Prayer can be thought of as the act par excellence by which we give explicit recognition to the limits of human knowledge and mastery, and so, adjust and orient ourselves to a world that exceeds our grasp. It is more, therefore, than an encounter with a transcendent other, for it entails that we give voice and gesture to our frailty and fear, to our un-Promethean nature. The place we ascribe to that dimension of human existence—to that inarticulate, gesticulating being—within social life strikes me as key to the kinds of habitable world we are capable of making. This is one reason—by all means, not the only reason—why we should be interested in prayer. Prayer can become laden with the burdens and conflicts of history.
The mezquita-catedral of Cordoba combines a mosque, constructed between the eighth and tenth centuries, and a Catholic chapel, built within the inner sanctuary of the mosque during the sixteenth century. Since the building of the chapel five centuries ago up through the present, only Roman Catholic ritual practice has been permitted, though from around the year 2000 a growing movement among Muslims in Spain has sought permission from the church to be allowed to pray within the walls of the vast sanctuary. The conflict has led to a number of arrests over the years, as Muslim visitors have sought to defy the ban and have begun to perform the words and gestures of Muslim prayer within the space of the mezquita-catedral.
The weight of history lays heavily upon these acts. For many Spanish Catholics, the Reconquista undertaken by the Roman Catholic monarchs remains the foundational pillar within the edifice of Spanish identity and history. From this perspective, the transformation of mosque into cathedral and the displacement of Muslim salat by Roman Catholic mass are not simply historical events to be reassessed and revised, but rather, remain essential to the symbolic architecture of the Spanish soul. For Muslim visitors, in contrast, the mosque stands as the embodiment and expression of a highly celebrated period within the history of Islamic societies, an inheritance that is as much theirs as it is Christian Europe’s. For some, the enchanting beauty of the sanctuary solicits a passional response which seeks to find expression in prayer. In both cases, the turning to God in prayer is made across a dense fabric of historical relations, and carries both the burdens and the possibilities that this history offers.