Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Heretical Doctor, Ibn al-Khatib

Readers of my Moorish Spain series may recall the secondary character, Ibn al-Khatib. In my most recent publication, the anthology We All Fall Down, he plays a prominent role in The Heretic. Ibn al-Khatib was a natural choice as the central figure in a tale about 14th century medieval Spain's struggle with the Black Death. 

In the novels Sultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate TreeIbn al-Khatib served as a court minister and close confidante of the father and son duo, the Nasrid Dynasty's most celebrated Sultans Yusuf I and Muhammad V of Granada. But with the series focused on machinations within the royal family, I never had the opportunity to explore one important aspect of Ibn al-Khatib's life: his treatise on the Black Death. 

That his work has survived for almost 700 years and may be found in Spain's Biblioteca del Real Monasterio de El Escorial is a miracle. For when he began the treatise, he also promulgated what was then thought to be a radical, even dangerous idea, in the Islamic world: the transmission of disease through contagion. This occurred five centuries before Louis Pasteur's experiments in which he proved that a cell's environment could increase the likelihood of contagion, leading to the creation of sterilization methods in hospitals. 

Ibn al-Khatib was not the first Muslim doctor to propose the theory of contagion. In 1025, the Persian physician Ibn Sina, known in the west as Avicenna, had suggested that people could transmit diseases to each other through the air. But unlike him, Ibn al-Khatib's thoughts would ultimately cause his downfall. 

The origins of Ibn al-Khatib's family

When little Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Said al-Salamani, the man we know as Ibn al-Khatib, entered the world on the night of November 14 /15 in 1313, his family might not have imagined his spectacular rise to prominence or the tragic fall that would ensue. But they may have had reason to expect greatness from him. 

Like many Islamic families across the Iberian Peninsula, they traced their roots back to the conquest of then Visigothic Spain. Ibn al-Khatib's ancestors settled in Cordoba until the 9th century when they moved to Toledo. In 1085 when King Alfonso VI of Castile captured the region, the family's land passed into the hands of Christians. Thereafter, they moved to Loja. 
The Islamic citadel at Loja

Ibn al-Khatib's great-great-grandfather served as an Islamic preacher there; hence the name Ibn al-Khatib, which meant son or descendant of the preacher in Arabic. His grandfather Said married the daughter of a Muslim governor and moved to the Nasrid capital of Granada, where he became one of the tutors of Sultan Muhammad II's children until the summer of 1284, dying of heatstroke.

While I've found nothing but a brief mention of Ibn al-Khatib's mother at the occurrence of her death, incidentally because of plague, his 30-year old father Abd Allah ibn Said al-Salamani already enjoyed a good living that boded well for his new son. The family still lived in Loja when in 1314 the new Sultan Ismail I, the son of Muhammad II's notable daughter Fatima, invited Ibn al-Khatib's father to take a post among the ministerial body that advised Granada's monarchs. 

Ibn al-Khatib's entry into Granada's high society

The toddler accompanied his father to the capital and grew up with access to the finest education. Ibn al-Khatib's earliest studies would have included his native Arabic and the Islamic religion, then broadened to knowledge of history, poetry, Sharia law, and medicine. His most prominent teacher became Ibn al-Jayyab, Sultan Ismail's personal secretary.

Granada's Alhambra Palace
At the age of 18, Ibn al-Khatib officially gained notice within court circles when he recited a poem before Sultan Ismail's eldest son and successor Muhammad IV in the city of Málaga. Perhaps Ibn al-Khatib seemed destined even then to take a place among the sovereign's ministers. He certainly enjoyed the continued support of his former tutor Ibn al-Jayyab, who at some indeterminate time also offered his own daughter in marriage to Ibn al-Khatib. For some unknown reason, Ibn al-Jayyab's father objected and the union between the disciple and his mentor's daughter never occurred. 

This unfortunate circumstance did not stymie Ibn al-Khatib's hopes to make a good match. Frankly, familial and marital connections were key to advancement among Granada's ruling elite. And what would Ibn al-Khatib have considered the most important factor in his choice of a wife? Her father's status, of course. He needed a bride of noble birth, with a parent who supported the Nasrid Sultans. While monarchs held the highest authority, they depended on the nobles to maintain their seat of power at Granada's Alhambra Palace. Fickle politics and discontented nobles had driven Sultan Abu'l-Juyush Nasr, the maternal uncle of Sultan Ismail I from his throne in 1314. With an awareness of the importance of the ruling elite, Ibn al-Khatib naturally contrived to join them.      

Then tragedy struck. Due to their proximity with Granada's early rulers, Ibn al-Khatib and his family must have understood how sudden calamities could affect their fortunes and futures. His father would have known this when the assassinations of Sultan Ismail happened in 1325 and the murder of his son Sultan Muhammad IV occurred eight years later. 

17th-century depiction of the Battle of Salado
This time, Ibn al-Khatib personally suffered. A month before his twenty-seventh birthday would have taken place, he lost his father and an unnamed elder brother on October 30, 1340. They died in the Battle of Rio Salado near Tarifa. Castile's King Alfonso XI allied with Afonso IV of Portugal fought against Granada's master, Sultan Yusuf I, the second son of Sultan Ismail I and his cohort Abu al-Hasan Ali of Morocco's Marinid Dynasty. We can only guess at how Ibn al-Khatib internalized this great loss based on the funerary elegy he composed for his father, of which only four lines have survived.

But that would not be the end of Ibn al-Khatib's story.


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