In European historiography and in common discourse, the Middle Ages are generally looked upon as an age of darkness and barbarism. This is only partially true. While large parts of Europe were steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness, some regions like the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and Venice were at the height of cultural progress and development.
Muslim rule in Andalusia brought about a positive transformation of Spanish society. It resulted in political stability and economic revival through the introduction of new irrigation methods, new crops, plants and fruits. These included cotton, sugarcane, rice, grapes, figs, apricots, saffron, peaches, cumin, coriander, bananas, pomegranates, lemons and oranges. Trade routes were substantially expanded, which facilitated extensive trading across the Mediterranean as well as the Far East. Canals, streams and windmills were extensively used for supplying water to cities as well as for irrigation. Andalusia’s silk fabrics, jewellery, leather articles, lustre pottery and paper became famous throughout Europe. The first paper factory in Europe was established in the Spanish city of Jativa (Shatiba) in 1150, whence the technology of papermaking passed into Italy and subsequently into other parts of Europe.
Three distinct factors contributed to the efflorescence of Andalusia during the medieval period. In the first place, the Muslim ruling elite did not behave like aliens or foreign conquerors but identified themselves with the region and the local population. They had no hesitation in adopting local dialects, architectural styles and cultural patterns. Many of them married local Spanish women and their progeny came to develop a composite, mosaic identity. Second, Muslim rulers nurtured and sustained an ethos of harmonious coexistence, tolerance and accommodation. Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together and shared substantial social and cultural spaces despite their religious and cultural differences. The celebrated Spanish-American historian, Americo Castro, famously described this as a state of convivencia (living together).
It is noteworthy that the evolution of this composite, hybrid cultural tradition in the Iberian Peninsula did not lead to a collapse of religious or ethnic boundaries and distinctions. Muslims, Jews and Christians scrupulously maintained their respective religious and ethnic identities and, at the same time, participated in a shared cultural universe. Third, the active interest evinced by the Muslim ruling elite in the economic and cultural development of Andalusia endeared them to large masses of people. A combination of these factors brought about a remarkable, unprecedented development of science, philosophy, literature and arts and crafts and made the Iberian Peninsula the envy of Europe.
In the beginning of the 10th century, Cordoba was perhaps the most beautiful and splendid place on earth, with 900 public baths, thousands of shops selling a variety of merchandise, and hundreds of mosques. Well-lit streets and running water from aqueducts made Cordoba look like a fairy-tale city. In addition to its material prosperity, Cordoba was also a city of learning and scholarship, with more than 70 public libraries. There were some four hundred thousand volumes in the caliph’s library. During this time, the largest library in Latin Europe probably had no more than four hundred manuscripts. The catalogue of Cordoba’s main library ran into 44 volumes. There were 70 copyists in the book market, who worked exclusively on making copies of the Holy Quran.
Madinat al-Zahra, 8 kilometres west of Cordoba, was built in the 10th century and was the largest city ever built from scratch in Western Europe, covering an area of nearly 280 acres.
The culture of harmonious living and accommodation that flourished in medieval Spain was not a fortuitous phenomenon but the outcome of the implementation of Islamic principles and legal provisions related to the protection of non-Muslims in the Islamic state. Islamic law explicitly enjoins that Jews and Christians—who are described as ‘People of the Book’ in the Quran and in the Prophetic Traditions—are to be protected by the Islamic state in respect of their life and property, beliefs and rituals, and religious and legal institutions. They are granted religious and cultural freedom and cannot be forced to convert to Islam. The religiously-mandated protection of Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain greatly contributed to their material and cultural prosperity.
Shortly after the Islamic conquest, an agreement was signed by the new ruler, Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa ibn Nusayr, and Theodomir, the last of the Visigothic kings of the Iberian Peninsula, whereby the Islamic stated guaranteed the protection of life, property, beliefs and rituals, and religious institutions of the local people.
Islamic influences on Jews and Christians and on Spanish society in general were far-reaching and extensive and encompassed popular culture, language and literature, architecture, science and philosophy, and every-day life. Christians and Jews enthusiastically took to Arabic as a vibrant language of poetry and elegance and soon lost touch with Latin. All the Christian texts and liturgy were translated from Latin into Arabic and became a part of the community’s religious life. Christians who had lived in an Islamic polity and had imbibed a great deal of Arabic influences in their language, culture and literature came to be known as Mozarabs. They spoke a language called Mozarabic, a Romance dialect full of Arabic vocabulary. From the 9th to the 11th century, Mozarabs celebrated the Eucharist, not in Latin, the liturgical language of Western Christendom, but in Arabic.
In November 1982, when Pope John Paul II had made a brief stopover in the Spanish city of Toledo, he was greeted by representatives of the city’s Christian Mozarabic community. They presented to the Pope a tenth-century prayer book written in Arabic, which began with the Islamic invocation Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim.
By the middle of the 13th century, Cordoba, Valencia and Seville were reconquered by Christian rulers, following which Muslims living there began to face persecution. They were forbidden to announce calls to prayers from minarets and from going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Many mosques, including the one located in the Alhambra palace complex, were converted into churches. Arabic inscriptions at the Alhambra palace were erased and replaced by figures of Christian saints and monks. The reading of Arabic books was prohibited and many of them were burned. Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity and those who refused were expelled from the country. Granada, the last of the Islamic kingdoms of Andalusia, fell in 1492. Muhammad XI, the last of the Nasirid rulers, handed the keys of the royal palace to Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. Following the fall of Granada, Muslims, Jews and Gypsies were expelled from the country. Moriscos, descendants of Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity in 1502, were prohibited from speaking Arabic and from marrying according to Islamic rites. Finally, after a century of forced conversions between 1502 and 1615, all Moriscos—estimated at over 300,000—were driven out of the country.
The Democratic Transition
Following the Reconquest, Spain came to be constructed as a monocultural, monolingual and exclusively Catholic country. Muslims (pejoratively described as the Moor (el moro) came to be perceived as the Other, as cruel, barbarous and cowardly. Spain became a republic in 1931. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) ended in victory for the nationalists under General Fracisco Franco, who ruled as a dictator until his death in 1975. Juan Carlos succeeded him as head of state and restored the monarchy. A new constitution was promulgated in 1978 whereby Spain was declared a constitutional monarchy. With the transition to democracy, Spain came to be transformed from a mono-confessional Catholic state to a non-confessional secular state. The Spanish constitution guarantees religious freedom, freedom of worship and equality for individuals and groups and declares that “no faith shall have the character of state religion”.
According to the citizenship laws and procedures laid down in 1985, which combine birth and descent, those born in Spain with at least one parent who was born in the country are automatically eligible for citizenship. Generally, foreigners can acquire Spanish citizenship after ten years of residence in the country. However, this period is reduced to only two years for those with a ‘preferred’ nationality or for those who have some historical links with Spain. These preferred groups include Latin Americans, Portuguese, Philippinos, Guineans and Sephardic Jews. Ironically, Muslims, who have ruled the country for nearly eight centuries, are not included among preferred groups.
Muslims in present-day Spain
There is little information about the current Muslim population of Spain. Article 16.2 of the Spanish constitution prohibits the enumeration of religious confessions in the state census. The Observatorio Andalusi, an institute associated with the Union of Islamic Communities in Spain (UCIDE), estimates the Muslim population in the country at about 1,145,000, representing approximately 2.5 per cent of the country’s population. Islam was decreed a ‘firmly rooted’ religion in the country in 1989, five years after the privilege was accorded to Protestantism and Judaism.
Moroccan immigrants, naturalized citizens and their descendants comprise the largest groups of Muslims in Spain. In addition, there are Muslim migrants from Algeria, Pakistan and some sub-Saharan countries. There is also a small—but growing—group of Spanish converts. The Moroccans are generally employed in agriculture, construction and the service industry. Compared with immigrants of other nationalities, those of Moroccan origin have the highest unemployment rates and are discriminated against in the labour market. The current economic downturn has added to the woes of immigrants in the country.
In 1992 a Cooperation Agreement was signed between the state and the Islamic Commission of Spain (Comision Islamica de Espana) whereby Muslims in the country were given several legal, political and cultural rights, including the right to establish Islamic schools and to receive Islamic instruction in public schools, the right to celebrate Islamic feasts, the right to have Islamic marriages recognized under civil law, the legal protection of mosques, prescriptions for halal food and tax relief for religious charity. In 2004 the socialist government launched an extensive naturalization drive for foreign workers in the country, which prompted half a million Muslim women to come to Spain to join their spouses.
In Spain, as in many European countries, there is an evident disjunction between the constitutional recognition of the legal, political and cultural rights of Muslims (de jure rights) and the factual state of affairs (de facto rights). This is reflected in the public opposition to the construction of new mosques in the country and in the reluctance or unwillingness of local authorities to ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Muslims are complied with. Public protests against the construction of new mosques have been widespread in the country in recent years. In Catalonia alone there have been 18 cases of public protests between 2001 and 2006. (1) Premia del Mar is a small town north of Barcelona, where Muslims immigrants make up about 4.4 per cent of the population. It witnessed public protests against the proposed construction of a mosque in 2002. The neighbourhood groups that spearheaded the protests accused the Muslims of unwillingness to be integrated into mainstream society, saying that the proposed mosque project would turn the area into a Muslim ghetto. The protests were supported by right-wing political leaders, who raised the bogey of a Muslim ‘invasion’ and whipped up popular passions about defending ‘our identities, customs and culture’. In support of the local Muslim community, a local group, Coordinadora Premia per la Convivencia, was formed, which organized counter-protests. In Badalona, Barcelona, Catholic priests supported the local Muslim community for the construction of a mosque.
When local authorities reluctantly grant permission for the construction of a mosque, it is generally at the outskirts of the town, away from the gaze of local residents. Faced with this situation, Muslims have no choice but to pray in prayer halls located in private garages, offices and apartments. A similar kind of reluctance on the part of local authorities is evident in respect of spaces for Islamic cemeteries, the demand for halal food and the wearing of headscarves in schools. As Muslim immigrants often have no voting rights as a result of discriminatory citizenship laws and procedures, local authorities are under no pressure to protect their rights.
In spite of the extensive secularization of state and society in Spain, public discourses and popular attitudes clearly reflect racism and Islamophobia. An annual festival Moros y Cristianos is celebrated across 400 localities in Spain, mostly in Andalusia, Valencia and Castilla-La Mancha. The historical origins of the festival can be traced back to the 13th century. The celebration of the festival, which lasts for several days, is based on a symbolic, dramatized battle for victory between Muslim and Christian soldiers, which results in the ultimate victory of the Christians. The Moros (Muslims) are defeated in the battle and are then converted to Christianity or, in some cases, are symbolically thrown into the sea. The festival represents Muslims as cruel and treacherous. Some of the highly offensive features of the festival were removed following a recommendation from the Second Vatican Council in 1968.
A particularly offensive feature of the festival is a cardboard dummy of the prophet Muhammad, which is used as a banner of the Moorish army, which is symbolically beheaded or burned by the victorious Christian army. After the cartoon controversy in 2006, the organizers of the festival in Beneixama and Boicarent have removed this offensive feature from the drama so as not to hurt the sentiments of Muslims. Muslim organizations in Spain have asked the festival to be banned since it represents a false, distorted image of Muslims.
A group of Muslim extremists bombed trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, killing more than 200 people. All of Spain’s Muslim organizations condemned the attacks and their perpetrators. However, the incident widened the gulf of suspicion and mistrust between Muslims and mainstream society.
Muslim Spain’s magnificent Cordoba Mosque, which has been converted into a cathedral, remains out of bounds for Muslims. Muslims are not allowed to pray in the mosque. Mansur Esccudero, president of Spain’s Islamic Council, has challenged the head of Spain’s Episcopal Conference, Ricardo Blazquez of Bilbao, to explain why Muslims could not pray in the Cordoba Mosque. Mr Escudero says he has been encouraged by Pope Benedict’s prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque on his visit to Turkey in November 2008. “It showed that mosques are open to Christian worshippers. Could not Muslims pray in Cordoba’s mosque,” he asked.
Islamic revival in Granada
Muslims in Spain are facing up to the challenges with courage and determination. There are 427 registered mosques in the country and countless prayer halls. A vibrant Islamic community is taking shape in Granada. Over the past 30 years nearly 50,000 Spaniards have converted to Islam. Many of them live in Granada. Maria Trinidad Lopez (now known as Quraiba), 52, embraced Islam in 1982, and with a friend opened a tea shop in Granada’s old Moorish quarter, the Albaicin. The narrow streets of Albaicin are lined with small shops selling fabrics, pottery, brass teapots and water pipes. There is a Moroccan butcher shop, where halal meat is sold. Antonia Maria Munoz, who converted to Islam in 1988, says, “Here we are picking up again where we left off in 1492,” as she sips a hot cup of tea that wafts scents of rose, jasmine and orange blossoms. “We’ve come to offer society the only alternative that exists to lead it out of chaos,” says Al-Hajj Abdul Hasib Castineira, a tall, bearded Spaniard who converted to Islam in 1977.
Antonio Romero, now 51, converted to Islam many years ago. At the age of 17 he left his home in the Albaicin and went to Madrid to study music at the conservatory. At the age of 19 he played with well known rock bands in Pasadena, California. In the course of his itinerary he discovered the music of Al-Andalus from the 9th century and traveled through the Middle East. For 12 years Abulqasem, as he now calls himself, studied mysticism under a Sufi master in Mecca. In 1996 he returned to Granada and founded a school for Al-Andalus studies in a mountain village and has made arrangements with universities in Cairo, Damascus and Jeddah.
A Mosque in Granada after 500 Years
In the 1980s a small group of Spanish converts decided to build a mosque in Granada. They embarked on a trip to the Middle East, hoping to collect $10,000 they needed to buy the land for the construction of the mosque. People in Libya, Morocco and Malaysia made contributions to the cause, but the larger part of the funds came from the Emir of Sharjah. Unfortunately, opposition from local groups and far-right political parties held up the project for nearly 20 years. Ultimately, when the permission for the construction of the mosque was granted by the local authorities, the mosque had to be scaled down to half its proposed size and the height of its minaret was cut down to satisfy local demands.
The mosque was opened, in the presence of Granada’s mayor and other prominent citizens, in the summer of 2003. The minaret of the mosque is a tower designed and constructed in the original Albaicin style. The mosque, surrounded by beautifully designed gardens, is open to the public. The mihrab is an exact replica of the famous mihrab of the Cordoba Mosque. Hundreds of tourists visit the mosque everyday and a few convert to Islam each week.
Muslims in Granada are planning to recreate the city’s glorious past. The plans include the construction of a half-size replica of the Cordoba Mosque. Other big mosques are being planned for Madinat al-Zahra near Cordoba and Seville. The Catholic bishops of Cordoba, Granada and Seville are alarmed by the new mosque projects, fearing that the church’s declining influence in the country may be further eclipsed by a resurgent Islam. The available survey data indicate that across Europe there has been a rapid decline in church membership and attendance. Declines have been the sharpest in predominantly Catholic countries. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the weakening of churches in Europe and Australia. “There’s no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ. The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying,” he told Italian priests.
1. Ricard Zapata-Barrero (2006) “The Muslim community and Spanish tradition: Maurophobia as a fact, and impartiality as a desideratum” In Tariq Modood, Anna Triandafyllidou and Ricard Zapata-Barrero (eds) Multiculturalism, Muslims and Citizenship: A European Approach (London and New York: Routledge); Ricard Zapata-Barrero (2009) “Muslims in Spain: Blurring past and present Moors” In Anna Triandafyllidou (ed) Muslims in 21st Century Europe: Structural and Cultural Perspectives (London: Routledge) forthcoming.