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The Muslim Link

Masjid Architects Say Design Should Reflect American Culture PDF Print E-mail
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Community News - Community News
Written by Wafa Unus, Muslim Link Staff Reporter   
Thursday, 23 February 2012 12:22

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.”

Comments (18)
  • Margaret  - What is American culture?
    We can argue about what American culture is, but maybe what is important in Architectural design is to include elements that don't offend American cultural values. Specifically, the problem with many mosques built in the U.S. is the inequality given to the women's worship space. This is offensive to American values (and I would argue offensive to Islamic ones as well). American mosques should have a prayer space that lets women and children have the full experience of congregational prayer. Mosques that relegate women to a smelly back room or that limit women to balconies where they cannot even see the prayer or that make them walk all the way around to the back of the mosque down a dirt path to get to the sisters' entrance are offensive to American values of inclusiveness and equality. These types of architectural designs also unnecessarily make da'wa difficult and it makes it problematic to invite those curious about Islam into our mosques. We can have a "sisters" room or a "kids" room to meet the needs of sisters wanting or requiring more privacy, but this should not be the only prayer space available for females -- women and girls. Women and girls need to be given space in the main prayer hall so that they are not deprived of the congregational prayer experience. Maybe when you live in an Islamic country, this is not an issue, but in American where you are immersed in a non-Islamic culture, it becomes more important to have that full experience at the mosque. Also, having inferior prayer spaces for women just feeds into the incorrect stereotype that Islam treats it women poorly. This is the more serious and fundamental issue we need to face in our diverse American Islamic community. We need to be inclusive to all.
  • Hazem El-Alfy  - Masajid in Egypt
    Sister, just to illustrate one sample from back home where I belong, Mosques in Egypt have a smaller area for women for statistical reasons. It's not about an inferior status or ... or ... It just happens that women turn out in lesser numbers than men in mosques. Why? I don't really know why. It's just the situation there.
  • Jameel  - Br. Haytham Younis is wrong
    Br. Haytham Younis is wrong. Why do we have to always adopt American culture? This assimilationist attitude is detrimental to our mission of dawah and establishment of Islam in this country, and it is also detrimental to the preservation of Allah's deen in our hearts. I agree with Br. Najah Abdalla. Our Masajid should reflect the cross-cultural architectural designs "that ties all architecture from Baghdad to New Dehli". These designs are from the 14 centuries of Islam that have been on this Earth, from a united Ummah free from the cultural and national divides that we see prevalent today. It is part of our history and heritage and we should be very proud of it! The non-Muslims are proud of their traditional style churches, synagogues, temples, etc...many of which are built using the same architectural format throughout the world (no matter what "non-western culture" their building it in). We should be proud of our unique architectural designs, this is what Allah has given us to set us apart from the other nations and we should stand up for it! Furthermore, the fact that some non-Muslims are so against the construction of iconic Masjid features (like the minarets and domes), to the point that they pass laws banning such buildings, is a proof that it is something we should strive to build. "...If you obeyed most of those on earth, they would lead you away from the path of Allah..." (Surah Al-An'aam [#6], part of ayaat 115 - 116).
  • dc_dc  - Interesting
    السلام عليكم I agree with Haytham Younis. He's on the right track. I don't know of any mandates or mention of how masjids should look in the Qu'ran or Sunnah other than that they be clean, safe places for Muslims to congregate. Truth be told, its nice to mimic grand designs from the Middle East or Pakistan, but it is not necessary. Certain architectural features can be agreed upon as being iconic of our faith, but think about how many different types of masjid designs we have from across the globe. North African mosques tend to look different than Jordanian masjids. Bangladeshi mosques tend to look different than Chechen masjids. Just like massive Catholic churches in Rome look nothing like the simple wooden, Lutheran churches of Northern Europe. A lot of this has to do with building material, needs of the community, cultural influences, etc. Certainly anyone that has visited a historic masjid abroad can tell you it is a moving experience, but would the interior of any of these old buildings suit our needs today? No multimedia rooms, no wireless capability, no recreational rooms for the young, no modern plumbing, no appropriate sound systems, HD video monitors, electronic monitoring, etc. No one design fits every culture. Why wouldn't we want "American" design influences at our masjids here? I think "old + new" makes sense. This does not mean our masjids have to look like a "Best Buy" but we have a wealth of design options and materials that others do not have. Also, simply copying masjid designs from Saudi Arabia does nothing to encourage our new culture from taking a fresh look at our faith. And while we are not bound to simply serve the aesthetic interests of the non-Muslims around us - creating a building and space that reflects our faith; beautiful, contemplative, peaceful, powerful and yes, modern - we are actually meeting our own needs while performing a type of dawah for every person that passes by. In summation, I think American Muslims should incorporate and celebrate our architectural past (while recognizing that NO design is necessarily more Muslim than any other) with an eye on the future. Insha'Allah Haytham Younis will be rewarded for all the good he is doing.
  • sayid  - How do our masjids look
    My question is : how come steeples are allowed for churches but minarets or domes not allowed for masjids. Domes are used in every state houses, and U.S. capitaol. I do not think codes can be made to reflect on any particular sect or religion. Look at the washington cathederal.
  • Shaz  - Missing the point
    A masjid is not about architecture. A masjid is not about fitting in or standing out from its local surroundings. Its worrying that the state of Muslims in the US is not exactly one to be admired but now I can see why. Our focus is completely flawed! We need to work on being a community and we need to appreciate whatever design of masjid we can build because a masjid is NOT about design and architecture. So what if we can't have a minaret or a dome? Any kind of building that allows us to pray together and brings our brothers together for juma is more than enough.
  • K Abdussalaam  - Exciting Conversation
    I recently visited Turkey and was inspired by the well-designed, breathtaking mosques particular to Turkey. I began to imagine American mosques that reflected our lifestyles and heritage. Like a cabin mosque in the woods with tree trunks as pillars. Or a brick town house-like mosque in the heart of DC's georgetown. This conversation is exciting as we grow and build up America as righteous servants of God.
  • dc_dc  - Yes & No
    السلام عليكم I think this conversation is interesting because it reflects the broader opinions about assimilation in our larger American community. Shaz, K Abdussalaam and Margaret I would agree with you all. I also want to point out that by-and-large it would seem that when people within our own community think of what a proper masjid should look like they think of Saudi Arabian masjids which are grandiose and huge and yes, strongly reflect Saudi and Turkish architectural ideals from centuries past. I think it makes sense to incorporate some of these ideas because they are indeed a part of our history. But have you seen a Senegalese mosque? A Bosnian masjid? A Malaysian masjid? A Somali mosque? By and large these buildings tend to reflect both culture and tradition. Why should it be any different here, the most pluralistic society on the planet? This brings up the larger question of to what extent some in our community feel connected to American society (?). If only building "traditional" Saudi-style masjids is a way of making an aggressive sociopolitical statement - that's wrong. As far as I know, no ban on minarets exists anywhere in the United Sates. To be sure local zoning commissions may enact laws that informally end up banning very tall religious structures (like a Minarets) but I don't know of any municipality in metro DC that has a explicit law about minarets or the way masjids are structured.
  • dc_dc  - worth mentioing
    السلام عليكم It is worth mentioning to those with an aversion to any sort of western influence in masjid building that two of Islam's holiest cities are rife with European and American influences and contributions. During the 1990's the small Welsh firm "Craig Brady Design" designed and manufactured the ceramics for the seven domes over the King’s entrance at Medina (both inside and out); and designed and produced the decorative ceramic bands that grace the minarets in Mecca (as well as each of the three enormous domes inside the mosque). The enormous Makkah Clock which stands in front of the Grand Mosque was designed by Swiss engineering firm Straintec and easily incorporates modern design with Saudi aesthetics (the tower itself was designed by German firm Premiere Composite Technologies). The ornamental design for the Kaaba minbar at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the ornamental design for the 27 sliding domes at the Al-Masjid al-Nabawī in Medina were designed by American architectural firm Bonner Design Consultancy, while the accompanying folding canopies were designed by English engineering firm Buro Happold. King Abdullah ben Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia has already hand-picked a number of Arab and non-Arab engineering and architectural firms who have begun re-engineering the way pilgrims experience, travel and stay in Mecca during hajj. The company Foster & Partners (yes, the same engineering firm that is transforming K Street in DC is also in charge of designing the Al Faisaliah Complex). I guess my point is here that we can't even speak about non-western influence in modern Islamic building, because modern Islamic building in our holiest cities fully incorporates the design philosophies of Western entities. Anyone who has seen the photos (or made pilgrimage) can attest to the architectural majesty and grandeur of these Islam's holiest sites. Question: So what do we really mean when we say we don't want outside or American "influence" in our masjid building building here in metro DC?
  • Abdul-Azizr ralph  - abdulazizralph
    There seems to be a consensus about sticking to traditional and contemporary themes. That's good for our community. Jurisdictions have different codes. So I especially agree w/ the like minded Believers.
  • Wali Sharif  -  A Masjid is a Masjid. A Church is a church
    I would remind the Architect that Churches in islamic countries like Indonesia, Turkey ,Egypt look like most churches in European lands. Church steeples ect... America is a land for freedom of expression.Was it Paul Revere that said give me liberty or give me death. If he would take a ride down New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring Maryland he will see all the religions there expressing their freedom of religon as in the constitution
  • Abu Muhammad  - A Masjid should be practical
    What I like to add to this discussion is that adding minarets and domes is a waste of money and impractical, however at the same time, there is no harm in giving the masjid colors and styles that incorporates Middle Eastern or Turkic design and architecture. It should be a place which is comfortable for men, women and children.
  • Anonymous
    This is an interesting discussion. I agree with blending styles, and making the masjid accessible and comfortable (not only for women, but also for the elderly, disabled, children, and others). There is a lot of exciting potential for use of space. I also agree with a common about cost and impracticality - a lot of masajid (and their donors) have spent a lot of money on expensive features that one wishes could have put to better use, but may Allah swt reward them. I do wish to note however, that I don't think we should worry that much about allying certain people's perceptions that we're foreigners. That will just muddy our own brainstorming and enthusiasm around the wonderful possibilities that exist for us. After all, there is a sizable percentage that think even the President of the US is a foreigner. What are you going to do?
  • Anonymous
    Wanted to point to the wonderful publication "America's Masajid & Islamic Centers: A Pictorial Account" by Amir N. Muhammad. Pictures are worth a thousand words...what is striking is that there are already so many wonderful variations in masjid styles. What is so interesting is that in urban centers, the masajid have an urban feel. And in New Mexico the stunning adobe-style architecture is obviously influenced by South Western sensibilities. So, adding to this discussion: 1) there are many, many aspects to American culture - it is not a monolith, and so we will expect many architectural influences and not confine ourselves to a very narrow interpretation of what it means to be authentically American, and 2) we need to acknowledge that the on-the-ground reality is the American Muslim community has always blended in American elements. We need to mine from our American Muslim identity heritage and stop thinking it doesn't exist and we have to invent it. In other words, we already have a vibrant tradition; how we can tap into it, get inspired by it, and develop it even further?
  • MON  - IS Mosque for Women in all Islamic Schools
    My understanding is that Women are not obliged to participate in the JEMMAHA Prayers except if they are located close by where they can hear the IMMAM and the SALAT. That is how it is in most MALIK SCHOOL. Appreciate any thought on this. MON
  • Ahmad  - Design of Masjid & the Site is Dawah -- Good or Ba
    Asalaam Alaikum Brothers & Sisters, Fascinating discussion. Whether we like it or not, the design of our masajid (the structures and, more importantly, the site) communicate our intentions and relationship to the surrounding community. Its funny that each of the three masjids pictured at the top are all excellent examples of how NOT to design a masjid site. Surrounding each property the masjjids are hidden behind tall metal fences with spikes, tall gates, prominently displayed security cameras, security vehicles and heavy landscaping buffers. What does this communicate to any non-Muslim driving or walking by? I can tell you, as a design professional and someone in a local zoning department, that it communicates that the Muslims inside are -- hostile, afraid, unfriendly, suspicious, unsafe, unwelcoming -- of the neighboring community. Actually it doesn't require a design background to understand this, just some common sense. All of the fencing, gates, cameras, security vehicle props, and heavy landscaping is counterproductive to us having a good relationship with the surrounding community. When we see churches and their site, how do they look? They look welcoming, open, inviting, friendly, safe. Thats because they don't have all the things surrounding them like masjids do. Anyone that says zoning requires these things, thats false. You can always get exceptions if the code requries it -- thats what the churches have done. Meanwhile we're busy holding interfaith dialogues and gatherings trying to be open to the surrounding community and show them our good side. For every ONE non-Muslim that attends these events and comes away with a positive image of our community, ONE THOUSAND non-Muslims drive/walk by our masajids and get a negative image of us (whether its right or wrong). Design is important. Sr. Margaret is right about masajids' designs needing to give a more appropriate priority to the female half of our communities. But I would argue that this is the case because, more than promoting positive dawah towards non-Muslim visitors, its in the Quran and Sunnah to do so. In the Quran, women and men are both equally called forth to guidance. Women are in fact the main teachers of the children and so their role in the family and the wider community is arguably much more important than men. In addition, during Rasulallah's (saw) time, his wives and daughters were an active, engaged, integral part of the community. This is an Islamic community JUST born out of a Jahili society that would bury daughters. Imagine what he (Rasulallah) had to work against, yet we have countless speeches, brave deeds and other positive actions coming out of the women of his community. Mashallah. Fast-forward 1400 years and what do we, as a community do to our women? Confine them to a back room area, almost as an afterthought. No wonder our ummah is in the bad shape that it is -- at least in part because of our misplaced priorities regarding the women of our communities. Muslim Link -- thanks for the thought-provoking article. Although seeing how long my post is, maybe it provoked to many thoughts!
  • Umm Muhammad  - I Was Attracted to Islam Because It Was NOT Mainst
    As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu, In response to "Masjid Architects Say Design Should Reflect American Culture": Just the mere title of this article made my stomach turn, and the fact that it was on the front page was disappointing, but I decided to read it through to make sure I was not jumping to conclusions. Unfortunately, it was exactly what I thought it would be, Muslims thinking that they must succumb to the standards in order to be tolerated. First off, there is nothing wrong with being here in America and being pleased with the people around us, and adopting the good things that come with this country. However, what is this "American culture" that is mentioned in the article? Are we going to start building our masajid like tepees, because really, if we want to base our architecture on American culture, then we must analyze which culture we are referring to. The original Americans, now called Native Americans, were the ones that were here before European settlers came. Or are we basing our construction on the people that came after, like for example the Africans after the slave trade or immigrants from Asia or other regions? The article talks about America as if it is one homogeneous culture, when it is clearly not. The reason why America is unique is because it is made up of so many different cultures, where you can find a synagogue on the same street as a traditional church, a Hindu temple, and a masjid with a minaret, dome, tile-work and all. I'm a convert and one thing that drew me to Islam was the fact that it was not mainstream. It was different and I welcomed those differences with awe and admiration. Likewise, many of my family members, although not yet Muslim, are always curious when they witness those things that are alien to them, such as the beautiful architecture of masajid in Spain, Egypt, Indonesia, and many other lands or when they see Muslim women covered properly, with flowing garments and veils. The mystery and the unknown appeals to them. The things that are not the norm in this country are the ones that spark their interest the most. If we continue to water down every aspect of Islam, then what will we have left? It's not that Islam is defined by a certain type of architecture, because there are many types of structures in the Muslim world that serve as masajid. My problem is why do we have to conform to "norms" that are not even existent? By continuing to feed into our awkward insecurities, we belittle ourselves. I completely disagree with the quote from Architect Haytham Younis, "[People see the masjid and say] Oh well those Muslims are not from here. They are foreign. So that's the message that we're sending: We don't relate to you." I am living proof that as a non-Muslim you can relate to another Muslim because we are all human beings and it is our diversity which makes us appealing to one another. Allah says in the Qur'an that He has made us into nations and tribes so that we can know about one another. Why would someone want to learn about another religion or culture when they think it's exactly the same as theirs? What is the point? If you drive down a street full of office buildings on either side and then you see a big, huge building with a minaret, will you notice it? Of course. If the masjid is just another office building, will you see it? Probably not. When people see that we are different, they want to explore what those differences are so that they can expand their knowledge. What do you call someone who is well versed in the arts, literature, architecture and traditions of various lands? CULTURED. Yes. There is nothing wrong with bringing Islamic art, architecture, or culture to America, because this will enrich the people here and be a benefit for all, insha'Allah. Let's stop thinking we need to change in order to be accepted. A political activist once said, "When you pretend to be something that you are not, then you are nothing."
  • Reza Afshar  - need islamic archetecture service in DC area
    Please ask Najah Abdella or Haytham Younis to contact me. I am planning to build a mosque and need Islamic architecture service
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