Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Islamo-Iberian Caliphate: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Fashion and a Gay Caliph

On January 2016 I visited the city of Cordoba in Southern Spain. That city left a very good impression in my heart. The narrow Arabian-style alleys, the orange trees along Guadalquivir River, the majestic Puente de Romano next to Cathedral La Mezquita, magnificent Moorish carvings, statues of angel from Renaissance period and many more. Cordoba that was once the capital of Islamo-Iberian Caliphate in Spain preserved its history very well so that you can still see what did the Romans, the Visigoths, the Muslims and the Catholic Monarch of Spain leave for us. I fell in love to Cordoba immediately.

As you might probably aware from my old blog posts, I have some sort of obsession towards the Islamic civilization in Andalusia, or as I prefer to call it "the Islamo-Iberian" civilization. The reason behind this is not because I see this period of time as an era when Islam ruled the world, no. I ain't no megalomaniac. I have more civilized motives behind my obsession to Andalucia. Two periods in Common Era - Europe that fascinate me the most are the Islamo-Iberian era and the Renaissance. And I have reasons for that.

I am interested on the culture of harmony that was established by the Omayyad Caliphate in Spain. Local Spanish historian call it "La Convivencia" or the tradition of living together, when the Muslims, Christians and the Jews coexisted together under one culture. This type of peace was very fundamental for this specific time and in this geographical location. The result was, something that for a historian like me, a very fascinating period when scientific discoveries and artistic explorations reached the zenith. To save time, I could only mention two names to represent hundreds of secular scientists, theologians and artists who contributed to the pool of knowledge in Cordoba. They are Averroes or Ibn Rushd the Father of Analytical Thinking and Ibn Hazm the Father of Comparative Religious Studies. Without these two people, our world would never be the same. As the true heirs of knowledge, they expressed their ideas through writing and seminar and also provided opportunities for public debate to let them intellectually be challenged by other scholars. This type of learning help ideas to be explored and exchanged.

Of course, of course, some skeptics will attack my reasonings. I admit that there were several down moments when minority was persecuted by the Islamic monarch in Al-Andalus but nonetheless based on historical records, the tolerance that is performed by Islamo-Iberian Caliphate was considered as the best one in Europe, in that, note this, particular century. Obama even mentioned this in his visit to Cairo in 2009 by saying that "Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Al-Andalus and Cordoba during the Inquisition." (check the video here)

Just across the Alcazar of Cordoba. A beautiful and peaceful park with doves, orange and palm trees.
In a city where the Jewish quarter located near by the Grand Mosque and the Christians were free to walk to their churches, Cordoba offered not just the guarantee of freedom of religion but also the excellence of life in Dark Aged Europe. Among the Sephardim community (Jewish that was expelled from Spain) in Europe, the time when their ancestors lived in Cordoba is still commemorated as the golden age. Its true that the Jews and Christians must paid special tax (jizya) for their status as non-Muslims, however this practice did not stop them from enjoying the same public facilities as the Muslims. In a time of intolerance and hostility, Cordoba sprung out to be a nicer host for her Jewish and Christian people than other European city.

With clean running water for public use, street lights, paved road, water mills to buzz up agriculture productivity, public libraries, schools and hammam or Arab baths accessible for the inhabitants despite of their race and religion, Cordoba was truly a gem. High culture developed in this prosperous community. The three meal-course tradition was first brought by an African artisan named Ziryab the Blackbird from Baghdad who worked in the court of the Caliph. This tradition is still kept by modern Europeans. In its international politics, the Caliphate of Cordoba built good partnership not just to the Islamic world in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Abdur Rahman III the founder of the Caliphate also mingled with France, Germany and Constantinople by sending exotic diplomatic gifts to those kings. In short, it was a peaceful time and better to live here than the other rest of Europe.
Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba

Being advanced in science and technology doesn't mean that Cordoba was left from being stylish. Just like Paris or Milan nowadays, it was the pinnacle of fashion industry. People in Cordoba has been recorded to use shampoo, toothpaste, perfume and deodorant since the 9th century. People walked on the streets of Cordoba with their finest gowns and fashionable turbans, smelled with oriental fragrance that came as far as Egypt and Persia. Thanks to Ziryab the Blackbird who not just introduced the art of fine dining but also grooming and fashion. As quoted from The Daily Beagle:
An extension of this was Ziryab’s insistence that men be clean-shaven. In an age where, to western eyes, the beard forms part of the image of the pious Muslim this sounds like a very radical change for the musician to make. Grooming wasnt limited to the beard though, hairstyles became a vital part of the fashion and everyone was eager to copy Ziryab’s hairstyles. Ziryab is also credited with establishing the first hair removal clinic in Western Europe. In Muslim Spain excess body hair was a social sin for both men and women.
Ziryab did not limit him self to cuisine, cleanliness and grooming. Fashion was, for the first time, altered into something recognisable to us in the modern era. Ziryab introduced winter and summer fashions as well as dress for the “half-seasons” (the seasons between seasons) with set dates for when one should switch. Under his regime fashion industry became a huge part of Spain’s appeal introducing coloured striped fabrics and translucent coats both of which can still be found in Morocco today.
Ziryab made Cordoba stylish with his innovation. He introduced fashion for all seasons. His signature was: "wear bright colors of wool, cotton and linen fabrics in spring; white for summer; and wear darker colors and cloaks trimmed with rabbit fur, lamb or weasel for fall and winter" (for real, gurl! check). Before he came to Spain, the only season-related fashion statement that Europe knew was the change of summer to winter garments. Finally, probably the coolest thing he ever done, was opening an Institute of Beauty in Cordoba which focused on the creation of cosmetic for both genders and to teach people to beautify themselves. With the coming of Ziryab, the face of Islam in Cordoba was far from the creepy terrorists that we know today. Islam in Cordoba was the clean-shaved, good-smelled and fashionable one.

The Great Mosque from the outside
Another surprise that I unearthed from Cordoba was the fact that a gay caliph ruled over the Islamo-Iberian peninsula, once upon a time. Yes, an homosexual man named Abu'l As al-Muntasir bi'llah Al Hakam ibn Abdur Rahman III or best known as Al Hakam II held the office as the 16th Caliph of Islamo Iberian Caliphate. This blue eyed man with reddish hair is praised in both the Islamic and European sources as the man of Golden Age. He established peace treaties with Christian kingdoms on the north and sponsored the building of great library of Cordoba to rival Baitul Hikmah in Baghdad. He was a big fan of science, he created a special department consist of Jewish and Christian translators to translate books from Greek and Latin. He employed a woman mathematician named Lubna of Cordoba as private secretary and sponsored Abul Qasim (Abulcasis) the royal surgeon to conduct his monumental surgical experiments. Oh, he is also remembered as the Caliph who finished the Medina Azahara project, a fairytale-like city-sized palace on the suburb of Cordoba. Medina Azahara was the capital of the Caliphate and praised by many other European ambassadors who visited the place as magical. In short, he was like the Abbasid's Harun Al Rashid of Omayyad Spain.
The statue of Al Hakam II in Cordoba

Interesting information about this young and brilliant Caliph isn't just stop there. He was described by both Arab and Western sources as openly and exclusively gay during his youth. He chose men as his sexual partners and established an all-male harem. When he became the Caliph, the caliphate advisory counsels began to worry. An heir must be produced by him in order to secure the kingdom. A solution was then agreed: a Basque girl named Subh was married to the Caliph when he was 46 year-old. Subh had to cut her hair short, dressed up like a ghulam or young boy and changed her name to "Jafar" in order to seduce Al Hakam. This witty idea is proven to be a success. A son was born from this union, Hisham the dauphin. He'd be the next Caliph, while Subh enjoyed an affair with Almanzor, the old vizier of Al Hakam.  (Don't trust me? Read this and this)

According to several sources, it seems like the practice of homosexuality was not just for the Cordoban highborns and autocrats, it was also common within the society itself (click here). Cordoba was quiet secular not just on term of science but also on term of accepting sexual orientation. Some contemporary Christian's records described how Cordoba was disgustingly filled with "libertines" who supported the practice of same-sex relationship. As quoted from Louis Compton in an article entitled "Male Love and Islamic Law in Arab Spain":
Popular attitudes appear much less hostile than in Christendom, and European visitors to Muslim lands were repeatedly shocked by the relaxed tolerance of Arabs, Turks, and Persians who seemed to find nothing unnatural in relations between men and boys.
Ibn Hazm, a polymath who wrote about the psychology of love also recorded the homosexuality phenomenon in Islamo-Iberia. In his book he mentioned the love story of a government official named Ibn Quzman and Aslam, the brother of the prime minister. Ibn Hazm makes no distinction between the love for slave women and free, so he makes no distinction between the love of women and the love of men, morally or socially. To him all love is psychologically one and the same. Many cases of same-sex relationships in Islamo-Iberian are still well preserved in poems and fragments by poets and scholars of that century. This fact is often neglected even by Muslim historians themselves. They would praise the Islamo-Iberian civilization as the golden age of Islam only as limited as science development and religious tolerance. Accepting the reality that there was a gay caliph or openness in the society in regard to same-sex relationship are impossible for them.

The ruins of Medina Azahara
Islam in the ancient Andalucia was indeed very tolerant. Compare to the current condition that we witness nowadays, it seems like we need to step back to the 9th century to learn about accepting differences and being open to ideas. May the golden age return not in the form of silly ambition to ruin other country to reinstate caliphate. Let's be more substantive. May the golden age return to us in the form of quality development and self improvement. Knowledge is powerful and hate would not lead us anywhere, after al. 

Peace from Berkel,
05 January 2017

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