By Rafia Zakaria
April 25, 2018
The Great Mosque of Cordoba
IT was January 1933 when the poet Muhammad Iqbal made his way to Cordoba, the magical city in Spain that was once the centre of the Islamic golden age. Iqbal had begun his second visit to Europe in 1932, with the hope of renewing some of his old acquaintances and of course hoping to see Granada and Cordoba. He had to get special permission to get there.
After centuries of peaceful coexistence under both Islamic and Christian rulers, Jews and Muslims had been expelled from Spain in 1492 as the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella finally conquered Granada, got the keys to the palace of Alhambra and set about creating a ‘united’ Spain. Some of these restrictions were lifted in 1924, less than a decade before Iqbal’s visits, others several decades earlier.
Inside the Mosque of Cordoba, Iqbal prayed, a fact we know from the photograph that was taken of that moment. It was a life-changing experience for him: the beauty of the mosque, the grandeur of a lost Islamic history, the artistry in each aspect of the monument, mesmerised him. It is evident in the words of the poem penned while he was in the city. “Art lover’s Mecca/ Faith’s grandeur/ You made Andalusia holy” (Rafiq Kathwari translation), Iqbal declares as he experiences the profound sense of awe at being in such a place.
But there was also melancholy in Iqbal’s homage: “Alas for centuries/ No call for prayer/ Echo the minaret /In which valley/ At which destination/ Is love’s caravan inducing frenzy/ As all of Europe swept away the old order”. In three more years, Spain would be plunged into civil war and the old order would be eradicated yet again. A re-conquest following the conquests of the past, Franco’s forces would rail across the nation, and neither Cordoba nor Granada would be of particular importance. It is a good thing that Iqbal visited when he did.
The true loss is that of the Muslim imagination as it was in Islam’s golden age.
The simultaneous sense of wonder and grief still radiates from the Moorish arches of the mosque of Cordoba today. While Iqbal’s sense of loss was particularly poignant, he grew up in a united India still languishing under the yoke of British colonialism. Muslims ruled Spain for nearly 700 years; the British had been in India for nearly 200. The Muslims of South Asia did throw off their colonial yoke, but the Mosque of Cordoba evokes a moment in Islamic history that goes far beyond mere independence or the control of the borders of this or that nation state.
Within the mosque’s design, every motif and each pillar, every fountain and every arch, attests to the heights human beings achieve when they pay homage to the Divine in what they create. The use of space, of construction, the juxtaposition of the achingly simple against the sumptuously ornate, all reveal an understanding of divinity and of prayer as not simply the rituals of supplication but also the mastery of creation.
The loss, then, is not just of Cordoba, but of that spirit, that understanding of how art can bring humans close to a transcendent experience, a closer communion with the Divine aided by the ingenuity of human passion. If there are no successors to Cordoba, it is because that belief in the connection between the human passion of creation and the human devotion to the Divine has been lost. Muslim cities of today reflect this loss and Pakistani cities are among them.
In Karachi, construction sites are everywhere but nearly all are homages only to human greed and a disregard for human life. Instead of aspiring to simplicity and beauty, there is the slapdash and the scurrilous, money taken for one thing and then spent on something else. Pride of creation, an understanding of creation as a form of prayer, as a means of expressing a higher consciousness, of the profound instead of the profane, seems gone forever.
Ugly apartment buildings rise up with regularity, their inhabitants precariously perched between survival and destruction. Anything can destroy them and so the role of prayer here is to pray for the prevention of everything. What is true of them is also true of bridges and malls and even of mosques, where quantity matters more than quality and variety is necessary to cater to each and every closely held sectarian proclivity.
That, then, is the true loss of Cordoba, the loss of the Muslim imagination as it was in Islam’s golden age, one that was not petty or obsessed with correcting others on this or that detail. Instead, the direction was towards the transcendent and Divine, the ability of humans to show their devotion to the Divine in everything they did, particularly in their acts of construction, design and architecture.
The Mosque of Cordoba inspires, its magic persisting generation after generation, from the moment of its construction by the Umayyad emir Abdul Rahman until now, when one sits in the courtyard, the scent of orange blossoms wafting through the air. There is an expansiveness of spirit here, a breadth of perspective that makes one gasp and pause, the heart stop and the spirit rise.
When Iqbal wrote Masjid-i-Cordoba, Pakistan was not born and the shackles of Empire remained. Muslims were, quite literally, in chains and the Ottoman Empire had fallen to bits. Since then, at least in the case of the subcontinent, there has been independence, the creation of Pakistan, the first Islamic Republic. As for freedom, the sort of freedom that exudes from every pore of the Mosque of Cordoba, that has remained elusive, harder to find. The proof is everywhere around us, humans destroying and constructing, but never for a higher purpose, a greater goal.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.