When Baron Victor von Rosen first brought attention to the importance of Ibn Quzman‘s manuscript at the library of Saint Petersburg in the 1880s, new studies could finally hail him as the most famous poet of al-Andalus (the territories of Spain, Portugal and France which were under Muslim rule between 711 and 1492, until the Spanish reconquest). Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Quzman was born in Córdoba around 1078 and died there in 1160. What we know about his life is generally to be found in his works, his famous poems. But that is not much; He lives in a period of transition, in the heart of the Arab dominance in Spain. He gets to experience the historical context of the reign of the Almoravids and witnesses the beginning of the reign of the dynasty of the Almohads. And even though we know little of his life, anecdotes of the way of life of the time make of his collections a great historical and cultural heritage.
He used to describe himself as a tall, blond guy with bright blue eyes who did not know much about anything. Actually, he had studied lots of subjects, from law to philosophy, and travelled throughout Andalusia for many years, collecting anecdotes he would then morph into written art. As for poetry itself, Ibn Quzman had studied classical Arabian poetry and part of his literary production would be similar to such traditional canon, but it is with his reinvention of the zéjel, a type of verse which had been first implemented by poet Ibn Bayya, that he achieves his level of importance in the history of Spanish literature. His poems are in dialectal form, and themes would not vary much from those of classical Arabian poetry, except for the fact that he would add a humourous twist to it.
Not only does his poetry help us understand the historical context of al-Andalus (some of his most popular works include a song about Alfonso the Battler, the king of Aragon and Navarre who fought against the Muslims during the Reconquista), but it also makes us aware of the social and cultural landscape of that part of Spain in the Middle Ages. Berber women, hostlers and muleteers are only some of the numerous characters of whom Quzman tells us about in his songs. As a matter of fact, similar characters and situations appear in future literary works which will become traditional in the history of Spanish literature, mainly in the picaresque genre.
In fact, Quzman literally influenced both his contemporaries and those who write in the following centuries (for instance, the anonymous author of “La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades“, written in the 16th century) because the troubadour tradition which eventually becomes his way of life, gradually enters part of his tales. There, fantasy and reality mingle with a humor typical of the Spanish culture we know today.
Sometimes, authors who lived in such remote age, do not seem to have much in common with us and with what we know today. Yet, it is precisely for this apparent diversity that we must try and learn more. We would soon find that there are the roots of our contemporary culture.