By Craig S. Smith
The New York Times
October 21, 2003
GRANADA, Spain — Muslims are back in this ancient
Moorish stronghold, the last bastion of Islam in Spain
before the 15th-century emir Boabdil kissed King
Ferdinand's hand and relinquished the city with a
But the row of men kneeling in prayer at the city's
new mosque, the first built here in more than 500
years, are not modern-day Moors; they are
well-educated European converts.
"We've come to offer society the only alternative that
exists to lead it out of chaos," declared one of the
community's founders, Hajj Abdulhasib Castiñeira, a
tall, bearded Spaniard in a glen plaid jacket and
While immigration is gradually spreading Islam across
Europe, a homegrown movement is giving it added
momentum in Spain, where a generation of post-Franco
intellectuals are reassessing the country's Moorish
past and recasting Spanish identity to include Islamic
influences rejected as heretical centuries ago.
The movement has its roots, not in the austere Islamic
fundamentalism that dominates popular Western
imagination these days, but in the Beat Generation and
the hippies who pursued spiritual quests to Morocco
when it was a counterculturalist Mecca of sun, sand
and cheap hashish.
There, a young patrician Scot, Ian Dallas, converted
to Islam. He eventually changed his name to Sheik
Abdalqadir al-Murabit and returned to Britain, where
he began gathering Western converts, who became known
as the Murabitun.
The movement is marked by his proselytizing vision,
which strives ultimately to found an Islamic caliphate
with an economy based on gold dinars. A handful of
Spaniards accepted Islam under his tutelage on the eve
of Franco's death and returned to Córdoba to start an
Islamic community there.
Religious conversion has a long tradition in Spain, a
land as close to Muslim North Africa as to the rest of
Christian Europe across the Pyrenees. During 800 years
of Islamic rule, many Christians converted to Islam.
After the Christian reconquest, Muslims were forced to
convert to Christianity.
"All of this makes Spanish people more prone to accept
Islam," said Mr. Castiñeira, sitting on a sofa outside
his small office in the hillside mosque.
The new Muslims attracted leftist intellectuals
looking for spiritual alternatives to the strict
Catholicism that dominated life under Franco. Spain's
Muslim converts now number in the tens of thousands,
though many of the new Muslims no longer follow Sheik
The converts may be divided by interpretations of
Islam, but they insist their faith is not driven by
nostalgia for an idealized history. "We reject the
romantic idea of a return to the Islam of the past,"
said Malik Abderrahmán Ruiz, a Granada native who
converted in 1992 and is the community's emir. "We've
created a new community of this place and this time."
Granada has about 15,000 Muslims today, mostly
Moroccan and Syrian immigrants and North African
students who worship at three nondescript Muslim
prayer rooms in different parts of town.
But the town's 1,000 or so converts are very
significant, Mr. Ruiz said, because they give Islam a
voice that cannot be ignored. Granada's Islamic
Council, for example, has been lobbying to stop annual
celebrations of the fall of Granada into Christian
Mr. Castiñeira joined the original Spanish converts in
Córdoba and became a Muslim in 1977. Later, at an Arab
leadership conference in Seville, Granada's socialist
mayor encouraged him and other Muslims to move to the
"He said if we ever build a mosque, it should be in
Granada because the last stronghold of the old Muslim
community should be the first of the new," Mr.
Eventually a small group of converts settled in the
city's old Moorish quarter, Albaicín, looking across
at the Alhambra, the medieval Moorish citadel that for
centuries was the center of Islamic power on the
Iberian peninsula. They found land for a mosque and in
1981 Mr. Castiñeira and another convert embarked on a
trip to the Persian Gulf, hoping to gather the $10,000
they needed to buy the land.
They accepted contributions from Libya, Morocco and
even Malaysia, but much of the financing came from the
Emir of Sharjah, one of the rulers of the United Arab
Emirates. They say they rejected any support offered
with strings attached.
By the time the financing was in place, though,
Granada's socialist mayor was gone and local
opposition kept the project from going forward for 20
Across Europe, plans to build mosques have met
resistance in traditionally Christian communities,
where people worry that the growth of Islam is
changing the character of their towns. In Berlin, for
example, construction of a mosque has been stopped
because its minarets were built higher than the local
But nowhere, perhaps, has a mosque stirred as much
emotion as in Granada, where the location, across a
ravine from the reddish-brown ramparts of Islam's last
stand, carries unmistakable symbolism. At one point,
the city offered Mr. Castiñeira and his colleagues a
building site in an industrial zone on the outskirts
"Political lobbies have done everything they could to
stop this mosque," he said, adding that a core of
"right-wing Catholic families" continued an expensive
legal battle against the mosque until the end.
The mosque was scaled down to half its proposed size
and the height of its Spanish-style minaret was cut
down to satisfy local demands. Even then, the Muslims
were asked to first build a full-scale model of the
minaret to reassure the neighborhood.
Today, the whitewashed brick mosque blends seamlessly
into the increasingly gentrified neighborhood.
Hundreds of tourists visit the garden each day and Mr.
Castiñeira said a few people convert to Islam there
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