The American Muslim community today is made up of between six and eight million people from over sixty ethnic groups. This is perhaps the first community in history to be composed of so many diverse ethnic Muslim groups living under a non-Muslim government. This amalgam of cultures results in a complicated struggle for identity and expression which finds a direct reflection in mosque architecture. The author draws attention to the complexities of the relationship between the architect, and the client, which is often a mosque committee made up of individuals with vastly disparate conceptions of how a mosque ought to look in the American landscape.
In this seminal work, Kahera makes bold and ambitious moves towards establishing a discourse on Muslim aesthetics and takes an analytical, deconstructive approach to define and characterize the concepts and principles that comprise the designs and ultimately the form and function of America’s Mosques.
The author is concerned with analyzing the American mosque to examine the impulses and motives that inform its spatial, aesthetic and social dimensions. Using a system of deconstruction based primarily on Ibn Arabi’s Makkan Bevelations and his use of the terms “creativity” “subject” and “object”, which the author finds especially relevant to the issue of Muslim aesthetics and on which he relies to ” … decode the creative imagination of the architect …,” the author endeavors to explore the tensions and dynamics that influence the design process of a traditional religious edifice in a modern context. Exploring the semantics of the term “masjid”, defined literally as a place of prostration, the author examines space, gender and aesthetics and the way in which those involved in the commissioning and designing of mosques accommodate for them and in what proportion.
The book’s title may lead one to believe that it is an overly academic and specialist survey of abstruse concepts and issues but this is not entirely the case. In the introduction, the author explains the method of deconstruction he uses throughout the book. He makes it clear from the start that his approach is ” . . . not an attempt to study some transitory, postmodern, non-objective style, an abstract or whimsical mode, or an incoherent architectural subject.” Rather he is concerned with Muslim religious aesthetics and the way they are shaped and defined by the tension between tradition and modernity in the North American Muslim community today. Though a bit jargon-riddled in parts the book is on the whole accessible to the general reader. The subject of the American mosque, and the author’s inquiry into the process and influences that determine its formation proves to be a fascinating prism through which the entire gamut of contemporary issues faced by America’s Muslims may be examined from a new angle.
One of this book’s most important achievements is the beginning of a sophisticated and detailed examination of the meaning of traditional and contemporary approaches to Islamic art and architecture in today’s world. With a self-diagnostic realism that many of us would do well to apply to our own disciplines, Kahera deconstructs, rooting out what he calls aesthetic anomalies, syncretic expressions and simulacrums.
He draws our attention to what results from a client or architect ignoring the local environment and any regional considerations in favor of expressing a nostalgic form of image imported from one or several different existing cultural and historical settings. The author cites one instance where this sort of design caused consternation for a couple of truckers who were overheard by the local Imam on their shortwave radios discussing a mosque under construction in Ohio. When asked by his friend about the building one of them answered, “it must be a new Mexican restaurant or something'”
If you are one of those who think that all American mosques are assemblages of, in the words of one architect, “… flying saucer domes and rocket minarets” this book will cause you to think again. The author introduces several mosques that have sophistication in design, loyalty to some strain of Islamic image while at the same time being sensitive to regional considerations.
The Islamic Center of Plainfield, Indiana, designed by Professor Gulzar Haidar is one example. The mosque was designed with an emphasis on the primacy of geometry as an ordering principle, with an aim to establish a cosmological and nondecorative scheme that harmonizes with its regional setting, as well as embodies something of the Islamic spirit.
This is best understood by having a look at some of the architect’s design principles:
* “The architecture must express unity as its existence: one God, one truth, one existence.”
* “The architecture must express Prophetic tradition and Islamic law as its path: the framework for functional programming”
* “Th[e] architecture should be expressive and understandable to all. It should employ a form language[that] for the immigrant Muslims evokes a sense of belonging in their present environment and hope in their future. To indigenous Muslims it should represent a linkage with Muslims from other parts of the world and should underscore the universality and unity of Islam. To non-Muslims it should take the form of clearly identifiable buildings [that] are inviting and open, or at least not secretive, closed [or] forbidding.
* “The architecture should be ecologically appropriate; embellished and reinforced [by] the natural context; … energy conserving and climatically sensible.”
In Chapter three the author discusses the issue of public space and how it relates to the urban mosque. Citing the mosque at Branford Place in Newark, New Jersey, as an example of the potential of a mosque to unite people and bring vitality to urban communities, he illustrates the contrast between Branford Place before and after the opening of the mosque. Once rundown and infested with drug dealers and rife with crime, this pocket of the city was spontaneously transformed when Muslim businessmen purchased an office building and established the mosque some twenty years ago. The community now thrives with Muslim businesses that have sprung up around the mosque, a school and several other services that cater to the multinational congregation of nearly thirty thousand people. This transformation has attracted recognition from the local government, which has facilitated some of the community’s activities, demonstrating how the establishment of the mosque has had a positive impact on the community at large.
The author embarks on an inquiry into the controversial subject of gender and space issues connected with the American mosque. Beginning with the manner in which the issue of gender was treated in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, the discussion covers many points in history that have shaped the different positions on the issue. Placed in the American context the problem takes on whole new dimensions of complexity which necessitate, the author suggests, a high level of understanding of and sensitivity towards the North American environment on behalf of thefuqaha and ilama, a point that he backs up by mentioning how Imam Shafi’i changed his position on all but 13 issues after moving from Baghdad and settling in Egypt
The most exiting thing about this book is that it deals with contemporary Muslim aesthetic issues, a topic that is rarely treated today, especially in such a sophisticated manner. Interest in Islamic art abounds, as do books about it but this book sets the stage for a contemporary criticism of Islamic art and architecture from within the American Muslim community, something we desperately need. If art is a reflection of the inner state of a civilization, then an inquiry into the currents and forces that shape Muslim aesthetics today, which this book successfully initiates, can be expected to shed light on the condition of the Muslim community itself, facilitating greater understanding between the various groups it is comprised of and between the Muslim and nonMuslim communities.
It can be hoped that the initiation of such a discourse will educate and inspire both those involved in creating Islamic art and architecture but also mose who use them, as well as contribute to an increase in the conciousness and quality wim which Islamic architecture is designed and executed today in America and beyond.