Masjid Architects Say Design Should Reflect American Culture

Community News

From right, the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia; the Islamic Center of Washington DC, and the Islamic Center of Northern Virginia Trust in Fairfax, Virginia.

As masajid in the Washington DC metropolitan area continue to be designed, built, and expanded upon, some Muslim architects have found themselves at a crossroads. When regulations don’t allow for minarets and domes, a traditional masjid’s most iconic elements, how does the identity of the building remain?

Architect Haytham Younis argues that the American mosque may not need such icons and that those very elements may be actually serve as a barrier rather than an identifier.

“When we bring preexisting cultures and build a building according to the style of that preexisting culture then we end up having a monument to that culture and all that comes with it,” said Younis.

While he himself has worked on designs that boast of traditional facades he believes masajids that are built to mimic the styles of those “back home” create a further divide when it comes to the indigenous American Muslim identity.

“[People see the masjid and say] ‘Oh well those Muslims are not from here. They are foreign,’” he said. “So that’s the message that we’re sending: We don’t relate to you.”

Though it is largely the established immigrant American community funding building projects, Younis believes they must look past what is customary in their native country and look forward to establishing an American Muslim masjid, if not for themselves, but for their children.

“[The children’s] house is American, their school is American but where they have to go to study, where they have to go to worship, is not American,” said Younis.

As an architect, Younis understands the significance of the minaret and the dome and equates it to the design of the quintessential American church.

“Over time it takes on significance, like when a Christian builds a church, it has to have a steeple. It’s important to them. Its the way they identify with a building,” he said.

The building identifying with the religion and being overwhelmed by the design of a particular culture are two entirely different things said Virginia-based architect Najah Abdalla.

While he has designed mosques based distinctly on Pakistani culture and various Arab cultures, he commits his American mosque designs to the overarching Islamic architecture themes that are found across cultures and that identify themselves more as Islamic design than Pakistani or Arab design.

“There is a stereotype of Islamic architecture that ties all architecture from Baghdad to New Dehli,” said Abdalla.

When forced to eliminate a minaret from a recent urban mosque design due to local regulations, Abdalla decided to heavily adorn the exterior of the mosque in tile work, a material common in Islamic art and architecture.

While the building did not boast of sky scrapping minarets or a domineering dome, Abdalla designed its exterior to fit both in the American landscape while maintaining an Islamic identity.

“[I first think about] what is going to distinguish this building from other buildings,” he said.

Domes and minarets traditionally helped amplify sound within the mosque and allow for the call to prayer to be heard across the land. Modern technology, design and the existence of noise regulations in the United States have reduced the iconic mosque architecture to a symbolic afterthought.

As architects begin to work around the idea of a dome-less and minaret-less mosque, a new genre of Islamic architecture is born.

“Islam is a way of life. When it enters a new place it doesn’t change people’s culture. It changes the way they worship,” said Younis. “...We have to establish the [American] genre.”