April - June 2002, Spain

Spain Returning to Islam

By Yusuf Fernández

Since the seventies the number of Muslims in Spain has been increasing. Muslims signed an agreement with the state 10 years ago but last Spanish governements haven´t implemented it up to now. Nowadays, there are about 500.000 Muslims in Spain. Most of them are Moroccan immigrants. There is a growing number of Spaniards who enter Islam especially in the southern region of Andalusia, where there are still lots of buildings and monuments which come from the time of Al Andalus (711-1492).

Among the countries of Europe, Spain was that which had the longest period of a Muslim presence in its territory. The Islamic state of Al Andalus (711-1492) was destroyed at last by the Spanish and foreign crusaders after eight centuries of a cruel war, but left deep cultural roots in the southern region of Andalusia and the whole country. Spanish is the most arabized European language. There are actually about 6.000 Spanish words, which come from Arabic.

In the seventies, after more than 500 years of silence and the end of Franco´s dictatorship, Islam started to return slowly to the Spanish lands. The Constitution of 1978 put an end to the catholic confessional state, which had lasted five centuries. In 1980 the Law of Religious Freedom was passed by the Parliament. It made possible for non-catholic communities to organize and set lawful organizations in the country.

In that time, some Islamic communities started to appear in Andalusia -the southern region where Islam was present for a longer time and there are numerous monuments from the Muslim age, such as the Mosque of Cordoba, the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, and the Giralda Tower in Seville-. Andalusian people who began an investigation about their past and history and found Islam in that search made some of these first communities up. Grenada, a beautiful city, which was the last capital of the Spanish Muslim state, became the first centre of the Islamic revival in Spain.

Students made up other groups from the Middle East, especially Syria and Palestine, which started to come to Spain in the seventies. Moreover, Saudi Arabia built some important Islamic centres such as the Mosque of Marbella, a touristic city situated by the Mediterranean Coast, to serve Muslim people from the states of the Persian Gulf who came to spend some time in Spain for business or holidays. From Grenada, Islam began to spread to other cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and others. Apart from the interest towards the history of Spain, the increase of the number of travels to the Muslim countries -especially Morocco and Turkey- and the circulation of Muslim books, including those that were written by Muslim scholars from the Al Andalus age, contributed to make the interest towards Islam rise. Since the seventies there have been about 20.000 Spaniards of origin who have become Muslims. A half of this number are women. The collective of Muslim women has carried out an extraordinary activity, which has resulted in three important congresses. The last one of them took place in Córdoba last March. As a whole, there are about 500.000 Muslim people in Spain nowadays.

In the eighties, there was also a steady growth in the number of the Moroccan immigrants, which came to Spain. Nowadays, the 90% of the Muslims from Spain are Moroccans or Spaniards of Moroccan origin. There are important collectives of Algerian and Senegalese Muslims too.

One of the main demands of Spanish Muslim community is the transformation of the Mosque of Cordoba -which was turned into a catholic cathedral after the conquer of the city by the Christian kings in the 13 century and has been declared a “world art heritage” by UNESCO recently- into an interfaith building which Catholics and Muslim can share for their religious activities. However, this demand has been rejected by the catholic Bishopric of the city, which has been preventing Muslim people from praying in the Mosque. During the last congress of Muslim women in Cordoba, the security guards who have been hired by the Bishop harassed some Muslims who went to the Mosque and prayed there.

Another demand of the Spanish Muslims is the effective application of the Agreement of 1992, which was signed by the Spanish state with the representatives of the Muslim, Jewish and Protestant communities. This agreement was historical in Spain and was the first one of this type in Europe. This agreement was passed by the Parliament as a law. It recognized some rights for non catholic people and communities -which only the Catholic Church had had until that moment-, such as classes at public schools, visits to prisons, military centres and hospitals to offer religious assistance there and others.

Despite being a law, this agreement has not been developed up to now by the Spanish governments, so the Catholic Church keeps having lots of privileges. The state gives money, coming from the state’s budget, only to the Catholic Church although Spain is, according to its Constitution, a non-confessional country. Therefore, the Muslims from Spain have still a long way in front of them before getting the rights, which, as Spanish citizens, belong to them.

This Hispanic Islamic revival is not only taking place in Spain. Islam is spreading also in Latin America and among Hispanic people living in the United States. According to the American Muslim Council, an advocacy group in Washington, there are about 25,000 Hispanic Muslims in the country. The largest communities are in New York City, Southern California and Chicago, all places that traditionally have had large Hispanic and Muslim populations.

Yusuf Fernández is a journalist who embraced Islam in 1989. He is the spokesman of the Islamic Spanish Federation of Islamic Communities (FEERI). He lives in Madrid, the capital of Spain.