Little is known of Gabirol's life, and some sources give contradictory information.:xvi Sources agree that he was born in Málaga, but are unclear whether in late 1021 or early 1022 CE.:xvii The year of his death is a matter of dispute, with conflicting accounts having him dying either before age 30 or by age 48.
Gabirol lived a life of material comfort, never having to work to sustain himself, but he lived a difficult and loveless life, suffering ill health, misfortunes, fickle friendships, and powerful enemies.:xvii—xxvi From his teenage years, he suffered from some disease, possibly lupus vulgaris, that would leave him embittered and in constant pain. He indicates in his poems that he considered himself short and ugly. Of his personality, Moses ibn Ezra wrote: "his irascible temperament dominated his intellect, nor could he rein the demon that was within himself. It came easily to him to lampoon the great, with salvo upon salvo of mockery and sarcasm.":17–18 He has been described summarily as "a social misfit.":12
Gabirol's writings indicate that his father was a prominent figure in Córdoba, but was forced to relocate to Málaga during a political crisis in 1013.:xvii Gabirol's parents died while he was a child, leaving him an orphan with no siblings or close relatives.:xviii He was befriended, supported and protected by a prominent political figure of the time, Yekutiel ibn Hassan al-Mutawakkil ibn Qabrun, and moved to Zaragoza, then an important center of Jewish culture.:xviii Gabirol's anti-social temperament, occasionally boastful poetry, and sharp wit earned him powerful enemies, but as long as Jekuthiel lived, Gabirol remained safe from them:xxiv and was able to freely immerse himself in study of the Talmud, grammar, geometry, astronomy, and philosophy. However, when Gabirol was seventeen years old, his benefactor was assassinated as the result of a political conspiracy, and by 1045 Gabirol found himself compelled to leave Zaragoza.:xxiv He was then sponsored by no less than the grand vizier and top general to the kings of Granada, Samuel ibn Naghrillah (Shmuel HaNaggid).:xxv Gabirol made ibn Naghrillah an object of praise in his poetry until an estrangement arose between them and ibn Naghrillah became the butt of Gabirol's bitterest irony. It seems Gabirol never married,:xxvi and that he spent the remainder of his life wandering.
Gabirol had become an accomplished poet and philosopher at an early age:
- By age 17, he had composed five of his known poems, one an azhara ("I am the master, and Song is my slave") enumerating all 613 commandments of Judaism.:xix
- At age 17, he composed a 200-verse elegy for his friend Yekutiel:xiv and four other notable elegies to mourn the death of Hai Gaon.
- By age 19, he had composed a 400-verse alphabetical and acrostic poem teaching the rules of Hebrew grammar.:xxv
- By age 23 or 25,:xxv he had composed, in Arabic, "Improvement of the Moral Qualities" (Arabic: كتاب الصلاح الأخلاق, translated into Hebrew by Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon as Hebrew: תקון מדות הנפש
- At around age 25, or not,:xxv he may have composed his collection of proverbs Mivchar Pninim (lit. "Choice of Pearls"), although scholars are divided on his authorship.
- At around age 28, or not,:xxv he composed his philosophical work Fons Vitæ.:xxv
As mentioned above, the conflicting accounts of Gabirol's death have him dying either before age 30 or by age 48. The opinion of earliest death, that he died before age 30, is believed to be based upon a misreading of medieval sources. The remaining two opinions are that he died either in 1069 or 1070,:xxvii or around 1058 in Valencia. As to the circumstances of his death, one legend claims that he was trampled to death by an Arab horseman. A second legend relates that he was murdered by a Muslim poet who was jealous of Gabirol's poetic gifts, and who secretly buried him beneath the roots of a fig tree. The tree bore fruit in abundant quantity and of extraordinary sweetness. Its uniqueness excited attention and provoked an investigation. The resulting inspection of the tree uncovered Gabirol's remains, and led to the identification and execution of the murderer.