Friday, December 29, 2006

A Modern Convivencia?

The Great Mosque of Cordoba / Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin

We were just in Cordoba a few weeks ago and went to see the "Mezquita-Cathedral" as they call it and were of course duly impressed. What a gem. It was the center of the Golden Age of the Islamic Caliphate of Spain and as a good friend and expert on the era pointed out to me was a symbol of a unique strain and period of Islam. "Umayyad Islam [in Spain] was much stronger than most people realize" he said, speaking of the era before the break up of the Caliphate and the division and eventual destruction of Islamic Spain. Muslims in the western Islamic world in the era up to the 11th century who couldn't make it to Mecca would actually come on pilgrimages to Cordoba where they would make Tawaf (i.e., circumbabulate) the Qur'an at the Great Mosque. It was at the Great Mosque (today's Cathedral) that Abdul Rahman III actually had himself proclaimed Caliph, directly breaking from and challenging the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. In this Mosque the masses of the Muslim community of gathered in fact to hear all the important news and events of the day proclaimed and the Mosque grew as the population, wealth, and prestige of Al-Andalus itself grew (or on occasion, as the megalomania of its rulers grew).

All that is in the past today of course, but Cordobans even after the Christian Reconquista recognized they had gained control of a truly unique gem. The city declares itself on signs leading into it the "Patrimony of Humanity". The Christian city leaders (the Muslims all having been expelled) in the centuries following the reconquista actually banned anybody from changing the structure of the Mosque which they only allowed minor alterations to (such as the raising of a few crosses and what not). At one point, the Christian city fathers even banned such changes on pain of death! However, the Christian King Carlos V who had not been there thought he should do more to christianize the place and hearing of the plans of another non-Cordoban to construct a large gothic Cathedral in the midst of the Mosque, gave his approval. A few years later when he showed up to inspect the work, he is said to have remorsefully remarked words to the effect of "You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something unique in the world". Having been there, I agree. The Cathedral, while on its own might have been a decent enough building, generally ruins the ascetic of the original building (though I do think the external dome and shape of the Cathedral actually works reasonably well if it were taken in isolation -- however the internal damage of the edifice is severe).

Spaniards are unsurprisingly mixed on the issue. The great revival of interest in Al-Andalus of the past few decades has certainly fueled greater sympathy for and interest in things Islamic. But like most European countries, anti-Muslim-immigrant feelings also run strong. When one goes to the Cathedral-Mosque today, that dichotomy of viewpoints is plainly evident. The beauty of the mosque including the gorgeous (heavily-Byzantine-influenced) Mihrab are on full display along with the sea of Moorish horseshoe arches in the alternating red and white patterns so typical of Islamic and particularly Caliphal Spain. But the Cathedral stands out in the middle of it all, and the official literature the Cathedral fathers hand out is unapologetic in its historical view that the Muslims were outside invaders, that they had 'corrected' the errors that the Mosque represents, and that this must above all be a Catholic/Christian place...even as the Arab architecture, language, and even the Arab tourists abound.

That said, I paused outside in the courtyard (the original Mosque courtyard filled with orange trees and gorgeous Islamic brickwork) and remarked to my wife that this is a new era, and wouldn't it be wonderful if - now that the historical tensions that tore Spain apart in those centuries past is ancient history - there could be a revived Islamic community who prayed alongside the Christians in this shared building. And a revived Jewish community as well filling the streets of the Juderia which Maimonides once frequented. The modern tensions stare one in the face unfortunately: the knee-jerk opposition to such ideas on the wave of anti-immigrant fervor, the swastika some dirty brute had spray-painted on the statue of the great Maimonides, and from the other end even the language of this Jazeera article that (though more balanced further on) says that Muslims have written to the Vatican to "demand" the right to pray at the Mosque-Cathedral. These are essentially modern grievances and problems being aired even if plenty of links to the past exist. I would be the first to cheer if they could be overcome such as the manner in which the modern Mezquita Mayor De Granada where public opposition was quelled by an open door policy to the public and the construction of an edifice (the first new purpose-built mosque in Granada in over 500 years) which is truly a gem all Granadans of all faiths can be proud of. Unlike a location such as say Hebron in the West Bank where deep ongoing military and political conflict is an ugly present reality which makes genuine religious co-existence virtually impossible, Spain really can be a standout example of how time has healed wounds and reconciliation and a thoroughly modern "Convivencia" can be brought to pass. But these things don't just happen, it takes work and faith in our common humanity.

Muslims ask to worship at Cordoba

Spanish Muslims have written to the Vatican to demand the right to worship at Cordoba Cathedral.

Spain's Islamic Board wrote to Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday, calling on him to grant them permission to worship in the cathedral, parts of which were built as a mosque during Spain's period of Islamic rule.

The group said in their letter: "What we wanted was not to take over that holy place, but to create in it, together with you and other faiths, an ecumenical space unique in the world which would have been of great significance in bringing peace to humanity."

They said that senior Spanish Catholic clergy had earlier rejected requests for Muslims to be allowed to prostrate themselves inside the Cathedral.

Mansur Escudero, the board's secretary general, said security guards often stop Muslim worshipers from praying at the old mosque.

He said: "There are reactionary elements within the Catholic Church, and when they hear about the construction of a mosque, or Muslim teachings in state schools, or about veils, they see it as a sign we are growing and they oppose it."

Mansur said Muslims came from around the world to see Cordoba's Cathedral, which is still commonly known as the Cathedral-Mosque.

Complex history

The Roman Catholic cathedral had originally been a mosque but was converted into a cathedral in the 13th century.

The mosque itself was built on the site of the earlier cathedral of St Vincent which was demolished by Cordoba's Muslim rulers following the Islamic invasion and occupation of parts of southern Spain in the eight century.

In December, Spain's Catholic Bishops Conference released a statement, quoted by newspaper ABC, saying it "did not recommend" Muslims prayed at the Cathedral and was not prepared to negotiate the building's shared use with other faiths.

Spain's last Muslim territory fell with the conquest of Granada in 1492 after almost eight centuries of Muslim rule.

Today, more than a million of Spain's 44 million people are Muslims, many of them recently arrived immigrants from North Africa.


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