Ibn Gabirol

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Ibn Gabirol created a form of poetry written in biblical Hebrew. His version of Neoplatonic philosophy came to be integrated within Christian Augustinian thought.

Early Life

Solomon ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol was probably born in Málaga in 1020 or 1021. The sources for his biographical data are allusions in his poems, references in the works of the Jewish commentator Moses ibn Ezra (c. 1060-c. 1139) and the Arabic historian Ibn Saʿid (c. 1029-1070), and Hebrew legends, many of which were published in the sixteenth century in Italy and the Ottoman Empire.

Western scholars index his name in a variety of ways: Most list him as Ibn Gabirol, others as Gabirol, and a few as Solomon ibn Gabirol. His name in Arabic was Abu Ayyub Sulayman ibn Yakhya ibn Gabirul; in Latin, he was known as Avicebron, Avicenebrol, Albenzubron, and variations thereof. There is no agreement as to the meaning of the name Gabirol. Some have suggested that it is a diminutive of the Arabic word yabir (power), while others see it as affixing the Hebrew word El (God), to yabir. The uncertainty in dates is caused, in part, by the sources’ use of different calendars. Ibn Ezra wrote of poets and poetics in the eighth century of the fourth millennium (4800 of the Hebrew year), which approximates 1040 c.e., while Ibn Saʿid used the Muslim calendar.

In 4800, according to Ibn Ezra, “lived Abu Ayyub Selomo son of Yehuda ibn Gabirol, the Cordoban.” From this, it has been concluded that Ibn Gabirol’s parents had lived in Córdoba, capital of Muslim Iberia, whence they fled, probably in 1013 during the fundamentalist revolution that shattered the unity of the Umayyad caliphate. The family went to Málaga, where Solomon was born—an inference from his custom of appending “Malki,” meaning “of Málaga,” to his name in his writings. His poems suggest that his father had been prominent in Cordoban society before the turmoil and that his parents suffered from something akin to tuberculosis.

According to his self-description, Ibn Gabirol was small, homely, and weak; he suffered from a skin disease. He was educated in Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek literature as well as philosophy, science, and theology; indeed, Ibn Gabirol was wont to complain that he was treated as a Greek. Various sources describe him as vain, argumentative, and hot-tempered.

Life’s Work

By his own report, Ibn Gabirol’s first five poems were written when he was sixteen or younger. The most significant of these is Azharot, a nonmetrical versification of the 613 Commandments. Shortly after this time, the family moved to Saragossa, where Mundir I (reigned 1029-1038) had established an independent kingdom which attempted to maintain the sophisticated lifestyle of the Umayyads. Mundir and his immediate heirs welcomed all poets and philosophers. One of the leading figures at court was the Jewish Yekutiel ibn Hasan, who befriended the young poet. During this period, Ibn Gabirol wrote several works, including elegies on the death of Hai ben Sherira Gaon (939-1038), leader of the Hebrew Academy at Pumbedita, and ʿAnaq (necklace), a four-hundred-line didactic poem on the importance of Hebrew grammar, of which only eighty-eight lines have survived.

Around 1039, Ibn Gabirol lost his father and his patron: His father apparently succumbed to tuberculosis, and Yekutiel was assassinated by rivals at the palace. In 1040, Ibn Gabirol wrote two elegies in honor of his former patron. Around the same time, he wrote a poem which he dedicated and sent to Samuel ha-Nagid (Ibn Nagrella; 993-1056), vizier to Badis, King of Granada, whose forces had just defeated the rival king of Seville. Samuel, one of the most influential Jews of the period, sent financial assistance to the poet, who remained in Saragossa completing, in Arabic, his major study of ethics, Kitab islah al-akhlaq (1045; The Improvement of Moral Qualities, 1901). About that time, Ibn Gabirol’s mother died. Alone in the world and dependent upon a patron for support, he went to Granada. Apparently, Samuel had known Ibn Gabirol’s parents in Málaga. He took the orphan under his protection, and Ibn Gabirol came to call him “my father.”

After arriving in Granada, Ibn Gabirol wrote a long, mournful poem expressing his feeling of despair upon leaving Saragossa. In 1048, Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shahim, leader of the Kairwan (Tunisia) Jewish community, arrived in Granada to arrange a marriage between his daughter and Samuel’s son. Nissim (c. 990-1062) was a noted theologian, and Ibn Gabirol spent a year listening to his public disputations and commentaries. It has been surmised that Samuel had abandoned Ibn Gabirol because of some uncomplimentary comments the poet had made about Samuel’s poetic style, and that Ibn Gabirol became dependent upon Nissim. This interpretation, however, seems doubtful, since Nissim himself was dependent upon Samuel’s largesse and Ibn Gabirol was not the type to sit at anyone’s feet.

Ibn Gabirol was the first of the significant Hispano-Hebrew poets and philosophers who wrote in both biblical Hebrew and Arabic. At this time, all Jews could read Ibn Gabirol’s Hebrew poetry, but Jews and Christians who lived outside the Arabic world could not read works written in Arabic. During the period 1167-1186, Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon translated The Improvement of Moral Qualities into Hebrew. Meanwhile, Christians had become interested in Ibn Gabirol’s philosophical work. In the mid-twelfth century, his major philosophical study, of which no Arabic copy has surfaced, was translated from Arabic into Latin as Fons vitae (English translation, 1963). A century later, Shem Tov ben Joseph Falaquera translated portions of the Arabic manuscript into Hebrew, but the Hebrew reading public found it of little interest. As time went by, most of the Arabic manuscripts were either lost or destroyed by Muslim fundamentalists. Jews preserved the Hebraic poetic and ethical works and Christians the Latin philosophical works. The result...

(The entire section is 2520 words.)