right now I’m largely in the business of the building of mosques. For the clients, with limited funds they are simply large spaces where important obligations can be carried out; for others they are an expression of there culture, their right to exist openly as part of the prevailing society, not as an invisible aspect of it; yet for others, mosques represent an erosion of a sacrosanct national identity; and for others, it is a way to show non-Muslims and remind Muslims, that Islam has historically never imported foreign culture into newly adopted lands, but has always sought to emphasise it’s universality by Expessing it’s values thru the new cultures that it meets; no where is this more evident in the culture of Islam than in it’s architecture.
The mosque presents the most relevant and fertile ground for theorists to explore, but howany of them are interested in it?
I therefore proposed to Michael to write a longer text about his experience of designing and commissioning the construction in Europe which currently experiences a despicable mix of islamophobia and xenophobia. What used to be the economical right wing in the various parliaments and governments has now became an demagogic ideological right which has no complex to question the rights of millions of citizens to fully benefit to the same liberties than every other inhabitant of the country.
Michael divided his essay into two parts. The first one establishes a short history of the mosque in parallel of Islam’s expansion in the world, while the second , more personal, introduces similar questions than the one presented in the comment above. How can architecture fathoms and carries the gravity of its political impact in an urban context hostile to it, how can a contemporary architecture serves rituals that were started centuries ago, how to express one’s identity as an architect without imposing it to others. As many questions that, of course, remains unanswered but such an essay helps to find clues to start responding to them.
The Mosque: Religion, Politics & Architecture in the 21st Century
by Michael Badu
From the verb ‘sajda’ which means ‘to prostrate’. Therefore strictly speaking, the word ‘masjid’ means ‘the place of prostration’.
The act of prostration is a ‘part’ of the Islamic formal prayer service which is known as ‘Salaat’. It is curious that the Islamic house of worship is not generally known as Bait us Salaat or Bait ul Ibaadah (respectively, house of formal prayer or house of worship) and that it is the more utilitarian term ‘masjid’ -which is in fact derived from the Muslim holy book, the Quran- has become current. This would seem to suggest a more ‘humble’ architectural characterisation of this building type than that to which we have become accustomed, a suggestion that history seems to bear out.
The first masjid built under the supervision of the prophet Muhammad (saw) at Medina shortly after his flight from Mecca, was a rudimentary enclosure of earth and rock walls, built around a small grove of date palm trees and roofed by their canopies. When it rained heavily, this tree canopy roof leaked profusely, literally turning the earth floor of the mosque into a ‘mud bath’.
From the Greek ‘Politika’ meaning ‘relating to citizens’. This definition carries with it the connotation of ‘urbanity’ which in turn speaks to us of densely populated settlements and the subsequent need for sophisticated forms of government and legislature. The high and stable population densities that constitute urban settlements also foster knowledge transfer and innovation to a great extent, a process which had been accelerated by advances in telecommunications which have increased the ‘virtual density’ of urban settlements, leading to what we now know as the ‘Global Village’. In this sense, ‘modern urbanity’ as we now know it could be thought of as an Islamic invention. It was the sultans of southern Spain who in pursuance of Islamic philosophy, actively incentivised, perhaps for the first time, the pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake on cross cultural/ cross national bases. It was perhaps the first true international knowledge economy.
It was under such a regime that, having been translated into Arabic, the treasures of Ancient Greece were safeguarded. Non-Muslim scholars from Aquinas to Scotus engaged in knowledge transfer and capable Christians and Jews found themselves occupying political office in the southern Spanish sultanates along with the ruling Muslim class.
Architecturally, the practical problem of how to locate the ‘masjid’ among a plethora of other building types, was born. To solve this problem, in the true spirit of knowledge transfer, the Muslims turned to the mature Byzantine Christian culture, first in the building of the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem under caliph Abd al Malik, where the dome was co-opted as an ingenious device for bringing natural light into the centre of the necessarily deep-plan mosques, as well as a means to signify the mosque’s status at the top of urban hierarchy.
Then in Syria, at the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, the belfry form became the minaret, a high place from where the call to prayer could be delivered to the citizens.
Much later on in Spain (Cordoba, Alhambra), we seem to come full circle, back to the masjid as the utilitarian place of prostration first encountered at Medina, albeit in a more artistically sophisticated technologically advanced form.
Mosque design arguably reached its apotheosis under the Ottomans in the ‘sphinx’ like constructions so admired by Le Corbusier. The work of the foremost Ottoman architect, Sinan who was of Armenian Christian heritage, was known to the Renaissance master Palladio and visa-versa. Much of Sinan’s own work was inspired by the ancient and sublime Byzantine cathedral, the Hagia Sophia. Knowledge transfer, knowledge transfer, knowledge transfer!
How things have changed. Today the free movement of knowledge and healthy artistic competition between cultures has been replaced by a battleground where parochialism and paralysis reign. Many contemporary Muslim cultures across the world, apprehending the essential ‘poverty’ of Modernist architecture -as identified by Venturi & Scott-Brown in the 1970s- sense an apparent incompatibility with their needs, and so seek refuge in comfortable pastiche. On the other hand, the ‘modernists’ have largely absented themselves from this arena, their Modernist conditioning having prepared them for a ‘reduced’ world where the unexplained and the intangible have been banished.
It could be argued that these opposing attitudes have both led to the ‘anachronisation’ of the mosque as building type; the temple of ‘savages’, tolerated more in some ‘advanced’ societies than in others.
My own experiences as client and as architect in the procurement of mosques are instructive in this regard. Those who commission the design of mosques often seek to force the architect to incorporate ‘Islamic’ motifs such as domes and minarets, even though history shows them to be non-essential and even if they serve no function. To most architects today, questions of symbolism and meaning in relation to form and function are frankly an anathema, so what we, as clients, are presented with in terms of proposals are invariably decidedly ‘un-mosque-like’ in character.
An undercurrent of mistrust and fear between modernist architect and Muslim client tends to solidify the intransigence; Muslims are wary that the modernist architect is trying to tell them how to practice their faith through design and modernist architects, like their counterparts in legislature and politics, fear that Muslims are trying to impose a ‘backward’ culture on them through the commissioning of mosques. This invariably leads to parochial Muslims and mercenary architects being the only type of client and consultant who can work on a mosque project together.
The fact that there is an element of truth in the assertions of both camps needs to be recognised. For the past couple of years minarets have been banned in Switzerland, hijabs in France and for the past century or so, non-Muslims have been banned in Mecca. Reports on the activities of Islamic theocracies from Saudi Arabia to northern Nigeria abound in stories of beheadings, amputations and stonings (mostly of women). Parts of the UK have become little more than ghettoes, outposts of foreign cultures where foreign languages- sometimes exclusively- are spoken whilst adherents to the faith are characterised and thought of as dangerous deviants in our midst, regardless of their level of integration or education, unless of course they like a drink or wear short skirts.
We are at an impasse and the question of what can be done to overcome it is as important to the design of mosques as it is to the attainment of socio-political harmony. In this regard, non-Muslim architects and policy makers would do well to consider the attitude of perhaps the greatest modern architect, the Swiss Le Corbusier, who as a lover of architecture, praised both Phidias’ Parthenon and Sinan’s mosques- minaret’s and all – alike. This on it’s own however is not nearly enough.
Adherents to the faith must be confident enough to fearlessly engage with the world around them as their Ottoman and Spanish forbears once did. It is no use for Muslims to continue to talk about Avicenna, Averroes, Sinan and the like if they are unable to furnish the world with their like today. In the realm of architecture Muslim architects must take the initiative and find a way to reconcile Islamic philosophy and culture with the contemporary world. In order to do this, Muslim architects must have a command of both religious and secular knowledge and become intellectuals who can actively contribute to the cultural evolution of both their chosen discipline and their chosen faith and help to rescue them from the grip of self-serving dogmatists.
This is the ‘baggage’ that I carry as Muslim architect about to embark on the design of a mosque for the northern European city of Malmo in Sweden. The client is the local branch of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association and money is very tight. I am confronted with the problem; how to design a mosque, appropriately ‘lofty’ and convincingly reconciled with our age, on a low budget? Like Abd al Malik before me, I have turned to a more mature Christian architectural culture for clues to the solution of this problem.
Robert Maguire & Keith Murray were Christian architects engaged in the design of churches in England between the mid 1950′s and 1970′s. As committed Christians they thought deeply about the meaning of Christian worship and contributed greatly to the reform of liturgy (prescribed worship) in the Church of England and the corresponding development of associated architecture. They sought to go back to the ‘roots’ of formal Christian worship; fellowship, altar, bread and wine. It is said that they did not even believe that worship necessitated built enclosures, but that since these were customary, they should be designed so as to not encumber worship, a philosophy that resonates with the straightforwardness inherent in the Arabic word ‘masjid’.
The first and most potent built example of their philosophy is St Paul’s, Bow Common in east London, a ‘spare’ essay in the common tongue of brick and concrete, topped by a ‘Taut-esque’ crystalline ‘dome’. The whole affair is marshalled by tight geometrical and proportional relationships which raise it above the level of the utilitarian, as does the superlative workmanship in which it is rendered (it is said that the young foreman on the project had the habit of dismissing from site bricklayers whom he felt weren’t doing a good enough job).
The building positively vibrates with the young post-war architects’ seriousness, idealism and passion for interpreting their faith in ‘modern’ (as distinct from modernist) terms and for using it to mould a better world. The development of modern mosque design, as well as the rejuvenation of the faith of Islam itself, demands the same seriousness, idealism and passion from Muslim architects and other members of a Muslim intellectual ‘laity’. Indeed the very idea of faith in a vacuum is anathema to Islam, many of it’s modern problems being traceable to the relinquishing of religious responsibility by ‘the Muslim in the street’ into the hands of self-appointed clergy. There is a need to rediscover faith as the individual’s journey to God and the mosque as it’s architectural corollary – ‘the place of sajda’- over and above the political and cultural associations that this building type undoubtedly has.