A Journey through Islam: New Muslims In Spain
By Salma Al-Ansari
8 February 2013
Islam in Spain has a remarkable presence. Muslims in Europe in general and Spain in particular have always been categorized as immigrants. In recent years, however, there is a notable number of native Spaniards who have converted to Islam in Spain and they are recognized publicly as new Muslims. This may raise many questions on the nature of the Islamic preaching activities in Spain and the official Islamic presence in the country. Islam has come to be an attractive religion to some Spaniards disregarding the fact that its international media image is not generally a positive one.
It is important to note that Islam is considered to be the fastest growing religion in the world. But Spain, in specific, maintains very unique historical and cultural linkages to Islam that never existed within any of the other European countries. Under the name of “Al-Andalus” most of the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by an Islamic state for around eight centuries — from 711 to their defeat at Granada in 1492. Since the expulsion of Muslims and Jews shortly thereafter, Muslims were not allowed to practice their religion either publicly or privately. It was not until 1978 that Spain finally issued a law that would protect the freedom of practicing different religions, including Islam. Then in 1992, the Spanish government signed a specific agreement with the Islamic Commission of Spain that would guarantee the Spanish government support for the freedom of Muslim residents in Spain to practice their religion and have rights to construct new mosques and enjoy full rights from the state.
The current growth of new Muslims in Spain is a direct result of this historical and legislative context. According to Mohammed Janna, the administrative adviser of the Islamic Communities Union of Spain, “The Union is responsible for more than 65 percent of the mosques in Spain.” He also mentioned that the estimated number of all the mosques in Spain is more than 1,200 mosques. Regarding new Muslims in Spain, “Spaniards have a tendency to know more about Islam, and the union’s headquarters in Madrid arranges classes that teach people about the religion and its principles,” said Janna.
The converts are not only Spanish, Janna reports, but also Romanians and Latin Americans. When he was asked about why they had converted and the process they followed to reach this decision, he replied that most of them showed interest in learning about the religion for the fact that it appreciates rationality and it is based on logical and spiritual bases. Janna mentioned several times that there were still some new converts who decided to become Muslims for the fact they were in a relationship with a Muslim with family ties to the religion, and through them they decided to learn about the religion and embrace it at the end.
In the Islamic Centre of Madrid, there is a section of the building called “Discover Islam.” Carmen from Madrid, a convert to Islam, works there for six hours a day receiving questions from different people about Islam. She gave the figure of the average of converts that declared their new faith through this Centre alone as around 170 a year. The Centre also supports its new converts by offering classes to teach Arabic and Islam.
The rise of Spanish converts can be attributed to several primary reasons. The government’s secular view of religions has made it much easier for Spaniards to have access to information about Islam either through the privately established Islamic centres or through Muslim immigrants it allows to come to Spain. Also the Internet is a resourceful tool for any individual who is curious to know more about Islam. There have also been some efforts from different Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia to help the Muslim community in Spain by donating to their mosques and their education. Cordoba Channel is an example of Saudi efforts to build bridges between Muslims and Spaniards. Based in Madrid, it offers programs about Islam and Muslims in Spain and their contributions to society. Intercultural and inter-religious dialogue has always been the central interest for Saudi Arabia.
“In this channel we basically represent a practical implementation of nation’s dialogue by having Muslims and non-Muslims, women and men working in this Spanish Islamic channel,” said Abdulaziz Alfowzan, the founder.
Regarding the future of Islam in Spain, Father James O’Leary, a theologian professor in Saint Louis University Madrid, claimed: “There are thought to be about 1,000,000 Muslims in Spain and I imagine that their birth rate is higher than the Spanish birth rate, so I assume that this changing demographic means that Muslims will slowly but surely have more influence in Spain.” Father James has also responded to the question of why do some non-Muslim Spaniards convert to Islam and he said “a number of Spanish people, especially in Andalucía, converted to Islam because they saw it as a religion that gave them a sense of dignity and self-worth. So, I think one of the attractions of Islam is that you can be part of the big Muslim family even if you do not have a lot of material possessions. Others have converted to Islam because they were atheists who then read the Qur’an and believed it to be the Word of God. I think more people will convert to Islam here in Spain.” This is what brought Eva Ruiz, a Spaniard who worked in the Registrar of Saint Louis University Madrid, to Islam. She changed her name from Eva to its Arabic equivalent, Hawa, after becoming Muslim. “Islam provided me with full answers to my questions” Said Hawa Rz.
Overall, Islam in Spain seems to be growing for different factors such as the historical and cultural linkage to Islam, the secular Spanish government’s approach to and support for different religious communities, Islamic centres’ preaching activities, and most importantly the accessibility of information over mass media.