Architectural diplomacy

Islam is not racist – and that should be reflected in the shape of the spaces in which its followers worship.

I HAVE never written about architectural problems in cities around the world simply because my philosophy is “Malaysia first, the rest of the world ... er, nanti dulu-lah”. But in today’s column I want to raise the issue of classical revivalism in the language of mosque architecture in Europe and the United States.

Until about a year ago, I thought that Muslim countries in Asia, like Malaysia and Indonesia, were the only ones bitten by the Middle-Eastern-style bug when it came to mosque architecture. Then a former student consulted me about his Masters thesis on mosques in Denmark and I discovered that many such structures in America, Britain, Denmark and other European countries are designed in classical Middle-Eastern garb, complete with domes, arches and minarets.

Why would (presumably wealthy) mosques in cities like Berlin, London and Washington DC be built along such traditional lines?

Firstly, I think it’s because the Muslims living in such cities are very assertive, vocal and wholly pragmatic – just like a lot of the citizens of such countries tend to be. So if these assertive Muslims want a Arabian Nights-like mosque, they will get it, as the architects would simply give in (as would Malaysian architects, I’m sure!).

Secondly, I think Muslims living in Western countries feel that Islam must have a common built language that will reflect the unity of Muslims around the globe.

Thirdly, I feel that they want an architectural language that contrasts significantly with the architectural language of the host country to proclaim the uniqueness of Islam.

And finally and most importantly, I think both architects and clients in these countries do not know that it is possible to use non-traditional Islamic architecture language that would be more sensitive to the host country.

Well, to mosque committees in America, Britain, Denmark, Italy and all the other non-Muslim countries, I wish to say that it would be better for the language of mosque architecture to be more sensitive to local architectural language then to be so brazen about an identity that should never have been considered universal.

Firstly, why should only one particular language be used when the Muslim immigrants in these countries are so diversified? In Edinburgh, where I studied, I met Muslims settled there who had come not only from Malaysia but also from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, India, Indonesia and many other countries. The traditional mosque language in the original countries of these immigrants are as different as night and day due to differences in climate, geographical make up and availability of technology. So why should the Middle-Eastern language take precedence in their new homeland?

Secondly, today’s architects and mosque committees disregard a simple truth about Islam and its dynamic message: namely, the fact that Islam can penetrate any culture anywhere on this earth and sit comfortably within that culture’s rites and belief system. For Islam did not spread through drastic change but through assimilation and enculturalisation.

The Wali Songo (those who originally helped disseminate Islam) of Indonesia spread the religion by adapting and adopting local songs, poetry and culture, thus introducing an interesting literary heritage.

In the realm of architecture, masons, carpenters and craftsmen adopted the languages of Indonesian temple, house and palace architecture to define a new architectural typology for the mosque. The “meru” roof of mosques in Demak and Kampung Laut finds precedence in previous building typologies that have no relation to Islam whatsoever. Thus, the existence of a myriad architectural languages shows truly that Islam is accommodating, that Islam is sensitive to other cultures, that Islam is ready to adapt and adopt.

This message is important at a time when so much of the Western non-Muslim world tends to see Muslims of being intolerant people arrogant enough to want to set up an “empire” upon this earth and force others under their swords. To me, building these Middle-Eastern-style domes and arches will only fuel this political myopia and encourage hostile sentiments like George W. Bush’s infamous “you are either with us or against us”.

What if mosque architecture reflected the architectural language of the host country, what message would that send? Well, it would say that Islam is there to become part of the country’s culture, with its own faith and morality akin to humanity’s highest universalist values.

It would show that Islam is dynamic, able to change and adapt to its surrounding – just like an efficient and visionary corporate manager!

It would also dismiss the notion that Islam is so tied to its past that it is absolutely intolerant of the modern issues of the world.

Now, of course, some will cry out, “but then, where is the difference between us and them? Should we not be different?” To these people, I say, why must we be different for the sake of being different? I choose to practice the excellent values of what my Prophet has taught me. I do not practice Islam blindly, simply based on the traditions of my forefathers because their interpretation of the religion would have been influenced by the times they lived in.

We can offer mosque architecture that emphasises Islam’s real values and not the formalistic language of architecture. For instance, when my students design mosques for class work, I ask them to pay particular attention to providing spaces for musaffir, or travellers, and also for the Suffa poor (those who depend on the mosque for charity).

I also ask the students to cater to the needs of women and provide them with better facilities and spaces instead of the ‘forgotten space’ with curtains and upstairs room. And I ask them to landscape the mosque so that teenagers, the elderly, children and non-Muslims might be attracted to come into the structure because Islam is an inviting religion, not the “rejecting” type.

I ask the students to think of new ways to make the mosque more energy sustainable and economically viable. I ask that they stay away from monumental sculptural expressions that would create great wastage. I also ask them to think of building a mosque in phases so that it can expand effortlessly and organically as the congregation grows.

I could go on and on about activities, values and forms that would reflect more of the Prophet’s Islam rather than the Islam of an individual race. Islam is not racist, and its architecture should not be, either.

The mosque is a representative of Islam in any country it resides in. Care must be taken in this fragile political climate to choose the right language for it. Call it architectural diplomacy, if you will.

For those who may say this approach is “cowardly” or “too compromising”, I answer that the true Muslim is a peaceful person moving with quiet dignity, strong in his resolve but humble in his morality. We do not need to shout out our faith and proclaim that we love God more than others. God does not want to hear boisterous screams but looks at how we treat others with compassion to please Him.

In this an architect designing a mosque must learn a new language and not fall back on the tired, old and “misspelled” architectural language of the past.

Just as a Muslim woman is truly devout in her hijab (head scarf), so can a mosque be. A mosque that sports domes, arches and minarets is simply ... showing off.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia lecturer Prof Dr Mohamad Tajuddin passionately believes that architectural design that respects cultural values, religious sensitivities and the ideals of democracy is vital to nation-building and harmony.

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