by S.M. GHAZANFAR
This article is a travelogue of impressions from a recent visit to Spain. For a Muslim who has some familiarity with Islamic history in the Iberian peninsula of the Mediterranean, a visit to Spain is almost like a pilgrimage. However, unlike the pilgrimage to Makkah, such a visit can be spiritually and emotionally agonizing, for one is overwhelmed by manifestations of European Islam in Spain (Al-Andalus, as it was then known). That was the era of the Golden Age of Islam, from early 8th century to late 15th century, almost coincidental with Dark Ages in the rest of Europe, when Al-Andalus was the centre of global civilization.
And the capital city of Cordoba was Europe’s largest the city of books, of patrons of great literary figures and of men who were explorers of knowledge. There existed no separation between science, wisdom, and faith; nor was East separated from the West, nor the Muslim from the Jew or the Christian. It was here that the European Renaissance began and flourished beyond.
For decades I had longed to visit Spain, not only for its legendary charm and picturesque beauty but, more importantly, to experience the heritage of almost 800 years of Islamic presence. In December 1998, I travelled to Spain for the purpose of participating in a colloquium, sponsored by the Paris-based International Society for the Study of Arab and Islamic History and Science (in conjunction with Spanish universities). The conference theme pertained to the contributions of Cordoba’s most important intellectual, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198; known as Averroes in the West) in commemoration of his 800th death anniversary.
The trip also provided me with an opportunity to experience Spain’s Islamic heritage. That heritage, indeed, has its reminders in every nook and corner of contemporary Spain, but especially in the province of Andalucia. That is where the two most prominent monuments of Islams legacy are located: Granada (Arabic Gharnata) and Cordoba (Arabic Qurtaba); both are United Nations “Heritage of Humanity” cities. Of course, these cities are well-maintained by the Spanish Government, for, aside from the “heritage” aspects, both are huge sources of tourist revenue, even though, in times past, Spains Catholic fanaticism had tried to destroy all vestiges of the Islamic heritage. Soon after landing in Madrid, I took a night train to Granada, arriving there the next morning.
Grandeur Of Granada
When Muslims (Arabs and Berbers) arrived in Spain during the early 8th century, they thought they had discovered heaven on earth. Water being somewhat of a luxury for them, they found it in the snows of Spains mountain peaks. By a series of intricate channels, they directed water into the palace grounds and onto plains below. Still today in Granada one gets a glimpse of paradise (so described even by many subsequent visitors and travellers as well) in the majesty of Alhambra Palace and the adjacent Generalife Gardens (Arabic Janna al-Arif, the Garden of the Architect).
Small streams carry the water to numerous fountains and ponds, water even rushing over a stone stairway. One observes and hears splashing and gushing water, with displays of colour under the conifers roses, lilies, jasmine, etc. Aside from the luxury of the Palace itself, there are the courtyards shaded by a variety of trees and cooled by fountains and underground water channels, and walls decorated by patterned tiles. All through one feels the presence of God Almighty, for there are Quranic verses inscribed on the walls, the most prominent and ubiquitous being: “Wa la ghalib illa Allah” (There is no conqueror but Allah).
As one walks through Alhambra and the Gardens, one vicariously absorbs into the past and begins to experience an enormous sense of pride and awe at the glory that was Islam. But as I walked through the Palace, the tour-guide pointed out, among others, the “Ambassadors Hall,” where the Muslim ruler, Abu Abdallah (“Boabdil”, as the guide referred to him) had signed the treaty on November 25, 1491 for eventual surrender of Granada in January 1492 to the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel.
And, I remembered reading, when Abu Abdallah shed tears and cried out, “Allah O Akbar,” his mother said to him, “Cry you like women over a kingdom lost that you could not defend like a man. Thus one feels the pain of an inglorious end to a glorious past, intensified further by ones knowledge of a divided and impoverished present world of Islam, subject to Western hegemony almost since the Crusades. Of course, I strongly felt the tour-guide was inclined to understating the Arab-Islamic character of these historic structures, as well as denigrating the Islamic rulers and religion (e.g., “You have heard of sensuous Moors,” “Islam allows many wives,” etc.). And the mostly non-Muslim, Western tourists, given their own conditioning, seemed quite receptive. However, once my Muslim identity became apparent, there was caution; the guide even stated that during Islamic Spain, “Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully.”
There are numerous other reminders of historic Islam in Granada. There are several smaller palaces and there is the historic Albaican quarter (the Muslim quarter, where still some Muslims live and where the former mosque stands as Church of El-Salvador). Many churches, with domes and crosses on top in place of crescents and bell-towers in place of the Muezzins Adan, clearly revealed their former status. There is the Gothic Cathedral, once the Great Mosque of Granada, where the two Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, are buried. As I visited the Cathedral, I saw more statues and paintings of Catholicism icons than I care to remember, reminding me of at least one of the reasons for the 16th century Protestant split in Christianity. One giant-size painting that covered a large wall was most painful to absorb. It showed a Christian crusader on a horse, flashing his sword, with a dead Muslim lying under, the horse having crushed his neck; thats exactly how the tour-guide had explained, adding that it represented Christian victory over Islam. When I asked her about the implied hate-message, she was slightly taken aback and asked if I was a Muslim, and when I affirmed, her answer was, “Well, it is just a painting.”
And then during the Cathedral visit, there was another interesting conversation with another tour guide. I asked him about the number of Muslims now in Spain. He said, “Not many; only some youngsters are converting out of fashion.” “You mean they are not true to their new faith?” I asked. “No, they will revert,” he seemed confident. I said, “What if they dont? Will there be another Inquisition?” There was a long pause.
Cordoba’s Grand Mosque And Surroundings
From Granada, I proceeded by bus to Cordoba. As I was riding in the bus, I could see, through the eyes of my eyes, the presence of Muslims in history, especially conspicuous because I could see former mosques in every little town along the way. And then, about every few miles, I could see forts and castles on mountain tops, now displaying Christian symbols, as well as often churches besides them. I could see flashbacks of Muslims tending to their olive groves, developing new crops and agriculture technology, and living side-by-side peacefully with their non-Muslim cousins. Yet I could also see them hiding behind the hills and mountains, trying to escape the wrath of the 16th century Inquisition, when their choice was to either be “baptized” (and thus, be “saved”), or face deportation, or risk brutal death.
Among the various monuments of Islamic Spain, the most intense yearning of my soul was to experience the Grand Mosque (Le Mezquita) of Cordoba, built in the 8th century by Emir Abdul Rehman I, but now called The Holy Cathedral. Immediately after arriving at my hotel in Cordoba on December 8, I was able to join a guided tour that took me to the Mosque. As a Muslim, just being there was overwhelmingly therapeutic, for here, before my own eyes, was about the most vivid reminder of the Golden Age of Islam, an era that provided the roots of Europes Enlightenment. In the open compound, there were ornate rows of orange trees, with the Cathedrals bell-tower on one side, once the muezzins minaret. As we entered the Mosque, I could also see the Cathedral, which the Catholic hierarchy, so as to emphasise the victory over Islam, built in the centre of the Mosque during early 16th century. While there was some controversy at the time as to the building of the Cathedral, fortunately its presence helped to preserve the Grand Mosque from destruction at the hands of the new rulers. While standing in the Mosque, I felt spiritually immersed in its serenity and grandeur. There were the majestic arches and columns; there was the symmetry of chandeliers in all directions, interrupted by the presence of the Cathedral. As I saw the mihrab, I was instinctively drawn toward it. It was enclosed by a metal fence, but I could see several Quranic verses on the walls, beautifully inscribed in Arabic calligraphy, intertwined with coloured tilework, and with Christian statues and crosses above. Again, it was easy to flashback and I could see myself standing in prayers, shoulder to shoulder, along side such Muslim intellectual giants of Cordoba as Ibn Hazam, Al-Qurtubi, al-Maqqari, al-Ghafiqi, Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Arabi, and others who once made Cordoba the supreme intellectual centre of the world.
Yet again, I felt, as I did at Alhambra, that the tour guide was painstakingly linking the architectural beauty of the Mosque more with the Romans and less with the centuries of Islamic presence. During interactions with the guide, someone happened to ask about the origins of bullfights in Spain and, as though trying to link this violent sport with “terrorist” Arabs, she responded, “Oh, the Arabs brought that here.” I tried to correct, for I had read somewhere the origins of bullfighting in Catholic legends, in that when Mariam (Mary) was pregnant with Prophet Issa (Jesus Christ; peace be upon both), there was an incident in which a bull was indignant to Mariam, and since then the bull became a beast to be fought back, thus giving rise to bullfighting. She said she had never heard of this. Fortunately, a Catholic couple in the group from Barcelona was able to confirm my story.
Then I encountered a very painful experience in Cordobas Grand Mosque. As the tour was in progress, I felt the urge to perform two nafls, at that al-masjid. So I moved away from the group to a somewhat remote corner and began my prayers. As I stood there, performing the second rakaat, suddenly I felt the presence of an angry man, trembling with rage and breathing straight into my face, admonishing me with his gestures and screaming in Spanish, “No Muslim prayers…..No Muslim prayers” (so I understood). Momentarily, I resisted the pressure of this Catholic security guard; but he held and shook my arm, and forced me to break my niyat. Obviously, I was annoyed but far more intense was my spiritual agony, for here was one of the most sacred heritages of Spanish Islam and as a Muslim, I was being denied the freedom to say prayers.
This was despite my knowledge that post-Franco Spain had become more tolerant and that even the Spanish Parliament had passed a legislation that accepted Islam, Judaism, Protestant Christianity as co-equals with Catholicism. Despite my protests (to be fair, the guide and some others joined my protest), the guard tightly held my arm and escorted me out of the Mosque.
As I stood outside the Mosque, the pain was unbearable and my eyes filled with tears. And there I was, thinking of the late Allama Iqbal (1873-1938) of the Indian sub-continent who visited this Mosque in the 1930s (with special permission from England, for until not long ago, Muslims and Jews were forbidden to enter Spain) and, having encountered similar experiences, he expressed his anguish in his poetry; thus, in his “Mosque of Qurtaba,” he bemoaned:
“Oh Holy Mosque of Qurtaba, the shrine for all admirers of art / Pearl of the one true faith, sanctifying Andalusias soil / Like Holy Makkah itself, such a glorious beauty / Will be found on earth, only in a true Muslims heart.”
As I stood there outside the Mosque, I was thinking of the well-known tolerance and protection that Islam has historically extended to other faiths. And my mind was occupied by the thoughts of Allama Iqbals most touching poems he wrote during his visit to Spain. I had carried them with me to Spain and they became the source of some comfort in my pain. Of course, during the day or so, I cautiously returned to the Mosque, accompanied by a Muslim colleague from France; and I was able to absorb its quiet spirituality more thoroughly.
But there is so much more of Islam’s legacy in Cordoba. Guided by a city map, I decided to explore more by walking. Echoes of Cordoba’s grandeur remain in the area around the Mosque, for it is typical of a Muslim town of small palaces, built around watered courtyards, and to explore these streets is to encounter unexpected joys: glimpses through open doors (which would have been shut in Islamic times) reveal cool, tiled and flower-filled patios. Street names in Arabic seemed common. “Alfaros” was the Arabic name of the hotel where I stayed, with some of the specialty rooms also named in Arabic (e.g., “Saloon al-Zahra”). And there were churches, castles, and fortresses which would remind me of their Islamic past, either by their structure or some inscriptions. As I walked along the banks of Guadalquivir (derived from al-Wadi al-Kabir, or Great River, in Arabic), I saw the picturesque ruins of three flour-mills from the Islamic days, with a Roman bridge standing in the background. On the other side of the bridge stood a historic fort, the Tower of Calahorra (Arabic Qalah al-Harrah, or The Fort of Freedom), which houses a small but excellent Arab-funded Islamic Museum. The most spectacular sight, however, was that of a 9th century waterwheel (Spanish noira, from Arabic al-naurah) still standing in the river. During centuries past, water used to be taken from here and transported through intricate channels to the Mosque and the rest of the city. Near the Mosque is the Alcazar (Al-Qasr in Arabic), built in the 8th century, the residence of the first Ummayad emir, Abdur Rehman. Then, of course, I had to pay homage to Ibn Rushd not far from the Mosque.
While I was unable to say prayers in the Grand Mosque, I knew that there was at least one functional mosque now in Cordoba. And I had also known of the newly-founded Ibn Rushd Islamic University in the vicinity of the Mosque. Upon some investigation, I located the university and the mosque that is within it; and I went there for Friday prayers on December 11th. That visit turned out to be quite an experience by itself. It was most moving to hear the sound of adaan on the soil of Spain, where the general environment is still rather hostile and where once even the slightest suspicion of ones Islamic faith could lead to death. And, further, I discovered this irony: the university and the mosque are now located almost exactly at the spot where so much of the Islamic past was destroyed: religious scriptures and thousands of books written by Islamic scholars. This was also one of the spots where Muslims used to be burnt at the stake for their refusal to be baptized or for suspicion that they were not quite “Christian”. Those who thus converted by force became known as Moriscos. Most Andalusians have that Morisco past even today, though over the centuries their identity is so thoroughly lost in the larger society that hardly anyone remembers or wants to remember, and any attempt to remind them arouses surprise, even ridicule and hostility (as I discovered for myself!). Of course, the Jews, though less numerous, had suffered similar fate in Spain, and those “baptized” were known as Conversos.
In the Universitys mosque, I met some native young Spaniards (including three women) who, having discovered their roots and/or having formally studied comparative religion, had embraced Islam. In fact, it was most moving to hear the Friday khutba from the mouth of a young Spanish Muslim, who spoke in fluent Arabic, and even provided translation in English as well as Spanish! Of course, he also led the prayers. As I think back of these young Spanish Muslims, I also reminisce about what that guide in the Granada cathedral had told me about the “young Spaniards converting out of fashion”.
Then, at the University, I met the Universitys Rector, Dr. Ali M. Kettani, a Moroccan by origin. And it was a pleasant surprise, for he and I had briefly known each other in the 1980s when we were both located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I have not met many people with the dedication, enthusiasm and commitment to the cause of Islam that I observed in Dr. Kettani. With his own almost single-handed efforts, he has founded this small university in an environment which, though officially tolerant, still exudes Catholic fanaticism; I was told the university and mosque doors have to be locked all the time, for there have been instances of violence and vandalism. The University currently enrolls some students (Muslims and non-Muslims) and there are plans underway for expansion. However, there is also a desperate need for financial resources (anyone willing to contribute may contact the author).
And while visiting the University, I also learnt of a very gruesome tragedy that a prominent Muslim lady, Sabora Uribe, had suffered. Professionally a psychiatrist, the wife of the President of the Federation of Spanish Muslim Entities, the mother of five children, she had embraced Islam 20 years ago and was the founder of the Women’s Spanish Muslim Association (called “Al-Nisa”). She was brutally murdered in a town near Cordoba on October 28, 1998. The University has named one of its classrooms in her memory.
At the end of the Ibn Rushd colloquium and having absorbed as much of Cordoba as I could within the time available, a colleague and I decided to make a quick visit to Seville. Of course, this city has its own Islamic heritage. I had read somewhere that the name Seville is a derivation from the original Arabic, Ishibiliya. And that name was given to honour a famous 12th century Muslim botanist of this city, Abu Zakariyah al-Ishbili, who had identified nearly 600 plants, 50 different types of fruit trees, and had developed methods of grafting in order to grow better plants and trees. But there is more of Islamic past in Seville, submerged in the famous relics of the Alcazar and the Cathedral/La Giralda.
About like the Alhambra Palace, the Sevilles Alcazar (Al-Qasr) is another architectural jewel from the early days of Islam. It was built in the 8th century and then expanded in the 9th. Later the Christian rulers made further additions, but in spite of the Gothic details, the entire structure is essentially Islamic and follows the Islamic tradition of halls and open courts with water fountains. The walls are covered in painted stucco and glazed tiles. The blue and white inscription proclaims the same message that I saw in Alhambra: “wa la Ghalib ill-Allah” (There is no conqueror but Allah). Over the vestibule doors are elongated voussoirs which make a nice introduction to more fantasies. Multi-lobed arches support facades of a network of lace-like stone and foliage in which lurk human faces besides the shields of Castile (added during the Christian rule). There is the Hall of the Kings, with fine woodwork, a triple horseshoe-arched arcade and deep alcoves. Then there is the “Hall of the Ambassadors,” with its similar triple arcades, sharply cut while the ornament is so lavish that it would numb the senses were it not for the vistas beyond. The dome is starlit above subdued muqarana squinches (shoulders of masonry supporting the dome, with interlocking woodwork producing the effect of stalactites) which catch and reflect the light. One of the most elaborate plaster designs in one of the halls is a foliate lattice inset with pine cones, some of which seemed crushed into thistle heads and others conjured into three-dimensional shells.
After absorbing the interior wonders of the Alcazar Palace, I walked through the well-trimmed hedges in the exterior, sat on the tiled benches and enjoyed the beautiful flowers as the Muslim emirs and their entourage must have enjoyed them when they were the masters. And I wondered: If only the Muslim architects would come here to the land of their forefathers to study the beautiful Andalusian architecture, what improvements could be made to the modern concrete boxes that are common place. And how the sons of the desert became such excellent gardeners and farmers still mystify historians and scholars! They introduced so many different types of plants in the West: lemons, oranges, apricots, artichokes, dates, rice, sugarcane it is a long list.
And then we walked to Sevilles famous Cathedral and its La Giralda (The Minaret)the grandest of the minarets, rivaled only by its parent, the kutubiyya of Marrakesh. The Cathedral is now where the Great Mosque of Seville was built in 1172; and the original minaret was built in 1198. The mosque was converted to Christian use in 1248. Later it was demolished, except for the dome and the minaret, and the Cathedral was built during the 15th century. I walked through the Cathedral and absorbed what I could, and we even walked to the top of the 165-feet tall minaret (no stairs, only gently sloping ramps). Aside from the visible dome and the minaret (both now “Christianised”, of course), an astute visitor can also see the Cathedrals Islamic past in two other manifestations: an Arabic-language wall plate as one enters the minaret that tells of its architect, Abu Yusuf Yaqub; and the huge entry gate whose doors have not only the Islamic design but also 12th century Arabic inscriptions. There is nothing inside the Cathedral that would suggest its Islamic past. There is the thoroughly Gothic architecture inside, with dozens of statues and paintings of Christian icons and other symbolisms.
Yet, I was impressed by the Cathedrals interior, not only for its grandeur and richness but also for the serene and solemn atmosphere and the religious sanctity that it conveyed, much more than I felt in Granada’s Cathedral. I also saw in the Cathedral the tomb of Christopher Columbus, who, after the 1492 fall of Islamic Granada, was charged by Isabella and Ferdinand to seek out India. But one factor that caused him to pursue that task by travelling the West was the Ottoman presence in the East; and guided by well-travelled Muslim navigators, he happened to “discover” the Americas in the same year (of course, many dispute and despise his adventures).
While the splendid monuments of Islamic history that one encounters in Spain represent a tangible legacy of a great civilization, there are many others that are less tangible and which are part of daily lives and taken for granted. Perhaps the most telling example of continuing Islamic influence is the survival of myriad Arabic words and phrases in the Spanish language, such as almirante (al-amir), almohade (al-mohtasub), arroz (al-ruz), guitarra (qitar), aceituna (zaytuna), and many others. Further, when one hears “Ole! Ole!” during the Flamenco dances and Spanish bullfights, the unwitting reference is to “Allah! Allah!” And when a Spaniard or Portuguese says “Ojala” (God willing), he probably does not even know that he is uttering the distorted version of Arabic “Insha-Allah”. And there is so much more, including many customs and traditions that go back to the Islamic past, despite the fact that during the early 15th century Spanish Inquisition, anything with the slightest link to the Arabic language or Islamic faith or practice was absolutely forbidden and subject to the severest punishments.
Contemporary Spain vigorously promotes Alhambra and other monuments of Al-Andalus as major tourist attractions. Yet, the promoters, including the tour-guides, do not quite point out that these are legacies of nearly eight centuries during which Muslims not only occupied Spain but planted the roots of European Renaissance through unparalleled transfer of knowledge in almost every field known. In other words, while Spain and the West are happy to inherit and benefit from the legacy of Islamic Spain (with its own assimilation, to be sure, of the rediscovered Greek reservoir of knowledge), there is stubborn reluctance to acknowledging how that legacy contributed to Europes ascendance. The American traveller, Washington Irving, observed this paradox when he visited Spain during early 18th century. The Spanish, he remarked, considered Muslims only “invaders and usurpers;” and that still seems to the case today.
Yet, given the official acceptance of Islam in 1989, there is now freedom of religion in Spain, at least officially. However, fanaticism still becomes visible at times, such as the murder of a Muslim woman last October. According to information available from the Islamic University of Cordoba, there are now about 500,000 Muslims living in Spain about 100,000 citizens, the rest are foreigners. Of the citizens, about 20,000 are converts, the rest are naturalised. Most of the new Muslims live in the Andalucia region, though one can find some in all regions of Spain.
There are about 200 mosques in Spain today, 50 of them in the Andalucia region. At one time, of course, there were over 1600 mosques in Cordoba alone!
Finally, while I have had the good fortunate of having done some travelling here and there, none except my visits to Makkah and Medina surpasses the spiritual and emotional experience that I felt upon being immersed for a few days into Spain’s Islamic past. There is indeed a sense of pride and humility about the glorious age of my forbearers in faith. This personal exposure to Islamic legacy, as well as my other recent academic explorations into Islam’s intellectual contributions and their impact in the making of the West, are in the nature of spiritual medicine, a sort of a therapy for the soul. Such encounters enable me to escape into history books and thus help me in overcoming the sense of inferiority and humiliation that haunts me as a Muslim; I suspect I am not alone. One finds solace not only in the lamentations of late Allama Iqbal, but also one hopes for a brighter Islamic future, as visualised in the writings of such universal intellectual giants as Ibn Sina (980-1037), Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), and Ibn Rushd (1126-1998). The meaning of life and its goal in Al-Andalus during its Islamic apogee directed each act of daily living, as well as scientific explorations. Such explorations were not set apart from wisdom and faith, and none can express this delicately-balanced bliss better than Ibn Rushd. Thus, during my visit to Cordobas Islamic Museum, I noted this message from a recorded tape of Ibn Rushd’s remarks from his book, On the Harmony of Science and Religion:
- (i) science, founded on experience and logic, to discover reason;
- (ii) wisdom, which reflects on the purpose of every scientific research so that it serves to make our life more beautiful; and
- (iii) revelation, that of our Quran, as it is only through revelation that we know the final purposes of our life and our history. Amen.
DR. S.M. GHAZANFAR is a long-time resident of the USA, born in pre-partitioned India, migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and moved to the USA as a student in 1958; currently, he is Professor and Chair, Department of Economics, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83843 (USA)