by Saima Usmani
My spring break was spent on long drives up-and-down Andalusian Spain’s mountains, running to make intercontinental ferries, and scouring the Spanish countryside armed with maps printed from Zabihah.com. Oh yes, and also failing miserably at living up to my current grade in Spanish 101.
The trip to Spain was my mother’s vacation. She had grown up reading history books about Muslim Spain, Al-Andalus, one of the greatest empires of its time. Lasting from the year 711 to 1492 CE, Muslim rule in Spain was one of the most vibrant and successful Islamic Empires, stretching over almost all of Spain, Portugal and Andorra and parts of southern France. Its capital, Cordoba, was a beacon of education, scientific progress, and enlightenment at its peak. Al-Andalus was also a hub of cultural diversity, as Christians and Jews lived peacefully within its borders, granted internal autonomy. It has since been used as a case study for religious tolerance and cooperation. Unfortunately, the good times did not last, and Al-Andalus weakened due to infighting and the rise of multiple city-states. The Christian forces from the north quickly overrun the Muslims in their weakness, and soon there was not one single Muslim left in the Iberian peninsula, nothing but corpses and vacant masajid.
When my mom first listened to the plans we had made for her trip, she gushed about how we would go and visualize the conquest of Tariq ibn-Ziyad, the first Muslim conqueror to begin the campaign for Islam in Spain. That we would ride the path of victory, see the remnants of our brothers’ and sisters’ domain, drive through Spanish countryside emblazoned with the mark of Islam’s once-greatness. But, as we traced our plans from Madrid, down to Cordoba, down to Granada, and, finally, to Tangier, Morroco, it became clear that we were not to emulate the path of the Moorish Muslim conquistadors; we were going to retrace the harried, frightened retreat of our brothers. We were going to retrace the flight of the Moors.
After realizing this, my mother, my brother, my cousin and I entered Spain overly cautious, with the apprehension and distrust of the enemy returning to their place of defeat.
All this was not necessary of course, the people of Spain were as polite as anyone might be. We rented a car and set off from Madrid, Spain’s capital, headed to Cordoba, the long-lasting capital of Al-Andalus in its time.
Cordoba is a small city with winding roads, extremely narrow, paved with stones, sandwiched between colorful buildings. When it was the capital of Al-Andalus, it was the world’s center for artistic, medical, and technological advancement. In fact, it had surpassed Constantinople as Europe’s most populated and prosperous city. Its infamous libraries and universities would later inspire the minds of those who began the European Renaissance.
Our hotel was a small, shady place walking distance from Cordoba’s biggest attraction: The Grand Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, once the largest masjid of the world. This is what we came to see. As we set out walking, I kept reading out loud the different historical locations we passed on the map. “This up here was once a minaret. It’s now part of that church over there,” I would announce. I would find myself saying, “This was once…is now…” a lot. One disconcerting moment came when a man passing by pointed at us and laughed maniacally, saying something really fast in a language that might have been Spanish, and walked away. We were too confused and shocked to respond. It would be the first and last instance of potential “racism” we would encounter, but seeing as it was our first day, it wasn’t very comforting.
As we got closer to the Mosque, shops became cropping up decorated with elaborate middle-eastern souvenirs, Moorish lamps and tiles. We began to see the looming towers of the Grand Mosque from between the shops. The pathways surrounding the Mosque were accented with abundant orange trees. The entrance archway led to an enormous open courtyard, with fountains and trees, surrounded by walls, leading to the entrance to the indoor building.
We walked around inside, too. Everywhere there were tour groups touring in various languages, and we walked through the Mosque, feeling extremely strange. There were lines of Qur’an, the Shahadah carved into panels, garnished with effigies of Christ, statues of saints, and an overabundance of cherubs. My cousin marveled at how thorough the permeation was. “It’s like they went to each wall and said, oh, let’s stick a cherub here,” she vented. The thing is, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was now the Great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. That day, in fact, it had held Sunday Mass in the grand hall built in the center of the once-masjid. I watched a class of little Spanish children and wondered what their teachers were telling them. I looked around at all the happy people, and suddenly felt uncomfortable. All these people were here talking about how they drove out the Muslims, taking pride in their place-of-worship that infidels, us, once used.
As we were leaving the Grand Mosque, a South Asian uncle stopped me to advertise his halal Pakistani restaurant down the street, if me and my family were interested. I thanked him and then asked whether there was a masjid where we could pray. And, smiling sadly, standing there at the threshold of what was once one of the grandest arenas of Allah’s worship, he said, “There are no mosques in Cordoba.”
We ended the night with poetry. My mother, using her precious iPad (those that mocked the iPad for being useless and unneeded failed to consider the aunty market), pulled up the poem that the Urdu poet Allama Iqbal wrote when he visited Cordoba.
“….An Indian infidel, perhaps, am I, but my fervor and ardor are not lost.
‘Blessings and peace upon the Prophet,’ my heart sings.
‘Blessings and peace upon the Prophet,’ my lips echo.
My song is the song of aspiration, my lute is the serenade of longing,
Every fiber of my being resonates with the refrains of Allah-hoo.
Your beauty, your majesty, personify the graces of the Man of Faith.
You are beautiful and majestic. He, too, is beautiful and majestic.
Your foundations are lasting, your columns countless,
Like the profusion of palms in the plains of Syria.
Your arches, your terraces, shimmer with the light that once flashed in Aiman’s valley
Your soaring minaret, all aglow in the resplendence of Jibraeel’s glory.
The Muslim is destined to last as his Adhan
holds the key to the mysteries of the enduring message of Abraham and Moses.
His world knows no boundaries, his horizon, no frontiers.
Tigris, Danube and Nile: billows of his oceanic expanse.
A combatant, with ‘La Ilah’ as his coat of mail.
Under the shadow of flashing scimitars, ‘La Ilah’ is his protection.
….Stars look upon your precincts as a piece of heaven.
But for centuries, alas, your porch has not resonated with the call of a Mu’adhin.”
Cordoba was once the capital of a province of a vast empire, but over years of infighting over foolish, worldly things, it had weakened to a lonely kingdom of its own. It was no match for the Christian army of Ferdinand III that came from the north. Cordoba fell in 1236 CE.
The Muslims then began to flee southward. And so we jumped in our car and headed southward with them. We drove past hills blanketed with olive trees, while my mother told us about Badar ibn Mughira, the leader of a guerrilla army that used to lodge in the mountains around 1400 CE. He took over after his father’s death, defeating Christian invaders when he was only 15. The army of the Spanish Reconquista, kept at bay by his ferocity, dubbed him the Hawk of the Border.
Badar ibn Mughira, like his father before him, only had one goal: defending from the Christian forces the one last Muslim stronghold left in Spain, the great kingdom of Granada.
For a link to Allama Iqbal’s full poem, click here, and keep an eye out for the next Flight of the Moors post!