Islam Returns to Andalusia

In July 2003, 511 years after the Christian conquest of Spain was completed, a splendid new mosque has opened its doors, close to the Alhambra in Granada. Built with Arab money, the mosque is intended "to serve the coordination of all European Muslims". Rainer Wandler reports

"Allah-u Akbar!". The call to midday prayers rings out punctually over the Albaicin, the old Moorish quarter of Granada. For the first time in more than 500 years, the Muezzin performs his task in the mediaeval Old Town. And a more symbolic location than this southern Spanish city could hardly be imagined: the prayer leader climbs the 59 steps of the newly constructed Great Mosque and directs his call towards the Alhambra, the biggest Arabic palace in Europe.

Since the Catholic kings captured this stronghold in 1492, putting a violent end to 800 years of Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims all over the world have mourned the loss of "Al-Andaluz", as they once called southern Spain.

The Catholic conquerors razed the original Great Mosque of Granada to the ground; a cathedral was erected on its foundations. Now, 511 years later, Spanish Muslims have opened the first mosque to be built on this historic location since then. Ambassadors and heads of state from every Muslim country attended the inauguration of Granada's new Great Mosque. The building is located, not "down below" in the town centre, but high up on the Alabaicin, next to the lookout point at the San Nicolas church. Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arabic TV network, carried live coverage of the opening ceremony.

"We were not welcome here"

"It took a long time before we managed to deal with all the problems", says Abdul Haqq, spokesman for the Muslim community in Spain. Originally from the Basque country, Haqq converted from Catholicism to Islam more than 20 years ago.

"Even if no-one admits it openly, we were not welcome here", he recalls. When the Muslim community bought the land 22 years ago with money from Libya, "radio programmes and newspaper reports everywhere were agitating against us." Slogans such as "Moors out!" appeared on walls.

It was 1998 before construction could begin. Now this splendid mosque is complete, set in the middle of a public garden. The prayer room is large enough to hold several hundred people. A library and a study centre for scholars of Islam are located in separate outbuildings. According to a statement released by the "Granada Mosque Foundation", "our centre is intended to promote communication, coordination and exchange amongst all European Muslims."

"A purely private practice of Islam is 'Islam light'."

Half of the four-million-euro construction costs came from the United Arab Emirates. "The rest came from Turkey, Malaysia and Morocco, as well as from anonymous donors based in the Arab world, and from some in Europe", explains Abdul Haqq. The donors share a dream with the Muslims in Granada: "To recreate the splendour and the greatness of Al-Andaluz."

When the Muslims were forced to make way for the Christian conquerors in 1492, religious intolerance and the expulsion of Muslims and Jews replaced the previously peaceful and culturally fruitful coexistence of the three world religions that had characterised Spain for 800 years. Today, the Muslim community in Granada, which has enlisted an Imam from Morocco, wishes to link up with the past - "without forgetting that we have to respond to new social phenomena".

For all that, the converts do feel a kind of missionary zeal. Certain streets in Albaicin are firmly in the hands of the Spanish Muslims. Veiled women and men in flowing robes are as familiar a sight as Halal butchers, who offer meat from animals slaughtered according to the precepts of the Koran. "Islam has to have an effect in the political sphere", says Abdul Haqq; "A purely private practice of Islam is 'Islam light'." For this reason, the community's next project is to build a school.

Reiner Wandler

© TAZ/ 2003

This article was previously published by the German daily Die Tageszeitung.

Translated from the German by Pat Langagan