Where the Moors Held Sway, Allah Is Praised Again

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 legendary sigh.

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 suede brogues.

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 Abdalqadir.

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 hands.

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 city.

“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. Castiñeira said.

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 years.

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 government approved.

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 of town.

“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 each week.

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