Inside Muslim summer camp in southern Spain
August 18th, 2010
03:54 PM ET

Inside Muslim summer camp in southern Spain

CNN’s Atika Shubert filed this report from Spain:

Islam is often called the fastest growing religion in Europe, thanks to the tremendous growth in migration and a galloping birth rate in Muslim communities.

But Islam is not new to Europe. The religion has been a part of the European cultural fabric for hundreds of years.

You can see it in the majestic Islamic architecture that graces the landscape of southern Spain. It thrives in the Muslim majority nations of Bosnia and Albania. And, of course, there is Turkey, the bridge between Europe and the Middle East.

Then there are the growing Muslim communities that have come from abroad to settle in Europe: Pakistani and Bengali-run shops are commonplace on the streets of London; the many dialects of Arabic from Morocco to Somalia compete to be heard from Stockholm to Amsterdam.

It’s clear that a “European Islam” is emerging from the interaction of all these communities.

In Spain, “new Muslims”–converts to Islam–are clustered in the country's southern Andalusia region. They practice a more liberal interpretation of Sufi Islam that takes its inspiration from Spain’s Muslim history.

I got the chance to spend two nights at Al-Madrassa, an Islamic center founded by new Muslims in Andalusia's Alqueria de Rosales. Every year, the center host a two-week summer camp for kids of all faiths aged 8-16.

This year, the last two days of camp coincided with the beginning of Ramadan. For many of the younger children, it was an opportunity to try fasting for the first time.

We got up before sunrise for a bleary-eyed breakfast of honeyed doughnuts and coffee at the canteen and then quickly made our way to the mosque for prayer at dawn.

At prayer, I couldn’t help but notice how children here looked like any other streetwise kids you would see in Europe. One had a tilted baseball cap that he quickly removed; a set of flashy white headphones permanently hung from his neck. The girls chose to cover their heads with brightly coloured scarves inside the mosque, but fashionably wrapped the cloth around their shoulders when they left.

Their daily routine was much like any other camp, with a few modifications: Archery lessons mid-morning, Arabic class in the afternoon. Sometimes, they did ceramics learning how to make the famous Moorish tiles of Southern Spain. Other times, they headed outdoors for horse-riding, hiking or camping.

During Ramadan fasting, there was plenty of down time for kids, conserving their energy during the hottest time of the day.

The call to prayer sounded five times a day, but children were not required to be at every one. Non-Muslim children did not participate in the prayer, but sometimes lingered in the mosque to join their friends before and after.

The kitchen remained open for anyone who wanted to eat or drink during Ramadan fasting, including Muslim children. The idea was not to force anyone to participate in the fasting but to encourage spiritual reflection, even if only for a few hours.

“This place is about learning and understanding. Above all, this is the most important to us,” Abdussamad Antonio Romero the camp’s director told me.

He and his wife are Muslim converts and they founded Al-Madrasa 17 years ago. The idea was to create a haven for a uniquely Spanish view of Islam that follows a liberal Sufi ideology of Islamic learning and tolerance of other faiths.

Al-Madrasa now has visitors from all over Europe, but also the U.S. and Canada and has become a popular stop on Muslim tours of Spain. It has quietly become one example of this “European Islam” now being forged.

I’ll be doing several stories for CNN’s Muslim in 2010 series looking at how Islam in Europe is growing. And Al-Madrasa, it seems, is a fine place to start.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Europe • Islam • Muslim

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