Spain: The Muslims of Granada

After centuries of denying a common history with Islam, Spaniards are once again trying to live together with Muslims. In Granada, home of the Alhambra and former center of Moorish Spain, a multicultural revival is taking shape that sees Christians and Muslims coexisting in mutual respect.


Today's Granada is a cultural melting pot. Five centuries after the Christian royalty known as the Catholic Monarchs drove the last Muslim ruler from what is now Spain and raised their cross in the throne room of the Alhambra, Muslims and Christians in the city of Granada are once again living side by side in peace. For nearly 800 years, the inhabitants of al-Andalus, as the Arab dynasties called their empire on the Iberian Peninsula, allowed Jews, Christians and Muslims to coexist in a spirit of mutual respect -- a situation that benefited all. The red fortress symbolizes this period. Originally, a rich Jewish merchant had the walls of red clay built on the ruins of an old castle. Later, the Muslim Nasrid Dynasty expanded the complex of palaces up until the late 14th century, creating shady gardens and fountains and building a splendid mosque. The house of worship was consecrated as a church by the Christian conquerors 150 years later.

It is here, in this last bastion of the old multicultural society of Moorish Spain, that an extremely vibrant Islamic community is taking shape today. Thanks to its rich history, many even see Granada as the future Islamic capital of Europe. Others fear that Andalusia could once again become the gateway for a "reconquista" -- this time under the green banner of the Prophet.


Spain's Muslim Renaissance

Today, some 1.5 million Muslims live in Spain, including roughly 650,000 Moroccans with residence permits. In 2004, the left-wing, Socialist government launched the largest legalization initiative to date for foreign workers in the country. The move prompted half a million Muslim women to come to Spain to join their spouses. This has also meant, though, that many women are often confined to their homes by their husbands and have to live according to a stricter interpretation of the religion than in their home countries.

All across Spain the faithful throng to the country's 427 registered mosques and countless unofficial smaller houses of worship to attend Friday prayers. The vast majority adhere to the relatively liberal Maliki-Sunni branch of Islam. But with the large sums of money that Saudi oil barons have been generously distributing, the fundamentalist Wahhabi creed of Islam is gaining influence among Spanish Muslims.

Over the past 30 years, since the death of the Catholic dictator Francisco Franco and the creation in 1978 of a democratic constitution that guarantees religious freedom, a number of Spaniards have also converted to Islam. Most of the roughly 50,000 new faithful live in Granada.

One of the newcomers to the religion is Maria Trinidad Lopez, 52, who exchanged her good Catholic name for Kuraiba, which means "close" (to Allah). In the mid-1970s, during the transitional period that followed the dictatorship, she experienced as a university student a belated "atmosphere like the one in Paris in 1968 with a group of revolutionary young people." At the time, Granada was a stuffy, dirty-gray, depressing city, recalls the neo-Muslim, who is fashionably dressed in an embroidered linen shirt and has a sequin-studded ribbon in her loose hair. In this "mediocre" city, which was still governed by conservatives, "we searched for a better world." Some members of her group ended up in politics, she says, but "I've always felt more at home with spiritual quests."

The student of philology talked at length with her friends about literature and delved into the works of philosophers who had been banned by the regime. Kuraiba discovered a part of her country's history that the church and her parents had always denied existed. She had always heard that "Moors smell bad," and for a long time she had even believed it herself. But in 1982, she turned her back on her strictly Catholic family and was one of the first to convert to Islam. Shortly thereafter, Kuraiba helped her friend, Antonia Maria Munoz, to open a tearoom in the old Moorish quarter, the Albaicin.

Munoz says that "Islam came with the tea." She wanted to try out old recipes from al-Andalus in her tea salon, al-Sirat. All the ideas for the interior were inspired by elements in old buildings that have survived from the time of the Nasrid kingdom: the low, small tables featuring inlaid work, the wooden ceiling with carved star patterns, and the columns supporting capitals that resemble crocheted lace. Later, when she traveled to Morocco for the first time, the architecture and craftsmanship in Fez seemed just as familiar to her as the baked goods with almonds. In her university studies she had learned to read medieval Arabic. With the help of a specialist for Semitic languages, she devoted herself to learning the history of Granada. In 1988, the successful tea shop owner converted to Islam and now calls herself Laila Nuria, which translates as "illuminated night."

Islam allowed Kuraiba and Laila to escape the dreariness of the Franco era and come to terms with their own roots, which they found in the culture of al-Andalus. "Here we are picking up again where we left off in 1492," says Laila with enthusiasm as she enjoys a hot cup of tea that wafts scents of roses, jasmine and orange blossoms.

It's all about accepting others, as the Koran teaches us, says Kuraiba, who is now married to a businessman from Casablanca with whom she has two daughters. Both girls, ages 11 and 13, only wear a headscarf during prayers, just like their mother. They attend a state-run school where they have Spanish as well as Indian and Chinese fellow pupils. "Many paths lead to the truth, but everyone has to find his own," says her husband, Mustafa Bougrini, 47. He says we have to respect each other and "it's dangerous when someone thinks he has the absolute truth."

A Frosty Post-Terror Climate

The climate for Muslims in Spain has become frostier since the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, which were committed under the pretext of the jihad -- and tensions have been particularly high since terror cells bombed Madrid commuter trains on March 11, 2004, causing a bloodbath in the heart of the Spanish capital. And the mood is not any better in Granada. All of the country's Islamic organizations distanced themselves from the attackers. However, media reports on Spanish al-Qaida cells -- a suspected accomplice was even arrested in Granada -- blended Islam with terrorism and stirred up fears of Muslims among the general population.

In the 1990s, it was popular to convert to Islam. At the time, Bougrini gave up his nomadic existence working for an Andalusian perfume company as the sales manager for North Africa, the Arab states and Canada, and went into the restaurant trade. In a small side street off the Caldereria, he opened up a fine establishment that serves a fusion cuisine inspired by Morocco and al-Andalus. The restaurant is called Arrayanes, named after the most stunning courtyard of the Alhambra. Back then, many customers and neighbors showed an interest for Bougrini's religion and his Spanish wife Kuraiba. "Now people say nothing and call Islam the religion of the mentally disturbed," she says.

The brunt of the hostility toward foreigners is borne by the immigrant workers who toil on the city's construction sites, in the strawberry fields and on the huge vegetable farms of southern Spain. They complain of a latent racism against the poor.

When Siham Belghiti comes from the university wearing stilettos and a short jacket over tight jeans, with her hair stylishly piled up, no one would dream that she is an upright Muslim from Meknes. Shortly after the muezzin makes the afternoon call for prayers, the economics student opens up the al-Sirat tea salon and prepares couscous and pastilla according to strictly halal practices. Wearing a turban and embroidered slippers, she serves teas such as "Dreams of the Alhambra" and "The Moor's Sigh," which her boss Laila Nuria has patented.

She feels "perfectly at home" in Granada, says Siham with a bright smile. That's not surprising, given that in some parts of the university -- for example, among the medical and the pharmacist students -- 60 percent of the student body comes from Morocco. In the evenings, she's joined by her friend Hassan, 24, a law student from the Spanish exclave of Melilla. The young Berber is convinced that ever since the bomb attacks in Madrid there have been a rising number of Muslims arrested "purely based on suspicion."

But a study conducted by the Spanish think tank Real Instituto Elcano in November, 2007, revealed that the general population in Spain has not become Islamophobic. Even so, with Spanish society increasingly turning away from religion, 61 percent of the respondents said they thought that girls should not wear a headscarf to school.

None of the 461 pupils in the Albaicin secondary school wears traditional Islamic headgear -- not even the roughly 20 foreign children from state immigration centers for unaccompanied minors who are sent to school to learn Spanish. Half of them are already attending their second year of schooling and can read and write at a rudimentary level.

Nonetheless, their teachers complain of friction with immigrants from Latin America and Romania. They say that the Moroccans keep to themselves and give black African students the cold shoulder. The sons and daughters of local converts don't want to have anything to do with their fellow Muslims from other parts of the world. The headmaster, Miguel Gonzalez, says that an increasing number of children from North Africa are sent by their families overseas to earn money and send it home. "They want to work, not learn."

Abdoul Karim Haidara has a completely different story. His parents back in Mali sent him alone to Granada to study. The tall young man represents his country and lives from a scholarship from the Andalusian state government. Haidara's father is in charge of a library in the oasis city of Timbuktu, which holds a wealth of old handwritten documents containing religious texts, family histories and stories about life in this nomadic society. But these texts are in danger of being lost forever. Many manuscripts are starting to mildew or are being eaten by termites. The boy, who has been in Granada for nine months, already speaks a good deal of Spanish and is attending photography classes at a vocational school. When he returns to Mali, he wants to help archive the old texts.

"We have a common history with al-Andalus," the young man says with pride. His forefathers descended from the Visigoths in Toledo. During the religious persecution by the Christians during the 15th century, an ancestor who had converted to Islam was forced to flee south. He took his valuable library with him to Africa, where he married into the royal family. Now that he has returned to the land of his origins -- although he certainly doesn't look like your typical Spaniard -- Haidara intends "not to cling to old habits, but to learn about new things." How does he feel in Granada? "I don't expect anything, I'm getting accustomed to life here," he says with a smile that lets his bright white teeth shine.

Is this what the emissaries of Osama bin Laden are like, the ones who are going to reconquer al-Andalus?

In early March, during the campaign for the Spanish parliamentary elections, the conservative People's Party announced that they wanted to introduce a ban on the wearing of headscarves by Muslim woman and require that residence permits only be issued after applicants had signed an integration agreement.

This proposal has its roots in Spain's long history of repression that dates back to the late 15th century, says Arabist Jose Maria Ridao. He contends that for propaganda purposes the Catholic Monarchs created the concept of the ultimate unity of Spain, a manifest destiny that had been usurped by the intruders from North Africa. In the years that followed, he says, everyone who has adhered to another religion or had opinions that differ from the norm has been branded a "foreigner" and vilified. This also paved the way for the "crusade" that General Franco led, with the approval of the Vatican, against leftists and freethinkers.

This was precisely the spiritual narrowness that Antonio Romero, 51, rebelled against when he converted to Islam. At the age of 17, he left his home in the Albaicin quarter of Granada 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, and at 22, he made arrangements for regional groups back in Andalusia. 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. He managed to convince a sheik from the Arab emirate of Shardja to donate the crucial amount of money needed to build a new large mosque. This house of worship was opened in 2003.

Since Abulqasem didn't feel comfortable among the "very closed" group of converts who run the beautiful mosque, he founded a school for al-Andalus studies in a mountain village. The professor for Arab studies has established agreements with universities in Cairo, Damascus and Jeddah. "Islam has not robbed me of my freedom or my artistic pursuits," says this affable man with short gray hair and a clipped beard.

Quite the contrary: The freethinker from Albaicin has discovered that it's much easier to be a Muslim in Western democracies than in most Islamic countries. "We want an Islam for the 21st century that addresses people's needs," says Abulqasem. The democratic constitution guarantees the same rights for women and men, believers and atheists, Catholics, Muslims and other religious communities. There is no contradiction between this and the Sharia, he says, because the Islamic law has to be adapted to each time and place, "you can't tell me otherwise, I've studied it."

If the stories of Abulqasem, Siham, Laila, Mustafa and Kuraiba are any indication, it looks like Granada could once again experience a revival of the multicultural society of al-Andalus that would serve as a model for living together in mutual respect.

Source: Spiegel (English)


Anonymous said...

...relatively liberal Maliki-Sunni branch of Islam---

liberal-islam = division by zero.

Anonymous said...

She feels "perfectly at home" in Granada---

it reminds me of this: