Not long after the new mosque opened in the Albaicín in 2003, I went to a talk there by British historian and writer, Farhat A Hussain. Its title was ‘The Impact of al-Andalus on the History of Humanity.’ It was a revelation to me. I knew, of course, about Islamic Spain’s legacy of beautiful buildings – the Alhambra in Granada, Córdoba’s Mezquita and the Alcazaba of Sevilla, among others – but I knew very little about the Moors’ contribution in other fields. Their civilisation was way ahead of any found in the rest of Europe, which in the 8th century when they arrived was one of the most backward areas in the world. Deborah, the central character of my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, becomes fascinated by al-Andalus, the name used by the Moors for the kingdom they ruled until 1492. It is her Moroccan lover Hassan who first sparks her interest by telling her about the extraordinary achievements of Muslim Spain. Agriculture, medicine, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy were all advanced greatly during the nearly eight hundred years of Muslim rule. After studying other civilisations such as those of China, Greece and India, they developed their own ideas, based on Islamic ethics and the way of life dictated by the Prophet. Health, medicine, agriculture, the design of cities and social justice are all included in the instructions for living found in the Qu’ran and the Sirah. Islamic knowledge was highly respected by scholars in the rest of Europe, who came to Spain to learn about their culture. During the European Dark Ages, the works of Greek and Roman philosophers were lost. The Muslims studied and commented on them, translating them into Arabic, which was then converted into Latin by European scholars and thus recovered. It was in this way that Europeans became reacquainted with Aristotle, for example. In agriculture, it was the Arabs who invented the water wheel for power and who brought irrigation to Spain. Their acequias (irrigation channels) are still very much in use. They introduced oranges, sugar and rice, among other foods. Every season produced crops so that Spain became much greener and had a healthier, better nourished population.
Medical knowledge made huge strides in the prevention and cure of diseases, hygiene and surgical techniques. Spanish Muslim surgeon Zahrawi wrote an encyclopedia of surgery over a thousand years ago. Most of the instruments he invented are still used today. Modern dentistry and optics are also based on his knowledge and methods. In mathematics, the concept of zero, along with nine other digits, meant that mathematicians could express any number. The Arabs invented the binary system used now in computing. The words algebra and algorithm come from Arabic. Modern financial systems also owe their origins to the Islamic civilisation. Being great traders, they introduced cheques, also an Arabic word. Paper and ink were Arab inventions.
The centuries of Islamic rule were considered a golden age of religious and cultural tolerance. Muslims, Christians and Jews collaborated in many spheres and non-Muslims held prestigious positions in the civil service of Islamic rulers. They were not forced to convert or prevented from following their own faiths. Some intermarried. The population (of all three religions) came to share a distinct culture which they regarded as Andalusi. What interests Deborah in particular is the role of women, which for the more elevated classes at least was surprisingly liberal. They played an important part in society, again well ahead of the rest of Europe. Girls and boys studied together, girls had access to higher education and became doctors, teachers and traders. Deborah embarks on research into this aspect of al-Andalus, focusing on a number of prominent women.
Walladah bint Mustakfi, one of Deborah’s heroines, was a female poet of the 11th century, unusually liberated and bold, who considered herself ‘fit for high office’ and entitled to take any man she chose as her lover. Alice, Deborah’s sister, sees parallels between Deborah and Walladah – both women being free-spirited, fiery and outspoken – qualities that can and do sometimes get them into trouble.