A lifetime before Instagram, Twitter and technology as a whole, climbing the ladder and being recognised for talent was just a tad more difficult than it is today. Let’s just say resources were ever so slightly limited in comparison to 2017.

Ancient people had very little exposure to people and cultures other than their own and the only way to every experience such variety was through travel and communication. Before the selfies, the hashtags and likes, trendsetting and becoming a household name was a job in itself and a rarity. But Ziryab was one such rarity.

Rise to Fame:

Born Abul Hasan Ali ibn Nafi, he became known as Ziryab meaning the ‘Blackbird’ because of his melodious voice and dark complexion. Truly a man of many talents, he absorbed various cultures and trends, making them all the rage in medieval Spain at a time when the majority of Europe remained in the Dark Ages.

Ziryab was born in present-day Iraq which was the seat of the Abbasid empire at the time, he was taken with music and poetry from an early age. He became a polymath who had a command of a plethora of subjects such as astronomy, botany, geography, meteorology, music, cultural entertainment, cookery and fashion.

An oil painting of an imagined Ziryab, surrounded by his first love: instruments.

It’s safe to say that there was little he didn’t know or couldn’t do. Can anyone else feel their self-esteem declining?

However, he grew up during a tumultuous time in the history of Islam as the Umayyad dynasty was being overthrown by the Abbasid opposition in 750 which, in turn, led to a political turmoil that manifested itself mainly in Baghdad. Ziryab spent his early years in northern Iraq before moving to the Abbasid capital in pursuit of knowledge and employment.

He perfected and polished his talents in music, poetry and cultural talents under the teaching of Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Mawsili who took him closer to the city’s elite inner circle of the Caliph’s (Harun al-Rashid) advisers, supporters and entertainers. As a young man, his remarkable talents and musical abilities made him a fan-favourite amongst many, including the Caliph himself – how’s that for getting in good with the boss?

Political Upheaval:

After the unfortunate death of Harun al-Rashid in 809, his son Muhammad became the new Caliph, however Baghdad was no longer as colourful, cultural or characterful. Its light and vibrancy had dimmed in the midst of familial disputes regarding the heir to the throne and as a result, Baghdad and its surrounding cities became a battleground in which there was loss of life and livelihood.

When Muhammad was put to death by his opposition, there was shift in the paradigm where Abdullah (the new Caliph) and his supporters favoured more literary and scholarly endeavours as opposed to musical and cultural activities.

Rivalry and Migration:

Ziryab found his status within the Caliphal court declining and began to look for new opportunities elsewhere. As if political tension and changes at work weren’t enough, Ziryab found himself to be involved in a rivalry with his teacher Ishaq al-Mawsili. According to other scholars, al-Mawsili became jealous that Ziryab was thought to be naturally more talented than his tutor.

Accusing him of hiding his real abilities from him, al-Mawsili presented Ziryab with an ultimatum: leave Baghdad or be removed from the cultural scene entirely. All good things must come to an end and so, Ziryab left. Ultimately, he ended up in Cordoba, the seat of the Umayyad dynasty in Spain.

To New Beginnings:

At the time, Arabs referred to the Iberian Peninsula as Andalus (land of the Vandals). Muslims appeared during the early eighth century and took over from the Vandals and began ruling Andalus (southern Spain).

Under Umayyad rulers, it became a prime location for Islamic learning, culture and arts, much like Baghdad under the rule of Harun al-Rashid. Ziryab was made ‘Minister for Culture’ –talk about being promoted! – by the Caliph at the time, Abd al-Rahman II.

With al-Rahman’s support, Ziryab went on establish the first music schools in Cordoba where he trained both males and females in all things art and culture. The ‘Blackbird’ became a pioneering cultural figure started all kinds of trends in music, food, fashion and entertainment.

Taking flight: A blackbird symbolising Ziryab with his iconic lute.

He added a fifth string to the lute, introduced taking baths in the mornings and evenings, developed the idea of a three-course meal (you can thank him for bringing dessert into your life!) and even introduced different styles of dress not only according to season, but also different times of the day. The styles, meals, techniques and music we consider a norm today and often take for granted all began with an ambitious and talented Ziryab.


Ziryab remained in Cordoba with his family until he passed away at age 67. Cordoba’s glory as a breeding ground for culture, art and talent lasted for centuries and made it a place of wonder which others flocked to, to study, explore and exchange ideas. Ziryab’s contributions and accomplishments transformed Muslim Spain into a place of vibrancy, excitement and ever-growing potential.

Ziryab is nothing short of an inspiration and legend. An iconic figure who revolutionised the things we take for granted today, he came from virtually nothing to being incredibly wealthy and influential. The ultimate success story, Ziryab teaches the timeless tale that determination, loyalty and the pursuit of knowledge help us to achieve remarkable things.

Find out more by reading “Great Muslims of the West”, by Muhammad Mojlum Khan.

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