Knowledge and culture indeed can have a pronounced effect on cities. As I have been exploring Muslim intellectualism and libraries from the medieval world, specifically, Muslim Spain, I want to tell you a story about a remarkable woman from a remarkable city: Lubna, the Scribe of Cordoba.
Lubna al-Katib (The Scribe)
Now known as Lubra of Cordoba, she went on to become the head secretary, Katiba al-Kubra, for the Caliph, the curator, and the manager of the glorious library of Madinat-ul-Zahra, the capital of al-Andalus.
Unfortunately, there is no exact information on her personal life, such as the exact details of her birth, death, and family. However, it is known that she was born into a family of slaves, and was raised at the court of Caliph Abdurrahman III (891–961). She was known to be an eloquent poet, prolific scribe, renowned court member, an avid polymath, as well as someone with extraordinary command over linguistics.
Although, as a copyist, a Nasikha, she was known for a very steady hand even well into her old age, she was in charge of more than copying and translating books. She commented on individual works, including those of Euclidas, and made annotations to the manuscripts stored in the palace library, indicating the origin of the author and a brief overview of the work. Responsible for replenishing the library, Lubna traveled to the Middle East and in search of rare manuscripts visited Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad.
Interestingly, Lubna was also in charge of training children of the royal household in chess.
She stood out for the time she devoted to literary creations and teaching. Having mastered several languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, coupled with her command of grammar, she became an expert at writing official letters and diplomatic missives. Also a philanthropist, she set up a school at the library, where she gave street children of Cordoba lessons on mathematics, philosophy, and other subjects. Besides this, she is accredited for promoting the Royal Library, along with the Jewish physician and diplomat, Ibn Shaprut.
Historical accounts on Lubna
Ibn Bashkuwal, an Andalusi traditionist, historian, and jurist, has mentioned her in his best-known work: a biographical dictionary Kitāb al-Sila fi Tarikh A’Immat al-Andalus (The Continuation on the History of the Sages of al-Andalus). The Ṣila is a continuation of Ibn al-Faradi’s biographical work, Tarikh-e-Ulama-e-al-Andalus. Other authors who contributed to the Sila were Ibn al-Abbar, in his Takmila (The Complement), and Ibn al-Zubayr, in Ṣilat al-Sila (‘The continuation of The conti…)
She wrote excellently, knew grammar and poetry. Her knowledge of mathematics was enormous. She was also experienced in other sciences. There was no one more noble than her in the Umayyad palace.
The chronicles of Ibn Bashkaval about Lubna
Spain honours her daughter
Cordoba named one of its streets for “Lubna the Scribe” in 2019. The decision, reached by the City Government of Cordoba and its Urban Planning Department, at the initiative of the Citizen Transit Board (CMC), means acknowledging, beyond any clichés and historical prejudices, the role of women in Al-Andalus, who formed part of life in Al-Andalus and the Middle Ages, even reaching positions and holding roles in Law, religion, patronage of the arts, society, etc., that existed in both public and private spaces, making women more visible.
Finding meaning between myth and legend
With Lubna’s legacy shrouded in mystery, the details of her life are blurred and the confusion over her achievements and role in the court of Cordoba do not always align perfectly. However, this should not negate her influential existence and the lessons of excellence, that we may learn from her stories.
In some sources, it is reported that she also went by the name of Fatima. Kamila Shamsie, however, a British-Pakistani author theorised that Lubna could be an image of two intellectual women in the same court due to male historians’ inability to comprehend that there were two influential women players in the Andalusian court.
Having impressed the members of the royal family with her education and brilliant mind, she earned her freedom. Soon after, she was appointed as a scribe at the palace library, which opened the doors for her future.
Interestingly, with Moorish Iberia being an egalitarian society, where education was stressed for all, this was not an uncommon practice. According to various Arab chronicles, during the time of Caliph Al-Hakam II (915–976), as al-Andalus continued to culturally flourish, there were more than 170 female scribes in different regions of Cordoba alone, as per reliable sources. Perhaps why so little is known about her, is because, despite her uniqueness, women of her stature weren’t unusual. Thus, not finding anything particularly special about them, historians and biographers may have chosen to omit these women from their accounts.
Al-Andalus remains one of the brightest and the darkest chapters in Islamic history. It is important to remember that the loot, plunder, burning, and complete destruction of libraries, books, and scholarly documents during the Reconquista if handed down to us, might have changed the course of history as we know it.