For hundreds of years, the Iberian Peninsula was a thriving outpost of Islam before the Moorish Muslims were expelled by Christians in Portugal and Spain during a bloody and strident campaign that lasted for centuries. It didn’t end until 1492.
So you might be surprised to find that there’s a rare Muslim community in Spain today.
A small Sufi group of only 35 members resides in Villanueva de la Vera, a village of a little more than 2,000 people in the province of Caceres in the dry and hot Extremadura region. The 15-year-old community of Spanish converts to Islam comes mainly from Madrid.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the simple village life in rural central Spain - not so far from the border with Portugal - allows these Sufis plenty of time to fulfill their religious obligations. To Sufis, the remembrance of God through group meditations and prayers is the ultimate purpose of life.
Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Arab historian, described Sufism as “dedication to worship, total dedication to God, most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.”
Villanueva de la Vera has provided the Sufi community a safe haven to do just that.
Jose Antonio De Lamadrid, a Spanish photographer, decided to make this rare community his next subject.
Lamadrid has documented about 70 religious minorities from around the world, including the communities of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Jews in Turkey and ending with the Sufi community of Villanueva village as the final report.
The members are all Catholic converts and have decided to shift their locality, after conversion, closer to Pico Almanzor, the highest mountain in the region. It was named after Cordoba caliphate general and statesman Al Mansur Ibn Abi Aami, who ruled in the late 10th century in Muslim Spain.
That significant 800-year period of Muslim rule has infused Spanish culture with Islamic and Middle Eastern values that have remained integral to the Spanish people. While some refer to these long years as peaceful and harmonious among the three Abrahamic faith communities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, others recall the brutal end of the conquest, one full of bloodshed and near complete elimination of the Muslim community in Spain.
For the Spanish Sufi Muslim community, acceptance of their faith is often confronted by the residue of long historical conflicts leading society to misperceive them. Additionally, negative images represented in the media continue to give false representations of Muslims, Sufis included.
“This community is attractive, because the Muslims and Islam have a bad image. All that we hear in the news is not very good,” Lamadrid said. He wanted to show that this community is “not bad, they’re good people”.
Lamadrid was challenged in getting members to open up to him. They are skeptical to share information with others. However, the more Lamadrid visited, the more comfortable they became. Eventually, he was able to take his camera out and photograph their stories into life. Lamadrid spent nearly six months in and out of their village.
Lamadrid was eager to do this work because he believes everyone is the same inside and deserves to be treated fairly.
“We don’t know other cultures, and this causes big problems in society. This makes it hard to not know your neighbor. It’s ridiculous to only know your neighbor because he’s Muslim or Christian. Everyone has to learn about others to try to live together,” Lamadrid said.
His story shows the ceremonial traditions within the Sufi faith to constantly remember God and to be content with the simple life they live.
While they refrain from leisurely living, the members are all educated, have televisions and interact with the Villanueva community around them. They meet on Fridays in a large hall for worship. But when special events occur, the church allows them to use their space, since there is no mosque.
“It’s a very open community. They meditate and attend a center to meditate with other people of other faiths. ... They are very peaceful. They dress differently, but what’s important is the inside of them, and we should know these people and be fair (to them),” Lamadrid said.
- Slma Shelbayah, CNN