Barcelona’s Muslim Heritage

Published at Islamonline.net (now OnIslam.net)

‘Over the past few years I have regularly attended the city of Barcelona for a number of conferences, this year was no different except that I took to exploring signs of an Islamic influence to the city. Finding Muslims in this city is not a troubled search; more than 300,000 live there, mostly from North Africa. And with 250,000 from Morocco, is it any wonder that the first Muslim member of the Catalan Parliament, Mohammed Chaib, is of Moroccan descent!

But no, this wasn’t what I was looking for, rather, something historic.

If Muslims came to Spain in the 8th century, and were expelled, at least from this region of Spain, Catalonia, in the 15th century, surely there must be some evidence or presence of Islam in Barcelona.

Muslims first step foot in Barcelona in the 8th century when ‘the Moors’ conquered the city but their presence lasted less than a hundred years as ‘the Franks’ occupied the city turning it into a military strong post. Still, the Muslim presence in the Catalan region surrounding Barcelona remained for quite some centuries.

As I discovered, Catalonia, the most north eastern province of Spain, bordering France, did indeed have an Islamic influence.  Barcelona on the other hand, did not. At least, that is what I was able to determine having searched the internet and contacted a number of Spanish publishers who specialized in the history of the region.

Old Church With Islamic Architecture!

My search found one publication which mentioned traces of the Islamic architecture in what is Barcelona’s oldest church, Sant Paul del Camp. Built outside the city walls surrounded by green fields as its name suggests (Camp = Countryside), today it is just a short walk from Las Ramblas the main tourist street of the city.

Arriving late Sunday morning at the church I noticed a small crowd gathering within the church. Outside stood a sign reading ‘Entry to cloisters 3 Euros’, I thought, what luck! Inside I asked a lady where I might find the cloisters only to discover that they would be open briefly after Sunday Mass, for which she invited me to stay.

Now it has been years since I have attended any form of Sunday service. It may have been a regular feature when I was a young boy at boarding school, but since then, like many of my Christian friends, I had not attended one. I thought to myself, why not, I will stand at one of the pews towards the back.

As the service began my first thought was that this is no different than going to a mosque where the sermon is conducted in Arabic – I understand one, just as much as I understand the other. Looking around, aside from a couple of Polish girls who like me, were waiting to visit the cloisters, the vast majority of individuals were elderly couples.

In a strange way, while the church was subtly high tech with an integrated speaker system and good lighting, the balance of old church with old churchgoers seemed to synchronize a certain harmony.

This simple fact is proof to me that not only must there have been dialogue between Muslims and Christians during this period, but that dialogue was so good that a church building included strong Islamic design themes.

Every now and then a word I would recognize would be spoken, the most common being the reference to Prophet Jesus where in addition to saying “Peace be upon him” I would add, ‘There is no god but Allah’.

While I know and believe this to be true, that sitting in a church where today Prophet Jesus is referred to as the ‘son of God’ (Exalted be God above the false things ascribed to Him), I simply would not have felt complete without professing these statements to myself.

As I pondered the history of the building while visiting the ‘Islamic’ cloisters, an elderly Catalan gentlemen was telling the two Polish girls that this church was built on land that used to be a mosque.  Of course the official version found almost everywhere reads that the Benedictines built this church after a Muslim raid destroyed the previous church in 985 AD.

Whether there was a church first or a mosque first, I do not know, in fact, to me as a non-historian, it does not really matter – I will  let the historians have that discussion.
What mattered to me was the fact that this small cloister built in the 12th century featured Islamic Moorish architecture.

This simple fact is proof to me that not only must there have been dialogue between Muslims and Christians during this period, but that dialogue was so good that a church building included strong Islamic design themes.

Yet today, despite such a large Muslim community in Barcelona, the city does not have a single mosque: lots of converted shops and garages, but no mosque. Much of this, as often in the world today, is down to misunderstandings of the Muslim belief, as well as generic fear.

Lessons to Remember

Of course I wonder then how Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, made space for the 60 visiting Christians to pray in his mosque in Medina. Knowing full well that their faith entailed a degree of shirk (associating partners to God, the highest ‘crime’ in Islam), still, when they came from Najran, he gave them space in his mosque to conduct their prayers. [Reference: Ibn Ishaque, The Life of Muhammad, pp 270-77, English translation, Guillaume] And despite these fundamental disagreements with regards to faith, a treaty was set up between the Muslims and the Christians of Najran. [Reference:  AI‑Baladhuri, Ahmad ibn Yahyi ibn Jibir, Futuh al‑buldan, p. 76; Kitab al­amwal, p. 272]

This example of Muslim engagement with non-Muslims, through agreement and mutual respect seems to have caught on with the Muslim presence in Spain where it has been observed that “In the earliest period of Muslim domination of Iberia there is evidence of extensive interaction, attested to by shared cemeteries and churches, bilingual coinage, an the continuity of Roman pottery types”. [Reference: Brian A Catlos, Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon 1050-1300, p 33]

In early Islam this tradition of mutual respect was continued when Caliph Umar, on his way to Syria stopped by a Christian town to meet the Bishop of Ayla spending a significant part of his day with him. And more locally, one of Prophet Muhammad’s neighbors in Medina with whom he retained good relations, a Jewish man, when the Prophet died, Caliph Umar provided him with a stipend, a pension, from the public treasury. That is right, Muslim taxes were paying for the pension of a Jewish man living in Medina. [ Reference: Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-kharaj, Cairo, 1382 H., p.122]

In the example of Prophet Muhammad, and one of the first Muslim rulers, Caliph Umar, we witness the most perfect engagement model with non-Muslim, where while there were disagreements with regards to aspects of faith, people came together on common terms.

In recent years, the opinions of the minority hard-line Muslims seem clearly to be at odds with these inclusive examples of early Islam. There is so much anger and hatred for non-Muslims by a minority of vocal Muslims it is shameful. Does not Allah say in the Qur’an, (Do not let hatred for a people incite you into being unjust. Justice is closer to piety. Have fear of God. God is aware of what you do.) [The Qur’an- 5:8]?

The perception of Muslims in the past as well as Muslim today has been tainted first by misrepresentation and second by fear mongering. The task of men such as Mohammed Chaib, Catalan Parliament’s Muslim member, is to break down some of these barriers, show the everyday and beautiful Islam practiced by the vast majority of Muslims and encourage the local government to allow a mosque to be built.

After all, how better to address misrepresentations of Islam than by supporting a mosque that promotes the better interpretations of Islam?

The Muslim contribution to Barcelona is brief, not to mention sketchy, despite the much stronger, positive influence of Islam in Spain. Perhaps with time, barriers such as fear and misunderstanding will be broken down, and Muslims can find a more inclusive way to contribute to Catalan society.

That the architecture of the oldest Church of Barcelona includes strong signs of Islamic design, appreciated for hundreds of years, should be a proof that the Christian-Muslim dynamics of Barcelona today and into the future can also benefit from the positive influences that Islam can bring.

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