During my time in Granada, Spain in the spring of 2012, I spent a good amount of time studying religion. In my university studies, my theology classes were by far the most interesting to me. I love learning about different faiths and doctrines, and the Jesuits at my university encouraged questioning and critical thinking. I have become quite curious when it comes to faith and religion.
Granada, as you may know, was the last city in Spain conquered by the Catholic rulers (Los Reyes Católicos) in 1492. It was the final moorish stronghold to fall, expelling Muslim rule from the country forever. Although the country is very Catholic, there is still a strong Muslim presence in this city, due in part to its proximity to northern Africa. Arabic can often be heard in the streets, and the Albaicin (the old moorish quarter of Granada) is full of Moroccan tea shops and vendors.
The mix of cultures is enchanting.
I made many Moroccan friends during my semester there and even got to spend time Morocco staying with a local family. I quickly became fascinated by the foreign and mysterious Muslim faith.
A dear friend of mine was kind enough to take me to his mosque, discuss the teachings and traditions of his faith with me, and introduce me to women at the mosque. I spent a few Friday’s there observing prayer from the partitioned women’s area of the mosque, something very new to me, listening to the Imam give his homily in arabic and then in spanish.
I can honestly say I’ve never felt more at peace or tranquil than I felt during those afternoons. After 20 years of listening to Catholic priests rattle off an endless list of saints and teaching the same lessons over and over again, it was refreshing and fascinating to listen to someone profess the lessons of God in a totally new way.
After the actual service, I often spent time chatting with some of the women at a café near the mosque. They were so patient with me, answering all of my questions and helping me to understand their faith. Coming from the USA, specifically New York, I had been privy to many of the stereotypes surrounding Islam, and my new friends were happy to explain the truth to me. Their truths.
Keep in mind that Spain and northern Morocco are particularly progressive areas for Muslims, so the lessons I learned in these countries are certainly different than what is experienced in more radical areas.
I asked them why some women cover themselves. My male friends explained to me that many women wear hijabs to cover their hair and loose, conservative clothing in respect for both their bodies and their husbands, if they are married.
One friend told me “If I see a woman wearing a hijab, I look away. In covering herself, she is asking for respect and so I give it to her.” The women told me that they cover themselves because God made their bodies for its functions, not for the pleasure of any man on the street. My friend Fatima added that she chooses not to wear a hijab because she works in a store with many Spaniards and tourists, and does not want to distract from business in a place where her religion is still stigmatized. She told me that although she does not cover her hair, she prefers to wear loose-fitting clothing and to keep her pants long and necklines high, as she does not want to attract attention for her appearance. I was surprised that a practice I had previously seen as oppressive was, in many ways, feminist.
Another stereotype that was broken for me was the idea that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands. The women laughed when I brought the topic up, suggesting that their husbands are the obedient ones. I got the feeling that these ladies run sh•t in their houses. They also indulged me on the topic of polygamy. They explained that it may seem odd to a Westerner, in poor Arab countries, a woman is very lucky to find a man who is able to support them and start a family. Polygamy only happens when a man can afford to support many wives, and a woman is often considered lucky to be one of many wives. This is not common practice in Spain, however.
The most important lesson I learned during my conversations with my new friends was the importance of peace and reserving judgement in Islam. During every interaction I had in and around the mosque, I observed and heard words of kindness, greetings of peace, while gossip and the passing of judgement were refreshingly absent. To this day, I wear the Hand of Fatima on my wrist to remind me of those lessons, and to remember some of the happiest days of my life.
If you make it to Granada, I cannot recommend a visit to the mosque enough. It is located right behind the Mirador de San Nicolas, the most famous viewpoint in the city. The gardens are open to the public. They are so beautiful and tranquil. The center also offers lessons to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, so if you’d like to study a new religion or take arabic lessons during your time in Al-Andaluz, be sure to check it out.