Religion has always been one of the roots of conflicts in the world since medieval periods; with every era came a new religious controversy that marked the beginning of a new dynasty. One of the most peaceful ages in history, where people of different faiths lived in harmony, discussed daily issues with each other and ended their days on a good note, accepting the diversity in cultures was during the time of the Moors.

The Moors were a nomadic people from Africa who invaded Spain in the 8th century. They were Muslims who took their religion and culture with them to Christian Spain and overran the Visigoths. Over time, the Moors established the Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba, in southern Spain. They grew in power and strength, spreading their culture in many cities all over the region.

They ruled for almost three centuries, until the caliphate fell, and Moorish Spain got captured by the Almoravids. Eventually the traditions faded and Spain went back to being the Christian state it used to be. However, almost 700 years of Moorish influence left a prominent mark on Spain, making it distinct from the rest of Western Europe. The diversity in the Iberian peninsula during the Moors gave birth to some of the greatest personalities in history, whose amazing creations still benefit us.

This rich era rewarded us with a gem, a wunderkind, Ziryab, whose creativity shines in various fields including fashion design, music, poetry, gastronomy, astronomy, and branches of science. Surprisingly, his legacy is rarely heard of or mentioned, although his contributions are incorporated in almost every aspect of modern times.

Ziryab was born as Abu Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi in Baghdad in 789 A.D. He later came to be known as Ziryab, which means ‘blackbird’ in Spanish, for the color of his skin and melodious voice. He was tutored by some of the finest teachers and musicians in Mosul, one of them being  Ishaq Al-Mawsili.

Ziryab showed an immense talent for music, claiming later in life that his compositions were given to him in his dreams by a Jinn. One day Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid asked Ishaq to present some of his finest students to the court. As the most gifted student, Ziryab was put forward for the immense honor of playing for the ruler of the world’s largest empire. His flawless performance greatly impressed the Caliph and he decided to speak to Ziryab once he was done.

Upon conversation, Ziryab mentioned that he could sing songs for him that human ears had never heard before; ones that other singers do not know of. The caliph then ordered Ishaq to give Ziryab his lute to listen to his compositions. Ziryab then asked if the Caliph wanted him to sing his master’s songs, since he could not sing his own compositions without his own lute.

Ishaq, taken aback by Ziryab’s statement, answered saying both the lutes look alike. To that Ziryab replied, saying they do, but at first glance. However, Ziryab’s lute weighed about a third less than his master’s and his strings were made of silk that had not been spun with hot water- which weakens them. His lute was not like the traditional four-string instrument- he added a fifth string. The bass and third strings were made of lion gut, which was softer and more sonorous than that of any other animal.

He also said that his strings were stronger than any others, and they could better withstand the striking of the pick. Ziryab’s pick was also unusual: made from an eagle’s claw. This instrument did justice to Ziryab’s music and the Caliph was moved by his unique performance. On the other hand, having witnessed his pupil’s true talent, Ishaq grew jealous and angry, and felt threatened by Ziryab. After the performance Ishaq cornered Ziryab and asked him to leave Baghdad immediately, threatening to kill him otherwise.

Ziryab wandered for many years, traveling places, looking to seek refuge. At the age of 24, he traveled 3,100 miles along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the enlightened city of Cordoba where he found prosperity, recognition of his art and unprecedented fame. He became the court musician for Caliph Abd-Al-Rahman II and revolutionized Cordoba, making it the stylistic capital of its time. The audience adored him and it was said that he knew 10,000 songs by heart.

The province of al-Andalus just after the Islamic conquest, 720. Source Photo Credit

Spain at that time was not completely civilized- they had a gluttonous manner of eating and most people seemed to eat with their hands. Appalled by the rough nature of the people, Ziryab decided to introduce some changes to the system. He recommended a three-course meal- starting with soup, followed by fish, then meat as the main course and finishing off with a sweet final course. He also introduced sets of cutlery and tablecloths to encourage people to eat more cleanly. This focus on cleanliness spread to other elements of life.

A full set of perfumes, cosmetics, toothpaste, and underarm deodorant was made a necessity for every noble. Ziryab proposed that men should be clean-shaven, which seemed unusual in an age where, to western eyes, beards formed a part of the image of the pious Muslim. But Ziryab insisted that grooming and cleanliness was essential. Grooming was not limited to beards; he also introduced hairstyles- “new short hairstyles leaving the neck, ears, and eyebrows free”- which became a vital part of people’s lives. In Muslim Spain excess body hair was a social sin for both men and women, so Ziryab also established the first hair removal clinic.

Ziryab’s intellectual reach also extended to clothing and fashion was altered into something recognizable. Ziryab introduced fashion for all seasons, summer, winter, as well as the seasons in between. Dates were set for people to know when to switch. He invented colorful dyes and chemicals as well as colored striped fabrics and translucent coats, which can still be found in Morocco today.

Sophistication was brought to life when Ziryab insisted that colorless glasses should be used as drinking vessels instead of metal goblets. He is also known for popularizing leather furniture which embellished the houses of the wealthy.

“Bayad plays the oud to the lady” Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

In addition to this, Ziryab encouraged the idea of inviting scholars of different cultures from various parts of the world to Cordoba. This is what marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Islam. During this period, the Muslims showed a strong interest in assimilating the scientific knowledge of the civilizations that had been conquered. Under Ziryab’s guidance, Cordoba became one of the most important cities of the Muslim world in matters of science and culture.  Spain also became a symbol of religious harmony because of the collaborations between the Jews, Christians and Muslims, glimpses of which can be seen in cities like Toledo.

Perhaps Ziryab’s greatest contribution to the field of music was his institution. He founded the first conservatory of music in Cordoba and is also considered the inventor of opera and operatic singing. It was in his conservatory where a great number of students were trained and became famous for their singing, dancing, and composition. Ziryab paid special attention to each and every student and ensured careful teaching of all his skills. He would teach in several stages, and trained until every student attained perfection.

His methods were distinct and flawless. There is a theory proclaimed by some that the tradition of Flamenco started during the time of Ziryab’s music. Although many of the details of the development of flamenco are lost in history, it is certain that it originated in Andalusia.

The music, dances, compositions and instruments Ziryab introduced were modified and adapted by the Christians and Jews, and later influenced by Gipsies which evolved into the famed Spanish flamenco. If all this is true, then this would be an indelible testament to Ziryab’s hidden influence throughout the centuries.

Ziryab was a loved and pampered with gifts and an immense salary by Emir Rahman II as a result of his innovations and contributions to Cordoba. Ziryab would receive 200 gold dinars a month with a bonus of 500 gold dinars on Midsummer and New Years, and an additional 1000 gold dinars on Islamic holidays. He was also granted a small palace in Cordoba and several landowning villas across Spain.

On one of these villas, Ziryab started growing asparagus introduced from the east, among the first to be grown in Spain. On the whole Ziryab’s improvements in the life and culture of Cordoba and Spain were greatly appreciated and helped to develop a golden age for the Muslim state. From the dining space to the living hall to the wardrobe, Ziryab changed al-Andalusian culture forever.

The musical contributions of Ziryab alone are staggering, laying the early groundwork for classic Spanish music. The West has a tendency of ignoring the achievements of Muslim Spain and as a result extraordinary characters like Ziryab have, somewhat, been overshadowed by contemporary, Western figures. Therefore, revolutionary personalities like Ziryab must be celebrated as a paragon of Muslim achievement and high culture.