Ziryab: The polymath Muslim musician

Famous Nilanjan Hajra
Muslim musician

They called him Ziryab, the Jay Bird, in Persia. And in Andalusia the polymath Muslim musician was called the Mirlo, the blackbird. Such was the singing fame of Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Nafi, the great Muslim musician, across West Asia, North Africa, and Andalusia in the early 9th century. But then, he wasn’t just a singer, not even just a singer, but a polymath of his times. Ziryab had deep knowledge in botany, astronomy, metallurgy, geography, and even in culinary arts, cosmetics, and fashion. He was the chief entertainer in the court Cordoba in the 1820s.

Life and times of Muslim musician Ziryab

Abu l-Hassan was born in 789 CE. But there is much debate over his birth-place. Historians through the ages have variously claimed him to be Arab, Persian, Kurdish, and Black African. That the Muslim musician and a cultural icon of his times had a dark complexion is uncontested. Hence perhaps his Hispanic nickname Mirlo (Blackbird). Historians generally believe that another musical icon Ishaq al-Mawsili taught him music in Baghdad. Ziryab’s first major achievement was to become a court entertainer to Harun al-Rashid. This must have been at a very early age because Caliph Rashid died in 809 CE, Abu l-Hasan was barely 20. After this, during the reign of al-Mamun, the great Muslim musician left Baghdad and settled in the Andalusian city of Cordoba by 822 CE.

The reason behind Ziryab’s leaving Baghdad is also unclear. There is a general theory that he soon fell out with his teacher, who forced him to leave the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. At the same time, Umayyad Caliph al-Hakem invited him to Andalus, which provided Ziryab with a golden opportunity. Finally, he became the chief entertainer in the court of Abd al-Rahamn II, son of al-Hakem, with a stunning monthly salary of 200 gold Dinars.

Contribution to music and culture 

In many senses, the great Muslim musician revolutionized this art. He added a fifth pair of strings to Oud, thus introducing elementary changes to one of the most popular musical instruments of his times. His Baghdadi trained style of performance deeply influenced contemporary Andalusian music. This later traveled to North Africa creating an Andalusian music tradition of Maghreb.

The great Muslim musician also left his indelible mark on the tradition of music-teaching in Andalusia. He established Cordoba’s first conservatory, albeit with the Caliph’s support. Here he taught his students harmony and composition. In terms of musical theories, Ziryab radically transformed them, setting free metrical and rhythmical parameters. In later years this conservatory, according to the renowned musicologist Julian Ribera, created counterpoint and polyphony. Ziryab created 24 Nawbats (vocal and instrumental suits).

Al-Hasan was a true icon of his age. And people of the haute society followed his personal way of dressing, eating, cooking, in brief his lifestyle. This created a whole new fashion-tradition in al-Andalus. For example, the great Muslim musician introduced the crystal glasses to Spain, replacing gold glasses. It is said that with him various toilet accessories arrived from the Orient to al-Andalus including certain perfumes, cosmetics, and even toothpaste!

Ziryab, the great Muslim musician, therefore, is also a great cultural representative of the finest Islamic culture of his times.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra) 

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