A bestselling book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, tells how remote Irish monks, notably the ninth-century Irishman Erigena, kept the lamp of learning lit during the Dark Ages in Europe. But when will we see the book, “How The Arabs Saved Civilization”, which also deserves to be written?
Long ago, in the hinterlands of Syria, there had lain a mysterious abandoned city. After the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, there was no obvious successor to his leadership. Ali, husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, was assassinated in 661 A.D. The Umayyad family gained power and moved the Islamic capital from Medina to Damascus. The Umayyad family built a vacation home where had been the mysterious abandoned city. They called the place Rusafa.
In 750 A.D., almost the entire Umayyad family were massacred by the Abbasids, who took control and moved the Islamic capital to Baghdad. The new city which arose on the banks of the Tigris River was built in a circle, perfectly concentric, and marvelous to behold.
Abd ar-Rahman, who managed to escape the Abbasid assassins, was the surviving heir of the Umayyads. He, along with his brother Yahiya, his four-year old son Sulayman, and some of his sisters, as well as his former Greek slave (a freedman), Bedr, fled south from Damascus following the Euphrates River. They were hotly pursued by Abbasid killers on horseback. To confound their pursuers, the family parted ways, with Abd ar-Rahman, his brother Yahiya, and Bedr continuing on separately.
But the Abbasid horsemen again caught up with Abd ar-Rahman, Yahiya, and Bedr. In desperation, the trio jumped into the Euphrates River and tried swimming to the other side. Yahiya became afraid of drowning and began to swim back. The horsemen called out, “Yes, swim back. We shall not harm you.” Abd ar-Rahman is said to have called out to Yahira not to trust their promises. When Yahira staggered onto dry land, the horsemen immediately beheaded him and left his body to rot.
After barely escaping Syria with their lives, Abd ar-Rahman and Bedr continued south through Palestine, the Sinai, and then into Egypt. They kept a low profile since they were wanted men, and potential assassins were everywhere.
In 755 Abd ar-Rahman and Bedr reached modern day Morocco, in the northwest of Africa. From there they crossed the straits of Gibraltar and arrived in al-Andalus, what is today southern Spain. The two were uncertain whether Abd ar-Rahman would be welcomed or not in that far-flung province of the Islamic empire. But still-loyal Umayyad followers supported ar-Rahman, and waves of people made their way to his presence to pay respect to the prince they had thought was dead. News of the prince’s arrival spread like wildfire throughout the peninsula. After several battles, Abd ar-Rahman triumphantly marched into the capital, Córdoba.
In his old age, fondly remembering the old family vacation home of Rusafa in Syria, Abd ar-Rahman decided to build his own Rusafa. Just outside Córdoba, the new Rusafa was graced with a botanical garden, where ar-Rahman thought back on his life. The former Rusafa, where the Umayyads had been found and murdered by the Abbasids, was reborn in al-Andalus.
Abd ar-Rahman’s al-Andalus from its very beginning was tolerant of Jews and Christians and the cultures coexisted mostly in peace, although non-Islamites were required to pay a special tax. Al-Andalus under ar-Rahman and his descendants was a shining light of civilization in an otherwise mostly dark age Europe.
Under the rulership of Abd ar-Rahman III (912 – 961 A.D.), the Iberian peninsula (now Spain and Portugal) had plausibly become the center of world Islam. Throughout Europe there began to be a rebellion against the Latin language in favor of “vernacular languages.” For example, in what would become Spain, the mixture of Arabic, Hebrew, and local Christian dialect (Mozarabic) began to form a new, hybrid language, Castilian. The poetry of al-Andalus became transformed, and newly-invented musical instruments began to accompany the singing of poems.
After the death of Abd ar-Rahman III, the Caliphate of al-Andalus gradually declined. It is considered to have formally died, “beyond resuscitation,” in 1031 A.D. In 1064, Norman troops laid siege to Barbastro, a commercial center at a crossroads leading to Saragossa. Hauled back across the Pyrenees were as many as 5,000 qiyan, gifted women trained in singing and highly valued in the Andalusian courts. These women sang “ring songs,” an evolution from the old “hanging odes” of Mecca. Unlike the staid poetry of the past, these songs were meant to be sung along with, and even danced to. Something new, stanzas, were contained, which were then “ringed” with a simple refrain.
In Provence, which had intimate ties with northern Spain and al-Andalus, the “heresy” of the Cathars provoked the Albigensian Crusade. This was the same region, the Languedoc, where the transformed poetry of al-Andalus, accompanied by various new musical instruments, began to be sung by the troubadours. This revolution in poetry affected all of Europe.
Even as the overall Caliphate fell apart, various city-states in the old kingdom of al-Andalus held on. Notable among these was Toledo, once the center of Visigoth power. Toledo, after the fall of the Caliphate, was a refuge of tolerance for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. After 1085 A.D., Toledo became “the radiant intellectual capital of Europe, a Christian city where Arabic remained a language of culture and learning.” The vast libraries of the Umayyads enabled Toledo to become the “School of Translators” and Latin Christendom began to be inundated with philosophic and scientific books, previously translated from Greek into Arabic, and in Toledo translated from Arabic into Latin. Robert of Ketton completed a Latin translation of the al-jabara, today known as Algebra.
Moses de Leon wandered the highways of Castile, selling copies he said he had made from an ancient book, the Zohar, written by one Simeon ben Yohai in the second century. Moses called the purported copy of the writings of ben Yohai, The Book of Splendor, Sefer ha-zohar. De Leon’s book was of the tradition of Kabbalah, secret wisdom handed down orally to the initiated. In The Book of Splendor, the oral tradition had been at last written down. The mystical tradition had thrived in the Provençal region of southern France and northern Spain, the land of the descendants of the qiyan singers, where now a new vernacular language had arisen, the langue d’oc. This land, known as Languedoc, besides breeding Kabbalists had bred Cathars: the pure ones.
In 1605, a man wandered the streets of Toledo. He searched for a rumored manuscript in the city which once had seen a fever of translation and scholarship. By now though, a fear clutched at the souls of the Toledans: spies for the Holy Inquisition might be anywhere and anyone. Books were being burnt and the old Arabic documents now had little value, except to be converted into rags and sold. The man noticed these rag sellers and took a chance on purchasing an old document written in a language he did not understand. He next found an aged Moor who agreed to decipher the text for the man. Translating from the Arabic into Castilian, it was realized this was in fact the rumored manuscript the man had sought, written by one Cide Hamete Benengeli, Arabic historian. And thus was the history of Don Quixote rescued from oblivion. Or at least that is how the story by the man, Miguel de Cervantes, begins. His book is the stepchild of true history: By 1605, the Arabic books were rags peddled in the Jewish quarter of Toledo, where no Jews (except conversos) were allowed to live.  
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 Acknowledgement to María Rosa Menocal and her book, The Ornament of the World, for the Toledo anecdote about the origins of the book, Don Quixote. Menocal’s book provides good overall information about the great Arab civilization in Spain.
 The above blog entry is an excerpt from my book, Melchizedek Communique (http://tinyurl.com/ncqyxae), available as an e-book from Lulu.com. Sources for the above excerpt are included in my book.