Updating the Mosque for the 21st Century

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Kate Brooks

The Sakirin Mosque, designed by Zaynep Fadillioglu

The whole world is a mosque, the Prophet Muhammad once said. With pious intent, a faithful Muslim can conjure a mosque almost anywhere, transforming a desert sand dune, airport departure lounge or city pavement into a sacred space simply by stopping to pray. The first mosque was Muhammad's mud-brick house in Medina, where a portico of palm-tree branches provided shade for prayer and theological discussion. As the young religion spread, Arabs — and later Asians and Africans — developed their own ideas of what made a building a mosque. But that innovative spirit has slowed in recent decades, leaving most Islamic skylines dominated by the dome-and-minaret design that first appeared centuries ago.

That's now changing. A new generation of Muslim builders and designers, as well as non-Muslims designing for Muslim groups, often in Europe or North America, are updating the mosque for the 21st century, sparking not just a hugely creative period in Islamic design, but one riven by controversy. The disputes over modern mosques echo larger debates taking place in the Islamic world today about gender, power and, particularly in immigrant communities, Islam's place in Western societies. Even the simplest design decision can reflect questions that are crucial to Islam and its adherents: Should women be allowed in a mosque's main hall or confined to separate quarters? Are minarets necessary in the West, where laws on noise levels mean they are rarely used for the call to prayer? What should a mosque attended by Muslims from different parts of the world look like? The boldest of the new mosques try to answer such questions but are also powerful statements of intent. "Islam wants to proclaim itself," says Hasan-Uddin Khan, an architecture professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. "These new mosques are saying, 'We are here, and we want it to be known that we are here.' "

Designs for Life
As the number of European Muslims grows — from 12 million a decade ago to 20 million today — so does the need for mosques. A 2007 report by the Italian Department for Security Information found the number of mosques in the country had grown from 351 to 735 in a mere seven years. Mosque numbers in France and Germany have also exploded. While Europe's churches sit empty or are converted into luxury lofts and schools, Muslims are building mosques in old nightclubs and supermarkets, in former sauerkraut and pharmaceutical factories and, yes, abandoned churches. As Muslims get wealthier, more confident and more geographically diffuse — almost a third of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims live in non-Muslim-majority states — their mosques are no longer just monuments to the rulers whose names they bear. Increasingly, they symbolize the struggle to marry tradition with modernity and to set down roots in the West. The most daring buildings are dreamt up by second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants, who have the confidence and cash to build stone-and-glass symbols of Islam's growing strength in places like Europe. Simply importing traditional mosque architecture "doesn't express loyalty to your current surroundings," says Zulfiqar Husain, honorary secretary of an innovative new eco-mosque in Manchester, England. "It almost expresses that you want to be separate from the society you live in."

The designers behind the best of the mosques take the opposite view: they may be making statements but they are also sensitive to local concerns and aesthetics. The mosque that Husain helps administer, in a gritty working-class Manchester neighborhood, uses reclaimed wood and solar panels on the roof to power its under-floor heating. Inside, peach carpeting and plasma TVs give the air of a prosperous suburban English home, while the prayer hall has carvings inspired by the 10th century North African Fatimid dynasty.

In Singapore, the architects of the Assyafaah Mosque, which was finished in 2004, cater to the country's multicultural population by creating an aesthetically neutral space, sleek and futuristic, where the island's Malay and Chinese Muslims can both feel comfortable.

Innovation also blooms in unlikely places such as southern Bavaria. In the town of Penzberg, the Islamic Forum, built in 2005, last year won a Wessobrunner Architekturpreis, an award granted every five years for outstanding Bavarian architecture. A simple block of glass and pearly stone, the Forum beckons Muslims and non-Muslims alike to enter through two doors built to resemble an open book. "It's a place of communication," explains its Bosnian-born architect, Alen Jasarevic, in an e-mail. "Vast windows and openings in the façade, even in the prayer room, invite the citizens of Penzberg to become acquainted with Islam and its people." The delicate minaret, lace-like from a distance, is a calligraphic representation of the words of the call to prayer, punched out of steel plates. "It doesn't call for prayer five times a day, but 24 hours a day," observes Jasarevic. "Without disturbing the neighbors."

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