Islam, July - Sept 2010

My Granada Experience

By Justin Mauro Benavidez

Muslim Spain was one of the greatest civilizations in history. The history of al-Andalus, as it was known in Arabic, is celebrated for the convivencia of the three Abrahamic traditions living side by side. Moreover, it is the birthplace of some of the greatest intellectual and spiritual masters of the Islamic tradition: Ibn Rushd, al-Qurṭubī Ibn ʿArabī, Ibn Juzayy, al-Shaṭīib—whose scholarship made important contributions to European civilization. Today Spain is home to some of the most spectacular architectural monuments—the Alcazar in Sevilla and in Granada the Alhambra, Spain’s pride and joy.

View of the Alhambra
The Alhambra sits atop Sabika hill protecting the city.

Southern Spain today, and Granada in particular, is firmly rooted in its Andalusian heritage. A few years ago I had the opportunity to study one year abroad in Granada as part of my undergraduate studies. I wanted to learn more about the history of Islamic Spain and Portugal. It was an experience in which I not only studied the literature, architecture, and history of al-Andalus but also was one in which I lived and studied in the land where it all happened.

View of the city of Granada

Notice the Church of” It sits where the Mosque of Granada was located that served as the main mosque for the city of Granada. Ferdinand and Isabella lie buried in the church.

Studying in Granada was also a chance to learn about my Mexican-and Portuguese roots. Many Latinos are unaware of their connection to Islamic Spain. We know that part of our history is traced back to Spain, but we’re unaware that we have roots in Muslim Spain. Islam was present in Iberia for almost 900 years. When the 10th century Saxon nun Hroswitha first laid her eyes on that magnificent city Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus, she hailed it the “ornament of the world.” It should come as no surprise that Spanish Muslim culture was to have a profound influence on Castilian culture and society, aspects of which were assimilated and later exported to the Americas with the arrival of the conquistadores and missionaries. Names such as Omar and Fatima are common in Latin America, yet the connection is not made as to their Arabic and Muslim origins. If Latinos knew about their Andalusian ancestors, they would I believe embrace them. It was my intention then to share with my familia and Latino community my experience so that they too could learn about their roots in Andalusia.

A mihrab in the Alhambra

A mihrab in a hall of the Alhambra where the Granadan kings prayed.

I had felt anxious about traveling to Spain. It is difficult to explain why I felt the way I did of Spaniards. Perhaps my feeling of trepidation stemmed from my readings in Mexican history and about the treatment of conquistadores towards indigenous peoples. And in more recent Californian history, ranch owners, many who were of Spanish descent, mistreated Mexican farm workers. I assumed that I would experience some expression of prejudice against me. Blood purity, or limpieza de sangre, was a significant issue in Spanish history. I certainly wasn’t of the noble Spanish lineage, and the fact that I was a Muslim, certainly didn’t alleviate my fears. In fact, it was in opposition to Iberian Muslims—and conversos—that the issue of blood purity was raised. So with these issue sin mind, I expected to experience a certain degree of mistreatment as well. But I had to find out for myself. Moreover, I wanted to learn about my history.

Door of the mezquita

Door of Masjid al-Taqwa of Granada. The building was a former post office.

My first experience in the classroom came on the very first day when the professor of linguistics (whose name slips my mind) read the roll call for attendance. When he reached my last name, Benavidez, he gave the etymology of the surname. He said names that begin with ben, or son, are Semitic in origin, either Hebrew or Arabic, but most likely the latter given the numerical prominence of Spanish Muslims over Spanish Jews. He then went on a tangent about the cultural and linguistic influence of Arabic on Spanish culture today. I was aware of the linguistic relationship between Arabic and Benavidez—it may even be a cognate of the Arabic proper name “Ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz” (meaning: the son of the Almighty’s servant). God know best. Still, I was taken aback of my professor’s vast knowledge and candid recognition of history. One of the questions debated in the streets of southern Spain was this: Is Andalucía (the southern Spanish province) part of North Africa, or is it part of Spain?” An indication that Spaniards are rethinking their history and culture and what it means to be Spanish.

Garden of the Generalife

The Generalife was the summer residence of the Muslim rulers of Granada.

One of the principal centers for the study of Muslim Spain is Granada and just about every subject is offered from Andalusian literature and poetry to law, Sufism, and art and architecture. The professors’ approach was the western academic method of criticism and deconstruction. There was however an element reminiscent to one in the Islamic tradition: the ṣilṣila, or chain of transmission. It was interesting to see in the professors a feeling of pride when they spoke of their teachers and the tradition of scholarship that they were part of. One important figure was Don Emílio García Gómez, who is perhaps most recognized for his translation of Ibn Ḥazm’s Ṭawq al-ḥamāma (The Ring of the Dove)—a book about love and lovers. Himself a prominent figure in the historical chain, García Gómez produced a cadre of Spanish scholars, many of whom are today training a generation of future researchers. Thus, these scholars were part of a chain that connected them to the early Spanish investigators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I wondered if I could consider myself now part of this tradition.

Church of San Ildefonso

Notice the architecture in the Mudejar style, a blend of Islamic and European architecture. The church replaced a mosque that was razed after the reconquista.

To my surprise the history of al-Andalus in Spain was not buried and forgotten after the Muslim expulsion but a well-developed field that started as early as the sixteen century. In fact, some of the earliest scholars of Andalusian history were Franciscans and Jesuits. More recent examples include Francisco Codera y Zaidín and Julian Ribera. Codera was a priest and scholar. He was an austere personality whose studies possessed level of scholarship and objectivity that was unprecedented. He learned Arabic and had deep respect and admiration for Islamic culture. Codera traveled extensively within Spain and abroad collecting manuscripts for publication and accessibility. He established a vigorous tradition of Andalusian studies by training his most promising students, known as the Banu Codera (the Clan of Codera). His efforts were responsible for bringing international recognition to Spanish Andalusian studies. Moreover, Codera’s studentship changed how modern scholars viewed Andalusians from foreigners and invaders to native Spaniards. His primary interest was Islamic law and his findings have shown the impact of Mālikī law on Spain’s administration and institutions.

La madrasa
A beautiful retreat center outside of the city of Granada.

Early scholars such as these brought to light Islamic manuscripts that had been interred in the Escorial in Madrid—until recently many of those documents had not seen light since the day they were seized from the homes of Mudejars and Moriscos. In chelate sixteenth century laws were passed making it illegal for Moriscos to possess Arabic and Islamic books. Books were confiscated then burned or shipped to Madrid. Extant manuscripts, authored by some of the Andalusians mentioned at the beginning, have become subjects of intense study and, as a result, have shown, among other points, the impact of Andalusian culture on European civilization. For Spain in particular, such scholarship is changing the way history is perceived and taught in schools. I am in the process of making preparations to return to Spain to visit the libraries in Madrid and Morocco in order to examine several documents for study.

Prayer hall

The main hall in the prayer hall of la madrasa. Notice the absence of synthetic carpet. Rather tradition reed mats cover the tile for prayer and the remembrance of God.

Of all the classes I had at the university, the one that perhaps best illustrates the inimitable opportunity of studying in Granada was the Islamic art and architecture course. We studied the great monuments of the Islamic world but special attention was naturally paid to Muslim Spain. It was an exceptional opportunity where after having read about and studied, for example, the Alhambra in the classroom that our class actually visited the fortress-palace.

The Alhambra served to protect the city from an imminent Christian advance and to accommodate the Nāṣrid royal family. It was a formidable fortress with all the luxuries of a palace. However, the predominant characteristic that distinguishes the palace is its spiritual dimension. The ubiquitous presence of water, lush gardens, and absence of human representation suggest something beyond the perceptible: an inner dimensional aspect designed with sacred purpose. One ceiling is ornamented in a pattern of interconnected arabesques of eight-and sixteen-pointed stars imitating the heavens. Andalusia’s celebrated azulejo tiles and geometrical shapes adorn its walls in a seamless design of unity without apparent origin or end, symbolizing God’s absolute unity(tawḥīd) and infinitude. The power of its beauty enlivens the heart and elevates it to the remembrance of God. It is no wonder then that the Alhambra is Spain’s most frequented tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over the world.

Narrow passage in the Albaicin

A typical street in the Albaicin, a neighborhood in the city of Granada.

To feel the full experience of living in this former Islamic city, my wife and I lived in the Albaicín district. Our home was situated under the Alhambra with a view of it from our doorstep. Today the Albaícin is known for its red-tile roofs, whitewashed walls, and narrow walkways. Under Muslim rule, the neighborhood itself was home to some thirty mosques. However, after the Nāṣrid rulers surrendered the kingdom, every masjid was appropriated and converted to a church. Almost all of the structures stand today, so that one gets an idea of how the original mosques may have appeared. Just down the road from my home (then) stands what is called the Mezquita de los Conversos—it is currently being renovated by the government. Amazingly, there is one part of the former mosque(now church) that remains from its original design and that is its minaret. Everyday I would pass by this former mosque, and I would never fail to be conscious of its former function as a sacred space where the five daily prayers were performed and the name of God was mentioned. I would wonder to myself, “Who was the imām of this mosque? What sciences were taught there? Tafsīr of the Qurʾān? Or perhaps the Muwaṭṭaʾ of Mālik or the Iḥya of al-Ghazālī?” It burned me to know.

As noted above, a unique aspect of Granada is the many preserved Islamic structures. Just around the corner from where I lived—a two-minute walk—is the famous Escuela de Estudios Árabes, a research center dedicated to the study of Spain’s Islamic legacy. It is housed in a building that used to belong to members of the Nāṣrid dynasty. Itwas there in that former palace that I would read and study. Much of my time was spent in the library photocopying as many articles and books that I came across, which I was able to bring back with me to California.

No sovereign but God

This saying “No sovereign but Allah” is inscribed throughout the Alhambra palace, reminding the Muslims kings that the true sovereign is Allah.

There are two mosques in the Albaicín district. At the top of the hill is the Gran Mezquita, beautifully designed in the Andalusian architectural style and has the best view of the Alhambra in the entire city. Except for the sunrise prayer, the call to prayer is given in the traditional manner of voice (unaided by loudspeaker). Everyday the muezzin or prayer-caller walks up the stairs in the minaret (tower) to make the call to prayer, which can be heard at the bottom of the hill. At the bottom of the hill is Masjid al-Taqwa, one of the oldest mosques, if not the first, in Granada since Islam was permitted by law to be legally practiced in Spain—Islam was banned in the sixteenth century and had remained so until recently. Masjid al-Taqwa has two imāms, Shaykh Ḥāmid and Shaykh ʿAbd al-Raḥmān. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that the presence of these two scholars made my experience truly meaningful. The most beneficial part of my experience in Granada was studying a text of jurisprudence with Shaykh ʿAbd al-Raḥmān. Everything that I had studied thus far about al-Andalus was about the past. Twas gone. But here was a man rooted in that past but living in every sense of the word. Apart from learning the basic rules of the dīn from him, it was a blessing to be in his company. In shā Allah, I will return to Granada and continue my studies with him and to benefit from his presence.

Road along the Rio Darro

The historic river runs between the Alhambra palace and the Albaicin.

For most of the year in Granada, my interests focused on law and the ʿulamaʾ. More recently, my personal and academic studies have shifted to the Sufism, the inner dimension of Islam. The spiritual heritage of Andalusia is one of the most fascinating and important aspects of its history. But spirituality has also been an integral part of Latino culture having deep roots in the Americas, Africa, and Iberia. In addition, Latino converts to Islam have inherited yet another spiritual tradition, i.e. Sufism or taṣawwuf, firmly rooted in the Qurʾān and in the exemplary character and sunna of the Prophet Muḥammad.

It would be interesting to look at the role of spirituality among Latino Muslims, the extent to which they hold to their spiritual roots as Muslims, and the practice of Islamic spirituality in their daily lives. This spiritual dimension of Islam was, at any given point in its 900-year history, central to Andalusian society, the essence of which is the remembrance of God. But a spirituality practiced today would differ from the past having its own unique expressions reflecting the current age and issues of the day. Just as it had a central place in the daily lives of Andalusians or was a central theme of the architectural spirit of the Alhambra, I believe that Islamic spirituality, given the unusual times that we will in today, must have a central role in lives of Latino Muslims.