“Soul of man is not stranger/
to music of the spheres.
Even in an infidel music of his Maker
Is as sweet as the Holy One did parse
Paradise in such and such one’s ears.”
On 9 December 1499, the citizens of Granada awoke to a scene of devastation: the smouldering remains of over a million Arabic manuscripts, burnt on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition. The scale of cultural desecration is difficult to comprehend – it stands alongside the burning of the Mayan codices by Conquistadors 60 years later, and the destruction of the library at Alexandria.
A thousand years ago, as much of Europe languished in the Dark Ages, the Iberian peninsula was a cultural oasis, the brightest beacon of civilisation. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the caliphate of Al-Andalus stretched from Lisbon to Zaragoza, and centred on the Andalusian cities of Córdoba, Granada and Seville. From the 8th Century, the caliphate oversaw a period of extraordinary cross-cultural creativity known as La Convivencia(the Coexistence).
Al-Andalus was characterised by cultural hybridity and a spirit of openness, attracting scholars and merchants with spices from India and China and songs from Iraq and Syria. The translation of long-neglected Greek works of philosophy helped lay the intellectual foundations of the Renaissance, and made Al-Andalus the cultural capital of Europe for over 300 years.
The legacy of Al-Andalus is evident in our own vocabulary, from discoveries in mathematics (algebra) to chemistry (alkali). Córdoba, home to the largest library in Europe, was described by a Christian poet as “the ornament of the world”. It was the birthplace of the Jewish theologian Maimonides and the Muslim polymath Ibn Rushd (known to Christians as Averroes), and a meeting place for the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi and many others.
Among the Muslim poets of Al-Andalus, there was a concerted attempt to rediscover and reinvent the literary forms of Arabic, sophisticated and lyrical, rooted in the concept of fasaaha (clarity, elegance). The fire in Granada destroyed part of this heritage, but it survives in an unexpected form – in an imaginative body of Hebrew poetry, which illustrates the extent of cross-cultural exchange.
Peter Cole, the foremost translator of Hebrew poetry from Al-Andalus, argues in his book The Dream of the Poem that a major legacy of the Moorish writers was to inspire Jewish poets to emulate their work. Just as Roman authors had recast Latin to emulate Greek epic form, Jewish writers reconfigured the style of classical Hebrew.
Nor was fire the only destroyer: some Arabic poetry was suppressed by Muslim clerics, who regarded it as profane and heretical. A number of the most important Arabic writers of the period, such as Bashar ibn Burd and Abu Nuwas, whose work would influence Persian poets Hafiz and Omar Khayyam, were killed or imprisoned for celebrating ‘earthly’ pleasures.
Moral of this is this: Fools kill body for an idea but the idea is neither his nor mine. It is left for the Holy One to give whom He will, find paradise on earth: Poetry is the stone that has thousand facets and millions ways to dazzle His children.
(Ack: Benjamin Ramm/BBC online-culture/The 1000 year old lost Arabic poem lives in Hebrew of 29 June,2017)