Sweeping like the sirocco of Arabia Felix, the Islamic conquest of the southern Mediterranean obliterated institutions of classical religion and Christianity alike. The unsuspected child of centuries of tumultuous struggle between the Graeco-Roman West and the Persian East, Islam rejected the categories of that exhausting conflict. Byzantium and Persia had long fought one another along the Tigris and Euphrates and just as long had bribed and incited tribesmen of the Arabian desert to disrupt the trade routes and political alliances in the south. When Muhammad spoke with the Angel of the Lord, his exceptional political perspicuity translated the absolute theological unity of Deity as revealed to him into an isomorphic social unity. Vast wealth flowed along the trade routes passing through Mecca and Medina, but it was largely lost because of the inter-tribal conflicts encouraged by the great empires to the north. Muhammad secured religious unity through doctrinal simplicity. The singularity of Allah, al-Illah, 'the God', is beyond the range of fruitful speculation and thus entails a priestless morality that is based upon the reflected unity of mankind. La ilaha illa Allah, "there is no god but God", recognition of Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets and commitment to the brotherhood of humanity, became the foundation of a new social order. This radical alteration of tribal loyalty and polytheistic thought released tremendous energies that were initially channelled into conquest.
Within two centuries after the death of Muhammad in AD. 632, much of Persia and the whole of North Africa was Muslim territory. Disgusted by the images and rituals of the followers of the ancient Mediterranean religions, Muslim generals and caliphs closed the faltering Alexandrian Academy and burnt what had survived of the great library. Having no use for priests who claimed special powers and manipulated congregations, Christianity was simply swept away. This purgation destroyed forever many intellectual graces and spiritual jewels of the ancient world, but it equally brought a freshness to the Mediterranean mind. These new masters, secure in their faith in divine destiny, discovered Greek philosophy and science. The soul qualities of 'the people of the Book', the Jews who worshipped the same deity, won Islamic tolerance. In time the energies unleashed in conquest were turned with the same ardour to contemplation and thought. For a few centuries there flourished across Africa and even into Spain a renaissance of spiritual wakefulness that uplifted Muslim and Jew alike and sought expression in architecture and alchemy, song and literature, seldom equalled in recorded history.
Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol was born in Malaga in or around A.D. 1020. Almost nothing is known of his life outside of hints scattered sparingly in his poetry. When still a child, he was taken to Saragossa, perhaps upon the untimely death of his father, a loss he felt keenly for many years. He received an excellent cosmopolitan education, mastering both Arabic and biblical Hebrew, assimilating Islamic neo-Platonism and the philosophy of Aristotle. From an early age he blended an intense interest in exercising the faculty of pure reason with a profound sense of the sacred. Sometimes lamenting the fact that he found no appeal in the amorous pursuits of youth, he declared that at the age of sixteen he had the heart of an eighty-year-old. Frail in body and in health, he turned thoughts and energies usually expended in the world towards philosophy and religion. By sixteen he had already written poetry that stands amongst the best found in medieval Jewish literature, including poems that use the imagery of love in ways made famous by the great Sufi poets. His brilliance and creative genius attracted patrons throughout his life, and by the age of nineteen he had already completed his major didactic poems.
In A.D. 1039 his first and most beloved patron, Jekuthiel, was killed in a court intrigue. From then Gabirol found himself personally and philosophically at odds with the town elders of Saragossa and he drifted towards financial ruin. The climacteric of his life plunged in 1045, the year his mother died. Though already honoured for his poetry, much of which became part of the liturgy of Spanish Jewry and later found its way into Sephardi, Ashkenazi and even Karaite prayer-books, Gabirol turned his attention to philosophy. Affirming a supreme deity transcending all conceivable attributes, he rendered his philosophical understanding in Aristotelian terms. Whilst rejecting the possibility of reasoning from particulars to universal truths, since true understanding is nothing less than divine illumination, he taught that one can come to wisdom through proper exercise of the mind already suffused with devotion. A life dedicated to assimilating knowledge is the preparation of the soul to rejoin the Source of Life from which it emanated. Ecstasy might provide a momentary reunion of the soul with its source even while entombed in the body, but the path of knowledge alone can free the soul after the dissolution of the fleshly prison to wing its way to its original and eternal abode. Gabirol outlined this path in three stages, all composed in 1045.
Kether Malkhuth, The Kingly Crown, is a poem depicting the structure of the universe and the attributes of Deity, showing why they represent the limits of human thought rather than the nature of the Unknowable. Like all his poetry, it was written in biblical Hebrew. Under his Arabic name, Abu Ayyub Sulayman ibn Yahya ibn Jabirul, he wrote Kitab Islah al-Akhlaq, The Improvement of the Moral Qualities, in Arabic, the first attempt amongst Jewish philosophers to systematize ethics. The Torah and prophets of the Bible provide moral guidance in commandments and maxims. Later thinkers organized these injunctions into ordered lists, but Gabirol taught that the basis of ethical imperatives is intrinsic to the nature of the soul. Mekor Hayyim, like all Gabirol's prose, was written in Arabic, and survives in a twelfth century Latin translation, Fons Vitae, Fountain of Life. Once the ethical basis of knowledge is secured by recognizing it in the soul, the three branches of science may be pursued wisely. Fons Vitae outlines the first branch, the doctrine of matter and form, and alludes to the second, the science of Divine Will, leaving the third, the science of Deity, in silence.
Having elucidated the philosophical teachings implicit in his poetry, Gabirol retired from the turmoil in Saragossa to Granada briefly and then to Valencia. Tradition records that he created a female golem or homuncula and exhibited it before the king. Living his last years in relative quiet, Gabirol died in or around 1057, a little over thirty-five years old. The story was told that a jealous Moor murdered Gabirol and secretly buried the body under a fig tree. The evil deed was betrayed when the tree yielded a harvest so dazzling that enquiries were made to discover the source of this almost magical bounty. Gabirol's pellucid spirituality and philosophical insight, respected in his lifetime, gained added lustre after his death. His Arabic prose was eventually lost in the Judaic tradition but was preserved amongst Arabic and Latin philosophers. Fons Vitae, published over Gabirol's Latin name Avicebron, influenced philosophy in the Italian Renaissance and the Franciscan philosophers. Because he makes no reference to the Bible, Talmud or Midrash and uses no traditionally Jewish expressions, Avicebron was generally thought to be a Muslim and sometimes even a Christian. His Hebrew religious poetry remains in use in some sacred rites today. Judah al-Harizi wrote: "All the poets of his age were worthless and false in comparison [with Gabirol]. . . . He alone trod the highest reaches of poetry, and rhetoric gave birth to him in the lap of wisdom . . . all the poets before him were as nothing and after him none rose to equal him." The American sculptor Reed Armstrong created a statue of Gabirol standing in quiet contemplation, capturing devotion in repose, and the municipal council erected it in Malaga, the Spanish city he always considered his temporary earthly home.
As with Plotinus, Gabirol's mystical and devotional philosophy is rooted in an inner sense, a transcending experience of the Divine. Several of his poems may have been written in a state of ecstasy. The only point and purpose of living is preparation for the soul's return to its deific Source, and this can occur only by gaining knowledge of the fundamental principles underlying man and nature, the process of calling forth the potentialities of the soul into actuality. Knowledge culminates in knowledge of the Divine, apprehended only by those who have seen into the mysteries of nature through which the Divine is manifest. Reason and understanding are essential to the soul's release from the prison of conditioned existence. They can be nurtured through a method that examines particulars and moves towards more universal comprehension, a method exemplified in Gabirol's writings. The long philosophical poem Kether Malkhuth, drawing its title from the highest and lowest sephiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, begins with praise for the attributes of God. God is unity, the ground of being, eternity, life itself and absolute divinity. God is also light: "Thou art the supreme Light, and the eyes of the pure soul shall see thee." Gabirol then rejects the implicit notion that Deity and its attributes are distinguishable. Since Deity is absolute, the attributes are in fact the highest expression of human conception.
Deity manifests as ha-Hefez ha-Mezumman, predestined Will, the source of which is Wisdom. Divine Will in nature is destiny, and human wisdom is the understanding of this Will. Beyond the seven celestial spheres circumscribed by the motions of the seven visible planets – Moon, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – and the eighth sphere of the zodiac, is the ninth sphere of the diurnal vault of heaven. Beyond this lies the tenth sphere of pure Intelligence, and transcending it is the "abode of pure souls", the primal emanations of Deity. Will compels souls to descend through Intelligence, which gives them separate existence and through all the spheres to earth, the realm of the four elements – earth, water, air and fire. The materiality of this transitory dwelling is the source of sin. True knowledge is repentance, for the soul escapes its earthly condition through "the power of knowledge which inheres in the soul" itself. Kether Malkhuth was recited in some rites on the Day of Atonement.
In The Improvement of the Moral Qualities, Gabirol looked to those qualities that inhere in the soul and suggested how they should be enhanced or repressed to bring the soul to the path of liberating knowledge. A century earlier, Saadya ben Joseph attempted to convey the qualities of the higher aspect of soul that aspire towards the Divine. Gabirol taught that these qualities are in truth functions of the lower soul, necessarily involved in the world of the senses. These qualities, when properly developed, give rise to discernment, the perfection of the lower soul. Discernment is the threshold of the higher life, the beginning of spiritual ethics, beyond the understanding of the ratiocinative mind, and beyond discussion save amongst those whose experience has already awakened them to the reality of the higher soul. Gabirol's book deals with all that is ordinarily called human, indicating how one can discipline oneself and order one's life to begin treading the path of true knowledge. This is possible because man is a direct emanation of Deity and naturally tends towards his Source except insofar as he is distracted by material existence through the senses. The senses bring to view what can remind man of his true nature as a soul, but having descended through the sphere of the planets, man is circumscribed by them and must make an effort to manifest the soul's innate tendency. To strive for the ideal is man's highest duty, and this means bringing the lower, animal soul in line with the dictates of the higher soul, the Divine within man.
The four elements are represented as four humours in the body. The combinations of the humours give rise to the five physical senses, and these are the channels through which the qualities of the lower soul appear as the play of opposites.
The qualities manifest through the sense of sight are meekness and modesty, and their opposites pride and impudence. Sight stands to the human being in the same relation as the sun to the solar system, and so sight is the sense closest to the Divine Soul, expressing its nature most clearly. To hearing are ascribed love and mercy, hatred and cruelty. The sense of smell is associated with goodwill and wakefulness, wrath and jealousy. Taste, the basest of the senses, requires the first and greatest effort at control. It is related to joy and tranquillity, grief and regret. Touch manifests liberality and valour, niggardliness and cowardice. Duty and spiritual aspiration dictate the cultivation of the first two qualities attributed to each sense and the eradication of the second pair. Whilst quoting from biblical passages to elucidate his meaning, for Gabirol the ethical life is not constituted by mechanical adherence to the Law (Torah). Whilst revering rabbinical teaching, he rejects its tendency to dogmatism.
Fons Vitae, Fountain of Life, is strictly philosophical and makes no reference to the Bible or biblical tradition. Material substances come from simple substances which derive from universal matter and form, an emanation of Divine Will. The first principle is the First Essence, Deity, beyond any characterization or comprehension. That it is is shown by the activity of Divine Will. Nevertheless, everything outside the utterly unknowable First Essence is both spiritual and material. Rational soul, an emanation of the first compound of universal matter and form, Intellect, is connected to vegetative soul, the product of the lowest simple substance, Nature, the animating spirit. "The form of the intellect includes all the forms, and they are contained in it", and so the soul is potentially omniscient. Forms alone are knowable, for matter is inherently unintelligible. Involvement with matter can only awaken the soul to its own potentials through discerning the forms imperfectly embodied in it. Above knowledge of form and matter, however, is the wholly transcendental knowledge of Divine Will, which is identical with Divine Wisdom and the Logos. Considered by itself, Will is Divine Essence, infinite in essence though finite in action. The true knowledge that frees the soul to soar to its source is knowledge of the Will. The animating soul in man, when it disciplines the lower soul through aspiration towards the higher soul, manifests the Divine Will. Ethics is thus the initial knowledge of the Will that opens the way to philosophy, which is the science of the Divine Will in actu, freeing the soul to return to That which is above even Will, Absolute Deity, the ever-hidden Source of creation.
Gabirol taught that "The order of the microcosm is the image of the order of the macrocosm." Since cosmic principles are reflected in the human being, it is possible through spiritual awareness and ethical effort to rise in consciousness to Divine Wisdom and immortal bliss.
For Gabirol, Nature and human existence can be understood only from the standpoint of the universal and Divine. Mundane affairs have no meaning in themselves except to remind the soul of its mission, which is to travel the long road home with gentleness, love and contentment.