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Thinking about next season's wardrobe? Thank this trailblazer from Muslim Spain for that Open in fullscreen

Sophia Akram

Thinking about next season's wardrobe? Thank this trailblazer from Muslim Spain for that

Abul-Hasan Alí Ibn Nafí, became known as Ziryab for his beautiful singing voice

Date of publication: 20 September, 2019

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A Muslim polymath, known as Ziryab, is said to have shaped many of the lifestyle and cultural traditions of Andalusia in the 9th century.

Imagine a person so fabulous you can't even... a mix between Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, Christian Dior and several other iconic figures of the 19th and 20th centuries, as author John Gill describes.

Except place him in the ninth century, in Europe and under the Caliphate system and you can begin to try and picture who the legendary persona of Ziryab is.

Real name Abul-Hasan Alí Ibn Nafí, he became known as Ziryab, which could have either meant blackbird, in Arabic, for his beautiful singing voice, or gold-hunter in Persian, for his skin colour.

If the details are sometimes sketchy, it's because the narrative has changed along the way but he is a well-cited figure placed in the Court of Cordoba under the Umayyad Caliphate between 822 and 857 A.D., originating from Iraq's cosmopolitan center at the time, Baghdad.

A musician, astronomer, gastronome, fashion designer, and all-around queen, what perhaps makes a good story is that Ziryab was a slave accomplishing these things, a tale you may see in some of the newer accounts.

Real name Abul-Hasan Alí Ibn Nafí, he became known as Ziryab, which could have either meant blackbird, in Arabic, for his beautiful singing voice, or gold-hunter in Persian, for his skin colour

"He was not a slave," says Dr Abdul Rahman El-Hajji, an author of Andalusian history, speaking to The New Arab, "He studied under one of the famous musicians of Iraq."

For the most authentic accounts, El-Hajji says you must refer to the early text of Nafh al-Tib, meaning "Waft of Perfume." And other early Arabic texts that have now been downloaded into more general historical accounts of Andalusia, Spain.

A student of Ishaq al-Mawsili, his talent made him into a favorite for the Abassid Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid, in his court. In fact, the Caliph extolled such high praise for the young student it angered his teacher, for fear of him overtaking him. So, the story goes he gave Ziryab an ultimatum to stay and suffer the consequences of whatever Ishaq had in store or he could help him leave Baghdad, so Ziryab chose to leave.

Another says he arrived on the shores of the Iberian coast with his family while another temporarily places him in Tunisia between travelling from Baghdad to Cordoba, before being expelled for insulting the emir with one of his songs, as the article Fixing a Misbegotten Biography: Ziryab in the Mediterranean World by Carla Davila explains.

He introduced the idea of wearing white in the summer, see-through clothing and pinstripes and set a calendar for seasonal clothing

The consensus is that he was present in the Court of Cordoba from 822 and his musical talents again caught the attention of the Caliph.

Abd al-Rahman II of the Umayyad Dynasty enjoyed Ziryab's musical talents and employed him in the court. Baghdad and the Abassid Dynasty was renowned for its elegance and style, so although Ziryab was revered for his musical talents, notably knowing 10,000 songs and adapting the lute to expand its technical capabilities, he was also a cultural aficionado.

He was reportedly paid a wage so large it caused the royal exchequer to object, so the Caliph had to pay it from his own funds. This allowed Ziryab time to ponder stylistic minutia and he became the pacesetter for style.

According to Al-Maqqari's Ziryab: The Making of a Myth, by D. Reynolds, women in Andalusia wore their hair parted in the middle, hanging loose on both sides but started to copy Ziryab's hairstyle – cut bangs, with the rest of his hair pulled back behind his ears, apart from two "love locks" on either temple. They also started to use protoxyde of lead – their version of a deodorant – to tackle body odor.

Some of Ziryab's cultural innovations were taken from the eastern culture and traditions he came from, such as using glass and crystal rather than silver and gold goblets, using tablecloths and place settings and most notably the idea of the three course meal: that one should start with soup or something lighter before the main meal, followed by something sweet.

He imported the idea of using glass and crystal glassware rather than gold or silver goblets and wowed his guests with other innovations among them the tablecloth and the place setting.

He also set standards of etiquette around the dining table. The concept of the three-course meal, from starter to the main course to dessert.

He also introduced the idea of wearing white in the summer, see-through clothing and pinstripes and set a calendar for seasonal clothing.

Women in Andalusia wore their hair parted in the middle, hanging loose on both sides but started to copy Ziryab's hairstyle

These ideas of etiquette and refinement took place in the remains of the Visigoth nation – the Germanic successor to the Roman empire – and al-Andalus was reinventing itself. But such innovations would eventually spread to the West, according to John Gill in his book Andalucia: A Cultural History.

However, according to some scholars, it is unlikely this one man made such long-lasting transformations himself. El-Hajji says that Ziryab's influence was "temporal and marginal on the social customs of Andalusian society," and historian Henri Terrasse wrote the introduction of seasonal clothing was more likely a "development" that shook the Muslim world in general.

Still, these social rites are clearly seen today and Ziryab was patently a trailblazer that catapulted Spanish society forward.


Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

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