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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 09   16-30 September 2009

Mosques in Europe

Minaret Research Network

Muslim presence in Europe dates from the 8th century. Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber commandant of Musa ibn Nusayr, defeated the Visigoth ruler Roderic in July 711, which led to the establishment of Islamic rule over the Iberian Peninsula. Muslim rule over Spain lasted, intermittently, for nearly eight centuries, from 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492. At a time when Europe was steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness, Andalusia or Islamic Spain witnessed dazzling progress in science and medicine, technology, architecture and the arts, literature and philosophy and was ‘the torch of Europe,’ as J. B. Trend has described it. The Cordoba Mosque and the Alhambra in Granada still bear witness to the magnificence of Moorish Spain’s civilization.

Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula came to an end in 1492 with the capture of Granada by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, following which a campaign of forcible conversion of Muslims and Jews, duly approved by the Catholic Church, was carried out. Those who refused to convert were exiled or executed. About five hundred thousand Muslims and two hundred thousand Jews were expelled from the country. Moriscos, descendants of Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity in 1502, were prohibited from speaking Arabic and from marrying according to Islamic rites. Finally, after a century of forced conversions between 1502 and 1615, all Moriscos—estimated at over 300,000—were driven out of the country. Mosques were either destroyed or converted into churches.

The Cordoba Mosque

The Cordoba Mosque represents one of the most magnificent and astounding architectural monuments of the Islamic world. The construction of the mosque began in 784 at the instance of the first Muslim ruler of Spain, Abd al-Rahman I. The construction as well as additions continued over the next two centuries. The area of the mosque measures 570 feet in length and 425 feet in width. The ceiling is 30 feet high. King Abd al-Rahman III constructed a large square minaret atop the mosque in 951. The minaret was destroyed in an earthquake, following which King Al-Nasir built another square minaret with a height of 72 metres.

The grandeur of the Cordoba Mosque is simply breath-taking. The conspicuous features of the mosque are its colossal and grandiose scale, its magnificent double-arched colonnade, its marvelous symmetry, its exquisite ornamentation and its inimitable calligraphy. The mosque’s large structure is supported by nearly 1000 columns made from jasper, onyx, marble and granite. The high ceiling of the mosque, made from pine wood, is richly decorated and beautifully painted. The mihrab (prayer niche) is decorated with geometric and flowing designs of plants and embellished with Quranic calligraphy in Kufi and Maghrebi styles.

The celebrated poet-philosopher of the Indian subcontinent, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, who visited the Cordoba Mosque in 1031, sought to capture the majesty and grandeur of the mosque in his famous poem “Masjid-e-Qurtuba”.

Shrine of the lovers of art! Visible power of the Faith!
Sacred as Mecca you made, once, Andalusia’s soil.
If there is beneath these skies beauty equal to yours,
Only in the hearts of Muslims, nowhere else can it be.
Ah, those proud cavaliers, champions Arabia set forth
Pledged to the Splendid Way, knights of the truth and the creed!
Through their empire was a strange secret understood:
Friends of mankind hold sway not to command but to serve.
Europe and Asia from them gathered instruction: the West
Lay in darkness, and their wisdom discovered the path…
Even today in its breeze the fragrance of Yemen still floats,
Even today its melodies ring with the spirit of Hejaz.

When Cordoba was sacked by King Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236, the Cordoba Mosque was consecrated as a church. Alphonso X oversaw the construction of the Villaviciosa Chapel and the Royal Chapel in the precincts of the mosque. Carlos V, king of United Spain, constructed a cathedral in the centre of the mosque, which came to be known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin. Bishop Juan Jose Asenjo forbade Muslims to offer prayers in the mosque. The mosque remains out of bounds for Muslims.

In Spain and Sicily (Italy), many mosques, which were constructed during the Islamic period, were converted into churches. Granada’s San Jose Church, for example, was built on the site of the city’s oldest mosque dating from the 10th century. A mosque was attached to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which was converted into a church when the city was conquered by the Christian rulers. Seville had a magnificent mosque, which was converted into a cathedral when the city came under Christian rule. The mosque’s imposing minaret was incorporated into the cathedral complex.

Muslims in Europe

Some of the oldest-surviving Muslim communities are to be found in Russia and in the Balkans. The Siberian Muslims are among Russia’s oldest surviving Muslim communities. According to local legend, Islam reached western Siberia in the 14th century. There are three large and distinct ethnic groups in the region: Siberian Tartars (80,000), Western Siberian Kazakhs (160,000) and the Volga-Ural Tartars (60,000). Every Tartar and Kazakh settlement has a mosque and a religious functionary. The presence of Muslims in the Balkans dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, when large parts of the region were conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Europe’s oldest surviving mosque is in Bulgaria, which was constructed in 1364. The Tatar Muslims in Poland and Hungary are also among the oldest Muslim communities on the continent.

The population of Muslims in Europe is estimated at between 25 and 30 million. The largest concentrations of Muslims in Europe are to be found in France (5-6 million), Germany (4 million), Britain (2.6 million), Spain (1.1 million), Italy (600,000), the Netherlands (500,000), Belgium (300,000) and Sweden (300,000). There are more Muslims in Europe than the combined populations of Finland, Ireland and Denmark. In most European countries, Islam is now the second largest religion after Christianity. Muslims living in European countries are free to build mosques, to have their own cemeteries and Islamic schools (which are funded by the state in some European countries), and to establish their religious and cultural organisations. Nearly all Western countries allow Muslims to slaughter animals according to the Islamic ritual. Many European countries provide facilities for imparting instruction to the children of immigrants in their national languages. Countries like Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands support imams brought from Turkey, Morocco and other Muslim countries to provide Islamic instruction to Muslim children.

The structure and functions of mosques in European countries are different from those in Islamic countries in two important respects. First, mosques in Europe serve not only as centres of worship and Islamic instruction but also fulfill the social and cultural needs of local communities. Nearly all large mosques have a madrasa, conference hall, library and community centre. Second, most large mosques have separate enclosures for women.

There are about 1700 mosques and prayer halls in France. Most of these are makeshift structures, consisting of apartments, courtyards, garages and old factory premises. The central mosque of Paris, known as the Grande Mosquee de Paris, is one of the largest mosques in Europe. It was founded after World War I as a gesture of France’s gratitude to the Muslim members of the French army (recruited from French colonies such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia), who had fought against Germany. The mosque was inaugurated by President Gaston Doumergue on July 15, 1926. Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi, a venerated Algerian Sufi, led the first congregational prayer in the mosque in the presence of the French president.

Lyon in east-central France, which has a Muslim population of 1,50,000, has a vibrant community life and some elegantly designed mosques.

There are nearly 2,500 mosques and prayer halls in Germany. About 140 of them have domes and minarets. Most of the premises used by Muslims as prayer halls are actually old factories, apartments, courtyards or garages. Berlin, which is home to 220,000 Muslims, has quite a few elegantly designed mosques. The first large mosque opened in the city in December 2006.

A beautiful mosque, designed by Mubashara Ilyas, opened in Berlin in 2008.

The Maxloh district in Germany has a fairly large concentration of Turkish Muslims. The relations between the Turkish minority and local residents have been cordial. Many Muslim children attend the Catholic kindergarten, and Catholics and Muslims visit each others’ homes during festivals. Germany’s largest mosque opened in Duisburg city in Maxloh district in October 2008.

The mosque, which cost €7 million and can accommodate 3,500 worshippers, has a conference centre in the basement, which is open to all the people of the district of Maxloh, regardless of religious distinctions. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has invested €3.2 million in the construction of the conference centre.

There are more than 1,600 mosques in the UK. London’s magnificent Regent’s Park Mosque can accommodate nearly 10,000 worshippers.

There are 427 officially registered mosques and prayer halls in Spain. In addition, a number of garages and apartment houses are used as prayer halls.

A Mosque in Granada after 500 Years

In the 1980s a small group of Spanish converts decided to build a mosque in Granada. They embarked on a trip to the Middle East, hoping to collect $10,000 they needed to buy the land for the construction of the mosque. People in Libya, Morocco and Malaysia made contributions to the cause, but the larger part of the funds came from the Emir of Sharjah. Unfortunately, opposition from local groups and far-right political parties held up the project for nearly 20 years. Ultimately, when the permission for the construction of the mosque was granted by the local authorities, the mosque had to be scaled down to half its proposed size and the height of its minaret was cut down to satisfy local demands.

The mosque was opened, in the presence of Granada’s mayor and other prominent citizens, in the summer of 2003. The minaret of the mosque is a tower designed and constructed in the original Albaicin style. The mosque, surrounded by beautifully designed gardens, is open to the public. The mihrab is an exact replica of the famous mihrab of the Cordoba Mosque. Hundreds of tourists visit the mosque everyday and a few convert to Islam each week.

Muslims in Granada are planning to recreate the city’s glorious past. The plans include the construction of a half-size replica of the Cordoba Mosque. Other big mosques are being planned for Madinat al-Zahra near Cordoba and Seville. The Catholic bishops of Cordoba, Granada and Seville are alarmed by the new mosque projects, fearing that the church’s declining influence in the country may be further eclipsed by a resurgent Islam.

Thousands of Muslims live in Rome. The city’s Muslims have been making efforts to build a large mosque to cater to their religious and cultural needs, but their efforts were thwarted by the local Catholic priests. When Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal visited Rome in 1973, he took the initiative for the construction of a large mosque in the city. The city council agreed to give 7.5 acres of woodland in a residential area close to Saint Peter’s and the city centre. The Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy held an international competition for the mosque’s design, which was won by the Italian architect Paulo Portoghesi. The mosque, which is spread over 30,000 square metres, opened in June 1995. It can accommodated more than 2,000 worshippers and has a library, a conference hall, an Islamic cultural centre and residential rooms for students.

The Netherlands is home to more than 500,000 Muslims. There are more than 400 mosques in the country.

The population of Muslims in Switzerland is estimated to be 310,000. Most of the premises that are used by Muslims as prayer halls are actually apartments, courtyards and garages. There are, however, a few mosques in the country with domes and minarets.

Mosques as Targets of Islamophobia

Racist and xenophobic sentiments are deeply entrenched in the cultural consciousness of European societies. Islamophobia is manifested in attacks on Muslims, in the desecration of mosques and cemeteries, in the vilification and demonisation of Muslims, and in the deprecation of Islamic cultural symbols such as the headscarf. Quite a few mosques have been vandalized in Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

In Spain, as in many European countries, there is an evident disjunction between the constitutional recognition of the legal, political and cultural rights of Muslims (de jure rights) and the factual state of affairs (de facto rights). This is reflected in the public opposition to the construction of new mosques in the country and in the reluctance or unwillingness of local authorities to ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Muslims are complied with. Public protests against the construction of new mosques have been widespread in the country in recent years. In Catalonia alone there have been 18 cases of public protests between 2001 and 2006. Premia del Mar is a small town north of Barcelona, where Muslims immigrants make up about 4.4 per cent of the population. It witnessed public protests against the proposed construction of a mosque in 2002. The neighbourhood groups that spearheaded the protests accused the Muslims of unwillingness to be integrated into mainstream society, saying that the proposed mosque project would turn the area into a Muslim ghetto. The protests were supported by right-wing political leaders, who raised the bogey of a Muslim ‘invasion’ and whipped up popular passions about defending ‘our identities, customs and culture’.

When local authorities reluctantly grant permission for the construction of a mosque, it is generally at the outskirts of the town, away from the gaze of local residents. Faced with this situation, Muslims have no choice but to pray in prayer halls located in private garages, offices and apartments. A similar kind of reluctance on the part of local authorities is evident in respect of spaces for Islamic cemeteries, the demand for halal food and the wearing of headscarves in schools. As Muslim immigrants often have no voting rights as a result of discriminatory citizenship laws and procedures, local authorities are under no pressure to protect their rights.

The Swiss People’s Party, which has the majority of seats in Switzerland’s parliament, started a campaign in 2007 to ban minarets on mosques. It argues that minarets symbolise Islamic law, which has no place in Switzerland’s legal system. It is seeking a referendum on the issue and until such time as the referendum is held, mosques are not permitted to raise minarets. The move has caused shock and deep resentment among Switzerland’s Muslims. At present only two mosques—one in Geneva and the other in Zurich—have minarets, but they are not allowed to use them for calling the faithful to prayer.

In 2000 the opening of two mosques on the periphery of Milan in Italy had created a storm of controversy. A local Muslim organization COREIS (Association of Italian Converts to Islam) in Lodi, a small town on the outskirts of Milan, had requested the local municipality for a piece of land on which it wanted to build a mosque. The Mayor of Lodi conceded their request. This led to protests and demonstrations by the local people. The Lodi branch of the far-right Lega Nord whipped up xenophobic sentiments and organised a public rally on 14 October 2000 to protest against the mayor’s decision and to declare their opposition to the construction of the mosque. A Catholic priest celebrated mass in the protest march, suggesting that the local Catholic Church was also opposed to the construction of the mosque in the region. The issue was lapped up by the national media in Italy, which projected the controversy in the context of wider questions such as the limits of religious freedom, the rights and obligations of immigrants, and national culture and identity. The opening of a new mosque in Milan a fortnight later added fuel to the fire. The Italian media played a highly partisan role in this debate.

On 20 September, 2008, about 200 far-right activists from different parts of Europe descended on the German city of Cologne to hold a rally against what they called “the Islamization of Europe”. The rally was organised by the local Pro Cologne group, set up to protest against the construction of a mosque in the city, and was joined by prominent members and leaders of Europe’s far-right political parties such as Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and the UK’s British National Party. A few days ago Cologne’s City Council had given the formal permission for the construction of the mosque in the city’s Ehrenfeld district.

The organisers and participants in the rally had not anticipated that they would be confronted and blocked by the city’s residents. An estimated 40,000 protesters turned up in Cologne’s downtown Heumarkt area to disrupt the rally. They blocked urban trains to keep participants in the rally away and raided a tourist boat where the far-right group was hoping to hold a press conference. Police cancelled the rally after 45 minutes. Pro Cologne orgahnisers had to dismantle microphones and other equipment in Heumarkt.

There was widespread resentment among the residents of Cologne against the anti-Islam rally. Taxi drivers refused to reach the far-right delegates to their destination and hotel owners cancelled room bookings. The demonstrators comprised all sections of Cologne’s population, including Christian Democrats, trade unionists, Muslim groups, Left-Party members and students, writers and intellectuals, and Christian groups. The hugely successful demonstration in the heart of the city sent a clear message to the far-right groups in the country and across Europe that the people of Cologne would not tolerate racist ideologies and outbursts in their city.

Gabriele Hermani, a spokesman for the German interior ministry, condemned the anti-Islam conference saying, “We believe that such an event organised by populists and extremists in Cologne is damaging to the good co-operation between the city and its Muslim citizens”.

According to a report published in The Times (February 8, 2009), thousands of churches in the UK face demolition or conversion in the next decade. In some parts of the country, churches are being turned into centres of worship for other faiths, including mosques and temples. A disused Methodist chapel in Clitheroe on the edge of Yorkshire Dales is set to be converted into a mosque for the town’s 300 Muslims. Churches which have become redundant tend to be developed into houses, offices or restaurants.

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