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Why have we Forgotten Ziryab?

Ziryab Playing Lyre a picture representing The Heart and Soul of Ziryabs Products

A young lady wrote asking me; “Why have we forgotten Ziryab?” She was doing a report on Ziryab’s importance. She writes: “I have found through my search for information that he is not as well remembered in Western history as he possibly should be.  If you don’t mind, I would ask your opinion on two topics of importance:

  1. Why have we forgotten Ziryab in modern history?
  2. Why should we remember Ziryab?

I was so pleased that she was interested in Ziryab that I wrote her a much too long response that I thought I’d share. 

Why Forgotten Ziryab

Dear Allison,

I named my company in honor of Ziryab. He was not only a great singer and vocalist but also invented deodorant, toothpaste and many other things. Ziryab’s background is inspiring to me. It’s an honor to recognize a person who contributed so much to the Golden Age of Islam.  The truth is that Islamic culture influenced a lot of my own culture in areas of science, math, astronomy and the arts.

You ask me why I think Ziryab has been forgotten.  I am not sure he has been forgotten in other parts of the world but he is certainly unknown here in North American. While I am not a scholar of history, I think it is a great question and can tell us a lot about who we are as a culture.

I think we’ve forgotten Ziryab in the States because – until recently – we were mainly interested in Christian and white european history. Our historians:

  1. Haven’t considered Islamic culture as relevant or important to American (European) culture.
  2. Have been biased against Islam because of territory, religion and culture. These biases influenced all record keeping and therefore continues to influence modern historical perspective.

I’d like to think that most modern historians do not purposefully ignore or dismiss the importance of people like Ziryab just because he was Islamic or had a dark complexion, rather I think it is about relevancy. We just don’t see other cultures as important as our own. We don’t spend time studying the very sophisticated cultures of Asia enough either. Certainly, Islamic rule has had a much larger impact on our culture than many past scholars have wanted to acknowledge.

Historians Change Histroy

There is a concept that: history changes with the historian.  Francis Flavin, Ph.D. writes how history is dependent on the interpreter:

” The past itself does not change, but the way that people interpret it does. The elements of history that are emphasized or downplayed, and the value judgments assigned to them, all change—reflecting the writer’s own personal and cultural biases.” (https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/resedu/native_americans.pdf)

It is interesting that we have forgotten (or ignored) Ziryab. What does it say about us? There’s a man named Michael Conway who wrote a good article in the magazine The Atlantic who think your question  is actually the best question you could ask. He says we should stop teaching students history as if it is a series of facts but rather as stories and interpretations that say more about who is doing the telling that what actually happened.
(https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/03/the-problem-with-history-classes/387823/)

Around the late 1400’s, Christians fully conquered Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella systematically expelled Muslims who refused to convert to Catholicism. They also began the Spanish inquisition that effectively wiped out the Muslim and Jewish populations.

My guess, although I would need to research it more, is that the Church’s desire to wipe out the Muslim and Jewish faiths in Spain included a desire to wipe out the influence and history of Muslims and Jews as well.

Have we Forgotten Ziryab on Purpose?

When researching this I came across an article that suggests this is actually still going on. Some people may have such an anti-Muslim bias that they adamantly refuse to recognize (Muslim) Arabic influence in Spain despite the evidence to the contrary. This of course would impact their willingness to acknowledge our friend Ziryab’s influence.

In fact, according to an article a reference below, the Catholic church in Spain recently (2014) renamed a famous mosque in Cordoba Spain as a “Cathedral” dropping any reference to its Muslim past. The former mosque does not allow muslims to pray there.
https://www.worldcrunch.com/culture-society/the-catholic-church-rewrites-history-and-angers-muslims-in-spain

There’s a lot of articles about modern refusal to recognize or include Muslim influence on our history. Many are from an Arabic perspective and therefore also might be as biased as from a Eurocentric perspective.

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/akbar-ahmed/andalusia-muslims-non-muslims-living_b_7088320.htmlhttp://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/erasing-arabs-arab-history-171566417http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/spains-islamic-legacyhttp://islamichistory.org/islam-in-spain/

So, I think it is likely that we may have forgotten Ziryab because of a long held American/European/Christian discomfort with all things Islamic/Muslim/Arabic. A paper like yours can help combat these deep seated biases.

Seek out Other Cultures to Celebrate

If we hope to find peace among people of different religions and cultures, we need to recognize, honor and celebrate their contributions. Recognizing people outside our own Eurocentric perspective is more relevant today than ever because:

  • Our culture is much more diverse than it was
  • There is a lot of discussion (and negative judgment) about modern Muslims we need to address. I strongly believe that an appreciation of the positive aspects of the Islamic culture will be very helpful.
  • Ancient Muslim culture probably influenced us a great deal (although I don’t claim to understand how much). Exploring Islamic/Christian relationship history gives us an important perspective. That Christian historians likely actively erased evidence of Muslim influence tells us a lot about ourselves.

Remembering Ziryab Brings Us Together

Ziryab’s story strikes me as a excellent opportunity to gently nudge us out of our Eurocentric perspective. This can’t help but open our minds and improve our relations with others. At least this is my hope.
Good luck with your paper and I hope I have been some help.

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