Visiting southern Spain was a dream of mine for many years. I was drawn to the history of peaceful, or at least non-lethal, co-existence of Muslims, Jews and Christians in the 700 years before 1492. There is real controversy today about how that period should be viewed. It most certainly did not represent an image of the Beloved Community that any of us would affirm. Jews and Christians were clearly less than full citizens under Muslim rule. Perhaps that era looks positive only because we know what followed: the forced eviction or conversion of the Muslims and Jews, and the Inquisition.
Cordoba was the capital and heart of Muslim Spain. No visit is complete without a stop at the Great Mosque which was the center of religious life. The history of this site draws one into the complexities and layering of traditions. It was initially a Visigoth Church. You may remember that the Visigoths were one of the “barbarian tribes” that prompted the collapse of Rome. You may not know that the Visigoths were Christian…though of that heretical branch of the Jesus tradition that lost out at the Council of Nicea…that branch with which we Unitarian Universalists most closely associate.
It was the Visigoths that the Muslims defeated to take control of Spain. One of the first things the Muslim caliph Abd al-Rahman I did was to demolish the Visigoth church and build a large mosque on the site. That mosque was enlarged several times, finally covering 250,000 square feet and able to accommodate 20,000 at prayer. Much of that mosque still remains, the expansive roof supported by rows of columns connected by graceful double arches of alternating red and cream colored stone. The space feels warm and protected…in very human scale thanks to the low ceiling, despite the expanse of space. One commentator described it this way: “The Mosque is low slung, seeming to hug the ground, conveying architecturally the humility before God that the term ‘Muslim’ means.” It is simple and elegant in feel, thanks to the graceful architectural lines and lack of adornment.
When the Christians occupied Cordoba, they did not demolish the huge mosque. Instead, in the middle, they build a huge, soaring cathedral, complete with a huge crucifix, and added 30 side chapels, dedicated to various saints along all the interior walls. The flying buttresses of the new, tall walls were anchored to the roof of the mosque.
The Cathedral is still called La Mezquita, the mosque. And impossible statements are still made by Cordoba’s Christian residents: “I am going to the Mosque to hear mass.”
So, whose place of worship is this? Muslim or Christian?
Spanish Muslims have long sought permission to pray in the mosque but such requests have always been turned down on the grounds that Muslims cannot pray in a consecrated Catholic church. In 2010 a protest “pray-in” by a Muslim youth organization from Austria resulted in a scuffle with guards, two of whom were wounded.
The Spanish government tried to eliminate the name “Mosque” from the description of this remarkable, layered structure, but the tourist industry won out over their concerns.
Being in the Mosque, it was not hard to imagine thousands bending their heads to the ground in prayer. The space felt designed for that, as it was. It was much harder to take in the tall crucifix and the images of demons that decorated the Cathedral. I found myself resenting the side chapels that had closed off the interior of the Mosque to the sunlight.
What faith deserves our devotion? In the western and Protestant traditions, we know most about individual empowerment. That focus on the individual and her agency is one of the strengths on which our liberal religious tradition draws. The Islamic tradition knows more of obedience and, perhaps devotion. Or is religious devotion less about what we believe and more about the practices and habits of the heart through which we find or know religious truth? Is devotion more an end or a means?