“Masjid e Qurtuba”:  Searching for “Al Andalus”

“Masjid e Qurtuba”:  Searching for “Al Andalus” to Increase Understanding and Knowledge

by Dr Amineh Hoti

Ishq Khuda ka Rasool, Ishq Khuda ka kalaam!
              (Love is the message of God, love is the word of God)
A, haram-e-Qurtuba ishq se tera wajood
              (To love you owe your being, oh Qurtuba)
Tera Jalaal-o-Jamaal, marde Khuda kee daleel,
              (Your beauty and majesty personifies the grace of the believer)
Wo bhi Jaleel o Jameel, tu bhi Jaleel o Jameel!
                (God is beautiful and majestic and you are too)
Kaaba Arbab-E-Fan! Sitwat-E-Deen-E-Mubeen
              (O, Mecca of art lovers, You are the majesty of the true tenet)
Tujh Se Haram Martabat Andlusiyon Ki Zameen
          (You have elevated Andalusia to the eminence of the Haram)
Ishq dam-e-Jibrael, Ishq dil-e-Mustafa
    (Love is the life of Gabriel, Love is the heart of the Holy Prophet(pbuh)

In the summer of 2014, I saw these Urdu verses hung in the office of the Mayor of Cordoba in beautiful gold calligraphy written by Muhammad Iqbal, one of the greatest South Asian philosophers and poets (written after his visit to Cordoba in 1933). The Mayor of Cordoba, speaking to Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed – leader and Director of the “Journey into Europe” team (myself included) – graciously apologized to the Muslims for the loss of their lives and properties after their rule for nearly 800 years in Spain and said he would welcome them to Cordoba, “this is as much your home as ours”. As part of the Journey into Europe project looking at identity and how to improve relations between different communities and find peaceful solutions, we had traveled as a team from London to Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, and now in Cordoba (our next stop was Melilla, Granada and then three cities in Germany before going on to Bosnia).

Iqbal penned the above verses as an ode to the majesty and beauty of the Mosque of Cordoba in Andalusia, (present day Southern Spain, Europe). The glorious structure of the mosque, which I visited a day before, definitely warrants a place on the Wonders of the World list! When it was first built by Abdur Rehman in the year 786, it bore the impression of an orchard or bagh of palm trees, later to cover 22,400 sq meters allowing 20,000 Muslims to pray all at once. It is a single-story building with pillars supporting double arches constructed from stones and bricks. Each arch connects two pillars, one arch atop the other, to create the impression of a cluster of palms. The double arches denote mature date palm trees and the red and baize colours in the mosque reflect the colours of the earth. Palm trees are planted in neat rows outside the original courtyard of the mosque with flowing water and fountains for ablution. This mirror vision of nature reflecting nature is “organic”: the inherent symbolism in the believer’s vision of connecting people with nature and thereupon with their Creator and Cherisher, is brilliant to say the least! It is truly a piece of heaven on earth and one can easily imagine a believer sitting amidst nature’s splendor – deep in prayer and meditation – thinking, “If there is a heaven on earth it is in the shade of these palm trees before the presence of my beloved God Almighty – it is here, it is here, it is here – in the embrace and warmth of worship.” 

When Abdur Rehman first arrived in Al Andalus from Damascus he planted a date tree and wrote a sonnet in its tribute, “As you are lonely in a strange land, so too am I”. He, too, had been uprooted from his homeland in Damascus to escape persecution. The Abbasids killed his family, propelling Abdur Rehman to create a new dynasty in Al Andalus with Cordoba as its capital. Al Andalus is the Arabic name for Muslim Spain and part of Portugal (not to be confused with Andalusia in present day Spain). The date palm tree also holds great significance for Muslims as a reminder of the Prophet (PBUH) and his diet. Containing immense nutritional value, Muslim households often have a stock of dates all year round and especially during Ramadan when Muslims break their fast with dates.

The building is clearly a labour of love – each brick speaks to the heart. When Iqbal wrote that Muslims are bold, creative and effortful in the verse Haath hain Allah ka banda e momin ka haath Ghalib o kaar aafreen, karokashan, kaarsaaz  (The hand of the Momin is the hand of Allah, bold, creative, resourceful, effortful), he was inspired by this wonderfully unique mosque and Al Andalusian culture, as well as the effort poured into crafting both. Learning their history is like injecting a great passion for knowledge into one’s spirit. It speaks of an Islamic era in Europe when Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together, exchanged ideas and reached great heights of knowledge. It was a glorious period when people were recognized for their wisdom as opposed to their skin colour or familial affiliations.

This concept of coexistence is called “La Convivencia” in Spanish. It was a brilliant society – hailed as “the ornament of the world” – which inspired Western universities like Oxford and Cambridge, the concept of cleanliness and produced acclaimed scholars like the thinker Ibn Rushd or “Averroes” (1126-1198), Ibn Arabi or “The Master” (1165-1240), Ibn Tufail or “Abubacer” (1105–1185) who was a pioneer in philosophical novels. The translations of his stories inspired the creation of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tarzan and The Jungle Book.

Maimonides (born in Cordoba around 1135-1204) the Muslim King’s physician was a great scholar of the Jewish faith and exchanged ideas with his Muslim peers, Wallada was the Muslim female poetess princess with blonde hair and blue eyes who inspired women to recite and think (1001-1091) and Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887) was the first person to fly and inspired many including Leonardo Da Vinci – (we crossed the bridge of Ibn Farnas – it is in the shape of spectacular white wings).

Libraries were common and Cordoba housed the biggest library in Europe at the time with 400,000 books compared to the largest library in the Italian monastery of Bobio that had less than 700 books! As Al Andalus was Muslim Spain and Arabic was the franca lingua, 35,000 Arabic words have made their way into the Spanish language today, including Ola – Allah; Okhala – Inshallah; Quadilkivir - Waadi al Kabir; Naranj – orange, etc. We saw Flamenco dancers during the late “White Night” in Cordoba; an art form inspired by the court performances of Mughal Emperor Akbar, especially Tansen, as shared with us by a musical maestro invited by Casa Arabe, our hosts. It was a period in which arts and culture, and reason and faith, went hand in hand. Muslims valued intellectual discussions and freely exchanged ideas with philosophers of other faiths – a testament to their open-mindedness and good sense. All this was based on the concept of respecting the ‘Other’ as an extension of their deep love for God. If God created the ‘Other’, s/he must be respected and loved for His sake, if nothing else. For the true believer, God is Compassionate and Merciful and His believers, too, are compassionate and merciful unto each other (Ishq Khuda ka kalaam – Allama Iqbal).

I am ‘a student of life’ absorbing the edifying riches of Al Andalus while staying directly opposite the Cordoba Mosque. In the course of our research work, we have been privileged to penetrate deep into the social mindset and look beyond the apparent picture of mere visitors/tourists. Apart from meeting various government officials, like the Mayor of Cordoba who had Iqbal’s Masjid-e-Qurtuba hanging in his office as a tribute from the government of Pakistan (Lahore and Cordoba are viewed as twin cities and there is even a street named after Iqbal in Cordoba), we met with leading members of the Muslim communities, the Bishops and scholars. Casa Arabe epitomized superb Andalusian hospitality and provided a platform to discuss and debate the fascinating legacy of Al Andalus with leaders, scholars, thinkers, and activists. Quite interestingly, we discovered that certain scholars regard this period as ‘a myth’ – a projection of their personal negative perceptions of Islam and Muslim immigrants to Europe today. An expert from Toledo postulated that “our image of Al Andalus is coloured by our relationship with our neighbours”.

We asked the question if La Convivencia – living together peacefully today – is possible. There was a divided opinion on the matter. Delving deep beneath the surface revealed numerous undercurrent tensions and the more one read and learnt the more one was stunned. We learned that when the Cathalans who ‘lacked culture and appreciation of knowledge’ defeated the Muslims and took power from the Muslims (because of their lack of unity and internal squabbles), the Cathalans burned the books in the palace called ‘Alcazar’ and for three days there was a cloud of thick smoke above the River Quadalkavir. Scholars mourned the loss of the precious tomes containing world knowledge from Greek (teachings of Aristotle, Plato and many brilliant Muslim works of the time) and treasured translations mostly in Arabic, which was the bone of contention for the Cathalans, who regarded it as the language of the ‘Moors’. The vision of knowledge beyond borders lacked any appreciation in this closed mindset.

La Convivencia – myth or not – was displaced by great intolerance in the form of the Inquisition force dressed in monks’ robes and hood coverings with eye slits and haunted all those who remained steadfast on their beliefs and even those who converted to Christianity. Public pork parties – offensive to Muslims and Jews – were celebrated openly and frequently to parade that the Muslim time was over. Even today, pork legs hang outside shops and are souvenirs popularly seen and sold in shops. Nearly everything on the menu has pork in one form or the other and we, as Muslims, had to limit our daily diet to the same vegetarian foods every day.

During the time of the Inquisition, you had to have a Christian legacy going back twenty generations to be spared torture and death. If you were found to be Muslim or Jewish even 19 generations ago, the Inquisition would trace your genealogy, show up at your door, confiscate your property, and tell you to convert or leave the country. However, the biggest sacrifice was that you had to leave your children behind who would be forcibly converted and brought up as Catholics. Men and women, Muslim and Jewish alike, were tortured by the Inquisition. No one was spared and no mercy, no compassion was shown. Alas! Under the Inquisition’s reign of terror and in face of the surrender of the Muslim civilization the pulse that throbbed Rehman and Rahim faded away into the thick and dark blankets of history.

What looks strangest though is the forcible insertion of a Cathedral into the mosque. In 1523, the Borges of Southern Madrid had been an inquisitor of Spain so, we were told, he liked the mosque and instead of destroying it like many other mosques were destroyed he inserted the Cathedral in the mosque. The Inquisition destroyed all mosques, though we were told that the Cathedral within saved the destruction of the Cordoba Mosque once it was in the hands of Christians. One hundred pillars were removed from the 1013 columns to build the cathedral. The mosque was darkened intentionally and the Catholic bishop built a huge cathedral in the shape of a cross with huge windows to let in light to symbolize the light of his religion. Ironically, despite the blowing out of the light of knowledge and tolerance in Al Andalus and the subsequent intolerance of the Inquisition, in the Bishop’s view his expression of religion was light as opposed to the darkness of those conquered. Yet his own king who had not seen either the mosque or the insertion gave permission for building this cathedral inside the mosque but when he visited three years later, for the first time, he expressed his revulsion at the insertion, “Do you think I would have given permission had I known that you were going to damage this unparalleled piece of architecture? I can find churches like this one everywhere, but a mosque such as this may never be built again.” The Christian king did not like it.

No believer could remain dry-eyed at the realization of this loss of a great civilization that gave knowledge to the world, symbolized by this mosque, which was now unfairly re-portrayed as dark. Inside the cathedral, a horseman, St James (Santiago Matamoros) – the patron saint of Spain for 160 years, tramples the head of a Moor (Muslim) under the hooves of his horse. Pictures of Jesus – slain and hurt with cuts and blood surround us in all the churches built around the mosque; in one picture Mary has a sword inserted in her left breast as if the source of her connection with her baby – Jesus – has been stung with the arrow by the act of Jesus’ crucification; in another picture St Pablo or St Peter holds a sword in one hand and a bible in the other (an image of the self often, unfortunately, projected onto “the Other”, Muslims).

In the evening, we went out for a walk and on a plaque opposite the mosque it was written that this building is now a cathedral but the “primitive” mosque was built by Muslims. This terminology seemed intentionally offensive. Several people we spoke with said the spirit of the Inquisition has not fully left yet and there was an attempt to “erase” the Muslim past in Cordoba specifically and in Spain generally. They did not teach this period in schools or at best, 800 years of Muslim rule were reduced to a few negative sentences.

Going back to the mosque, consider, for instance, the current brochure that is given to tourists today. First, the leaflet begins “the Cathedral of Cordoba” it talks about this “Christian church…a living witness to our history” then about the “historical fact that the San Vincente Basilica was destroyed during the Islamic period in order to build the subsequent Mosque.” The word “destroyed” and in another place in this brochure “demolition” is used and notice the use of “subsequent” – i.e. in their argument, the church was there first. The next title is “THE ISLAMIC INTERVENTION” then “THE CHRISTIAN TRANSFORMATION” in exact capitals like these. Then the brochure says, “It is evident that the Christians were eager to proclaim the Gospel which many had given their lives for. It was a matter of recuperating a sacred space that had suffered the imposition of a faith that was foreign and distant from the Christian experience.”

There was trouble for Muslims last year who tried to pray in the mosque. They were arrested and thrown out. The guards were aggressive, uncompromising, and watchful. As tourists poured in to the 8-9:00 am period when the mosque entrance was free, I promised I would go there again before breakfast and read the ninety-nine names of God in the mosque in Cordoba – I did this discreetly in my heart whilst walking alongside the tourists; tears of humility and connection to God flowing to the ground.

Before leaving Cordoba, we met the Bishops of the Cathedral and asked how peaceful relations could be possible and what were the challenges in their own community. The dialogue resulted in better understanding. At the hotel entrance – a hotel called “La Conquestidor” – the Re-conquest of Cordoba from Muslims – we saw a Muslim girl with her little son – I said, “Salam u Alaikum”. She was in a hijab and entering the hotel facing the Mezquita or mosque. We asked her what the mosque meant to her, she said it was very sad then choked and began to cry. A total stranger in the first five minutes of our meeting began to break down at the thought of Al Andalus, and what great intellectual heights and position in her words “we [had] lost”. I empathized. Many have shed tears and written poems as Iqbal did to the Masjid-e-Qurtuba or Mezquita as it is called in Spanish. As one scholar said, either this period of Al Andalus can be a period used to make war or it can be seen by others to make peace. Let us hope and pray that we can see it as an example of how we can revive a much-needed spirit in today’s world of understanding, knowledge, and peace.

Dr Amineh Hoti
Cordoba 25th June 2014
Andalusia, Spain

For more details on the project Journey into Europe please see journeyintoeurope.com