The Late Great Mosque of Córdoba: When Islam and the West Were One

When Spanish Catholics seized Córdoba in 1236, they built a cathedral in the middle of its Great Mosque, whose guards still enforce the centuries-old ban on Muslim prayer. Credit: Creative Commons/Timor Espallargas.

The Prophet Muhammad said dreams can be a kind of revelation: God speaks to us after He’s ceased speaking to us. What then is a nightmare?

It began inside Córdoba’s Great Mosque in Spain. I had a view from the ceiling, and far down below me was me, a sad and pathetic person-shaped smudge. The air tasted so old I thought I might be inhaling the exhalations of the mosque’s final congregation, from whatever day in 1236 prayers were last held there. I was unclear how I’d gotten in, and equally uncertain how I would get out. Something pulled me toward the mihrab, the niche that shows the direction in which to pray; though I drew physically closer to Mecca, I was no closer to an explanation. Instead, a terrible hollowness seemed to turn me inside out. I was dead, I suspected; this wasn’t Córdoba but some postmortem way station toward a more permanent destination. Perhaps I was to fester in piety until God made me move on.

I woke up, startled, in a pitch-black Spanish hotel room. I’d already spent my life chased by Islam and needed a break. Couldn’t God give me the time to make sense of things on my own terms?

Being Muslim and Western

In his autobiography, Out of Place, Edward Said asserts what is probably academically uncontroversial today: the unitary self is a pious fiction. Once this horrified me. Now, the losses I’ve suffered and mistakes I’ve made have rendered the position considerably more persuasive, even reassuring. I tend to think of the self as a subway car, full of different people, going in and out at predetermined stops, hurtled toward some destination we have no choice in (but know very well all the same). But the world prefers binaries.

I am Muslim and I am Western. This is not a binary either/or, nor do I think it requires, in the manner of a scientific experiment, constant confirmation. That is not, however, how the world sees things—and it is not how many Muslims are made to see things, or would prefer we do. But conscious of how hard it is to communicate the unproblematic compatibility of Islam and the West, I am always eager for new approaches.

Hence my interest in Spain. I’d long read about and romanticized the Muslim heritage of Spain (and Portugal, which usually receives short shrift and will here, too). How wonderful it would be to take a bus full of American Muslims and, rather than say, “Islam and the West are not at odds,” show them. But I would soon find a more personal stake in the process.

I took my first tour to Spain in 2011, when I inhabited the overlap between tourist and tour guide, discovering Spain as I explained it. The only downside was the supplementary nature of my role. In each city we had local guides. My work was largely correcting what we had heard after leaving a ruin, mosque, or palace. Wouldn’t it be better to give the tour itself?

So when I was asked to lead a tour again, I jumped at the chance and vowed to do better. But what could I be a tour guide for? The Alhambra did not accept outside guides, so that was off the list. But one other site was nearly as spectacular—Córdoba’s Great Mosque. I’d walk us through. I’d start us from the Roman bridge that Abd ar-Rahman had crossed, take the visitors into the surprisingly quiet courtyard, and show them every major feature of the mosque. I’d give them their money’s worth and then some.

Making a Great Mosque


Ornate Arabic calligraphy decorates the Alhambra, which was built to resemble paradise. “Beauty is Islam’s answer to the world within and without,” the author writes. Credit: Haroon Moghul.

The first Umayyad Emir of Spain, Abd ar-Rahman, made Córdoba his capital. And of course a Muslim capital required a mosque. So, after sharing the local church for a time, the Muslims bought it out and repurposed it. The resulting mosque was a love letter to the Great Mosque of Damascus, which Abd ar-Rahman’s ancestors built to recall the Prophet Muhammad’s once modest mosque in Medina. Of late this has become a love triangle.

Saudi Arabian wealth has made Muhammad’s once modest mosque nearly unrecognizable, though this same richness has made the Córdoban mosque inadvertently famous. You see, the Prophet’s petrochemically enhanced megamosque in Medina draws very obviously on Córdoba’s twelve-centuries-old masterpiece. When many Muslims see Córdoba’s Mosque, they feel they’ve been there before.

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