Where the Moors Held Sway, Allah Is Praised Again


Published: 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


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


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


"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


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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