18 June 2019

Málaga statue remembers
Solomon ibn Gabirol, a long
forgotten poet and philosopher

The statue of the poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol in a small square in Málaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Between the Roman amphitheatre in Málaga and the proposed Sephardic Museum in La Judería in the southern Spanish city, a statue beneath the shade of some trees in a small square commemorates the Jewish poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol, also known as Solomon ben Judah and Shlomo Ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol, is known in Arabic as Abu Ayyub Sulayman bin Yahya bin Jabirul.

He was an 11th-century Andalusian poet and Jewish philosopher who was influenced by Neo-Platonism. He published over 100 poems, as well as works of biblical exegesis, philosophy, ethics and satire. One source credits ibn Gabirol with creating a golem, possibly female, for household chores.

Researchers in the 19th century realised that mediaeval translators had Latinised ibn Gabirol’s name to Avicebron or Avencebrol and had translated his work on Jewish Neo-Platonic philosophy into a Latin form that in the intervening centuries had been highly regarded as a work of Islamic or Christian scholarship.

Because of this work, ibn Gabirol is known in the history of philosophy for the doctrine that all things, including soul and intellect, are composed of matter and form (‘Universal Hylomorphism’), and he is also known for his emphasis on divine will.

However, little is known about ibn Gabirol’s life. However, most sources agree he was born in Málaga, in late 1021 or early 1022. They are less certain about the date his death, although he died sometime between the age 30 and age 48.

Although ibn Gabirol lived a materially comfortable life, it was a difficult and loveless life, and he suffered ill health and misfortunes, and had fickle friends and powerful enemies.

His health problems – which may have been caused by lupus vulgaris – gave him constant pain and left him embittered for the rest of his life. His poetry shows how he thought himself short and ugly. Indeed, he was dismissed by many of his contemporaries as a social misfit.

The plaque in Málaga commemorating Solomon ibn Gabirol (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

ibn Gabirol’s writings indicate his father was a prominent figure in Córdoba, but was forced to move to Málaga during a political crisis in 1013. His parents died while he was a child, leaving him an orphan with no siblings or close relatives.

He was befriended, supported and protected by a prominent political figure, Yekutiel ibn Hassan al-Mutawakkil ibn Qabrun, and moved to Zaragoza, then a centre of Jewish culture. There he immersed himself in studying the Talmud, grammar, geometry, astronomy and philosophy.

He was an accomplished poet and philosopher at an early age. By 17, he had composed five of his known poems, one an azhara (‘I am the master, and Song is my slave’) enumerating all 613 commandments of Judaism. At about this time, he also composed a 200-verse elegy for his patron Yekutiel, and four other notable elegies to mourn the death of Hai Gaon.

However, when ibn Gabirol was still 17, his patron was assassinated , and by 1045 ibn Gabirol had to leave Zaragoza.

He was then sponsored by Samuel ibn Naghrillah, the Grand Vizier of the King of Granada.

By 19, he had composed an alphabetical and acrostic poem in 400 verses teaching the rules of Hebrew grammar. By the time he was 23 or 25, he had composed, in Arabic, ‘Improvement of the Moral Qualities,’ later translated into Hebrew by Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon.

By 25, he also composed his collection of proverbs Mivchar Pninim (‘Choice of Pearls’), although scholars are divided on his authorship.

At 28, he composed his philosophical work Fons Vitæ.

But ibn Gabriol and Samuel ibn Naghrillah eventually argued, and ibn Gabirol spent the rest of his life wandering. He may have died in either in 1069 or 1070, or around 1058 in Valencia.

One legend claims that he was trampled to death by an Arab horseman. Another says he was murdered by a Muslim poet who was jealous of ibn Gabirol’s poetic gifts, and who secretly buried him beneath the roots of a fig tree. The tree bore fruit in abundant quantity and of extraordinary sweetness. Its unique qualities attracted attention and brought about an investigation. ibn Gabirol’s body was found under the tree, and his murderer was identified and executed.

Scholars disagree about the date and circumstances of the death of Solomon ibn Gabirol (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Although ibn Gabirol’s legacy was esteemed throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was historically minimized by errors in scholarship that misattributed his works.

He seems to have often been called ‘the Málagan’ because of the city of his birth, known in Arabic days as al-Mālaqa. The 12th-century Arab philosopher Jabir ibn Aflah ascribed 17 philosophical essays by Gabirol to the Biblical King Solomon. The 15th-century Jewish philosopher Yohanan Alemanno introduced this error into Hebrew scholarship, and added another four works to the list of false ascriptions.

In 1846, Solomon Munk identified him with the Latin work known as Fons Vitæ and ascribed to Avicebron. For centuries, Avicebron or Avencebrol had been thought of as either a Christian or Arabic Muslim philosopher. confusion was in part because Fons Vitæ is independent of Jewish dogma and does not cite Biblical verses or Rabbinic sources.

ibn Gabirol also wrote sacred and secular poems in Hebrew, and was recognised even by his critics as the greatest poet of his age. His lasting poetic legacy, however, was his sacred works, often considered to be the most powerful of their kind in the mediaeval Hebrew tradition.

His long cosmological masterpiece, Keter Malchut (‘Royal Crown’), written for recitation on Yom Kippur, is regarded as one of the greatest poems Hebrew literature. In 900 lines, it describes the cosmos as testifying to its own creation by God, based on the then scientific understanding of the cosmos.

He also wrote more than 100 piyyuṭim and selichot for the Sabbath, festivals, and fast-days, most of which have been included in the prayer books for Holy Days used by Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

The Roman amphitheatre in Málaga … the statue of ibn Gabirol is in a small square nearby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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