When we look towards the Golden Age of Al-Andalusia, we tend to look at it as a marvel of the past: a relic that was almost an anomaly in history. Even today, we struggle to comprehend the society that created masterpieces such as the Alhambra and many others.
What is talked about even less are the factors that contributed towards these marvels and furthermore, how could we even recreate them in today’s world.
As you read through this article, I encourage you to do so through this lens Firstly, imagine what is possible and then, how can you play a part in making it happen.
The Islamic Caliphate
The establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba in the eighth century was a critical centrepiece of the Golden Age. The caliphs, who were patrons of the arts and sciences, supported and encouraged the development of a rich and diverse cultural landscape. This provided a stable political and cultural environment.
The founder of the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba, Abd Al Rahman I (758 – 788), set the stage for the cultural and artistic developments of Al-Andalus when he initiated the construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. This would in turn become one of the most iconic architectural marvels in the region, if not the world.
Future caliphs sustained this emphasis on cultural prosperity. The grandson of the founder, Abd al-Rahman II (822 – 852) established the House of Wisdom (Dar al-Hikmah), a library in Cordoba and invited scholars of various fields to contribute towards its collection.
Abd al-Rahman III (912-961) went even further and was considered to be one of the greatest patrons of the region. He established a grand palace city near Cordoba called the Madinat al-Zahra. This city became a centre of artistic and intellectual activity. It was adorned throughout with stunning architectural features, elaborate gardens and impressive libraries.
His son, Al-Hakam II (961-976), expanded the libraries of Madinat al-Zahra and was known to personally support scholars, poets and artists throughout his rule.
The last ruler of the Abbasdid dynasty in Seville, Al- Mu’tamid ibn Abbad (1069-1095), maintained a court that was the centre of intellectual and artistic activity, attracting poets, musicians and scholars. This constancy of rulers prioritising knowledge and the arts lasted right through the region.
With a heavy focus on knowledge and the arts, there was a strong emphasis on religious tolerance: this allowed for Christians, Jews and Muslims to be invited, co-exist and contribute towards the region’s intellectual and artistic scene. This multiculturalism led to a number of social-political elements that were crucial to the Golden Age of Al-Andalus.
Urban Centers and Trade
With mass migration and the flow of trade, ideas and goods, cities across Al-Andalus quickly became vibrant urban centres of commerce, innovation and learning. They attracted scholars, artists and intellectuals from various backgrounds. Cordoba, Seville and Granada are key examples, but there were many more littered across the region.
At the time, before the Reconquista, Al-Andalus was already having a similar impact on its neighbours. Cities and ports such as Valencia and others became prosperous centres of trade and commerce by virtue of being close to Al-Andalus. The same was also true for North Africa. Centres of learning and arts were established there in very much the same way as Al-Andalus proper. In one example the Almoravid dynasty, which originated in North Africa and ruled parts of Al-Andalus, established the Almoravid Madrasa in Marrakech and became a centre of religious and legal studies.
Many of these centres of knowledge had dedicated translation centres that played a pivotal role in transmitting ancient Greek, Roman and Eastern knowledge to Western Europe. Texts were not just translated into Arabic, but also systematically into Latin which introduced European scholars to classical Greek works that had been lost or forgotten. This allowed an even richer exchange of ideas across philosophical, scientific and literary disciplines.
In addition, the scholars of the region wrote extensive commentaries around translated texts, which provided elaborated explanations and critiques that enriched the understanding of the original works.
This was precisely the case when it came to the transmission of scientific knowledge. Well-known scholars of their time, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were the main source for the foundations of mediaeval European scholarship based upon critical thinking, empirical observation and rational inquiry, which in turn lifted Europe out of its Dark Ages.
Jewish scholars also played a significant role in the translation movement, often acting as intermediaries between Arabic and Latin cultures due to their proficiency in both languages. Prominent Jewish translators and scholars, such as Moses Maimonides and Solomon ibn Gabirol, became reliable sources for such works.
Al-Andalus is mainly known today for its splendour of architecture and Islamic art. Yet it is hard to believe that such a period of innovation, where even art was intrinsically defined by mathematics did not bring forth any scientific advancements.
Infact, advancements were made in various subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geography and agriculture. However, science and art were seen as one and the same. A holistic manifestation of truth with the benefit of justice and increased well-being can be derived from it.
As Ibn al Jazzar and Al-Zahrawi (the father of modern surgery) were making leaps and bounds in ophthalmology, paediatrics, surgical techniques, instruments and medicine, geometric and biomorphic patterns adorned the hospitals and theatres where they worked, knowing it would have a positive impact on patients’ well being.
Similarly, while Al-Zarqali and Ibn al-Saffar were making breakthroughs in astronomy, astrolabs and instruments, monitoring and measuring planetary motion, and Mathematicians, such as Al-Qalaqisadi were advancing algebraic and trigonometric methods, there was a deep appreciation by them that Islamic art was a reflection of the Universe they were discovering.
The art and the science were seen as one. And the art that we practice today is a legacy of that culture of thinking.
Looking to the future
Al Andalusia is a millennia ago. Who knows what would have happened if Al Andalusia endured to this time. We look towards it taking inspiration from what occurred in the past, but very few of us see it as inspiration for the future. I assert the question, why do we do that?
At the same time, our world has never felt smaller and it appears that the same building blocks of what made Andalusia so great can be replicated at a much greater scale. With the advances in technology and communication: The world has never felt smaller.
The founders and subsequent rulers dared to dream of a future where communities were open and full of abundance, and created socio-political spaces where they allowed the masses from all over the world to do the same.
If we gave ourselves permission to do the same and created spaces that encouraged others as well in a way that Godliness, science and art all were woven in oneness, what could be possible today?