, apart from al-Mutamid, was lbn Zaydun(1003-1071), as well as his beloved, the beautiful princess Wallada. También fueron renombrados al Al-Ramadi (d. 1015) was also renowned and, centuries later, Ibn Zamrak, a poet of the 14th c. who left his verses on the walls of the Alhambra. The most cultured and elegant form of poetry was the qasida, of complicated metres, though there were also new popular forms called muwashaha and zejel, of which the greatest exponent was Ibn Quzman (12th c.), whose prestige reached Baghdad.

Music was never a form of art much considered by Islam. However, great musicians proliferated in al-Andalus. An outstanding artist of the time was Ziryab, who came from Baghdad in the 9th c. and, apart from revolutionizing the fashion in dress, cosmetics and cooking, was a magnificent lute player, to which he added a fifth chord.

Prose, usually of a philosophical variety, also had excellent figures. Some were of the stature of the great thinkerIbn Tufayl, author of the captivating Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, also known as the Book of the self-taught philosopher, and no doubt a forerunner of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The Poet Ibn Suhayd(d. 1034) was also renowned for his work Al-Tawabi wa-l-zuwabi, (Spirits and Demons).

History and Geography

In the Middle Ages, history became of particular interest to the Muslims who wrote many pages full, not only of interesting historical details, but also geographical, sociological and biographical subjects.

There is evidence that there were many historians, geographers and anthologists in al-Andalus, though much of their work has been lost. Among them we find the al-Razifamily of whom Isa (10th c.) was the best known. He wrote a general history of al-Andalus called later “The Moor Rasis’s Chronicle”. The History of the conquest of al-Andalus by his contemporary Ibn al-Qutiya is of equal value. There were quite a few notable historians in the 11th c., such as Ibn Hayyan, born in Cordoba in 987, erudite author of several works on society and events of his time. Later, Ibn Saïd al-Magribi, born in Granada by the beginnings of the 13th century, and his contemporary Ibn Idariwere outstanding.

The 14th c. also witnessed two great statesmen and thinkers: Ibn al-Khatib, born in Loja (Granada) and Ibn Khaldun from Tunisia, author of a basic work of his time: Muqaddimah.

Finally, al-Himyarifrom Seville was of note among the anthologists, as were the 12th c writers Ibn Bassamand Ibn Khaqan. The Geographer al-Udri (11th c.) was outstanding, and so was his contemporary al-Bakri, as well as al-Idrisi, called the “Strabo of the Arabs” (14th c.), and Ibn Battuta from Tangiers –the greatest traveller of his time–, who left us a great testimony of al-Andalus and many other faraway places of the world as known at the time.

Philosophy and Sufism

In the first moments of Islam in the East, philosophy and logic were studied in a climate of great religious and intellectual tolerance. The first translations into Arabic of the Greek philosophers, particularly the work of Aristotle, were introduced in al-Andalus. A growing interest for this subject evolved that, however, was frowned upon by the rigid religious authorities. It was often forbidden to study these works, and books by Ibn Hazm, the oriental al-Gazali and Averroes were even burnt. Nevertheless, the philosophers maintained that intellect and reason were in no way opposed to revelation and constituted the most appropriate means for reaching the truth. “Philosophy is the friend and foster sister of religion. It does not contradict revelation, but confirms it”, Averroes affirmed.
The instigator of the study of philosophy was Ibn Masarra, writer of the 10th c., who professed a kind of pantheism. Ibn Hazm and his contemporary from Malaga, the Hebrew Ibn Gabirol, who professed neo-platonic philosophy in his Yambu al-hayat. (Book of the source of life). During the 12th c., there were Ibn Bayyah (Avempace) and his disciple Ibn Tufayl, whose writing Hayy Ibn Yaqzan¸ already mentioned had a deep effect on the Christians.

However, without a doubt, the most influential thinker in Islam, as well as in all of Europe, was Averroes(Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), of whom there are several extant works. Maimonides (1135-1204), the eminent Jewish philosopher, was a contemporary of Averroes.

Against this rationalist tendency, there were several Sufi mystics in al-Andalus, such as Ibn al-Arif (1088-1141) and Ibn Arabi from Murcia (1165-1240) who held the prophetic belief: “know thyself and thou wilt know thy Lord”, not from a rational and intellectual point of view, but merely intuitive and mystical.

The natural sciences

We cannot but mention the great scholars of the natural sciences who revolutionized many aspects of daily life with their knowledge. They studied mathematics, astronomy, medicine, botany and agronomy, as well as other sciences somewhat frowned upon by orthodoxy, such as astrology, alchemy and magic. Star and planet movements were minutely observed by means of sophisticated astrolabes. There was great progress in algebra and arithmetic, where al-Khwarizmi(hence logarithm) stood out and in medicine, the theories of Hippocrates and Galen were perfected.

In the field of mathematics, several authors were outstanding in al-Andalus, such as Maslama al-Mayriti, from Madrid, Ibn Mu’ad, al-Mu’tamam ibn Hud or Ibn Bayya (Avempace), among many others.

The greatest exponent in medicine was Averroes, but many other authors such as al-Zahrawi, Ibn Zuhr, also stood out in this discipline.

We should not forget in this brief list, the botanist from Malaga Ibn Baytar (1197-1248), or the agronomist Ibn al-Awam, to whom we owe a complete and valuable treatise on agriculture, The Book of Agriculture. They all exercised a great influence on the European scene of their day and the future, and their work was carefully studied up to the 17th c. by scientists such as Miguel Servet, Copernicus, Nicolas Massa and Galileo.


Art and Architecture

The Scientific and Cultural Legacy

Daily Life


Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join the e-mail list of El legado andalusí to receive the last news on the Foundation.

Thanks for subscribing!

Share This