Dunya Meray Aagay
A few days in Andalusia
The honorable and esteemed scholar Hazrat Shaykh Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani of Darul Uloom Karachi has traveled the world extensively and has blessed us with extremely interesting and engaging accounts of these travels in his Safarnamas (travel diaries). We wish to present to you some extracts of these. The Islamic year is 1410, the month is Rabi-u-Thaani and the Shaykh is in Karachi and on his way to take part in an Islamic Banking Conference in Rabat, Morocco. Now, in his own words:
On the morning of 19 Rabi-u-Thaani I boarded a Pakistan International Airline (PIA) aircraft in Karachi. As there was no direct flight available to Rabat we would be traveling to our destination via Paris. The plane had to stop in Cairo along the way as well and after some eleven hours in the plane, at three in the evening, we landed at the Paris-Orly Airport. After a transit time of about four hours at the airport, at seven thirty in the evening I boarded an Air France aircraft which, after a flight time of three hours, got us to our destination, Rabat. The local Moroccan time was nine thirty in the evening.
Lodging arrangements were made at Hyatt Regency Hotel; the conference was to be held in a hall in the same hotel. For about five days, I remained busy attending the various presentations and the discussions that followed. I also got a few opportunities to venture into some parts of the city of Rabat during gaps in the conference but due to back to back presentations and consistent downpours, most of the time was spent in the hotel.
Morocco is the closest Islamic country to Spain; and Andalusia (Muslim Spain) was the setting for some eight hundred years of glorious Islamic history. Due to this, the deep desire to see these lands was present since infancy and it occurred to me that there would not be a better opportunity, thus, advantage should be taken of Spain’s proximity to Morocco to fulfill my childhood longing. However, due to various commitments it would not be possible to expend too much time for this affair. In addition, a companion would also be required on the journey. It so happened that Allah (Exalted is He) made arrangements and the conference came to an end two days earlier than planned and I was not able to get a hold of any appropriate flight back to Karachi as well. On the other hand, my respected friend, Saeed Ahmed, who serves as the Assistant Director General of Faisal Islamic Bank, Bahrain, was not only willing to accompany this lowly soul on the journey but he took it upon himself to make all the travel arrangements and he made such a praiseworthy effort of it, that I didn’t have to do a single thing!
We first thought that we should travel from Rabat to Tangiers via rail before boarding a steamer to cross the Mediterranean Sea into the port of the green island. We didn’t have much time on our hands and this route would have cost us a day, so we decided against this and chose to travel via plane to Malaga which lies on the coast of Andalusia. The conference ended on the eve of 23 Rabi–u-Thaani, 1410 and the next day, at seven in the morning we were traveling to Casablanca by road. This journey by road was about two hours long; all along we were running parallel to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea on our right and on our left, lay an expanse of green fields stretching out as far as the eye could see. Situated along the way were numerous villages; at about nine, we reached Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca.
At about eleven thirty, Spain’s Iberian Airlines began its flight to Malaga; within fifty minutes of departing from Casablanca, it crossed the Mediterranean Sea and soon enough, the shore of Andalusia and the buildings of Malaga scattered all over it, were within sight. The local time was about one-thirty when the plane landed at the expansive airport in Malaga.
I will inshAllah fully introduce the city of Malaga later on, but it is sufficient to know at this point that even at the time of Muslim rule, this city played an important role as a sea port and numerous significant events in Andalusian history are connected to it. After disembarking from the aircraft and completing the immigration formalities it was about two thirty. The journey to Granada was about two and a half to three hours so we decided to offer our Zuhr prayers at Malaga airport. These are the same lands where, for some eight hundred years, every nook and corner of the land echoed and resonated with Takbir (magnification of Allah’s SWT name). These are the same lands, upon which there may not be any place having no imprints of the prostrations of the Muslims. But today, there was not one person present who would be able to inform us of the right direction of the Qibla. I ascertained the direction of the Qibla using a compass and we both offered our Zuhr prayers in congregation in a corner of the airport. These were the same lands, in which, at some point in history, every new born child learnt to profess faith in Allah’s SWT Oneness and in Prophethood and he grew up seeing the motions related to prayer; today, the onlookers found our actions so strange and alien that they were compelled to look at us in sheer astonishment. I have had the opportunity of offering my prayers at various places, including public places in America as well as Europe, but the lack of acquaintance that this action held in Spain was unparalleled.
In any case, suppressing the feelings of regret and remorse that stirred up in my heart, I offered my first prayer in the lands of Andalusia. Like other countries of the west, it was possible to rent a car without a chauffeur, so we rented out a Fiat car for two days. Personally, I was reluctant towards this idea because we were not acquainted with the directions here and neither were we versed with the local language; this could very well lead to some difficulties during the journey. But my intimate friend and travel companion mustered up the courage and took it upon himself to drive. We also obtained a map to guide us to Granada and with its help we embarked upon our journey to Granada.
Initially, we exerted ourselves to locate the road that would take us to Granada but soon enough, we found directions and sign boards in the internal road network of the Malaga city. These signs were located with such convenience and consistency that we were free from the need of asking anyone for directions. We kept following these directions till we exited the populous city of Malaga and were looking upon a clean and outstretched highway that would take us straight to Granada. As we rode along the highway, the buildings of the city lessened and on both sides of the highway emerged a series of lush green hills, on the foot and surrounding area of which, sprawled scores upon scores of olive plantations, as far as the eye could see. The sight that lay before us was an experiential proof of the descriptions of the natural beauty of the lands of Andalusia that we had at some point read in the books of history and literature.
These were the same lands of Andalusia which have seen the rise and fall of the Muslims over a history of some eight hundred years and the events of which, since my childhood, have become deep-rooted and embedded in my heart. My mind had sketched up countless visuals of these lands and now it seemed that the gorgeous valleys of my imaginary world were right before me and it felt that the events of eight hundred years of glorious history were playing like a motion-picture right before my eyes. The nation that for eight hundred years caused Allah’s SWT name to reverberate in these lands, under the shade of their swords and the strength of their awe-inspiring character, was now completely unconscious and engaged in such a deep slumber, that there remains no mark of their existence anymore.
Andalusia, which is called Spain* as well as Espania, is located in the south-western part of Europe. It shares borders in the north with France and in the west with Portugal and on its east and south flows the Mediterranean Sea which is also called the Roman Sea.
[*It is said that after the storm of Nuh AS the first people that settled on this land were called “Andalush”. The Arabs replaced the “sh” at the end of this word to “s” and therefore they coined the name Andalus for the whole area. After that, a Roman king by the name of “Eshban” reigned over this area and established a city by the name of “Ashbilia”. This city soon came to be known as “Eshbania” as a combination of the two names. Soon enough the whole country came to be known by this name and after further distortions the name Espania or Spain came about].
On the southern shores of Spain the Mediterranean Sea straitens into a narrow passage through which it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. This strait is popularly known as the Strait of Gibraltor. The other end of the strait marks the beginning of the continent of Africa, the western most country of which is Morocco.
I have already written about the conquests of Morocco at the hands of Uqbah ibn Nafay in my travel diaries of Algeria. Towards the end of the first century (according to the Hijri calendar) the Muslims had conquered the northern strip of Africa and reached the Atlantic Ocean. The underlying characteristic of the strength of the first Muslim nation (quroon oola) lay not in the ambition to conquer countries or to increase the domain of their reign but to free Allah’s slaves from the slavery of men and make them slaves of their actual Master and Lord Allah (Glory be to Him). This was their mission and therefore, whichever land opened up to the Muslims, justice and order was established there, peace and tranquility spread over the land. It was for this reason that the conquered nations did not hate, but, in fact, welcomed those who had conquered them whole heartedly and areas which had yet not come under Muslim rule longed for the Muslims to take over by overthrowing their current rulers that were subjecting them to a life of torture and injustice.
At this time, there was a Christian king who ruled over the lands of Spain; his name in the books of English history appears as Roderick and in Arabic traditions as “Lazreek”. On the shores of Morocco, at the fortress of Septum ruled Count Julian, who also was a Christian and he was regarded by Roderick as his under-king. Roderick was an oppressive ruler and of the many bad traits that he possessed, he was also known to keep the young children of his subjects under his wing under the pretense of ‘royal training” but in fact would exploit them to fulfill his lust. Thus, a young daughter of Count Julian was also receiving “royal training” in the court of Roderick and soon enough she became the target of his lustful desires as well. The victimized girl informed her father about the atrocities committed upon her and this quite obviously resulted in the creation of disgust and hatred in the heart of Julian for the king as well as his kingdom.
This was right about the time when the Muslims under the leadership of Musa ibn Nusair were in control of most of the lands of Northern Africa. Julian came forth with a delegation in the service of Musa ibn Nusair requesting him to attack Spain in order to free its people from the tyrannies that Rodrick was inflicting upon them. Acting upon this request, Musa ibn Nusair sought permission to proceed upon Andalusia from the Muslim Caliph Walid ibn Abdul Malik. The Caliph granted permission albeit advising them to proceed with utmost caution. Thus, Musa ibn Nusair began sending small expeditions from Tangiers to Andalusia in order to assess the situation and upon meeting with some success the decision was made to send a large army under the leadership of Tariq ibn Ziyad.
Tariq ibn Ziyad’s army stood at a count of seven thousand soldiers. Four large ships went back and forth between Tangiers and Andalusia for a number of days until the entire army was deployed at a place which has since been known as “Jabal al Tariq” meaning the “Mount of Tariq” or its Spanish derivation “Gibraltor”.
It is reported in a tradition that soon after boarding the ship, Tariq ibn Ziyad fell asleep and was blessed with a vision of the Prophet SAW in which he saw the Prophet SAW, the rightly guided caliphs and others from amongst his companions, armed with swords and arrows, miraculously walking on water, making their way towards the shores of Andalusia. When the Prophet SAW passed close to Tariq he SAW exclaimed “Tariq!! Move right on, move right on!!” After this, Tariq saw the Prophet SAW and his dear companions overtaking him and entering into Andalusia.
Upon waking from this blessed vision, Tariq’s ecstasy knew no limits. He had been given the glad tidings of the conquest of Andalusia in advance and when he shared his dream with his army, it furthered their resolve and determination.
It is famous that when Tariq’s whole army had been deployed on the shores of Andalusia he burnt down all the ships so that the army would have not have a third choice save victory or death. The renowned poet Iqbal has captured this incident in a section of his poetry:
When Tariq burnt his ships at the shore of Andalus
Critics deemed this to be an action lacking judgement
We are a people far from our homeland, how now will we go back? / reach our homeland?
To burn one’s bridges is against the spirit of our religion
Tariq smiled in response and gripping his sword remarked
Every land is our land, because every land is our Lord’s land
Tariq started his conquest from the shores of Gibraltor and made his way upto the shore lines of the green island without much resistance. After this however, Roderick appointed his famed military general Theodomir and sent him with a large army to repel and fight the Muslims. After facing continuous defeats in the skirmishes that followed, Theodomir’s resolve was finally broken and he wrote back to his king complaining of the determination of the Muslim army, not knowing whether they were a force descended straight from the heavens or one that had burst out from beneath the earth. Theodomir advised his king saying that there was no other option except that the king himself should lead an army in battle against them. Taking heed of his prized general’s advice Roderick succeeded in gathering together a magnificent and well-armed army of 70,000 and set out to face Tariq’s army.
On the other side, Musa ibn Nusair also reinforced Tariq with another 5000 soldiers which increased the count of the Muslim army to a solid 12,000. Most likely, this did not include the enforcements that were sent by Julian.
When the army met near the site of the river Lakka, Tariq addressed his army with such a powerful speech that it has since gone down in the books of Arabic history and literature as an epic and up till today his words are a proof of his bravery, determination, confidence and valor. An extract from his speech follows:
Oh my warriors, where would you flee? Behind you is the sea and before you, the enemy. Your only resort now is the hope of your courage and constancy….
Granada was abundantly gifted in terms of natural resources as well. Mines laden with gold, silver, lead and iron were part of the geology of the area; sulphur and silk were also produced here. The forests were home to a multitude of precious and nice-smelling woods. Allah (SWT) had blessed this region with a wealth of resources and for that very reason this area remained, for ages, the capital seat of the Muslims of Andalusia. In fact, when the Muslim rule in the rest of the provinces was in decline, Muslims from all over the country made this region their sanctuary and its population swelled to great numbers until it became the largest and most prosperous city of Andalusia. The standard of education in this area was such that its schools earned a worldwide reputation and even the royal Christian families of Europe considered it a prestige to receive their education and training here.
The Muslims not only ruled in these lands for over eight hundred years but also succeeded in surpassing all other civilizations in progress and development. However, when the abundance of wealth and worldly resources opened the doors to luxurious lifestyles, the Muslims became distracted from the affairs of their religion and the focus on the life hereafter became blurred and distant. With their real aim in life lost, all the progress in culture and education could not save them from their imminent decline and downfall. Such did they fall that Granada, which was once a city that inspired so much awe and reverence in the non-Muslim ambassadors who visited it, was handed over by Abu Abdullah to Isabelle and Ferdinand in exchange for his own life. And the streets of this great city saw the burning down of knowledge in the form of Arabic books for weeks upon weeks and the conversion of its grand Masjids to churches. All its Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity, its women’s honour was no longer protected, and with such severity were these measures taken that soon enough there was not even a single soul left who would proclaim to Allah’s (SWT) oneness all across these lands. In the Islamic tradition there probably has never been a more heartrending history than that of the rise and the fall of the Muslims in Andalusia.
Saeed Sahab and I stood in the balcony taking in the sight of the peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountain and the city that lay at its feet, the historical events of these lands playing on our minds and soon enough the sun set on this eventful day of ours.
We did not have the opportunity to have a proper lunch and, therefore, food was on our minds. We decided to search for halaal nourishment and as the restaurant in our hotel had still not opened up, we ventured into the city with the dual intention of finding suitable food in a nearby restaurant and an opportunity to have a short tour of this historic city. The area surrounding our hotel was a busy, lively and fashionable one and whichever restaurant we went to, was not ready to open shop before Eight in the night. We continued walking down the road our hotel was situated on, and soon enough we came across a signboard with “Al-Hambra” printed on it and an arrow pointing in its general direction. We adjusted our route in the direction of Al-Hambra and after a brief walk we saw another arrow pointing to the right towards a street. This street was comparatively a narrower one with a chain of shops and a network of even narrower streets branching out from either side of it; the style of construction was archaic, hinting at its ancient origins. Thus, it seemed that this area was from the older areas of Granada. We had some tea at a coffee shop here and proceeded on hoping to find a historical Andalusian monument that survived the test of time.
The place at which Jamia Qurtuba stands today was home to an idol worshipping temple back in the Roman era. When Christianity spread to Spain, the Christians demolished it in favour of a church which came to be known as ‘Vincent’. When the Muslims conquered Qurtuba, the same situation arose which came about at the time of the conquest of Damascus. Just as the church there had to be split into two parts, similarly the church in Qurtuba was also split into two portions under the Islamic terms and conditions that governed a takeover through peace treaty; one portion remained a church under normal operation and the other portion got converted to a Masjid. For quite some time after that the Masjid and the church were in operation side by side.
However, when Qurtuba was established as the capital of the Muslims and the population swelled to larger numbers, the Masjid portion could no longer accommodate the Muslim worshippers. So much so, that when Abdur Rahman Al Dakhil came into power and the expansion proposal of the Masjid was brought to him, it became apparent that this was not possible unless the church be absorbed into the domain of the Masjid. But due to the standing agreement with the Christians that half the portion was to remain a church, it was not allowed under Islamic law and tradition for the Muslims to proceed with such an action without getting full consent and approval from the Christians. Abdur Rahman Al Dakhil, therefore, called upon the leading Christian nobles and presented them with an offer to buy the church land from them at whatever price they demanded.
In the Christian religion it is permissible to sell a church and therefore there were no religious grounds for the Christians to refuse this offer. But the Christians did not agree to sell the church and negotiations continued for many days. Finally, they agreed to sell the church, and apart from asking a steep price, they settled on the condition that permission be given to them to re-erect the churches on the outskirts of the city which was previously demolished. Abdur Rahman Al Dakhil agreed to this condition and in this way the church portion also became part of the Masjid.
Acquiring an expansive piece of land, Abdur Rahman Al Dakhil, thus, embarked upon a fresh reconstruction of the Jamia Qurtuba. The blueprint of the Masjid was prepared by an architect from Damascus and it was indeed quite grand. To bring this project to completion was indeed a magnanimous task within the expected time frame, and as it happened Abdur Rahman Al Dakhil passed away in 172 A.H, only two years after initiating this project. After him, his son Hisham continued with the construction efforts and some six years later the project reached completion. The later Ummayad caliphs also kept up continuous expansions, so much so, that the Masjid came to stand at a final area of eight marhalas (one marhala is equivalent to 44 kilometers).
The interior of Jamia Qurtuba is distinguished the world over especially in terms of its beauty and vastness and it is probable that in the whole world even today, there is no enclosed Masjid area as vast as that of this Jamia. This whole expanse comprises rows upon rows of beautiful umbrellas, the roofs of which are dome-like and on both sides, rows of beautiful marble columns spread out as far as the eye can see. During the Muslim rule, the total number of these columns amounted to 1417 and the area of the Masjid was a grand 33,150 square cubits.
When the doors of the Masjid opened to the public, we entered inside, our hearts beating hard. The magnificent marble columns of this monumental historic Masjid, although now quite archaic, were still quite eye-catching and spread out as far as the eye could see. However, the great hall lay submersed in darkness and desertion. It is mentioned in some books of history that in the roof of this Masjid three hundred and sixty such openings were aligned such that the sun in its annual course would shine its rays through one of these every day. In the night time some two hundred and eighty chandeliers would be lit up, the lanterns in these would amount to seven thousand four hundred and twenty five. The annual consumption of oil used to light up the Masjid was about 251.25 qintaar or 314 mundhs. 3.5 mundhs of wax and 34.5 sair of cotton was used annually to manufacture candles for the lighting of the Masjid. Every Friday, about half a sair of Oudh and one fourth sair of Amber was also burned as incense in the Masjid. However, today this Masjid lay deserted and abandoned in the middle of the day, sparsely spaced out light bulbs shone but they were not enough to illuminate the Masjid. This physical darkness was a subtle allusion to the darkness of disbelief and polytheism that had enveloped the Masjid for the last few centuries.
Upon entering, we observed that the wall to our left was completely covered with Christian service rooms, which were full of statues. In the very center of the Masjid was inserted a massive main mass area of the Church, the dome-like roofs of the side-alleys were imprinted with Christian drawings. A massive stage was also laid out for the Church service and a whole lot of chairs were also placed before it.
It is quite evident from the modifications that the Christians have made in the Masjid, that there was no actual need for a church. Rather the aim was only to blur the Islamic heritage and spirit and to ensure that no part of this magnificent Masjid remained free from Christian elements, not considering how detrimental this would be for the beauty and integrity of the original building. Therefore, the Christians went at full length to display their religious prejudice and left no part of the Masjid untainted by their mark.
All that remained, sanctioned off from the rest of the church, was the Mihrab of the Masjid and space amounting to two or maybe three rows of prayer. Perhaps, the purpose of this was to leave behind a remembrance of the original Masjid. The top of this beautiful Mihrab was now covered with a layer of slime and it was almost as if the Mihrab was hiding its face out of shame of the sacrilege committed about and around it. Close to the Mihrab, was that Mimbar (pulpit) which had served as the podium of the orators of the likes of Qazi Munzir ibn Saeed and their fiery sermons and lectures. And this was certainly that part of the Masjid upon which the likes of Allama Qurtubi, Allama Ibn Rushd and Hafiz ibn Abdul Bar had offered their prayers. Despite the years of spiritual darkness that the Christians have enveloped this place in, one could not but sense the fragrance of the prayers and litanies of such pious and blessed souls of the past, but
Hidden in your dust are impressions of heads that bowed (before Allah)
Silent echoes (still) reverberate in your breeze at dawn!
It was now the time for Asar prayer and upon leaving the hotel we had made the intention that we would offer our Asar prayer in the Jamia Qurtuba. We were given prior knowledge that arrangements for prayer had now been made in Jamia Qurtuba but this was definitely not the case and there seemed to be no open arrangements made in this regard. I can’t seem to remember who it was that I had heard such a baseless statement from. On the other hand, there seemed to be no restrictions if a couple of tourists here and there would choose to offer their prayers and thus my dear and intimate friend, Saeed Sahab, made the call to prayer (Azan). There seemed to be no other person who responded to the passionate “Come to prayer” (Hayya ‘alas-Salah) pronouncement and therefore we offered our prayers in congregation near the Mihrab as a lone pair. Upon placing our foreheads on the floor of this Masjid, we felt that we were instantly transported back eight centuries from the current day and age to the time where the air was fragrant with Allah’s remembrance, praise and glory and the radiance of His oneness permeated everything. Furthermore, the meaning of “Sanctified is the Lord, most High” (Subhana Rabbi ul Aala) became more evident here. The glory and sanctity of my Lord is purer and higher than the rise and fall that afflicts everything and everyone else, it is not temporal and alternating like the sun and the shade. He was the most High even when the floor of the Masjid was overflowing with prostrating foreheads and He is the most high even when there was not a foot which moved towards the Mihrab upon hearing the call to prayer. Whether there are millions that take His name or such few that they can be counted on one’s fingertips, or there are those who embrace His religion wholeheartedly and by its strength and virtue rule over the world, or there are those who discard it and thus become a defeated nation through this action of theirs, the Glory of His oneness and transcendence remains unaffected.
Sword and spear first, lyre and lute at last
Except for at this Mihrab, nowhere in the vast expanse of this Masjid could the sight and heart find peace and tranquillity. All the other parts of the Masjid were tainted with Christian elements and modifications and upon laying our eyes on them our hearts and spirit could not help but be devastated. We stayed for a while about and around the Mihrab and then most wistfully roamed around the pillars of the Masjid, the shade of which had once been home to the gatherings of remembrance, contemplation and knowledge, where humanity was imbued with moral values and ethics, where the light of knowledge and morality shone forth from and where humanity was crowned with the jewels of excellence (fazeelat) and god-consciousness (taqwa). Surely, these pillars would have missed these gatherings of eminence and excellence, and their complaint and call to the Muslims to wake up from their slumber and evoke their sense of honour could definitely be seen here, if not heard with one’s ears.
At the present time, we were the only two Muslims in the Masjid, and both of us were speechless. After a while Saeed Sahib, who had seemed to be deeply affected by the surroundings, broke the silence saying to me:
“Taqi Sahib! Let us proceed from here quickly, I find myself suffocating here!”
Most definitely, this suffocation was not due to lack of sufficient lighting or open space and neither did me or Saeed Sahib had a cure for this suffocation. We slowly proceeded towards the exit of the Masjid not knowing that one final blow in the severely wounded heart of ours was yet to be struck. Towards the inner side of the exit of the Masjid stood a musician with a dichord (two stringed musical instrument) and harmonica, who until now had been setting himself up and just as we drew close to him he let the music explode. My heart cried out, “O Allah, let me never again visit a Masjid in such a helpless and desperate state as this!”
I have seen many a historical site in my life, many of which have been places of learning and lesson, but the kind of wistful affect that I felt upon seeing Jamia Qurtuba, I have never felt at any other historical monument before. And it was at this point that I realised the state of distress under which the poet Iqbal recited his long poem on the Jamia Qurtuba:
Here was the hustle of those Bedouins
Whose ships sported in the (vastness) of seas
Whose (presence) shook the palaces of kings
Whose swords were (like) thunderbolts
Madinatul Zahra lies some eight miles away from Qurtuba, therefore our journey took us through the various streets and localities of Qurtuba. Today, Qurtuba boasts of a completely modern infrastructure, all its older buildings have been torn down in favour of newer ones and therefore except for Jamia Qurtuba and a few surrounding remains no remembrance of it’s Muslim heritage remains. On the other hand however, the names of a lot of the streets and localities could be traced back to their Arabic roots. After a while, the taxi had made its exit from the city and started traversing through open fields of expansive greenery and vegetation. Finally, we came upon a board labelled “Madinatul Zahra” pointing towards the right and following the sign the car swerved towards the right and exited the main road. Now we proceeded along this new road, parallel to a boundary wall of ancient construction. This was the boundary wall of the city of Madinatul Zahra. After another kilometre, the expansive fields came to an end and the road curved to the left and began ascending up a grassy mountain. Half way up the mountain the driver stopped the taxi and told us that this was the entry point into Madinatul Zahra. We got off the taxi, towards the east side of the street was the mountain and towards its west stretched out an expansive valley in which we could see the archaeological remains of Madinatul Zahra.
Madinatul Zahra was a small royal city which was built as a residence for the Caliphs of Qurtuba and their relatives and close ones. The construction of this city was undertaken by Caliph Abdur Rahman An Nasir in 325 A.H. The story that forms the precursor for the establishment of this city is popularly narrated as follows. A slave girl of Abdur Rahman left behind a huge inheritance upon her death. The Caliph gave instructions that this wealth should be spent upon setting free those Muslim prisoners who were in Christian custody. Upon investigation it was found that very few Muslim prisoners were under Christian custody and even after spending on their freedom a major part of the inheritance was left over. On this occasion, the first lady, wife of of Caliph Abdur Rahman, Zahra, expressed her wish that a magnificent city in her name be established. It was in the fulfillment of this wish that Caliph Abdur Rahman undertook the establishment of Madinatul Zahra (literally City of Zahra).
The major part of the construction of Madinatul Zahra was completed in 25 years under the rule of Caliph Abdur Rahman An Nasir. However, quite a few of its buildings were also built in the time of the Caliph al Hakm II. The city stretched a distance of 2700 arm-lengths east to west 1700 arm-lengths from north to south.
Madinatul Zahra constituted of royal palaces, courts, ceremonial reception halls, a Jamia Masjid and the aristocratic residences of the relatives of the royal family and was considered as one of the most magnificent cities of its time.
Standing on what was most likely the famous mountain Jabal al-Arus, about which legend has it that when the city’s construction was complete and the Queen Zahra came with her husband Caliph Abdur Rahman III to inspect it, she greatly appreciated the construction but when her eyes fell upon a dark ugly mountain she remarked, “Will this beautiful concubine rest in the lap of this black man?” Upon hearing this Caliph Al Nasir ordered for these distasteful trees to be removed and replaced by orchards of fruit and nut bearing trees. The mountain thus became beautiful like an adorned bride and it was for this reason that this mountain was thus named Jabal al-Arus (literally the mountain of the bride).
In terms of its beauty, grandeur and sublimity the royal palace of Madiantul Zahra had no comparison the world over. Diplomatic delegations of countries in Asia and Europe would at times visit only to see the beauty of the palace. One of the palace’s chambers was called “Kasr al Khulafa” (literally Castle of the Caliphs, in some reports Throne Hall), its ceilings and walls were crafted with gold and clear marble. In the center of this chamber, a wonderful jewel was suspended from the ceiling; this was the same jewel that the King of Constantinople Louis had sent as a gift to Caliph Al Nasir. In the dead center of this chamber was a beautiful pool which was always filled with mercury. In each section of this chamber there were eight arch-shaped entrances. The arches constructed of ivory and ebony were supported on columns that were colourful and had a crystal motif type of finish. Furthermore, the arches were embellished with awe inspiring and intricate gold work and studded precious stones. When sunlight penetrated into this chamber, the walls and ceilings of this chamber illuminated so brightly that it would dazzle any courtiers present. When Caliph al Nasir was in this room and wanted to awe inspire his attendees he would signal to his servant to shake the mercury in the pool. When the mercury would move it would cause the sunlight to reflect dancing all over the room and encompass the whole room in its crazy circulation. Some foreign delegates, who were not aware of the optical secret of this chamber, would shiver out of awe at being exposed to it.
Madiantul Zahra was thus home to many a wonderful and fascinating wonders. Artificial lakes and water bodies were also constructed here and reserves were also made to house animals in settings closest to their natural habitats. The present day concept of “Game reserves” was also thus conceived from Madinatul Zahra.
On the surface of it, the era in which Madinatul Zahra was established was that of Muslim prosperity and the peak of its strength in Andalusia, the world’s super powers would shudder upon seeing this “heaven on earth”. However, if one sees with the inner eye, then one can come to the conclusion that it was the adoption of such luxurious lifestyles that was the actual reason and start of the Muslim decline in Andalusia. The establishment of such luxurious hubs was what robbed the Muslims slowly and steadily off the inherent qualities of abstinence, valour and their down to earth life styles that had given them strength traditionally.
The question that comes to mind then is that what did the conscientious scholars of the time do to fulfill their obligations in bringing about the attention of the Caliph to the deviation of the Muslim leadership from their traditional values? Many interesting accounts of these can also be found in history. At this time, the preacher and the Imam of the royal Masjid was Qazi Munzir ibn Saeed. His articulate and eloquent sermons are considered as a treasure of the Arabic literature of Andalusia. When Caliph Al Nasir would offer his prayers behind the Imam, the Imam left no stone unturned in openly bashing the foolishness of love for this world and the futility of spending frivolously on its luxuries and comforts.
The chamber (mentioned above), the ceiling of which was crafted and decorated with gold and marble was the venue of another of these events. Once Caliph Al Nasir was seated in this chamber and was saying to his courtiers “Has any of the kings of the whole world ever in known history been able to accomplish what I have in the construction of this chamber?” The courts of the kings have always been resplendent with bootlicking courtiers and so in response to the Caliphs question they went to extremes in praise and support of the Caliph’s claim. At this instance, Qadi Munzir ibn Saeed entered the court. Caliph Al Nasir once again re iterated his praiseworthy accomplishment to the Qazi pointing out particularly the use of gold-work in the ceiling. At this Qazi Munzir remarked; “O Commander of the Faithful! Allah Most High has with His grace bestowed upon you great bounties but I did not think that you would discard such blessings in favour of that with which Allah has connected with the disbelievers?” Caliph Al Nasir asked, “How is that?”
In response to the Caliph, Qazi Munzir recited the following verses of the Quran:
Were it not that all people would become of a single creed (i.e. disbelief), We would have caused, for those who disbelieve in Rahman, roofs of their houses to be made of silver, and the stairs as well, on which they would climb,and doors of their homes, and the coaches on which they would recline and (would have made some of these things) of gold-ornaments. And all this is nothing but an enjoyment of the worldly life. And the Hereafter, with your Lord, is (destined) for the God-fearing. (Al Zukhruf 33-35)
Caliph Al Nasir lowered his head in dismay and embarrassment at hearing these verses and Qazi Munzir continued his counsel to the Caliph in a most effective manner till tears started flowing from the eyes of the Caliph. Later, he also had the gold and silver decorations removed from the ceiling of the chamber.
It was Qazi Munzir ibn Saeed who recited the following verses about Madinatul Zahra and recited them to the Caliph as well:
O founder of Zahra!
You who spends all his time!
Drowned in this city of thine
Have you never pondered, never reflected
What wonder, what beauty this Zahra would be
Had it only been one that didn’t wither away in the days to be
It seems as if Qadi Munzir was seeing the grim fate of this luxurious abode before his very eyes. This magnificent city, the establishment of which took some fourty years, was only able to boast its beauty for a mere thirty five years after that. The year 398 A.H saw the country in a state of civil strife. And during this civil war, the city of Madinatul Zahra was so badly sacked that its’ entire beauty and splendor was almost instantaneously reduced to a pile of dust. In 435 A.H, a minister of Andalusia by the name of Abul Hazm was passing by the venue of the once magnificent and royal abode of the Caliphs and princes and all he could see now was wild jungles where the birds and animals resided. Upon seeing these thought provoking state of affairs he was compelled to compose these famous verses;
Addressed I, the dwelling of those who had perished
Where are our loved ones who with you lodged?
Replied it saying, they tarried here but a short while
Then they set forth and of their whereabouts I know not
We were standing half way up the mountain of Jabal al Arus, and in front of us we could see the office of the Department of Archaeological findings. Behind this office, stretching across the slopes of the valley lay the archaeological site of the once magnificent Madiant ul Zahra.
Until the year 1910, there remained no trace of Madinatul Zahra here, but in that year expert archaeologists uncovered such traces at the foot of this mountain which served as a stepping stone to conduct a major excavation project. And in this way they were able to start uncovering remains of this magnificent city. This archaeological work is still under way up to this day and 80 years later a lot of the areas of this city have been recovered. We explored within the archaeological site, taking heed and lesson and at times being at a loss as to what was the original shape and form of what we were looking at. During this excavation project, only one chamber of the royal palace has been recovered close to its original form and this chamber is known as Majlis Moonis (translators note: currently called Salon Rico). The Spanish government has embarked upon trying to restore this hall back to its original state; broken and scattered pieces and sections of the arches, ceilings and floorings are being recovered during the excavation and these are being fit together painstaking precision back to where they initially belong. The result of this is that the Majlis Moonis, to a large extent, has started resembling its original form.
Outside this chamber, is a veranda, and standing in it one is able to look across the valley on all the archaeological remains and beyond them at all the greenery that spreads as far as the eye can venture. And one cannot help but appreciate the tasteful selection of this venue, in terms of the atmosphere, climate and natural scenic beauty for the establishment of a grand city like Madinatul Zahra. Standing here, I recalled a saying of an Andalusian poet in praise of his country. When the ruler of the time had banished him from Andalusia, he composed a passionate appeal for the ruler to reconsider his decision and after which the ruler took back his command. The poet started his appeal with these words:
My fair sir! How may one be expected to part ways with Andalusia? When verily it is heaven on earth, with its shining horizons, expansive vast plains, merry winds, dancing rivers and sweet-chirping birds…
Indeed, the view that lay before my eyes at the present moment were a testament to the truth of the praises sung by the poet many a year ago.
The excavation of Madinatul Zahra is still ongoing with all meticulousness and professionalism. The area that has been uncovered is quite expansive and a lot of time is required to explore the whole site. As the time for Magrib was close at hand, we were only able to explore the remains and findings for a while, before deciding to proceed back to our hotel.
At nightfall, after having performed Isha and partaken of our dinner, we ventured out for a walk. The weather was pleasantly chilly and amidst the spacious streets of Qurtuba and its beautiful buildings, our expedition turned out to be quite enjoyable. As was in the case in Granada, the central part of the city bore no remembrance of its historical heritage. It was quite evident that the city was a well planned newly built one, with all the facilities and features of a modern European city.
The night was of Sunday eve and from the amount of hustle and bustle and activity on the streets it seemed that there was some festival being celebrated in the city. It was almost as if all the residents of the city were out and about. And suddenly a question occurred to me, and I wondered how many of these people traced their origins back to the Arabs and that their forefathers were once Muslims. After the Christian takeover of these lands, thousands of Muslims were forced into disbelief and they were completely absorbed into the Christian society. And that is why, amongst the present day Spanish people there are definitely many if not all who are of Muslim origin. It is true that their existence is now devoid of any Islamic values however some of their intrinsic habits and qualities bear testimony to the days of old. It has been centuries since the fall of the Muslims in these lands and the tides of history have changed the world over but some inherent qualities in these people still allude to their past and where they came from.
First of all, the built and complexion of the Spanish people is considerably different from people hailing from other European countries. Their fair complexions are blended with wheat tones and their sharp-looking faces allude to their Arab origin. The intrinsic qualities of light heartedness, humbleness and sense of humour also differ from Europeans hailing from other areas. When meeting and greeting one another the cordiality and warm heartedness they exhibit is very similar to the Arabic tradition. In fact, the first word that comes to their lips upon meeting another is “Ola” and most likely this is the distorted form of the Arabic “Ahlan”.
Similarly, the Spanish tradition of hugging and kissing upon meeting a friend is another Arabic quality. Another thing which I have not noticed in other Europeans is the habit of washing one’s hands before and after eating; this is present in the Spanish and even in classier hotels there are systems in place to accommodate this habit. And this is one of remains of Islamic culture that once blessed the expanses of these lands.
My friend and travel companion Saeed Sahib was so deeply moved by the alternating fortunes of the past and present state of Andalusia that at one point of our journey he was compelled to ask if the Muslims would ever again be able to illuminate these lands with the light of Islam.
I replied to him saying; “It is sufficient at this point in time that the Muslims take stock of the situation in their lands so that the history of Andalusia is prevented from being repeated there.” The causes of the Muslim success in Andalusia are also quite evident as are the causes for their downfall.
Sword and spear first, lyre and lute at last
Now it is up to us which of these routes we choose to take.