By Tharik Hussain
Six years into a ban on building minarets, Tharik Hussain is in Basel, Switzerland hunting for a 19th century ‘convert’ with a Saudi connection.
“I think it is after the tram stop.”
“Just carry on it is there, you will see it.”
But I couldn’t see it; in fact, I had absolutely no idea what to even look for. Mosques are not allowed to look like mosques in Switzerland ever since building minarets was banned in 2009. I was in Clara, an ethnic area north of the River Rhine in pretty little Basel, home to Switzerland’s largest Muslim community. All around me halal shops and restaurants mingled with little independent boutiques as quaint trams trundled through the streets.
Yesterday, on a historic tour of the city, I learnt that Basel has a long history featuring religion. My guide Maria had pointed out that even the city’s coat of arms features a Bishop’s crosier – the medieval rulers of Basel. During that time, like everywhere else in Europe, Basel was suspicious of other faiths.
In the 14th century Basel Massacre, 600 Jews were burnt alive on an island in the Rhine – they had been responsible for the Plague apparently. Then, as anti-Semitism peaked at the end of the 19th century, kosher meat was banned, a ruling that now affects Basel’s Muslim community – the largest in the country.
“Alhamdulillah, life is OK here. We have masjids and halal food,” explained Ahmad, the owner of a small shop.
“Where do you get your halal meat from?”
“We buy from Germany… Muslims here just want to live in peace and Basel is a good place.”
Ahmad was right; Basel is home to Switzerland’s oldest university and at the forefront of the nation’s arts culture. Rays of hope also emanate from the fact that it has long been a place of international mediation, starting with the medieval Basel Treaty right through to the 1989 Basel Convention.
I followed Ahmad’s directions and eventually found the mosque hidden up a winding metal staircase in the attic of a traditional Swiss town house. Founded by the local Turkish community, Basel’s largest Muslim group, the mosque had one tiny sign located high above street level. The sign is easy to miss if you don’t know it is there.
Inside, the main hall was dimly lit with few windows, one of which had cleverly been turned into the mihrab to compensate for the slanted roof overhead. It lacked any real natural light and had a slightly clandestine air about it.
Basel’s First Muslim
Mosques aren’t the only Islamic things hidden in Switzerland. Johann Ludwig Burckhardt is most famous for rediscovering Petra in Jordan, a feat that would normally demand a statue or a plaque somewhere. Yet in Basel, I found nothing. This might just be because Burckhardt is potentially Switzerland’s first ever convert to Islam. Back in 1814, the young explorer performed the Hajj as Sheikh Ibrahim Al Barakat, having mastered Arabic and Islamic law. Of Makkah he wrote, “During all my journeys of the east, I never enjoyed such perfect ease as at Makkah.”
Burckhardt’s family deny this, claiming it was merely a disguise to travel through the east, something many Victorian explorers did. The truth remains a mystery as Burckhardt never returned home to set the record straight, dying aged 32 in Cairo.
My search for the fabled Hajji brought me south of the Rhine to The Museum für Wohnkultur which houses examples of 18th and 19th century Swiss life and was originally where Burckhardt grew up. Predictably, the plaque outside only mentioned his father.
When I arrived, it had already closed for the day and so I went round the back and peered into a neat little landscaped garden through a beautiful wrought iron gate that had the letters JB across the top. Sadly I knew they were not Burckhardt’s initials and left with a familiar empty feeling.
The Saudi Connection
My final destination was Basel’s largest mosque, which like the earlier one lay hidden down a quiet residential street behind a university. Only a small sign at the gate confirmed it was the King Faisal Mosque, though it was unlike any other mosque financed by the late Saudi monarch; a small and uninteresting converted block of flats with green psychedelic patterns on the wooden shutters. Clearly the previous residents took pride in the fact that LSD had been invented in their city.
Entering the block, the familiar clandestine atmosphere returned. The main prayer hall was, again, a darkened attic. A plain white wooden mihrab stood at the front, the walls were featureless and barren and the only color in the room was the red on the carpet.
The route back took me past a small balcony where a beautiful oriental lamp hung from the ceiling, framed by greenery. It looked just like the ones I had seen hanging in the mosques of Cairo, where Burckhardt’s body now lies. Had he lived, Burckhardt may have brought one back, along with his intimate knowledge of Islam. But he didn’t, which is a shame really, because as much as I love this city, it could do with someone like Sheikh Ibrahim Al Barakat right now.
How To Get There
The best airline is Lufthansa which flies from Jeddah to Basel with one stopover in Paris and costs approx. SR 2,900
- Entry visa for Saudi nationals before travel.
- The Basel Card for getting about easily.
- A city map to avoid getting lost.
- A copy of Burckhardt’s Travels in Syria and the Holy Lands.
Currency: Swiss Francs
Official Language: French, German, Romansch, Italian
International code: +41