Do you ever stop to think how your everyday life has been shaped by people from the past? Well, if you play the guitar, brush your teeth, or eat dessert after a meal, you owe a debt of gratitude to a Muslim musician who lived twelve hundred years ago.
Abul-Hasan, a commoner born in Baghdad around 789 A.D., had a gift for song that so pleased the ruling caliph he gave him the name “Ziryab,” meaning “Blackbird." Ziryab’s natural musical talent made other musicians jealous, however. So, when the caliph died in 813, they exiled the "Blackbird," sending him to wander the Islamic world for a decade. He performed wherever he went and picked up customs from the people he met.
Ziryab eventually found his way to Al-Andalus (today’s Andalusia, Spain). Its ruler loved music. In fact, he valued musicians above all other professionals. He welcomed the refugee. He offered him asylum. Ziryab was an instant sensation. He introduced his instrument, the Baghdadi oud, to his new neighbors. Then, adding an extra string to his oud, he ignited the evolution of the Spanish guitar.
He established the first-ever music conservatory in Córdoba, which gave rise to the genre of Andalusian classical music--musiqa al-ala—that is still a popular in Morocco today.
But Ziryab's influence didn't stop with music. He transformed Córdoban society as well. He taught locals how to make deodorant and toothpaste. He instructed women in how to shape eyebrows, cut their hair into bangs, remove unwanted body hair. He inspired men to shorten their hair, as well, and to shave daily. And instead of piling his food onto platters, as was then the custom, Ziryab ate his meals atop a clean tablecloth and in three distinct courses: a soup, a main dish, and a dessert.
So each time you sit down to a three-course dinner, strum your six-string guitar, brush your teeth, or tidy your hair, you are following in the footsteps of a Muslim musician who lived 1,200 years ago.
In music, Ziryab was the first to introduce the lute (Al-U'd) to Spain and Europe in general. He is credited with the addition of the fifth bass string to it which later paved the way for the development of the guitar. He also established the first conservatory in the world that included the teaching of harmony and composition.
Sarah Towle is an award-winning digital storyteller of immersive tales for educational tourism. With her latest project for secondary school students—the History Hero BLAST—she puts the Story back in History, bringing a fictional flair to factual tales of inspirational figures from around the world and throughout time. A blog and future podcast, the HHBLAST welcomes the participation of published and aspiring authors, including young writers. Click here to find out more Ziryab and other History Heroes and about how to bring the HHBLAST—and Sarah—to your school!
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