Muslims of Seville: A community in search of its place. Article by ´más+menos´magazine

The oldest Muslim community in Seville still in existence was founded by an ex-Catholic in 1985. The group, made up of converts and their descendants, talks today about life as a Muslim in what was, until 1284, one of the largest capitals of the Islamic world.

In the heart of the old town of Seville, the mix of cultures for which the city is known manifests itself. Circling the Plaza Ponce de León is a Catholic souvenir shop with Holy Week figurines in the window, the Church of St. Catalina, built on top of the ruins of a mosque in the 14th century and the original minaret still standing, and the Mosque Foundation of Seville, the prayer and meeting place for the oldest Muslim community in the city.

Although today the carpet-covered rooms of the Mosque Foundation serve immigrants and visitors from all around the world—Senegalese, Turks, Moroccans and more—the “nucleus” of this growing community, as its founder, Jalid Nieto, puts it, consists of Spaniard-by-birth converts to Islam and their families. The death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, after nearly forty years of dictatorship, resulted in more religious freedom for the country and allowed for the foundation of this community in 1985. In 2002, the community moved to its current headquarters in the Plaza Ponce de León, where today it serves as the site for salat (the custom of praying five times a day), Qur’an classes, and Arabic lessons.

Nieto, born in Seville, has a white beard and hair and a posture that makes one realize how tall he really is. He speaks eloquently and with a soft intensity, and he wears a suit jacket that calls to mind the image of a wise and well-traveled professor.

Nieto grew up in a “very intense” Catholic family, in his words, and converted to Islam when he was 24 or 25 years old after a long-term search for answers about the social, political and religious changes he saw Spain experiencing during the Democratic Transition period.

He had various jobs in his early twenties: working in civil rights, helping children with special needs and putting gypsy children into school as an employee of the city government. This work helped him expand his worldview and, at the same time, recognize his doubts with the Catholic faith.

“Really, all these life lessons that these social experiences gave me produced a questioning of values within myself—the established values within which I had lived. And I entered into a sort of internal investigation,” remembers Nieto. “You could define it as a quest for the most essential parts of oneself.”

One day in Granada, seated beneath the elm trees on the path that leads to the Alhambra, the grandiose palace and fortress constructed by the Nasrid dynasty, Nieto read a sentence in a book that changed the course of his life:

 The Qur’an is a recited book. It comes from silence and returns to silence. 

“That was tremendous. It impacted me,” Nieto said. “It all began to come together, with clear answers—this whole quest that I had started years before.”

The book that Nieto read about Islam during his elm-shaded moment of clarity by the Alhambra and many other books that he later read contributed to the creation of “a civilizing vision of Islam,” a worldview he says he shares with his five children and with new Muslims in his community.

“Never aggressive, punitive and extremist,” Nieto says about his interpretation of Islam, emphasizing the education of his family in classical European thought and culture: philosophy, music, history.

Nieto rejects the negative characterization of Islam in the world today. He says that he believes in “exactly the opposite: in serving society. I am educating my children in service to society.”

Asisa Nieto is one of these children. She and her friend Abdiya Meddings, a Briton who married Asisa’s cousin Umar, hold the same positive view of Islam. In a sunny café on the Guadalquivir River, they say that the problems associated with women in Islam don’t have any relation to the religion in which they grew up.

The young women smile a lot and talk between themselves in a mix of Spanish and English (Spaniard Asisa is earning a degree in English translation), and they have paired their fashionable clothing with light-colored headscarves that wrap around their hair like turbans. They could pass for glamorous 1940s film stars.

Asisa and Abdiya are 23 years old, and they met in 2011 at Madrassa Sharif al Wazzani, an international girls’ school for Islamic education in Larache, Morocco, which they attended for two years just after finishing high school. Asisa said that this experience helped her solidify her Muslim faith.

“I was Muslim because my parents were Muslims,” Asisa says of her childhood. “I always looked at it positively and I always liked it, but I had not yet accepted it… I hadn’t confirmed being Muslim for myself until I went to Morocco and I made that decision.”

Being European Muslim women, Asisa and Abdiya said that they are fortunate not to have experienced much discrimination. Asisa decided to cover her hair with a scarf just before starting college, so the new people she met there only ever knew her as wearing one.

“I was a little afraid at first, but later they accepted me perfectly. At college I haven’t had any, any, any problems. Not one. No one,” Asisa says with emphasis.

Neither has she experienced gender-based discrimination within Islam. “I have never felt lesser, nor has anyone made me feel lesser,” Asisa said. “In my family, there are five sisters and my mom, and they always supported me to do what I want,” Abdiya adds.

The friends attribute the violence against women in some Arab countries to the culture, not to Islam. They cannot reconcile their positive religious experiences with the oppression in practice today in parts of the Muslim world.

“That women can’t drive?” Abdiya says as an example. “That is not Islam,” both say emphatically in unison. “You can’t obligate anyone to do anything. If you see a person making another person do something, they are not following the laws of Islam,” Abdiya concludes.

Ibrahim Hernández is in agreement. He is the vice president of the Mosque Foundation of Seville, the legal tool created to raise funds to build a new mosque for this community of Muslim Spaniards. He hopes that the community can use its “privileged position” to “change the image that many have of Islam.”

“The disapproval that can exist, from our point of view, comes from a lack of knowledge and, obviously, from the influence that social media has on people and from this image that is given to Islam where it is associated with terrorism; it is associated with abuse; it is associated with poverty; it is associated with war,” Hernández explains.

Is this type of community common in Spain? A recent demographic study from the Union of Islamic Communities of Spain indicates that there are nearly two million Muslims in Spain, with 28,000 Muslims residing in the province of Seville. Of those, approximately 50 percent are Spanish citizens and the other 50 percent are foreigners. It is important to note that the statistic doesn’t say anything about the Spanish Muslims’ origins and that a large part of them are naturalized citizens or descendants of immigrants.

In this context, a Muslim community formed mainly by Spanish-born people is relatively unusual. However, though the “nucleus” of the community is composed of Spaniards, the Mosque Foundation wants the new mosque and cultural center they hope to build to serve the whole Muslim population of Seville.

The governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have donated funds for the building’s construction. The project, launched in 2014, has raised to date more than $1 million of the $19 million that are necessary. Plans for the new mosque detail spaces to hold classes, workshops, weddings, medical services and art exhibits, in addition to a legal advice department, gardens, a library, a restaurant and more.

At the moment, the foundation has to operate from a headquarters that consists of two carpeted rooms– one of which includes a table and chairs to function as a meeting space—and a few offices, insufficient for the activities that the organization wants to carry out.

“It is born from a necessity and a desire of the Muslims of Seville to have a dignified place,” Hernández said about the plans for the new mosque. “I have two daughters and a little son, and I want them, when they grow up, well, to grow up proud of being Muslims and not having to meet up in a dark place or in the outskirts of town.”