Why Now, More Than Ever, We Need A New Islamic Architecture

Too many new mosques are being built in “traditional” styles that rely on outdated tropes and ignore the challenges Muslim Americans today are facing.

The Teaching Barn at the Farm of Peace, a small Sufi community located in Pennsylvania .

Courtesy Jenine Kotob

At a time when Muslims find themselves at the center of the nation’s political stage, the topic of Islamic architecture in the United States is more relevant than ever. The American mosque has become a prominent symbol, within which identities, practices, and cultures converge. More often than not, this convergence results in conflicting goals, further resulting in mosques that fail to identify and serve the needs of their diverse constituents.

In a 2011 report entitled The American Mosque, Dr. Ihsan Bagby, professor in Islamic studies at University of Kentucky,  conducted a survey that found that only 10% of Muslims attend a total of 2,106 mosques in the United States. The report indicated that 75% of all mosques are dominated by one ethnic group, i.e., by South Asians, Arabs, or African Americans. It also found that women make up a mere 18% of the attendance at Friday prayers and that 66% of the mosques sampled use dividers or partitions to separate the women’s prayer area from the main mosque, segregating women from what could be broader communal and spiritual activities. Converts, who are primarily African Americans from urban areas, are recognized as a top priority by only 3% of the mosques surveyed, and only 17% of mosques consider youth/teen programming to be important.¹ In addition to these internal challenges, mosques face external threats that make them feel unsafe for attendees: namely, attacks by Islamophobe groups and the scrutiny of governmental surveillance programs.

Many Muslim Americans are seeking healthy community spaces where they can address these internal and external challenges safely and constructively; however, too many new mosques are being built in “traditional” styles that rely on outdated tropes and ignore the challenges Muslim Americans today are facing. Traditional designs can and should act as launch pads for architectural inspiration; however, it is the role of architects to show alternatives that aren’t just spiritual, inspirational, or uplifting—but that in fact enhance the social and environmental qualities of the 21st century American mosque itself.

New architecture, an old vision

On April 2, 2016, the Diyanet Center of America officially opened its doors to the public with a large celebration. Thousands of guests, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gathered in suburban Maryland to observe first-hand the $110 million campus, consisting of a 20,236-square-foot mosque, cultural center, single-family housing, dining hall, educational facility, Turkish baths, sports complex, and underground parking garage. The campus, the culmination of two decades of planning by the Turkish government, was built to honor Turkish culture abroad and support Muslims living in the greater Washington, DC, area. When President Erdogan spoke at the opening, he described the Center as a place that would serve a greater purpose: “Join us against a common fight against hatred and prejudice,” he said. “Islam is a religion that commands living and not dying. This cultural center will serve all of these valuable purposes.”

The architects of the facility, Hassa Architecture, based out of Istanbul, designed the central mosque in true classical Ottoman style. The architects’ mission was to “reproduce under today’s conditions the uncorrupted Turkish-Islamic tradition from the pre-westernization period.” While Islamic architecture in Turkey continues to progress and explore new, more contemporary aesthetics, projects like the Diyanet Center idealize the past and attempt to project a more authentic tradition that has not been “corrupted” by styles out of the West. In suburban Maryland, however, the project stands out as alien to the landscape—it’s symbolic of another people and another time.

Image of Diyanet Center Courtesy Jenine Kotob

Designing Spirituality from The Sanctuaries on Vimeo.

Despite the hype and grand visions, the facility is not, in fact, a symbol of the Muslim-American community today. There is a long legacy of Muslims living and building mosques and Islamic centers in America: from those immigrants who built the Mother Mosque of America in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to the resilient and vibrant African-American Muslim population, who founded the Nation’s Mosque in the 1930’s in Washington, D.C.. While the beauty of Ottoman-style architecture of the Diyanet Center is undeniable, it does not tell the rich and diverse story of Muslim Americans. In the words of Imam Zia, founder of the Virginia-based Muslim organization MakeSpace: “Both as a 21st century imperative and as a way to revive the inclusive spirit of the Prophet’s community, American Muslim communities need to turn their mosques and centers into accessible, diverse, relevant and safe spaces. These are the hallmarks of a truly vibrant and benevolent society.”

A Brief History

Muslim-American community leaders have typically relied on designs that are traditional in their aesthetics, with domes, minarets, arches, and geometric ornament. This nostalgic return to historic architecture is part of an immigrant narrative that is not unique to the Muslim population. The American landscape has become the canvas for a milieu of architectural styles that represent cultures, religions and eras that span vast spaces and times.

Beyond Islamic architecture that is used for Muslim worship, there are hundreds of examples of Islamic-inspired folly style buildings that exist in the West and began to pop up in the country as early as the 1490s. Some of the earliest settlers who arrived to this continent were Christian converts, originally Muslims from Spain, who constructed buildings in the style they knew best: Moorish architecture. These buildings included such features as eight-pointed stars, quatrefoil elements, ironwork, courtyard fountains, and colorful tiles. One of the earliest documented buildings is the Misiòn San Antonio de Valero, or the Alamo, built in 1744 in present-day Texas, with an embellished entryway that is Moorish-inspired. In 1829, a building called the Bazaar was built in Cincinnati, Ohio, by Englishwoman Frances Trollop, as a commercial building in an over-the-top, fancifully Islamic style. Architect Seneca Palmer designed the Bazaar with a Turkish onion-domed rotunda, arabesque-framed windows, crenellated roofline, and Egyptian details. In 1848, a lavish mansion was constructed in Bridgeport, Connecticut in a blend of Moorish, Turkish and Byzantine styles.  Designed by architect Leopold Eidlitz for owner P.T. Barnum, it cost $150,000 to construct, which, in today’s dollars, amounts to more than $4 million. Many more buildings with Islamic elements can still be found around Florida, California, and other states today.

Courtesy Wikimedia

Author Phil Pasquini describes the phenomena as a collective “architectural Orientalism”:

The overall effect became an interpretation that pandered to American tastes for the exotic more than it attempted to educate and inform by visually representing an academically correct building. Even the most authentic-looking structures often include elements that are unrelated or out of context thematically or stylistically, resulting in an indiscriminately combined collage of hybridized elements and styles.²

What is often lost in this drive for the “exotic,” whether nostalgic or Orientalist in nature, is an architectural language that is productive, relevant and relatable to second and third-generation children, converts, and other minority groups within the Muslim-American population. Traditional designs are being misinterpreted and transplanted in such a way that their underlying spatial qualities are lost. Furthermore, these spaces equate spirituality with a sense of escape and separation from the realities of this world–inward facing courtyards, captivating ornate design, repetitive colonnades and arches. However, what is being created are only partially successful facilities that do not explore new forms spirituality and often lack the stylistic and programmatic diversity that is necessary to create thriving and sustainable communities for future generations.

Towards a New Process

So how can architects go about designing mosques that are relevant, responsive, inclusive and more importantly, actively constructive for an American audience? First, they must consider what makes a mosque a mosque at its core. Of course, defining one style as Islamic is nearly impossible. From the Kaaba in Mecca to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and even to the Great Mosque of Xi’an in China, Islamic architecture is as localized as it is expansive. But then, what makes a building or mosque Islamic at all?

Great Mosque of Xi’an.

Courtesy Wikimedia

Author Ahel Kahera describes a mosque in its most deconstructed and universal form, a definition that comes from the Hadith [saying of the Prophet Muhammed]:

‘The [whole] earth is a masjid [mosque] for you, so wherever you are at the time of prayer, make your prostration there.’… ‘The [whole] earth is a masjid’ negates the need for a fixed or singularly prescriptive type of enclosure. Rather, it places emphasis solely on the act, time, and place of prostration. Therefore, we may say that any spatial form that is erected is simply the result of a secondary effort by a single architect.³

Kahera notes several important points: First, innate within the faith, there is a strong connection between the human body and nature-no other act more clearly depicts this than prayer. This hadith even identifies the earth as a mosque, with the sun charting the times of prayer above, and the worshipper prostrating along its surface. This environmental context of Muslim worship is, I believe, essential to Islamic architecture. Second, there is no prescribed architectural form; instead, there is complete flexibility, openness and pragmatism in mosque construction. This framework allows for, and in fact encourages, creative expression, innovation, and cultural diversity in Islamic architecture.

In Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s introduction to, Islamic Art and Spirituality, he states that, “Islamic art is based upon a knowledge which is itself of a spiritual nature, a knowledge referred to by traditional masters of Islamic art as hikmah or wisdom… This art is based upon a science of an inner nature which is concerned not with the outward appearance of things, but with their inner reality.”4 Nasr’s point on the relationship between spirituality, wisdom, and art can also inform an architectural process, where design is participatory and responds to the critical questions that are facing a particular community – including the role of women, the next generation, and what to do in the face of Islamophobia. Participatory design allows an invested community to work together at the design table with architects and specialists, to collaborate and problem-solve together. Through equitable participation, the varied and diverse voices of the Muslim community are granted the opportunity to express their individual desires and needs, providing a much-needed stage for the underrepresented.

What would an aesthetic of Islamic architecture in the United States look like today if Muslim users were made a part of this process? In Washington, D.C., a group called Columbia Heights Halaqas hosts “organic conversations reflecting personal faith journeys” that rotate from apartment to apartment. Without a physical, accessible venue in D.C.-proper that could support their conversations, these young professionals have found an alternative way to practice their faith collectively. These third-spaces, typically in a host’s home, are intimate settings for Muslims to gather to reflect on their faith. By mapping out the network across the District, an urban practice emerges that places the sacred within the quotidian.

Images Courtesy Jenine Kotob

Within these safe, welcoming environments, participants reflect on Islam in ways that are relevant to their own lives. Architects must begin to explore these micro-moments of practice, in which spirit is understood on an extremely localized level. Artwork, reading material, color, lighting, and furniture can make mosques and Islamic centers more responsive and in-tune with the constituents who will occupy them.

Moreover, mosques must go the extra mile if they want to cater to all members of their population, especially the underserved. Mosques are in a unique position, as many Muslims believe that they have been divinely summoned to be stewards of the Earth as well as upholders of social justice. Architects have an opportunity to place greater emphasis on outdoor spaces, such as edible community gardens, outdoor water cisterns, and recreational facilities that contribute to the general American population and, more specifically, the disenfranchised and underrepresented. Furthermore, the very intrinsic connection between Muslim practice and nature should be exemplified in its architecture. As the building industry continues to move towards the potential of codifying green building practices, mosques should take greater strides toward pursuing green certification. The Living Building Challenge certification could be quite suitable for mosques and sacred architecture. Living Buildings focus on seven performance categories: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty. The challenge views buildings as components of the natural environment that enhance the human connection in mind, body and soul with all that is living.

One community that has found a connection between Islam and nature is the Farm of Peace, a small Sufi community located in Pennsylvania approximately three hours west of Washington, D.C. The farm sits on over 150 acres of land and operates a community-supported agricultural program and raises its own sheep for meat and wool distribution. The community’s main building is the International Peace Center, constructed as a straw bale building, built with the assistance of the entire community. The building sits facing a seemingly endless landscape, with its main meeting and prayer space at the center looking outwards. In the heart of the prayer space is a fireplace, the hearth of this community’s home. The wing to the east of the main hall contains healing and meditative spaces where the Center serves Muslims and non-Muslims alike. To the west of the main hall are guest bedrooms for visitors from around the world, each with its own private bath. Every component of the building was built by some member of the community, from the walls, to the millwork to all of the artwork. The founder describes the facility as a building that is meant to hug its visitors, with curved, natural walls that engulf and warm the interior with the heat of the sun.

International Peace Center, the Farm of Peace.

Courtesy Jenine Kotob

The International Peace Center and the homes of the Columbia Heights Halaqas respond to the very local social, environmental, and cultural climates of their communities and exemplify the need to focus on the user experience. Today’s mosque users in the U.S. are in need of safe, inclusive, and relevant spiritual spaces—not inefficient and underused large structures, political symbols and relics of a past that is frozen in time. Without more active and engaged use by worshippers, these institutions shall remain as monolithic artifacts, gesturing towards faraway lands and times that are only memories on a dusty shelf. The role of the architect is diminished when the benefactors of mosques argue that the most awe-inspiring and beautiful forms of Islamic architecture are those of the Ottomans, the Mamluks, the Persians and the Mughals, leaving no room for innovation and creativity.

Across the country, vibrant, intellectual, passionate and inspiring Muslim Americans are seeking out new venues in which they can cultivate their own identities that are both proudly American, despite Islamophobic challenges, and proudly Muslim, despite being marginalized by traditionalists. Architects must design new buildings that speak to this sense of re-invigoration and sensitively identify what each user group needs. Engaging in a participatory process will allow all members of the Muslim-American community to take ownership of a space that was curated collectively, making mosques homes to many and not just a small few.

Furthermore, architects should, rather than pursue a specific style, explore the underlying universality that unites mosques as places that connect souls to one another and to nature itself. This connectivity is at the heart of a spiritual experience that is more outward looking, transparent and embracing. Morphologist Theodore Cook once said: “Beauty connotes humanity. We call a natural object beautiful because we see it at its form expresses fitness, the perfect fulfillment of function.”  Sacred architecture at its best is the perfect alignment of many parts that make a whole: a whole building and a whole community. It is the culminating expression of function, aesthetic, form, context and, most importantly, the needs of its users. Its beauty is in the successful cohesion of each of these parts.

  1. Bagby, Ihsan. The American Mosque. Rep. nos. 1, 2, 3. Council on American Islamic Relations. N.p.: CAIR, 2011.
  2. Pasquini, Philip L. Domes, Arches and Minarets: A History of Islamic-inspired Buildings in America. Novato, CA: Flypaper, 2012. p. 10.
  3. Kahera, Akel. Deconstructing the American Mosque: Space, Gender, and Aesthetics. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 35-37.
  4. Nasr, Seyyed H. Islamic Art and Spirituality. State U of New York, 1987.

Jenine Kotob is an architectural designer with Quinn Evans Architects (QEA) in Washington, D.C. Jenine’s research focuses on Islamic architecture in the U.S., environmental literacy through education, participatory development, and schools in crisis areas and refugee camps in the Middle East. She holds a Master of Science in Architecture with the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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