The Scholars of Seville – Artists, Architecture and Government

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 15th August 2005

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Seville was a key centre of Islamic Civilisation in Spain. Here you can read about the architect of the famous Giralda tower of Seville's cathedral, which is originally the main tower of the mosque. Also read how women scholars flourished there and how rigorous experimental approach was used to build the science of Botany.

See the link below to the full article if you need to obtain PDF reading softwareThis short article is taken from the full article which is available here as a PDF file

Scott tells that

`The graceful courtesy and deference to the sex, which were the indispensable attributes of every gallant cavalier, in short, the very genius of chivalry, originated among the Spanish Mohammedans. The women of Christian Europe—except in countries influenced by Muslim culture—from the tenth to the fifteenth century received no such social consideration and enjoyed no such educational advantages as did their infidel sisters of the Peninsula.’[1]

Indeed, it is in Seville, that there came into prominence a number of scholarly women. Valada, a princess of the Almohades, was renowned for her knowledge of poetry and rhetoric; her conversation was remarkable for its depth and brilliancy; and, in the academic contests the capital which attracted the learned and the eloquent from every quarter of the Peninsula, she never failed, whether in prose or in poetical composition, to distance all competitors. [2] Algasama and Safia, both of Seville, were also distinguished for poetical and oratorical genius; the latter was unsurpassed for the beauty and perfection of her calligraphy; the splendid illuminations of her manuscripts were the despair of most accomplished artists of the age. The literary attainments of Miriam, the gifted daughter of A1-Faisull, were famous throughout the Peninsula, the caustic wit and satire of her epigrams were said to have been unrivalled.[3]

These women were part of large circle of scholars who thrived in their multitude in the city during the Almoravid and Almohad times above all.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Khair ibn Umar ibn Khalifa Al-Ishbili is a Hispano- Muslim scholar, born in Seville in 1108-1109, studied in Seville and Cordova, and died in Cordova in 1179.[4] He compiled a bibliography (Fihrist) containing more than 1400 titles of books composed by Spanish Muslims on every subject, a bibliography which is very precious, as other standard bibliographies of Arabic writings, compiled by Easterners (notably that of Hadji Khalifa) do not give sufficient importance to the Spanish writings.[5] This Fihrist was edited by Francisco Codera y Zaidin and Julian Ribera y Tarrago late in the 19th century, vol 10 of which contains the index and a Latin introduction.[6]

The science of Botany which thrived under the Berber Dynasty of Banu Dhi Nun of Toledo, and their illustrious ruler, Al-Mamun, moved south to Seville following the fall of Toledo to the Christians in 1085. Running south amongst the surviving scholars was Ibn Bassal (1085 C.E.), whose works in Toledo have been examined under that entry. Ibn Bassal joined the court of Al-Mutamid for whom he created a new royal garden.[7] In Seville Ibn Bassal met with Ali Ibn al-Lukuh another scholar of Toledo, who himself was a student and disciple of another famed scholar of Toledo, Ibn Wafid, and also encountered Mohammed B. Hadjadj Al-Ishbilli, also a writer on agronomy.[8] It is in Seville, that Ibn Bassal came into contact with the other great botanist of Grenada, al-Tignari, who during his visit to Seville was able to benefit greatly from Ibn Bassal’s expertise in the field.[9] It is also in Seville that Ibn Bassal and Ibn Lukuh were the masters of the mysterious `anonymous botanist of Seville,’ the author of the `Umdat al-Tabib fi ma’arifat al-nabat li kuli labib,’ a botanical dictionary, which Colin considers far superior to even the master in the genre, that is Ibn al-Baytar of Malaga.[10] It seems that this writer could have been Ibn Abdun (not the author of the treatise on Hisba, who lived a century or so earlier; See below), who was at some point part of the diplomatic mission to the Almohad court in Marrakech in 1147.[11]

Another botanist is Abu’l Khair (early 12th century), who is the author of a book on farming: Kitab al-Filaha. In this treatise, Abu’l Khair proposes four procedures to collect rain water, and other artificially obtained waters.[12] Abu’l Khair stresses the need for the recuperation of rain water for the reproduction of olive trees by cuttings: before filling the holes, by throwing in small stones at the bottom of the plant so as to preserve moisture, then filling the hole.[13]

Abu’l Khair also informs on the process of sugar making as conveyed to us by Ibn Al-Awwam:

`Here is the process to make sugar: we cut the sugar cane when it has reached its point of maturity…. Then we cut it into small pieces, which are then well crushed inside presses (Ma’asara), or in similar apparatuses. Then is boiled the extract, then allowed to rest fro a period of time, then it is sifted through it, before it is cooked again until only a quarter of the initial quantity is left. Then this concentrate is poured into moulds of clay of a special shape, which are then stored in the shade until they harden or crystallise; then the sugar is taken out to dry still in the shade and then is removed. The left over from the sugar cane is not wasted but is instead fed to horses who love it, and which helps them gain in strength and energy.’[14]

Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Al-Awwam Al-Ishbili is a Hispano-Muslim agriculturist who flourished at Seville about the end of the twelfth century. He wrote a treatise on agriculture, Kitab al-filaha, which is the most important Muslim work as well as the most important mediaeval one on the subject.[15] The treatise divides into two main parts, the first dealing with soils, fertilizers, water, gardens, trees, fruits and their preservation, etc, whilst the second deals with ploughing, the choice of seeds, the seasons and their tasks, grain farming, leguminous plants, small allotments, aromatic plants and industrial plants, harvesting, farming engineering, livestock breeding, poultry, and the treatise ends with a section devoted to veterinary subjects.[16] The treatise is divided into thirty-four chapters, of which the first thirty deal with agriculture proper, and the last four with cattle and poultry raising and apiculture.[17] Ibn Al-Awwam’s treatise covers 585 plants, and explains the cultivation of more than fifty different fruit trees, besides containing striking observations on the different kinds of soil and manure and their respective properties, on various methods of grafting, on sympathies and antipathies between plants, etc.[18] Ibn Al-Awwam also studies gardening, water variety, irrigation, animal husbandry and bee keeping, the symptoms of many diseases of trees and vines are indicated, as are also methods of cure.[19] Leclerc makes a very important observation, that in Ibn Al-Awwam’s work, there is no place for superstition, which is found in every work prior to the Muslims, and including with that figure of the Islamic period, Ibn Wahshiya,[20] who wrote Filaha Nabatiya.

Ibn Al-Awwam innovated further as we hear from him:

`After reading the books on farming legated to us by both Muslim farming manual writers and their ancient predecessors, who wrote on farming under all sorts of conditions, my attention has remained fixed upon whatever is worth in these works. I report the opinions of these authors textually as they have written themselves in their treatises without ever trying or seeking to modify such expressions. As for me, I write nothing which is proper to me without it having been first tried on the ground through experiment and observation.’[21]

Thus, once more, we are confronted to this re-occurring and dominant feature and distinction of Islamic science, that is its fundamental reliance upon the observed, and the experimental.

Ibn al-Awwam’s work was published in a Spanish translation,[22] and a French version[23] between the end of the eighteenth and the middle of the nineteenth for utilitarian purposes as the techniques it describes were of particular interest to the development of agriculture in both Spain and Algeria.[24] Both editions and translations were very unsatisfactory, according to Sarton,[25]an opinion which is shared by Leclerc, who blames the deficiencies on the old age of Clement Mullet pressed by time, and thus stresses the need for a new, better translation of the work.[26] However, since Leclerc was writing, in 1876, and since Sarton was, early in the 20th century, such translation has not been forthcoming, and reliance is still on the deficient ones by both Banqueri and Mullet. There is an edition of the work into Urdu,[27] but still none into English, and none into Arabic easily available!

Abu Abbas Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Mufarraj, often called Al-Nabati, or Ibn Rumiya (son of the Christian woman), also Al-Hafiz (he who knows the Qur’an and Hadith (Tradition) by heart), is a Hispano-Muslim botanist born in Seville in 1165-6 or 1171-72, and died in Spain, Seville, very probably in ca. 1239-40.[28] His knowledge of plants was primarily derived from his direct study of them, and he seems to have been interested in them for their own sake, not just for medical purposes.[29] He was the teacher of his worthy successor, Ibn al-Baytar (see Malaga), with whom he shared the love for plants and the science of botany, and he was part of the group which also included other illustrious figures in the field Abdallah ben Salah and Ibn Al-Hadjadj, of Seville.[30]

He made many botanical excursions in Spain and across the straight; then in ca 1217, he travelled eastwards, in North Africa, Egypt and further on, to complete his botanical investigations and perform the pilgrimage. The Ayyubid sultan Al-Adil (ruled 1199-1218) tried to retain him in Cairo, but al-Nabati remained only long enough to collect the ingredients necessary for the king’s treacle, and he then proceeded to Syria and Iraq where he learned to know many plants not grown in the West, and he finally returned to Spain.[31]

He wrote an account of his journey, Kitab al-Rihla, which deals primarily with his observations of plants many of which were new, e.g. those relative to plants growing along the shores of the Red Sea.[32] The Rihla is lost, and is only known through some of the writing of Ibn Al-Baytar, who makes over a hundred citations from it, most of the plants cited and described were completely unknown.[33] Amongst the plants collected in the Maghrib, most with local names, Leclerc cites their Latin equivalent, Bunium bulbocastanum; Rhamnus alaternus; gentianee; Centauree tinctoriale; meum; etc.[34]

Two other works are ascribed to Ibn Rumiya: Explanation of the names of simples in Dioscorides, and Treatise on the composition of drugs. Leclerc insists, that instead of following his Muslim or Greek predecessors, Ibn Rumiya made a personal study of the plants, and, like Ibn al-Awwam, relied on observation and experimentation.[35] He also introduced new methods of investigating the properties and uses of drugs, doing away with the old methods of the Greeks (Galen and others.)

Before leaving this subject, point is made by Levey, who insists that because of its accumulation of thousands of years of experience, Muslim pharmacology may still bear something of value for modern science.[36] Medicinal properties, particularly of botanicals known to Muslim physicians and apothecaries, he adds, deserve great attention. Some important medicinal plants prescribed today have been explored with success, and more remains to be done, and clues to valuable drugs, he holds, can be found in the early texts in Arabic.[37]

There is a good number of architects famed for their work in Seville. One of the earliest was Abu Ibrahim ibn Aflah Al-Rakham (the marble mason, who in September 1079, completed restoration works at the Mosque of Seville after it had been damaged weeks before.[38] More renowned, though, is Abu-l-Laith as-Siqilli, who succeeded Ali-Al-Ghumari as architect of the Giralda, which he completed in February 1198.[39] The Giralda, or minaret, which towered over the mosque of Seville, and still for the most part intact early in the twentieth century, is the principal ornament of its cathedral, and is the greatest monument to its fame.[40] Scott offers a good non too technical description of the edifice, which is outlined here. The base of Giralda is a square of fifty feet; its original height was three hundred. For eighty seven feet from the foundations the walls are of stone blocks fitted with the greatest nicety, and once polished to the smoothness of glass. The superstructure is of brick, and almost covered with graceful arabesque patterns in terra cotta. Each side is divided into six panels with the designs in bas relief, the panels resting upon ogival arches. In the central panels are a series of ajimezes or Muslim windows, whose compartments are separated by miniature columns of alabaster….. The minaret as originally designed was crowned with battlements, and was surmounted by another tower eight cubits in height, of similar plan but of much more elaborate ornamentation. Above the latter structure rose a bar sustaining four bronze balls of different sizes placed one above the other. The general colour of the building was a brilliant red due to the bricks of which it was principally composed. Within this bright setting the sunken arabesques glowed with all the splendour of the richest damask. The interstitial portions of the designs were painted with scarlet, azure, green, and purple, the parts in relief were gilded….. The interior of the famous minaret presents some extraordinary, not to say unique, architectural features. Its walls are nine feet in thickness at the base, and instead of decreasing in dimensions, become still more solid as they rise, until the capacity of the structure near the summit is but little more than half what it is at the bottom. This ascent is made by thirty five ramps, or inclined planes, resting upon vaults and arches, and supported by a shaft of masonry built in the centre of the tower.[41]

Another famed architect who also contributed to the erection of the Giralda, and whose fame is the greatest, is Ahmad ibn Baso. He spent his youth in Seville, and in 1160 directed architectural works for the Almohads at Gibraltar, later erecting some public buildings and frontier fortresses in Cordova, then, by 1171-2, at the latest was back in Seville.[42] In Ramadhan of that year, he began the main mosque and its minaret on which he worked until 1184-5, before in that year, he constructed the Buhaira palace outside the Puerta de Chahuar of Seville.[43] It was the Almohad ruler Abu Yaqub Yusuf who delegated the architects Ahmad Ibn Basso and Abd Allah Ibn Amr to build the Great mosque of Seville in 1172-6. Little remains now but the blind pointed horseshoe brick façade with stepped cresting in the Court of Oranges, and two entrances one covered with a Mukarnas vault, and the other with bold stucco carving in the soflit of its arch. The bronze door of the latter has engraved on it floral motifs within hexagonal compartments, an open work door handle with frilled outline, and lettering in Kufic with the formula `The Kingship is Allah’s.’[44] Ibn Basso’s work on the Giralda was continued by Ali-Al-Ghumari, and finished by Abu-l-Laith As-Siqilli in 1198.[45]

The subject of Hisba has been looked at in great detail in the entry on Malaga under its author there Al-Saqati. Seville, too, had its author on the same subject: Ibn Abdun Muhammad B. Ahmad. He flourished at the end of the 11th century, and lived under the early Almoravids as he speaks of them as the new masters of the city.[46] His short treatise, together with that of his contemporary Al-Saqati (of Malaga), is a most valuable source of urban, economic and social life in Muslim Spain in this period.[47] There is no need to dwell here on this crucial role of the Muhtassib, his tasks and duties, the sources of the function, forms, origins, and much else already well detailed under the entry on Malaga (Al-Saqati).

The treatise by Ibn Abdun is available in French thanks to the labours of Levi Provencal, who edited it and translated it into French, from which the following is extracted to highlight a very interesting point not dealt with anywhere else in the depiction of Islamic civilization, and which relates to the Muhtasib’s regulation with regard to prison and prisoners.[48] Thus goes Ibn Abdun:

`Prisons must be inspected twice or three times a month so as to make sure of the good welfare of the prisoners, and in case the cells become overcrowded. Those who had committed light crimes should be taken out of prison quickly.

When relaxed, prisoners ought to be on the days of Ramadhan, or the 10th day of Dhu al-Hidja, or in the middle of Shaaban as these are days of celebration.

People ought not be detained too long in prison, but either the judgments against them must be executed, or they must be freed…

The prison guard ought never take or ask anything from the prisoners… prisoners must not be shackled except for the most dangerous amongst them, and shackled prisoners ought to be freed at the time of prayer and when they need to do it (as to relieve themselves).

Women ought never be imprisoned alongside men. Their guards ought to be chosen amongst older men with a reputable moral and personal life. Women should never be kept too long in prison. Women prisoners are to be released quickly to the care of a matron of good reputation who will receive in exchange a salary from public finance for her work.

Prison guards ought never to be too many. Too many of them, and disorder will spread in the place…

He whomsoever had his hand amputated ought to be released and left to seek people’s piety until he heals.

Guards ought never to beat a prisoner out of their own initiative, either to terrorise or to hurt. Nobody is entitled to stop visits to prisoners.

An imam must be put at the disposal of prisoners, and will meet them at the hours of prayers, and will lead in the prayers. This imam will be paid for his services out of public finance.

Nobody is to be executed until the head of the government had been consulted three times in succession.

Agents of authority ought to be banned from using whips; whipping prisoners is utterly forbidden. [Those who] can only deliver such punishment the head of government [are] the prefect of the city, the Cadi (the judge), the Muhtasib and the judge second in command.

Nobody has the right to put anyone in prison without the authorization of the Cadi or the head of the government.’[49]

(The image with this article comes from

[1] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 3; p. 452.

[2] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 3; p. 447.

[3] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 3; p. 447.

[4]G. Sarton: Introduction to the History of Science; 3 vols; The Carnegie Institute of Washington; 1927-48. vol 2; p. 444.

[5] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 444.

[6] Francisco Codera y Zaidin and Julian Ribera y Tarrago: Index librorum de diversis scientiarum ordinibus quos a magistris didicit; Biblioteca arabico-hispanica, vols. 9 and 10, Saragossa, 1894-1895.

[7]G.S. Colin: Filaha; Encyclopaedia of Islam: New edition: Leiden; 1986, Vol 2, p. 901.

[8]G.S. Colin: Filaha; p. 901.

[9]G.S. Colin: Filaha; p. 901.

[10]G.S. Colin: Filaha; p. 901.

[11]G.S. Colin: Filaha; p. 901.

[12] Abu’l- Khair Kitab al-Filaha; in . V. Lagardere: Campagnes et paysans d’Al Andalus; Maisonneuve; Larose; Paris; 1993; at p. 265.

[13] Abu’l- Khair Kitab al-Filaha; p. 140 fwd in . V. Lagardere: Campagnes; p. 265.

[14] Ibn al-Awwam; p. 393, in V. Lagardere: Campagnes; p. 384.

[15] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; pp. 424-5.

[16] L. Leclerc: Histoire de la medecine Arabe; Paris; 1876; vol 2; p. 111.

[17] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; pp. 424-5.

[18] G. Sarton: Introduction; vol 2; p. 425.

[19] G. Sarton: Introduction; vol 2; p. 425.

[20] L. Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; vol 2; p. 110.

[21] L. Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; vol 2; p. 110-1.

[22] Joseph A. Banqueri; 2 vols., folio, Madrid 1802.

[23] Le Livre de l’agriculture, by Clement-Mullet; 2 tomes in 3 vols., Paris 1864-1867.

[24] J Vernet and J Samso: Development of Arabic Science in Andalusia, in Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science; Edited by Roshdi Rashed; 3 vols; Routledge, London and New York: 1996. Vol 1, pp 243-76., p. 263.

[25] G. Sarton: Introduction; vol 2; p. 425.

[26] L. Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; vol 2; p. 113.

[27]G.S. Colin: Filaha; op cit; p. 902.

[28] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 650.

[29] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 651.

[30] L. Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; vol 2; p. 244.

[31] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 651.

[32] E. H. F. Meyer: Geschichte der Botanik, I-IV, Konigsberg, 1854-7. vol 3; pp. 233-6.

[33] L. Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; p. 247.

[34] L. Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; p. 247.

[35] L. Leclerc: Histoire; p. 244.

[36]M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology, Leiden, E.J. Brill,, 1973. preface, pp vii-viii.

[37] M. Levey: Early Arabic, op cit, preface, pp vii-viii.

[38] L.E. Mayer: Muslim architects and their works; Albert Gundig; Geneva; 1956; p. 38.

[39] L.E. Mayer: Muslim architects; p. 39.

[40] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 2; p. 316.

[41] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 2; pp. 316-9.

[42] L.E. Mayer: Muslim architects; op cit; p. 42.

[43] L.E. Mayer: Muslim architects; p. 42.

[44] R.A. Jairazbhoy: An Outline of Islamic Architecture; Asia Publishing House; Bombay; London; etc; 1972; at p. 95.

[45] L.E. Mayer: Muslim architects; op cit p. 42.

[46] F. Gabrieli: Ibn Abdun; in Encyclopaedia of Islam; vol 3 of new edition; p. 681.

[47] F. Gabrieli: Ibn Abdun; p. 681.

[48] E. Levi Provencal: Seville Musulmane au debut du XII siecle (le Traite d’Ibn Abdun sur la vie urbaine et les corps de metiers; Maisonneuve; Paris; 1947. The particular passage on prisons and prisoners is at pp. 39-42.

[49] E. Levi Provencal: Seville Musulmane; pp. 39-42.

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