08 April 2016

The Intellectuals: The life of Ibn al-Khatib (1313-1374)

By Lisa J. Yarde

One of the most celebrated scholars of Muslim Spain in the 14th century, Ibn al-Khatib lived during one of the most tumultuous periods in the country, but died in tragic, obscure circumstances. His life's end meant occurred when his former friends, turned deadly rivals branded as a religious heretic for his beliefs in Sufism or Islamic mysticism. A poet, physician, historian, politician and philosopher, he served two Sultans of Granada, Yusuf I and his son Muhammad V for at least thirty years. Ibn al-Khatib provided intimate knowledge of the last Muslim dynasty to rule Spain, as well as a treatise on the Black Death and his travels through Spain and Morocco. His work became one of the primary sources I relied on in the first four books of the Sultana series, but little remains of his knowledge.

Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib came from Loja, southern Spain. Born November 16, 1313, his father, a military man, and his elder brother perished during Sultan Yusuf’s disastrous alliance with the Marinids of Morocco in the Battle of Rio Salado on October 30, 1340. Although the path is unclear, by then Ibn al-Khatib had come to serve among the ministers of Yusuf’s court, then headed by Ibn Ali ibn al-Jayyab, and supported by Ridwan, a Christian convert. An ambitious man, Ibn al-Khatib sought politically advantageous marriages with the relations of his fellow council members, first approaching Ibn Ali ibn al-Jayyab, and then one of the members of the judiciary, Ibn Juzayy. Rebuffed by both powerful and noble families, Ibn al-Khatib settled for a marriage with a woman named Iqbal, who gave him three sons. His service allowed him an intimate awareness of the monarch’s family. When Yusuf’s revered grandmother Fatima died in February 1349, Ibn al-Khatib eulogized her. “… She was Fatima, daughter of Muhammad II. She was the cream of the kingdom, the central pearl of the dynasty, the pride of the harem women, the height of honor and respect, the link that gave the people the protection of the kings and her life was a reminder of the legacy of the royal family.”
Loja's memorial to Ibn al-Khatib, from Wikipedia
The Black Death ravaged Spain in the summer after Fatima’s death. The disease may have claimed thirty to forty percent of the population of Spain before it ran its first course in 1350. Ibn al-Khatib witnessed its effects firsthand and later wrote a treatise on the pestilence in 1374. While religious scholars termed its spread as God’s punishment, Ibn al-Khatib viewed the plague differently and advised its containment. “The existence of contagion is established by experience and by trustworthy reports on transmission by garments, vessels...” showing that as a doctor he understood limited contact with infected persons would slow the Black Death.

Since Ibn Ali ibn al-Jayyab’s death also in 1349 of plague, Ridwan served as the chief minister and Ibn al-Khatib aided him as the secretary of the council of ministers. After Yusuf’s murder on October 19, 1354, Ibn al-Khatib composed the oath of loyalty to his sixteen-year-old son and successor Muhammad. Upon his investiture, the governors of Moorish Spain, and the members of Muhammad’s family, including his brothers, would have sworn the oath, followed by the council and other court dignitaries. Sultan Muhammad relied on Ibn al-Khatib, sending him at the head of an embassy to the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan seeking affirmation of peace between the kingdom of Granada and the Moroccans in 1358.

On August 21, 1359, one hundred conspirators financed by the wealth of Muhammad’s stepmother Maryam, scaled the palace walls and placed her son Ismail on the throne. The propaganda Ibn al-Khatib wrote of Ismail left an unfavorable opinion of him throughout history. “…Fat, effeminate, indolent, and lacking in personal qualities, plaited with silk thread his long hair, which reached down to below his waist.” The chief minister Ridwan and his family also died in the attack. The conspirators imprisoned Ibn al-Khatib, who would later gain his freedom when his sister sent a ransom from their hometown at Loja.

Meanwhile, Muhammad fled Granada with his family. Muhammad arrived at Guadix, where its people allowed the dethroned Sultan into the city and pledged fealty to him. The new Marinid Sultan of Morocco Abu Salim offered Muhammad asylum. While awaiting the offer, Ibn al-Khatib and his family rejoined his master. Together, they crossed over to Morocco. They reached Fez where a grand reception awaited them, along with Abu Salim seated on a throne at one end of the room, while its twin awaited Muhammad at the opposite end. Ibn al-Khatib recited poetry and thanked Abu Salim for his favor.

While in Morocco, Muhammad enlisted the aid of Ibn al-Khatib in writing letters to the monarch’s friend King Pedro of Castile, begging for aid in regaining the throne of Granada. During the exile, Ibn al-Khatib met and formed a friendship with the esteemed Tunisian scholar and judge, Ibn Khaldun. Ibn al-Khatib also traveled across Morocco, but his wife died there. Events in Granada during 1360-1361 soon allowed Muhammad to return to his beloved homeland as his stepmother and her children perished in another palace coup while Pedro realized his support of the usurper would not serve Castile’s interests. Muhammad parted with his family whom he had commended to Ibn al-Khatib’s care. They would later rejoin him in June 1362 as Muhammad’s second reign began. Ibn Khaldun came as well, carrying out a diplomatic mission to Castile on Muhammad’s behalf.

Unfortunately, Ibn al-Khatib suffered under Muhammad’s later rule. Ibn al-Khatib had always protected his relationship with the Nasrid sovereigns; even in his friendship with Ibn Khaldun, Ibn al-Khatib resented Muhammad’s admiration of the Tunisian, which led to Ibn Khaldun’s withdrawal from Moorish Spain and Muhammad’s service within the year after his arrival. His enemies included the high judges Al-Sabti and Al-Nubahi, and one of the newest members of the council, Ibn Zamrak, who likely coveted Ibn al-Khatib’s position as prime minister. Calling Ibn al-Khatib a Sufi heretic who did not follow authorized prayer forms, his enemies hounded him out of Granada in 1371, which he fled with his eldest son. Ibn al-Khatib would die in a Moroccan jail three years later, assassinated by agents from Granada, likely with the knowledge of Muhammad.


Beyond the Haram: Ibn al-Khatib and Privileged Knowledge of Royal Nasrid Women by Barbara Boloix Gallardo

Ibn Khaldun: Life and Times by Allen James Fromherz

Islamic Spain 1250 to 1500 by L.P. Harvey

The Great Ruling Family of the Fourteenth Century: Musahara in the Age of Ibn al-Khatib by Joseph Zenka

Image from Wikipedia. Sections of the article presented above also appear on my website at http://www.lisajyarde.com/p/world-of-sultana-and-sultanas-legacy.html  

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.