On March 10, 2010, a group of tourists, reputedly “students from Austria,” entered the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Córdoba and started a Muslim prayer. Private guards and, later, police arrested them.
One of the students apologized, saying they had “no intention to offend.” The students’ organization in Austria apologized as well, but condemned the “disproportionate force” used by the Spanish authorities and claimed that one of the guards had said to the students, “This is war, and we are going to kill you.” It may not be irrelevant to this incident that the president of the Islamic Junta of Spain, the Córdoban Mansur Escudero, had for a number of years insisted that the Catholic authorities should allow Muslims to pray inside the building, and that in 2006 he announced that Muslims would do so with or without the Church’s consent. In response to the March 10 incident, Catholic ecclesiastical authorities declared the actions of the Muslims “a planned provocation,” since clearly and explicitly only Christian prayers are allowed in the cathedral.
The problem with the Catholic authorities’ position is that most tourist guides and travel agencies, as well as official publications of the city of Córdoba, refer to the building either as the “mosque of Córdoba,” or as the “mosque-cathedral” or “cathedral-mosque” of Córdoba: As many observers have pointed out, if the place is a mosque, or even a “cathedral-mosque,” then why not allow Muslims to pray there? Moreover, if, as some academics and a number of Catholic ecumenists have stated in the recent past, the Christian god and the god of Islam are the same god, why not allow Muslims to pray in the building?
Of course, it is not well known that the construction of the mosque, by order of the presumably tolerant Umayyad emir Abd ar-Rahman I in the eighth century, required demolishing and cannibalizing a preexisting church, the Church of Saint Vincent, which was the main Catholic church of the city; that the columns used in the famous mosque were taken from Visigoth or Roman churches and buildings; that the admired multicolored-arch technique of the mosque is a preexisting Roman technique still visible in some Roman aqueducts in Spain; that the horseshoe arches of the mosque imitate Visigoth and Roman horseshoe arches; that the mosaics were also either cannibalized or manufactured under the guidance and supervision of Greek Christian masters; that the construction of the mosque was probably supervised by a descendant of former Christians; that churches in the inner cities of Spain conquered by Islam suffered similar fates, being demolished and converted into mosques; that these conversions of non-Islamic religious buildings into mosques, which took place wherever Islam became triumphant, were part of a well-honed political strategy to assert Islamic hegemony over conquered lands; and that Catholics had to build and pray in churches outside the walls of Muslim cities. (For the most up-to-date writings on the genesis and composition of the mosque of Córdoba, see the work of archeologist Pedro Marfil.) When Catholics retook Córdoba in the 13th century, they did not demolish the mosque but changed it into a church. Today, most official and book references and publications about the building, including those put out by the Universidad de Córdoba, omit the first set of facts, mentioning only the second; or at best merely say that the mosque was built somehow “on the site” of an old church. The all-important details of this “building on the site of an old church” are consistently omitted.
Nevertheless, in spite of the Catholic antecedents of the site, the problem remains: If the building is called a mosque, or even a “cathedral-mosque,” and if the Muslim god is the same as the Christian god, why not allow Muslims to pray in the building?
Part of the answer is that, in real life, logic is not always followed. Using the name “mosque” probably has to do more with custom and inertia, later reinforced by commercial interests, than with any official effort to appear multicultural; and the persistence of the name for commercial reasons is not unrelated to what some observers have called the “prestige” of Arabic culture in some European circles. But again, money would be the ultimate reason here: Tourists prefer to see in safe Córdoba a “mosque,” associated, as such an entity is, with the much-publicized wonderfulness of Islamic Spain, than to see yet another European cathedral, which in Europe are a dime a dozen, so to speak, and which are associated to boot with the evil, intolerant, and, as many scholars assure us, inferior Christian European civilization.
Part of the answer is also that the place is de facto a Christian building. It is a cathedral as far as its function is concerned. As Carlos Alberto Montaner has pointed out, here the Aristotelian-Platonic distinction between function and essence is very apposite. This building is today, and has been for a number of centuries, a cathedral, just as the great Greek Orthodox basilica of Hagia Sophia is today, and has been since the 20th century, a museum, and as it was, after 1453 and the conquest and sacking of Greek Orthodox Constantinople by the Muslim Turks, a mosque. Today, we can still see the four minarets built around this building, the most beautiful of the early Middle Ages, flanking it as four rockets about to be launched: Along with the destruction or erasure of its extraordinary icons and mosaics, these minarets desecrated Hagia Sophia religiously when they were built, and they continue to desecrate it aesthetically today. In fact, the presumed overreaction of the Spanish guards to the praying of Muslims inside the building was mild in comparison to what would have happened in Muslim Turkey, when Hagia Sophia was still used as a mosque, if a group of Greeks had entered it and started praying there in Orthodox fashion. Even today Christian priests are killed in Turkey for lesser transgressions, while the situation is scarcely better for Christians in general in the Islamic Middle East.
Moreover, that the Islamic god and the Christian god are one and the same does not withstand logical—or rather, theological—scrutiny. The Christian god, among other things, is a Triune God. The Islamic god is not; and the Triune Christian God includes Jesus, Who is supposed to be both Man and God. This complicated Christian god simply is not the unitary Islamic deity. That is why Islam was initially considered a heresy of Christianity.
Curiously, Islam has done with its god what authorities in Córdoba have done with the disputed building in their city: treated it in a schizophrenic fashion. The god of Islam, theologically, is not the Christian god; yet Islam, historically, has claimed that it is (although, the Islamic teaching goes, unfortunately misguided Christians veered away from following this god’s true teachings). Perhaps the religious and cultural prestige of Christianity at the inception of Islam necessitated that the theological distinctions be overlooked. After all, the Bedouins coming out of Arabia encountered and benefited in every way from the great civilization of the Greek Christian Roman Empire (called Byzantine by its enemies in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, a name that most later historians, not much more sympathetic to Eastern Orthodoxy in general, have continued to use). Real-life rather than logical considerations would be at work here as well. In vain have the Catholic ecclesiastical authorities in Córdoba recently insisted that the building be referred to only as a cathedral: The city’s authorities have refused to do so, and of course most tourist guides will have none of it either. Again, money is the real motivation here, masquerading now as 21st century multicultural correctness.