Back to top

Deconstructing the American Mosque

Deconstructing the American Mosque
Space, Gender, and Aesthetics

The history and theory of Muslim religious aesthetics in the United States since 1950.

August 2002
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
208 pages | 6 x 9 | 43 figures |

From the avant-garde design of the Islamic Cultural Center in New York City to the simplicity of the Dar al-Islam Mosque in Abiquiu, New Mexico, the American mosque takes many forms of visual and architectural expression. The absence of a single, authoritative model and the plurality of design nuances reflect the heterogeneity of the American Muslim community itself, which embodies a whole spectrum of ethnic origins, traditions, and religious practices.

In this book, Akel Ismail Kahera explores the history and theory of Muslim religious aesthetics in the United States since 1950. Using a notion of deconstruction based on the concepts of "jamal" (beauty), "subject," and "object" found in the writings of Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), he interprets the forms and meanings of several American mosques from across the country. His analysis contributes to three debates within the formulation of a Muslim aesthetics in North America—first, over the meaning, purpose, and function of visual religious expression; second, over the spatial and visual affinities between American and non-American mosques, including the Prophet's mosque at Madinah, Arabia; and third, over the relevance of culture, place, and identity to the making of contemporary religious expression in North America.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Polemics of Deconstruction
  • Chapter One: Aesthetic Origins and End Conditions
  • Chapter Two: Interpretations of Image, Text, and Form
  • Chapter Three: Space, Place, and Public Gathering
  • Conclusion: Reversible Space and Linear Time
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Akel Ismail Kahera is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


Browse this book with Google Preview »

In the United States, the design and interpretation of Muslim religious art and architecture have been influenced by both the exclusion and the inclusion of historical fact, cultural bias, and a host of subtle contradictions. Each anomaly gives rise to a new discourse, and these discourses inform the corpus of this inquiry. Moreover, the American Muslim community has also claimed the freedom to compose and ultimately to forge a set of religious expressions apropos to the North American environment. The most obvious result of the freedom to compose is the generation of a new spatial form—the American mosque. My justification for the use of this idiom is explained in depth and at length below. However, the primary aim of this book is to explain the historical, cultural, and religious derivation of the themes that embody the brief history of the American mosque.

My first point concerns the use of the word "deconstruction" in the title of this book. Although adequately explained in later discussion, what I mean by this word can be briefly summarized here. First of all, it is significantly unrelated to Derrida's philosophy of deconstruction; and second, it is not an attempt to study some transitory, postmodern, nonobjective style, an abstract or whimsical mode, or an incoherent architectural subject. My use of the term "deconstruction" concerns a concrete and serious study of Muslim religious aesthetics, which in the first instance is grounded in Muslim epistemology, and in the second is related to various ways of negotiating spatial relationships between tradition and modernity in the North American environment. Above all, I am concerned with the subjective and objective use of religious symbols by American Muslims and primarily with every individual Muslim's devotion to the wisdom of the sacred text, the Qur'an.

Before Derrida's conception of deconstruction, we find a critical exposé on the art of being and doing in the philosophical writings of Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240), Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), and Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406). These scholars and many others have contemplated the meanings of space, time, and being. From among them I have selected Ibn 'Arabi, using his theory of hermeneutics and creative imagination to advance the explanation of deconstruction that I adopt in this essay. I find Ibn 'Arabi's assertion about the notion of "being" poignantly relevant to the understanding of psychological space and the process of creating Muslim aesthetics. Therefore I rely on Ibn 'Arabi's thesis to decode the creative imagination of the architect and the epistemology of space, gender, and aesthetics.

The nature of this formulation of deconstruction is retained in order to develop an understanding of the American mosque in terms of its relation to the material and the immaterial world. It also allows for a unique reading of the semiotics of Muslim aesthetics in North America. The overall notion of deconstruction suggests both the origins of a core and an outer shell. In other words, the opportunity exists to study the juxtaposition of traditional notions of the form and function of a religious edifice with a modern context.

I argue below that the American mosque is a legitimate religious edifice in search of new accommodation in a modern context but not to some predetermined end. This is not to suggest that because there is no consensus on the use of the term "American mosque," we can either cling to it or let it go. One way of understanding this new building type is to understand its syncretic aesthetic language, which borrows many syntactical nuances from tradition and other forms of human expression.

Allowing for the integration of syntactical nuances, the American mosque, if viewed in terms of a hybrid design language, exhibits a parallel with linguistics, where we find the emergence of a similar syncretism in a modern form of Muslim English in America. In his study "Psychology of Dialect Differentiation: The Emergence of Muslim English in America," Dr. S. Mohammad Syeed notes several social and linguistic features that he describes as the conscious engineering of social change based on various historical developments, diaspora, and borrowings from the Arabic language.

Once again, the setting in which this development takes place allows for the generation of a new idiom, which includes syntactical nuances from history, culture, and other forms of human expression. There needs to be a theoretical account of how these correspondences operate and are to be understood. In our study of the American mosque, I will discuss what role religious, cultural, historical, ethnic, or other types of correspondences have played in the formation of Muslim religious art and architecture in North America.

In the last decade, several advances have been made across all academic disciplines—history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics, law, and gender studies—with regard to the practice of Islam in the United States. Many of the recent studies seek to explain the conditions of Islamic life that are influenced in part by religious, cultural, social, and political forces. The dimensions of these forces play a part in the evident interaction between belief and religious practice. At present, the discourse seeks to interpret the self-conscious intentions and the collective consciousness that emerge in the American Muslim community. Even without an elaboration of these issues, it is clear from a comparison of the focuses of a few studies how each author defines the disparate nature of the debate.

Kathleen M. Moore's Al-Mughtaribun [Emigrants]: American Law and the Transformation of Muslim Life in the United States (1995) is to my knowledge the earliest attempt to discuss the transformative impact of American law on the Muslim diaspora community. The chapter on the suburban mosque is particularly informative with regard to zoning and settlement patterns and land use. Because the mosque is at odds with the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is seen by most suburban residents as a foreign religious symbol. It is subject to angry and often violent reactions from all levels of the suburban community, including the zoning board.

Aminah Beverly McCloud critiques a number of social and cultural issues, tensions, and challenges in African American Islam (1995). This essay is important because it also examines the status of women, especially African American Muslim women, and the gender relationships they encounter, which are the source of an ongoing debate.

Jane Smith's Islam in America (1999) is a comprehensive survey of the issues that confront the American Muslim community. Likewise, a number of published essays by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, especially her seminal work (co-authored by Adair T. Lummis) Islamic Values in the United States (1987), take up the same theme.

Since there is virtually no literature about the history of American mosques, it is hardly surprising to find the absence of a discourse on the origins and the aesthetic development of the American mosque. Nevertheless, a handful of essays have sought to explain the intrinsic relationships among religious expression, building traditions, and diaspora.

In this respect, Barbara Metcalf has observed that "from Muslims in the West, we learn much about how Islam, like any historic tradition, exists in the process of redefinition and re-appropriation in new contexts." She also suggests certain tensions among culture, religious identity, ethnicity, and diaspora.

In the situations of cultural displacement or marginality in which these [Muslim] populations find themselves, characteristic Islamic themes and processes of cultural negotiation are thrown into particularly high relief. As we look at the specifically Islamic spatial expressions of these communities—the use of space, claims on space, the architecture of built forms, and conceptualizations of space—we encounter both patterns of everyday life and themes of religious imagination, broadly construed.

The value of this observation is that it allows for conceptualizations of space to be identified as part of history, religious practice, and function and to be considered in the study of the American mosque. The point of confluence of these conceptualizations involves the search for a new accommodation, that is, the integration of tradition with modernity. In this essay, I will also seek to clarify the tensions between tradition and modernity. Responding to this challenge, a larger question exists with regard to the motivations of seemingly incomprehensible aesthetic treatment, spatial gestures, and the demonstration of pride that we find in a number of cases. While I have chosen not to review each case, I will make an accurate assessment of what incites the tension. In our discussion of the polemical nature of the debate, this issue is disputed insofar as it challenges conventional architectural theory. From the cases that we examine in chapters 2 and 3, one may infer a significant number of different design responses to the American mosque.

While our concern with space is problematic, the issue of design also pertains to an outstanding legal debate among a male-controlled body of Muslim jurists. For example, the legal discourse, which finds its origins in the medieval milieu, does not vitiate the importance of studying the way American Muslim women appropriate space for worship. Research conducted with the help of students in my course "The Practice of Islam in the United States" suggests that American Muslim women are indeed speaking for themselves about the role of women, the limits of male control, and female subordination, especially with regard to the rights of worship.

Thus, I will discuss the attitudes commonly upheld by the community, in view of the growing activism about the ways in which law empowers Muslim women in America. It is for this reason that I discuss the psychology of space in direct response to the issue of space and gender. The tensions between the two are particularly evident in the older, more zealous, and more traditional established concepts of space making in the Muslim world. In North America, the enthusiasm exists on the part of the American Muslim community to construct a new spatial paradigm for worship that excludes any form of gender bias. This campaign has acquired momentum, but old habits die gradually, and we must remember that custom is often stronger than law.

In an attempt to explain the apparent contradictions between space and gender, we will illustrate ways in which Islamic law promotes a more positive attitude towards equity in religious devotion. However, none of my conclusions depends on the assumption that any argument is absolutely true or totally adequate to explain the complexities that exist between space and gender.

To return to our discussion of the idiom "the American mosque," we may ask a crucial question: Will the stylistic features of the American mosque grow increasingly isolated from those of its counterpart in the Muslim world? One may cite a number of examples that suggest that over time, a regional style gains insular importance that allows the freedom for such a style to develop.

In the situation of cultural displacement and marginality in which the first-generation Muslim diaspora community in America finds itself, there is a lack of immediate contact with the past and a loss of cultural hegemony. The second and third generations may view the circumstances of life in North America with a more realistic understanding. Furthermore, the need to integrate with the larger community made up of mostly African American Muslims may provide sufficient incentive to dissuade the immigrant community from continuing to live as emissaries of a foreign country.

At the same time, no building tradition is culture free, and building traditions are as much a part of cultural heritage as dress, food, music, and language. What these initial considerations delimit is the interconnection of a series of complex aesthetic, social, cultural, and religious relationships. Although the sense of time and place is vital to the hold that these relationships may exercise on the creative imagination, it also allows for the validation or the suspension of any aspect of a building tradition.

1. The Validation and Suspension of Building Traditions

Tradition, like history, is something that is continually being created, recreated, and remodeled in the present, even [though] it is represented as fixed and unchanging. There is no architecture without inviolable rules of construction and interpretation that are formed in the course of history for every people by means of a more or less complex convergence and superimposition of elements...and associations.

Tradition deploys a shared language that is in part philosophical and in part metaphorical and commonplace. Many of the arguments put forward in this introduction are attempts to link the spatial concepts of a mosque with a theory of form. I begin with tradition simply because it forms one of the bases of legal reasoning in Islamic law (shari'ah). Tradition is useful in understanding and evaluating how knowledge passes from one generation to another, especially by word of mouth. Allowing for the precedent of tradition, we may introduce a new term: the spatial sunnah. The word "sunnah" (practice, custom, personal mannerism, model, convention, law, habit, etc.) can be substituted for "tradition." Thus, when we speak of the mosque in terms of the Prophet's sunnah, we convey explicit approval of the plan of the seminal mosque that was established by the Prophet and his companions. It was this spatial tradition that determined the forms and functions of later buildings. The overall argument is that any mosque that follows the sunnah in the same manner involves a tacit understanding of the form and function of the seminal mosque.

The interpretation of architecture and Islamic law contains multiple purposes, which require a critical analysis to expose unquestioned assumptions and inconsistencies related to history and chronology. Deconstruction, with its emphasis on the analytical relationships between epistemology, history, law, and building tradition, seeks to understand the origins of these relationships in their contexts of time and place. A great variety of spatial variants exists in each relationship, all of which are subject to interpretation. Above all, tradition allows for the interpretation of form and function.

Each interpretation brings new questions into consideration. For example: How do both form and function come to be established in a given location? Where did the builders, craftsmen, architect, etc., acquire the knowledge? How is the interpretation of form to be rationalized? These three questions are of fundamental importance to the notion of deconstruction, but from this inquiry emerges the separate problem of trying to interpret a building tradition.

In the process of preparing the research for this book, it became evident to me that there exists, not one distinct building tradition or design concept of mosque architecture in America, but an aggregate of concepts and traditions, related to one another yet aesthetically unconstrained. This impression is illustrated by the following three examples: the Washington, D.C., mosque designed by Muhammad (Abdur Rahman) Rossi (1950); the Abiquiu, New Mexico, mosque designed by Hassan Fathy (1980); and the New York City mosque designed by SOM (1990).

All three mosques are historically connected to an extrinsic aesthetic milieu; however, they exist in the same time and space—North America. A further examination of each case reveals a number of primary aesthetic conditions:

  1. The edifice consists of several varieties of visual syncretic expressions, all adopted from corresponding models in the Orient—e.g., the Washington, D.C., mosque.
  2. A single theme regulates the pattern language of the edifice; it remains faithful to traditional aesthetic values—e.g., the Abiquiu, New Mexico, mosque.
  3. The value of modernity is apparent in the pattern language; it introduces an avant-garde expression to extant Islamic aesthetic visualization—e.g., the New York City mosque.

These three aesthetic conditions inform us about the aspirations and the predispositions of an ethnically diverse Muslim community in America. They also tell us about the intent of one person: the architect. Although the architect is accountable to the client, each edifice embodies complex aesthetic qualities and design properties that suggest aesthetic preferences; these preferences can be understood as a search for synthesis. A separate line of reasoning explains the search for synthesis; it is the transfer of ideas from one cultural context to another and from one time period to another. Both conditions imply a relationship between tradition and modernity, but the relationship may be artificial or germane.

Take for example the synthesis between tradition and modernity that is perceived in the New York mosque. By introducing an avant-garde Islamic expression, the composition of the New York mosque addresses two concurrent aesthetic problems: architectural innovation and aesthetic tenacity. The building's spatial composition interprets traditional Muslim aesthetic values, and in so doing, it sets the stage for a fresh debate concerning a new aesthetic idiom.

If we consider the critique of regionalism and its effects on architectural composition, it seems clear that the sprit of a place is a formative criterion that affects the appearance of the American mosque. Identifying the peculiarities of a place where a mosque is to be built is easy, but what is known about the spatial conditions of the edifice is nonspecific.

Thus the ensuing design process for a new mosque involves the ordering of information; however, the process may allow for the omission of what is apropos and the exclusion of information that should not be lost from memory, in exchange for the inclusion of what is artificial. For instance, it is possible to argue that the seventh-century Prophet's mosque is an archetypal building—a spatial sunnah—and that it therefore conveys information that has affected, and continues to affect, the planning of later buildings. Because of the authority of the spatial sunnah, mosques built in America also embody an accepted religious practice that was established at Madinah. But taking into account that the spatial conditions of the first mosque built at Madinah no longer exist, it is best to regard the American mosque as a direct interpretation of the sunnah in consideration of the efficacy of time and space.

In simple terms, the American mosque is a more recent counterpart of the seminal structure, and this makes an analogy particularly pertinent between it and the theory of a spatial sunnah, mentioned above. A few more remarks about the term "spatial sunnah" are necessary. The designation "spatial sunnah" gives clarity to the distinction and the connection between the archetypal model and the American interpretation. In other words, we may argue that the American interpretation is clearly a heuristic adaptation for two reasons: design decisions influence the objective use of space; and each design decision creates conditions for a further aesthetic interpretation.

In legal reasoning, the term "sunnah" is also a religious obligation; therefore, the spatial ordering of a contemporary mosque can also be shown to resemble the architecture of the archetypal model, as will be demonstrated in later discussion. Another aspect of the sunnah is an overall agreement or consensus (ijma); it must not be overlooked. Explicit examples from the hadith (traditional accounts of actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) record the behavioral mannerisms of the faithful in the assembly of a mosque; therefore, the term "spatial sunnah" may be substituted for the term "sanctioned enclosure" without doing detriment to the essence or meaning of the sunnah.

Our use of the term "spatial sunnah" is a theoretical formula that explores two primary design features: it examines problems of visual propriety apropos to efficacy and expression; and it examines problems of appearance and spatial obligation. For example, it is an important obligation for a community of adherents to set aside a space for communal gathering. In this book, we will discuss the aforementioned features by advocating a fresh debate pertaining to the term "spatial sunnah." We will also examine a number of design complexities in consideration of the definitions of deconstruction noted above.

Unquestionably, we are drawn into an inquiry concerning design features: Are these features sensible or valid? On what account do they indicate a search for identity? Furthermore, the question of identity raises three crucial concerns: What motivates a community to adopt various aesthetic nuances? How are these nuances explained? How do they affect the outcome of a design? Attempts to redress design issues involve clients who test their conviction about aesthetic preferences by manipulating the design proposals of the architect. Design preferences are therefore subject to a wide range of opinions and outright disagreements, such as the manipulation of space, the biasing effect of gender, or the ill-defined use of visual elements.

If the aforementioned observations are correct, then the idiom "American mosque" sanctions an architectural discourse that must demonstrate nuances of architectural space, gender equity, and religious aesthetics. Therefore, I will investigate the origins of each individual nuance in order to explain aesthetic conditions that remain anomalies. This investigation leads to a crucial aspect of the debate: the belief that a theoretical stratagem found in Ibn 'Arabi's thesis can be effective when studying the metaphorical aspects of an aesthetic idiom.

2. Ibn 'Arabi's Theory of Deconstruction

As mentioned earlier, I have found a respectable argument for a theoretical stratagem in the philosophical writings of Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240 C.E.), especially in his Makkan Revelations (Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah). It was Ibn 'Arabi who first argued that creativity and its resulting object demonstrate patterns of subjectivism and objectivism. The value of Ibn 'Arabi's deconstruction lies in his thinking about the phenomenological and psychological relationship between subject and object. Ibn 'Arabi argues that the created object is not necessarily an absolute innovation, since it exists in relation to preceding products of the agent. He contends that however sophisticated the form, the image, or the object may appear, each element had been presupposed in the perceptual experience of the agent. In other words, art is not created ex nihilo. It is for this reason that Ibn 'Arabi considers the architect(s) (arbab al-Handasah) an authorized agent of creativity, as long as he or she has the potential to conceive specific forms, images, and beautiful objects.

It may be possible that the value of Ibn 'Arabi's deconstruction of form, image, and beauty is not entirely aesthetic but metaphorical—having external and internal meaning. The same reasoning applies to properties of external and internal relationships found in the American mosque. Extant studies of the origins of Muslim aesthetics in America have not widely pursued this idea, nor have they pursued the relationship between textual exegesis (ta'wil), or the inner concept of being (batin), and the formulation of architectural composition and beauty (jamal).

Take for example the relationships among beauty, symmetry, and form, especially the manner in which they define the spatial qualities of the mosque. Such properties provide the initial tenets of our debate; they allow for analysis of the American mosque as a neoteric composition.

Relying on Ibn 'Arabi's terms "creativity" and "object" to evaluate the architecture of the American mosque and to probe the question of created beauty is effective inasmuch as his reasoning is directly relevant to the formulation of a neoteric composition. When Ibn 'Arabi speaks of creativity and object, he allows for the possibility that beauty—aside from being one of the attributes of God (al-Jamal)—also expresses qualities of created existence. He demonstrates ways in which the term "jamal" denotes an aesthetic appreciation of the quality of gathering spaces. Jamal is therefore a crucial aspect of any composition and an essential theme in any visual expression. Deconstruction allows us to examine themes of beauty or the distortion of beauty and the veracity of an aesthetic expression.

From what has been said earlier about the connections between hidden and explicit meaning, it would seem that any architectural study of the American mosque would be lacking without a consideration of the relationship between text and form. In this regard, Qur'anic exegesis, or ta'wil, informs the legal injunction sanctioning congregational worship (Q. 62:9). It is a criterion that makes abundantly clear the validity of worship. Another verse speaks about the notion of created existence in more explicit terms: "I have only created jinn and human beings, that they may worship Me" (Q. 51:56). By their ontological nature, humans are conscious of the tauhid (principle of monotheism), a primary paradigm within Qur'anic cosmology. The tauhid paradigm considers the human being an authority figure (khalifah fi-l'ard), blessed by the Creator, Allah, with divine grace (barakah) and provided with divine guidance (wahy). In return, the believer demonstrates his or her obeisance and sincerity to the Creator in devotion at least five times per day.

Pursuing this line of argument, the mosque is intrinsically connected to congregational devotion, and therefore, the masjid (place of prostration) is a universal idea that every Muslim community recognizes. Accordingly, it is an important obligation to set aside a space for communal gathering.

The explanation of a particular Muslim religious gathering place, asserting its own aesthetic expression in America, is a relatively new idea. We can think of the American mosque as a synthesis of different visual representations in which the conditions of time and space assume a syncretic expression. In other words, beauty (jamal) may be conceived as a synthesis of preexisting visual expressions, and because of its unlimited use, it gives value to ideas of continuity. It is for this reason that I employ the term "jamal" as a metaphor, while remaining fully aware of the conditions of time and space. These conditions lead to two crucial aspects of the metaphor: composition and beauty; and the production of space.

Once more, if we apply Ibn 'Arabi's reasoning, jamal illustrates explicit and implicit interpretations of beauty in the formulation of space. Because metaphors are sometimes unique, connotative, or imitative, in chapter 1 we will discuss in further detail the psychological background linking precedents and antecedents—such as text, geometry, iconography, and the aesthetics of monotheism—to the interpretation of beauty. By studying each of the exegeses of the term "masjid," I aim to elucidate ideas and disagreements about composition and beauty and the production of space.

Finally, in the West, beauty is commonly trivialized, reduced to decoration, or equated with the insipidities of bad taste. The term "jamal" discloses a confrontation with banality and mediocrity, and the production of space reflects an understanding of contemplation and the need for sustained attentiveness to prayer. The interpretation of the production of space forms the basis of three polemics that require explanation because they arise from the complexities of significant spiritual values.

3. The First Polemic

There is an obvious need for further research on the mosque that goes beyond a vague understanding or the mere collection of spatial ordering facts. Addressing this need is one of the objectives of this book. In the mid-eighties, while I was a graduate student at MIT, I began to probe the meaning and function of vernacular aesthetic expression in Muslim religious buildings away from their center of origin, that is, the Orient. While preparing my thesis on the architecture of the West African mosque, I soon discovered that relying on historical texts alone to explain cultural anomalies proved inadequate. Likewise, my comparison of past and present examples did not yield an acceptable explanation of the many spatial and aesthetic complexities that I discovered in my study of the Hausa and Fulani mosques.

Having benefited from a study of the pattern language found in these West African mosques, the present essay pursues a similar inquiry into the ways in which the American mosque is resolutely a recipient of architectural metaphors. An interesting example of the mosque as an architectural metaphor is provided in Jaan Holt's essay "Architecture and the Wall Facing Mecca." Holt identifies the design elements and the spatial ordering that are determined by the placement of the mihrab (indicator of the axis of prayer) and the qiblah wall (wall facing Makkah). He argues that by adapting a spatial ordering determined by the wall facing Makkah, rather than copying some preexisting form to suit the logical structure of the mosque, designers develop an understanding of the building's aesthetic system that can provide the essential spatial vocabulary. In his design example, Holt develops an entire space broken into parts, but the wall facing Makkah and its mihrab remain the two primary spatial referents.

Essentially, the pattern language of the American mosque does not appear to have any particular architectural justification aside from function. By examining the design language I find in several case studies, we may identify spatial referents in order to discuss to what extent the architect's mode of expression argues for a generative model apropos to the production of space. Furthermore, there are no absolute design solutions but, instead, largely distinct cases of client and architect moving from antithesis ('iktilaf) towards consensus (ijma) to permit acceptance of a proposed design solution.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that there are skeptics who consider "Islamic architecture" to be a wholly illegitimate term; they find it to be abstract, syncretic, and deviant from more familiar Eurocentric models and labels. I believe that the appeal of secularism and the propensity to readily embrace postmodern epistemologies account for this intellectual dilemma.

Another vexing dilemma that tends to weigh against the consistent use of a functional norm or spatial ideal is the understanding of space and gender. The ways in which clients and architects have dealt with this delicate problem are sometimes distasteful, requiring that rules of some kind must exist and must be formulated as unequivocally as possible. However, in the text of the Qur'an, there is no such legal or religious imperative. Women have the right to go to the mosque, and the Prophet's mosque at Madinah had free access for both sexes, but this does not itself imply that the contemporary mosque is free from gender constraints. In many traditional Muslim societies, a set of rigorous, male-formulated rules restricts the use of the mosque by women. These rules may be negligible in America because laws govern use of a public space, and other planning specifications must be met. Although the architect is free to address the problem of space and gender in the development of the plan, there has been a continuing tendency to pay lip service to women's prayer spaces. Thus, the legality of the requirement to provide adequate space for women and children is pertinent to this discussion as well.

Because architecture and art are not created ex nihilo, the argument concerning space and gender is taken up in chapter 3, where I discuss the synthesis of space, place, and public gathering. The relationship between space and gender is discussed because, although it would seem that it is simply a cultural bias, it has a significant effect on the way each mosque is planned. Furthermore, the legacy of thinking about how women use public space and the rights of public gathering is very much with us here in America.

4. The Second Polemic

Thus far I have discussed various problems related to design and the theory of Ibn 'Arabi's terms "creativity" and "object." It follows that another way of examining the mosque deals with the matching or concordance between the building as an object and its context. The situation is particularly complicated when a mosque exists in a nontraditional context. For example, a mosque in London, New York, Paris, or Rome can respond to the immediate environment, ignoring all else, or it may engender a specific thematic concept that it seeks to preserve. It may also use a hybrid design, borrowing ideas from extant structures without ignoring its own context.14 This discussion presents us with a dichotomy between East and West that can best be understood in the design responses of two prominent architects, Robert Venturi and Hassan Fathy.

Venturi's entry for the 1982 Baghdad mosque competition can be described as an aesthetic flash, instantaneously mixing one style with another. His design concept is faithful to his theory of complexity and contradiction; thus, his treatment of the mosque as a design problem is complex and contradictory. Venturi's design solution for the Baghdad mosque experiments with visual ideas that enable the architect to make more effective use of his limited knowledge of Muslim aesthetic vocabularies. There can be little doubt that Venturi's Baghdad solution is a heterogeneous interpretation, making the edifice hostile to a stock of traditional themes that are essentially at odds with one another. I will have more to say about this problem in chapter 2, where I discuss aesthetic complexities and transcendent forms.

A dissenting view would embrace Venturi's notion of complexity and contradiction. Although it is interesting, his spatial rationality reveals pervasive ambiguities valued merely for secular aesthetic expression rather than rational substance. It is clear that since the nineteenth century, rationalist thought has had a formative influence on objets d'art. In western intellectual tradition, it was August Schmarson who first formulated the notion of space in the 1890s. The rejection of what was natural and traditional increased with the rise of historicism. So it would seem that architects today, like Venturi, when trying to understand the space of a mosque, view the aesthetic forces that shape the mosque in an abstract sense, failing to understand that these forces are integrated under a collective belief system and normative spatial values. This problem is discussed further in chapter 1, where I question how visual images travel from East to West, and precisely how various styles of Muslim art and architecture are integrated into the American landscape.

The foregoing remarks beg another question: What occurs when an architect from the East is commissioned to design a building in the West? This is exactly what occurred when Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy was asked to design a mosque and residential village at Abiquiu, New Mexico, in 1980. Fathy's mosque and educational complex (madrasah) represent an interesting contrast to Venturi's hybrid and egregious solution for the Baghdad mosque. Fathy's scheme appropriates ideas from the East, and it remains faithful to certain traditional building regulations that Fathy used at his Gourna project (1946) and elsewhere in the Middle East. This adaptation has its dangers as well. For example, if the traditional building process ignores any of the conventional practices that ensure a desired result, such as the control of an expert builder, then the building is likely to fail. To ensure that this would not occur, master masons were brought from Egypt to supervise the building technique. Fathy's master plan for the Abode of Peace (Dar al-Islam) community embodies the dominant values of an already familiar Muslim spatial ethos.

There has been much debate over the extent to which Fathy's attitude towards tectonic building traditions of ancient Nubia is generally accepted outside of its context, and over the extent to which this can be applied as a normative design value designating space and design criteria. Nevertheless, presented with the Abiquiu site as a design problem, Fathy immediately understood the underlying Muslim spatial ethos, which pertains to the concept of Dar al-Islam. Part of that ethos deals with memory or the neglect of memory, so that the sense of existence is created, not ignored. The New Mexico landscape provided an adequate setting for the use of Nubian building techniques and the creation of an extraordinary sense of place (genius loci). Fathy, an experienced architect, had already developed and mastered techniques of Nubian tectonic culture, which he employed at Dar al-Islam. The project illustrates alternate possibilities of existence for an American Muslim community.

5. The Third Polemic

Although it is well established that Islam was in practice in the United States in the antebellum period, there exist virtually no serious studies on the subject of Muslim aesthetics in America. There are several reasons for this lack: First, the brief history of mosque architecture in America does not exceed half a century. The earliest significant building, the Islamic Cultural Center of Washington, D.C., dates to 1950. Second, art historians prefer to study traditional models taken from earlier epochs; they think of the mosque as a special kind of Muslim religious building that is premodern. Third, extant studies of earlier mosques are not carried over to the present day, or to places outside the Muslim world; they remain limited to regions of the world where significant Muslim communities have consistently resided.

Since the essence of the mosque is a gathering space, it can be defined in more finite terms. Therefore, these observations provide a reason to study the rigors of belief and visual expression. With the mosque as with all other forms of architecture, time and space can be yoked together as part of a broader study of the nuances of belief. For example, we may view the American mosque as a particular type of space set apart for public gathering and congregational worship. To the extent that this is true, each edifice is distinct with regard to a language of form and aesthetics suggesting a meaningful spatial ethos. Just as importantly, the language of form and aesthetics also informs us about the circumstances surrounding a building's origin, its religious meaning, and the way an architect, a builder, or a patron has determined the boundaries of style. Finally, the language of form and aesthetics admits a unique genre of human characteristics related to the observance of worship, geometric themes, and structural elements.

Understanding the language of form and aesthetics is complicated because studies of what constitutes an American mosque do not exist. Because interior and exterior space and surface treatment are conditions that convey both literal and metaphorical meaning, these elements are further complicated by the fact that aesthetic expression has seldom been held in high esteem, especially among some conservative Muslim theologians. Generally, they consider aesthetic expression to be an innovation (bid'a).

6. Deconstructing the American Mosque

Some key questions warrant further discussion: How can today's architect arrive at a novel understanding or definition of the American mosque, apart from the idiosyncratic ways in which he or she has been trained to see and to understand? How will today's architect derive meaning from what he or she observes in the spatial paradigms of the past? This brief list of design questions is by no means finite; we will explore others in due course. However, the problem remains the extent to which the context, singularly, affects the final product. It is a question to which we will return later. The architect is also faced with design decisions that give primacy to identity and place of origin. It is for this reason that the Orient remains a reference point that we must not ignore; it figures undeniably within our discourse. In dealing with a dichotomy between East and West, both terms represent value and truth; the building itself has a valued origin and an end condition.

When Le Corbusier made his soul-searching journey to the East in 1929, he encountered for the first time the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed mosque), which he described in his book La Voyage d'Orient. Le Corbusier's observations would later be instrumental in the formulation of the places of worship he designed, namely, Ronchamp and La Tourette. The Ottoman mosques that dominate the skyline of Istanbul weighed heavily upon his mind, and the scale of the Blue Mosque, a majestic edifice that he included in his sketches, held sway upon Le Corbusier.

Upon the hilltops of Stamboul [Istanbul] the shining white "Great Mosques" swell up and spread themselves out amid the spacious courtyards surrounded by neat tombs in lively cemeteries. The hans [khans] make them a tight army of little domes....Stamboul was burning like a demonic offering. I heard them in their poignant mysticism before Allah, such hope! And I adored everything about them: their muteness and rigid expression, their supplication to the Unknown, and the mournful credo of their beautiful prayers. Then during the moonlit evenings and black nights of Stamboul my ear was filled by the swooning of their souls and those undulating recitals of all the muezzins on their minarets when they chant and call the devoted to prayer! Immense domes enclose the mystery of closed doors, minarets soar triumphantly sky-ward; against the whitewash of high walls dark green cypress...facing the mosque of Ahmed [the Blue Mosque]....Inside each mosque they pray and chant. Having washed their mouths, faces, hands, and feet, they prostrate themselves before Allah, their foreheads striking the mats; with loud laments they cry out in ritual rhythms of worship. On his rostrum overlooking the expanse of the nave, crouched, upright, and facing the ground with his hands in worshipful gesture, the imam responds to the imam of the mihrab who leads the prayer.

Le Corbusier's remarks have captured a mode of spiritual engagement, a spatial inference, and an act of worship. The following question will remain unanswered, but we may speculate: What would the outcome have been if Le Corbusier had been commissioned to design a mosque? Would it resemble Ronchamp? The manner in which daylight enters Ronchamp and the impressiveness of the space undoubtedly borrow heavily from Le Corbusier's encounter with the Blue Mosque. Le Corbusier only hints at the answers in his design of Ronchamp, which suffices to explain the value of seeing and hearing.

Architects today are often not fortunate enough to travel as Le Corbusier did. Instead, they rely on secondary sources, mainly historical texts—which are not always analytical in content—to obtain information for a new commission. As one would imagine, the results of this shorthand approach can be devastating, mainly due to lack of basic knowledge. There are exceptions that I aim to cite, and they contribute to the discourse. However, I hasten to add that the American mosque is also stamped with a fixed quality that is both conventional and innovative. Each place of worship represents a perennial shift, paralleled with accustomed meaning and correspondence, and influenced by various creative forces, material and intellectual.

But the problem of establishing an ideal American mosque is not primarily a result of the difficulty of basic knowledge, or of weighing the relative importance of virtue, commodity, and delight (firmitas, utilitas, and venustas). It has long been argued that virtue, commodity, and delight are not enough. Rather, whether they are deliberately embracing a conventional model or taking an avant-garde design approach, laymen and architects alike are currently unable to come to terms with the relative importance of visual understanding, and this failure also affects the quality of the buildings produced. Sometimes, of course, this dilemma can have surprisingly favorable results, as one dictum suggests: "A building of high artistic merit, measured solely in visual terms, is architecture even if its badly built."

Of course, the question "What is deconstruction?" is itself a perennial, if not fundamental, philosophical subject for critical discussion. At the risk of gross oversimplification or egregious omission, one could say that the idea of deconstruction apropos to this book entails at least three aspects:

  1. A careful and rigorous analysis of the points pertaining to the design of an American mosque critically addressed in this introduction.
  2. An interpretation of the semantics of the term "masjid"—literally, a place of prostration.
  3. A critique of space, gender, and aesthetics, especially how the client, patron, or architect articulates each for various reasons of paramount importance.

In the chapters that follow, these three aspects of deconstruction are studied and discussed. They inform the various ways in which the critical nature and role of the American mosque constitute an important development in the history of American architecture and in the development of Muslim aesthetics outside the traditional Muslim world.

7. The Book's Organization

The confluence of the three crucial ideas noted above provides the structure of this essay and determines the order in which their connections are discussed. Chapter 1 plots the relationship between architecture and monotheism in terms of a shared dogma. It examines aesthetic origins and end conditions, moving back and forth between primordial spatial traditions on the one hand, and hermeneutics of the built environment on the other. As a way of proceeding from the spatial tradition established by the Prophet's sunnah and the Qur'an, I interpret both sources in order to uncover a tacit architectural precedent. This discourse moves the essay from an analysis of literal and symbolic meaning to the later development of a spatial sunnah and the introduction of a number of themes related to simulacra. In other words, it does not treat the concept of origins and end conditions as a historical idea, frozen in time. I will attempt to explain it as an evolving theme: conception, interpretation, convention, idiom, and finally, an expression of the particularities of the spatial sunnah.

This seems to be a valid approach to developing a discussion using specific case studies, which cannot be understood except in relation to a deconstructive interpretation of design. Chapter 2 provides a reading of image, text, and form in relation to four concrete examples, which are imbued with the search for aesthetic autonomy. This discussion allows us to accumulate a better understanding of how an edifice, while claiming tradition, is able to confront modernity as well. The case studies discussed in Chapter 2 treat various types of visual representations in terms of syncretism, geometry, and the importance of space and time.

Chapter 3 takes up the question of space, place, and public gathering as practiced in the urban mosque. Because I consider the mosque to be an urban religious institution following the thesis of Ibn Khaldun, the possibilities for social and economic intervention seem obvious. Chapter 3 addresses this aspect of urbanism. In urban public spaces, Muslim women find an increasingly broadened opportunity to assert themselves in religious practice, as they did in the seminal mosque at Madinah. A discussion of space and gender takes up this debate by disclosing the nuances of gender bias, which still operates today. In this chapter, we study two not yet constructed projects—one for Boston and one for Miami—with special emphasis on how the architect, the client, and the local site context shape them and on the extent to which the buildings provide a civic realm for the larger urban community.

The intention of this book is to examine the genesis of Muslim religious aesthetics in North America, which may well stem from the confluence of two primary modes of aesthetic reasoning: one universal and the other particular. The aesthetic image of the universal embraces conventions and places of origin; it also expresses its own mimetic essence by asserting meaning and truth. It is self-evident in its relationship to the world, and therefore, it maintains the right to exist. The particular mode of expression seeks to find its own American identity in the face of obvious social and cultural realities; it is an innovative gesture that represents novelty, change, and continuity.

When we take into account the specific nature of the Muslim community in the United States, the American mosque is a candid example of the architectural possibilities that this new religious community has introduced on the American landscape. While the American mosque admits affirmative elements of ethnicity, religion, and cultural identity, the essence and appearance of every edifice also have a valued origin. That origin—Africa, Asia, or the Middle East—is characteristic of a particular place and time. Each example, therefore, is an imagined representation with references to someone's history, but in its evolution and presence in America, it must also confront its immediate context. In so doing, each mosque establishes its own vernacular reference through spatial repetition, cultural representation, and visual affinity.



“This text will be the classic work in the field.... It will be extremely useful for general Islamic studies, for studies of religion in America, and for the study of Islam in America.”
Aminah Beverly McCloud, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, DePaul University, Chicago


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse