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Islam, Muslims and Europe

Quantum Note

By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal 

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email:


As we entered the mosque of Córdoba I realised its isolation from its historical environ that once housed almost eighty thousand shops and workshops of artisans; there was nothing left of the marvellous public baths and inns which once surrounded the mosque. The multitudes of citizens, merchants, and mules passing over the bridge over the Great River (Guadalquiver) into the centre of the city were nowhere to be seen. Instead, there were throngs of tourists. In spite of this, the mosque still opens doorways to the numerous connections it once had with Islamic spirituality and sciences and practical arts.

Now, however, one has to use one's imagination to understand these intricate connections, because even the interior of this monumental mosque is not what it used to be; the presence of a "dark church structure that was built between the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and arbitrarily placed at the centre of the light forest of pillars like a giant black spider", as Titus Burchardt once remarked, makes it extremely difficult to clearly distinguish the features of the mosque which once looked like a broad grove of palm trees.

The mosque also stands today without the fabulous royal city, Madinat al-Zahrah, which once provided the backdrop to the city of Cordoba. The famous library of al-Hakam II, with its 400,000 volumes -- many of them containing annotations about their authors in his own hand -- is also gone. The mosque now lacks the traditional courtyard with fountains where the faithful once performed ablution before prayers. But some things still remain, and among them are the prayer niche and the marvellous array of columns and arches with their hypnotic symmetry.

Throngs of tourists take pictures and drift slowly toward the front part of the mosque, through hundreds of pillars, linked by horseshoe-shaped arches. The upper arches are heavier than the lower ones and the abutments of both increases in size with the height of the pillars. The pillars are reminiscent of palm branches, which the Arab rulers of al-Andalus missed in their new land. As we move toward the famed prayer niche the darkness of the interior of the building increases. Once, the area near the prayer niche was the brightest in the mosque.

As we arrive at the seven-sided prayer niche, its many intricate features become obvious. So many aspects of traditional Islamic sciences, arts, and architectural motifs are built into that small area that one can still see a whole civilisation reflected in the prayer niche of the mosque. There is a unique space inside the niche, where the word of God was once recited, a space that evokes awe and reminds one of the mysterious niche of light passage in the celebrated 'Light Verse' of the Holy Quran (24:35).

The fluted shell-like vault, designed to create extraordinary acoustics for the transmission of the recitation of the Holy Quran to the far corners of the mosque, and the horseshoe shaped arch that seems to breathe "as if expanding with a surfeit of inner beatitude, while the rectangular frame enclosing it acts as a counterbalance. The radiating energy and the perfect stillness from an unsurpassable equilibrium."

Today, the mosque of Cordoba stands as a symbol of something far greater than Islamic architecture. This extraordinary mosque, which has remained an enduring source of inspiration and reflection for countless poets and writers (including Iqbal whose poem on the mosque is a masterpiece), today stands as a symbol of Europe's dilemma which it has unwittingly created for itself: what to do with Islam and Muslims. As if to present an immediate example of European intolerance, a Spanish guard rushes toward my fourteen-year-old son as he stands in a corner to offer two rakah prayers.

The Spanish guard incessantly argues that this is not a mosque. I point toward the prayer niche, the beautiful columns, and the entire layout of the marvellous structure where once hundreds of men, women and children prayed, but he sees nothing but the artificially placed dark spider-like building of the Church in the middle of the mosque. "It is a church," he insists.

Our arguments become heated; many other guards rush toward us. I insist on our inalienable right to pray in a building that was constructed for that purpose; they insist that it is not allowed. "Who does not allow it?" I ask. "The authorities." "Can I talk to the authorities?" "No, they are not available".

Finally, they physically stop the prayer and surround us wherever we go inside the mosque. They cannot throw us out of the building, but that is exactly what is on their minds. One more move on our part, and they will have the excuse needed to take that ultimate step.

This episode is a reflection in miniature of the situation of Muslims in Europe today. Some twenty millions of men, women, and children living in this self-proclaimed centre of the civilised world are facing a slow and steady build-up of intolerance, mass hysteria, and state laws which may cut-short their precarious lives built on dreams, hopes, and sheer hard labour over three generations.

Islam and Muslims in Europe have become a dilemma for Europe, which it does not quite know how to deal. After the reconquest of Spain, summary executions, forced conversions, and mass deportations were chosen as the solution to eliminate Muslim presence from this part of Europe. Today, the sheer number of Muslims makes this an impossibility. Yet, state after state, Europe is passing laws that are making it harder for Muslims to practice their religion. The extent of intolerance is such that even a little piece of cloth on the head is considered a threat. Where would this situation lead to?

(To be continued)



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