Walking through the dim-lit forest of columns and arches, a profound silence engulfs me. I try to picture him, as he must have stood here 830 years ago. My imagination paints a tall and slender man of elegance and dignity, clad in a long robe and wearing a white turban on top of his head.
Isn’t it striking that even after more than eight centuries and countless generations gone past we can tune into the presence of the great souls who walked this earth?
When I started this group journey through Andalusia, I was told that the places we would visit on the way are not special because of the way some bricks were arranged to form an architectural masterpiece. No, what makes them special is the people who used to frequent them and left upon them their spiritual marks. In Arabic terminology: It is not the outer appearance, but the himmat of the saints and realized ones – the stored energy of their prayers between the walls – that moves us in sacred places.
The great Sufi philosopher Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi visited the Grand Mosque of Cordoba in June 1184 when he was still an 18-year-old, unsure which direction his life would take. The 13th century mystic, who is known in Sufism as Shaykh Al-Akbar or "the great master," entered the mosque together with a commander of the Almohad army. The Almohad Caliphate was then a Berber empire that held control over much of North Africa and the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal).
When this man of worldly fame and honor started to perform his prayer, a deep transformation occurred in the young Ibn ‘Arabi. As he would recall his epiphany later:
I went out to the Great Mosque in Cordoba […] and I saw him bowing, prostrating and humbly abasing himself in supplication to God. Then a sudden thought (khatir) stirred in me [so that] I said to myself: ‘If this, the ruler of the land, is so humbly submissive and does this before God, then this world is worth nothing.’
(Quoted in: Stephen Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier, p. 60)
The times when the old columns of the mosque witnessed communal worship are long gone. In fact, those who have tried to perform their prayers in recent years were repeatedly stopped by Spanish security guards, similar to Istanbul's Hagia Sophia before its reconversion into a mosque.
Groups of tourists now navigate the labyrinth of the Mezquita (Spanish for “mosque”), following the umbrellas held up by tourist guides. There is a constant hustle and bustle in front of the mihrab, the prayer niche pointing towards Mecca. Everyone is raising their arms to take pictures, trying to capture the mihrab as symmetrically as possible. It's as if they were imitating the ancient builders of this mosque who were unparalleled masters of symmetry and sacred architecture.
Coming from the mihrab, I step into the nave of a huge cathedral which the Christians triumphantly planted in the middle of the mosque after their reconquest of Cordoba in 1238. Every centimeter of the church's overwhelmingly rich decor and its giant altar seem to call out: “I am here, look at me. I am greater.” The cathedral gets a lot of light through its high windows, whereas the former mosque’s interior is much darker, as if to show that Christianity has come to enlighten the unbelievers.
But there is another way of looking at the course of history, a very different perspective from our modern clash-of-civilization mentality.
The “Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption” in the center of the mosque is also a sanctuary of Mary. The move from Islam to Christianity can be seen as an interplay between two different modes of worship – the formless and the form.
Islamic architecture with its absence of images and statues, instead emphasizing abstract forms through intricate patterns and calligraphy, points at the formless. Just like Prophet Mohammad spoke in this famous hadith: “Doing what is beautiful means that you should worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you."
When the Spanish Christians had churches to Mary built on the sites of mosques, this was an act of entering back from the formless mosque into the level of form.
In fact, the form of Mary is deeply revered in Sufism as a symbol of receptivity to the Spirit. Jesus, who was placed by the Christians below the arches of the mosque, is remembered by Muslims as the prophet of love and spiritual life.
Seen in that way, walking into the cathedral is a journey from the formless into form. Stepping back into the mosque is like returning into the formless realm.
On a more mundane level, the Mezquita has simply been a bone of content. Until now, the Catholic church in Spain is trying to suppress the fact that the heritage site was built by Muslims. For a long time, the building was officially known as the "mosque-cathedral," but since 2000 the word "mosque" has been barred from signs and brochures, calling it only the "Cathedral of Cordoba."
But let's return to Ibn ‘Arabi who intuitively grasped what lies beyond all human thought forms and quarrels. He put his experience of divine unity into beautiful words:
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Kaa’ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.
In his "Meccan Revelations" Ibn 'Arabi writes:
The God whom you perceive directly through mystical unveiling is not the God that you comprehend through rational thought – for your thought does not go beyond its own level; perhaps it might, but there is in it only what is in it.
The judgments of thought concerning things are at variance; the judgements of mystical unveiling have an unfathomable basis.
You see Him in His unveiling in every article of faith; there is no denying a meaning from among His meanings.
Great the Divinity that no intellect can encompass! There is no other than He to comprehend, so observe Him. Great the Divinity that no unveiling can encompass! There is no thing in creation that can contain Him. He it is whom you perceive in all creation, and He cannot be perceived except through his revelation.
(From Ibn ‘Arabi’s “Futuhat al-Makkiyya.” Source: The Unlimited Mercifier, p. 60)
Note: My visit to the Mezquita of Cordoba in October 2014 was part of a 2-week tour in the footsteps of Ibn ‘Arabi through Southern Spain. The tour was organized by Anqa Publishing, UK, and guided by Stephen Hirtenstein, author of the book "The Unlimited Mercifier."