Samuel HaNagid was born Samuel Idn Naghrilla in Merida, Spain in 993. A member of the genetically distinct ethnic group in Southern Spain known as the Andalusian people, he was thoroughly educated by his father and was a Talmudic scholar, statesman, poet, soldier, philologist, and generally one of the most influential people in Muslim Spain. He began his Talmudic life as a student of one of the most respected Rabbis at the time, Rabbi Enoch, and was fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin.
Samuel was a poor merchant in Cordova, barely making ends meet until the Amrid Kingdom collapsed when the Berbers sacked Cordova in 1013. The violence of the Cordova Civil War in 1013 caused Samuel to leave along with many other Jewish residents, as the Berbers tore through their city persecuting Jews and other ethnic groups. Eventually he settled in Malaga, currently the 6th largest city in Spain. With it's large Andalusian population Samuel felt at home, and opened up a spice shop that happened to be near the palace of the vizier of Granada, Abu al-Kasim ibn al-Arif. A vizier is a high-ranking political advisor or figure in a Muslim country. Samuel began getting visits from a servant of the vizier requesting that Samuel write letters for him, and due to his mastery of Arabic and Hebrew caligraphy he obliged. Eventually one of these letters found it's way into the hands of the vizier, who admired the beautiful writing style so much that he requested the servant introduce him to the writer. After their first meeting Samuel was hired as the personal secretary of the vizier, and was thrust into the life of the Royal Court. Samuel and vizier Abu al-Kasim ibn al-Arif became close friends and the vizier saw genius in Samuel. As his secretary Samuel also gave the vizier political counsel, and vizier al-Arif respected Samuels opinions very highly until the day that he died.
On al-Arif's death bed, he admitted to King Habbus al-Muzaffar that most of his political successes and decisions were the result of consulting with his Jewish secretary. Al-Arif confessed that he had been advising the King with advice that he had recieved from Samuel, a Jew. The vizier spoke so highly of Samuel that King Habbus put aside all of his prejudices against Jews and on the recommendation of al-Arif, King Habbus took Samuel under his wing and appointed him to al-Arif's position. Pursuant to the Pact of Umar, Jews were not allowed to hold public office in Muslim countries, so his position of vizier was unheard of. As vizier of Granada Samuel was now the highest ranking Jew in Muslim Spain, being trusted with all of King Habbus's political and military affairs. He flourished in this position, all the while staying humble and kind.
King Habbus had 2 sons, the elder named Badis and the younger named Bulukkin. In Habbus's poor health due to his old age, there was much debate about who would be the successor to the king. The people of the kingdom along with Samuel favored Badis but the princes, nobles, and most of the Jewish population favored Bulukkin. After the death of King Habbus in 1027, the Berber princes went to crown the younger son, Bulukkin, but he immediately abdicated and kissed the hand of Badis, thus forcing the princes to crown Badis king. Bulukkin regretted his decision heavily and resented his brother, attempting to sabotage his kingly duties. Eventually Bulukkin fell ill and the royal physician was instructed by Badis to not cure Bulukkin, causing Bulukkin to die soon afterwards. Samuel was appointed Badis's top advisor and military general for his support, and in 1027 adopted the title of HaNagid, or "prince" and became Samuel HaNagid.
Putting his newfound wealth and high authority to good use, Samuel HaNagid was passionate about the dissemination of knowlege. He purchased and gave away thousands of copies of books, presenting them to poor students in Egypt, Sicily, Spain and Jerusalem. He sought actively to spread Judaism and Jewish culture, donating funds to those less fortunate tho wished to study the Torah and Talmud.
After holding the position of vizier for three decades Samuel HaNagid died of natural causes in 1056. He was beloved by the community and was mourned by Muslims and Jews alike. Samuel was succeeded in the position of vizier by his son Rabbi Joseph HaNagid, who was less beloved and respected by the people. Joseph could not get done nearly as much as his father, and the Muslim community was suspicious that he was using his power to benefit the Jews of the city disproportionately. In December 1066 angry Muslims stormed the Royal Palace where Joseph lived, and proceeded to crucify him. The ensuing day the Muslims massacred the entire Jewish population of Granada, killing more than 1,500 families.
Samuel HaNagid's legacy is a great one, and the story of his rise to political prominence from shopkeeper is inspiring. He was a prominent and well known Jewish poet at the time, and is often considered a visionary by modern Jewish people. Although not much of his work survived through the years the writings that we do have show an extraordinary scholar and respected Jewish mind. His only large work that has survived is the Mebo ha-Talmud, a 2 part piece that consists of a list of Jewish scholars from the Great Assembly to his mentor Rabbi Enoch, and a methodology of the Talmud. This work by Samuel was later included in every edition of the Talmud. Many of his poems can be found in Jewish poetry compilations in your local bookstore, including Selected Poems of Shmuel Hanagid translated by Peter Cole.