©2019 Irfa'a

Madina al-Zahra and Cordoba

Assalamu alaikum (peace be with you)

Alhamdulillah (=thanks and praise be to God) for the peace and security to continue these posts. We visited Cordoba, a city established by Abdul Rahman I -the Umayyad prince who was the first ruler of Al-Andalus. His story is the stuff of romance. His family, the Umayyad rulers in Damascus were killed by the Abbasids who then established their own dynasty. He escaped and made his way to Spain, where he established his own caliphate that began as an emirate of ruling Berber Muslims in Morocco but then became an independent state.

The Umayyads were the first in Islamic history to establish an aristocracy, the advent of which, saw an end to the time of the rule of the first ‘four rightly guided caliphs’. This was predicted to happen by our beloved prophet (peace and blessings of God be on him). Muslims consider the time of the first four caliphates the true caliphate whereas since then there have been bad and good leaders. On this note, it must be said, that the model of leadership brought by Islam is what Sheikh Quick aptly termed a ‘meritocrasy’ and though an aristocracy is not preferred, where there is absent of rule of law otherwise, it is allowed. Having said that, it was the young prince Abdul Rahman I who was destined to found the Muslim Andalucian kingdom and continue the Umayyad line.

We stayed in a neighborhood in the city called ‘Arrusafa’. It was where AR-I built his palace, though no trace of that structure remains. The name Arrusafa is the name of a part of Damascus, beloved to AR-I, so you can see how he named this location the same, out of home-sickness. Quite remarkable the name stays to this day! This was in the year 711 AD, about 80 years after the death of the prophet (peace be on him).

Many things are told about the caliph AR-I and his rule. He was known as a just and wise ruler. This post will be too long were I to speak in detail about him, but here is one note that I particularly liked. Every child in his realm, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim would get a free education in reading, writing and math (the proverbial three ‘R’s! -hmm, wonder where that came from eh?;) ) and if a child wanted to study more, the doors were open. This love of education is a hallmark of Muslim civilization. As we believe that to know God, you must learn about His creation. The Quran repeatedly enjoins us to learn, study, think! So it is nothing new but something I deeply love about this way of life. One other thing to mention, there was no forced conversion as that is forbidden in the religion (“There is no compulsion in faith” – Quran 2:256). A proof of this is the great Jewish scholars that were produced in the Andalucian kingdom. The historians will speak more accurately about this than I can.

Cordoba became a great jewel in the crown of human civilization. The achievements of its people and its rulers must be given their due recognition no matter what faith or creed one belongs to. History is a common human treasure and it must be given its right. Cordoba was written of by Christian visitors from the North as ‘the ornament of the world’! It had street lighting and running water, great libraries and hospitals, synagogues and churches and of course great mosques. All this a couple of centuries before the battle of Hastings mind you.

And then comes Madina al-Zahra! Madina al-Zahra means ‘The resplendent city’. It was built by Abdur Rahman III who ruled for about 50 years beginning in 912 CE. It took him 12,000 builders and 12 years to build it. It was a custom built city about 6 miles outside the city of Cordoba. It housed the royal family and the court and attendants etc. It was a statement of authority as our tour-guide pointed out – a message to all, that Andalucía had arrived. And indeed it did do that. At that time also the Muslim rule in Baghdad was declining and AR III did declare himself the ruler of the entire Muslim world, it is entirely possible he had the riches and the authority  to be this as well, no small statement indeed.

Ah, but we derive a lesson from this – the caliph was distancing himself from his people. Becoming more exclusive and preferring the pleasures of the world, over the dues owed to the people he ruled. It is the story of history and human folly. It was the beginning of the end. And it is the story playing out time and time again to Muslim rulers…and we see it in today’s news too! We Muslims believe that the mark of the approval of God on any human endeavor is its longevity and that if Allah is not pleased, His blessing removed, no thing will last. So it is with Madina al-Zahra. While Cordoba still stands and Arrusafa is a modern day neighborhood, Madina al-Zahra needed to be dug out by archeologists. Now about 10% of the site is excavated and there is a museum built close by showcasing what life in that city must have been like. Wandering through that 1/10th of the city one gets a feel to what its grandour. I wish I could share that experience with you all, but I cannot here, so please do go visit. Some photos are up on my public facebook page though https://www.facebook.com/joy.manifest

The museum built there is a very interesting structure. It is built entirely underground. The reason for this is to emphasize a subtle yet important message. That the population of Muslim Cordoba is indigenous  to the land. It is ‘part of the earth’. At that time about 80% of the population was Muslim (BTW this is also an index used to prove the lack of forced conversion as where there is forced conversion, 100% of the population will be the enforced religion usually within decades or much less of its enforcement. However here 300 years into the establishment of the kingdom not yet is everyone Muslim) and what is important to note is that these were for the majority, ethnic Spanish Muslims. They were not the dark-skinned black-haired depictions Orientalist painters for some reason seem to love to paint Muslims as, and as is shown in the majority of textbooks. These were very Spanish Muslims. What was nice during this tour was to meet some of those very ethnically Spanish Muslims, who are now reclaiming their history and heritage over 500 years after the Inquisition and the forced erasing of this period from history. But more about that later. For now, it was an important lesson to take home and kudos to the architects of the building for such a subtle yet beautiful message.

And kudos also to the beautiful Spanish people, who are restoring these old sites and reclaiming what is after all, their own heritage!

Please do check out the pictures of Madina al-Zahra on Facebook. And below are some more, from a Museum as we entered the old city of Cordoba. Captions below.

A model of the great masjid of Cordoba and the stages in a person’s prayer. The masjid is now a Cathedral and still stands

A model of a Synagogue in Cordoba. I was struck by how similar to a masjid it is in that it is an empty space. The tile-work is obviously Moorish. The jewish quarter still exists in modern Cordoba

A model of a library/school/university

The bridge over the river Guadalquivir. Originally built by the Romans, it was fortified by AR-I. Interestingly the names of most rivers in Spain begin with ‘guada’. This word comes from the Arabic ‘wadi’ which means valley. Guadalquiver is from ‘Wadi al Akber’ = The great valley. The river systems were called by the valleys they carved.

One of the old ‘water-wheels’ used to irrigate the city. I think the only one still standing. Rather remarkable given it is over a thousand years old

The site of the masjid of Madina az-Zahra. Unlike many Muslim cities, where the city is built around the masjid, here the masjid is in a corner of the city almost outside its main design.

Finally, the trailer for a video we watched in the Museum, that recreates life in Madina az-Zahra. Ending with the visit of a delegation from a Christian kingdom in the North. Enjoy!

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