Five hundred years after being hounded out by the Roman Catholic monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand, Spain’s Muslims have built a mosque overlooking what was once Islam’s most important outpost in Europe, the Alhambra palace in Granada.
The call to prayer of the muezzin can now be heard in the narrow streets and alleyways of Albaicin, the city’s old Moorish district, as a new generation of Spanish converts which is growing in numbers and confidence gives the city back a small part of its ancient Islamic heart.
“When we stand in the garden and look out at the Alhambra, we tell people that what they see is not something built by Arabs but by the people of Granada – by their own forebears, who were Muslims and spoke Arabic,” said Malik Ruiz, a local engineer who is the president of the mosque.
There was nothing coincidental about the choice of the site. It is at the highest point of Albaicin, whose steep, twisting alleyways boasted 27 mosques before the Moorish king Boabdil was forced out of Granada as the Christian reconquista triumphed in 1492. Bloody persecution of the city’s Muslims followed and the mosques were burned down or turned into churches.
The appearance of the pounds 2.8m mosque, financed by donations from the United Arab Emirates, coincides with an increasing awareness in the city of the importance, and commercial value, of its Islamic past.
Gift shops selling local pottery, winged cherubs and statues of the Virgin Mary are giving way to boutiques full of ironwork, leather lampshades and teapots identical to those found in the souks of northern Morocco.
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Yet building a mosque in this conservative provincial city has not been easy. It took 22 years to overcome objections from neighbours.
” Moros fuera “, “Moors out”, read the graffiti on a wall in Albaicin, once one of the city’s poorer districts but now going rapidly up-market.
The dream of a return to al-Andalus, the Moorish province in Iberia, has lived on for centuries in Islamic poetry. The new wave of converts, however, has arrived not from the south but the north.
The first Spanish converts to arrive in the 1970s had embraced Islam while living in London and had Ian Dallas, a controversial Scottish convert, now in his 60s, as their figurehead.
A local journalist, Tomas Navarro, claims the mosque is run by a cult-like sect: “Traditional Arab Muslims steer clear of it.”
Mr Ruiz strongly denies the claims and is threatening to take Mr Navarro to court. The mosque welcomed all Muslims, he said, and had declined offers of money from some Arab countries in order to hold on to its independence.
“This is a place where you are free to say what you want,” he said.
An imam was brought from a desert area of southern Morocco partly because he was free of the influences that spawned groups such as al- Qaida, he added. “Islam condemns violence.”