Studies in Contemporary Islam 1 (1999), 2:73–84

Image, Text, and Form :

Complexities of Aesthetics in an American Masjid

‘Akel Isma‘il Kahera*


The Debate

       The aesthetic features of the American masjid can be codified under the rubrics of image, text, and form.[1]   These three features suggest an anachronistic language corresponding to the use of ornament, inscription, and architectural form. The occurrence of image, text, and form, therefore, prompts an inquiry that must address two pivotal thematic assumptions:

      1. The primacy of prayer (salat) is a necessary criterion in determining the characteristics of a liturgical space suited for the American environment.[2]

      2. The embellishment of a space for salat is a contingent matter. Although ornament, inscription, and architectural form have been nuanced as an integral aspect of the aesthetic language of a masjid, these features are essentially independent of any ritual demands.

      Both assumptions provide the scope to study the aesthetic language of the American masjid apropos of the complexities of ornament, inscription, and architectural form. But we encounter, with regard to the second assumption, a recurring use of an extant aesthetic precedent. In the history of Muslim architecture, we come upon instances in which the aesthetic features of an extant masjid has influenced a succeeding structure. There are exceptions to the foregoing premise, and the question of the degree to which an extant masjid can be considered in the classification of the American masjid is further complicated by the absence of documented history.[3] In addition, the features of the American masjid appear to be directly related to the phenomenon of a Muslim Diaspora. When building a masjid, the Diaspora community ascribes emotional value to the utilization of a well-known convention or an influencing custom from the Muslim world. The history of Muslim architecture is, therefore, a key consideration for an architect who aims to gratify a Muslim client. There are problems with the indiscriminate use of a well-known convention or an influencing custom. In attempting to replicate extant features from the past, the architect invariably produces a de facto facsimile whose aesthetics are severely compromised. For example, truckers were overheard commenting on their short wave radios as they drove past the masjid in Toledo, Ohio, which was under construction at the time. One trucker, responding to his friend who had asked him about the structure of the masjid, remarked that “it must be a new Mexican restaurant or something!”[4]

      We may forgive the naïveté of the trucker inasmuch as he is not expected to recognize the appearance of a masjid. His comment, however, reinforces the following point: In our inquiry, the aesthetic features of an American masjid must be thoughtfully examined with respect to the idiosyncratic usage of image, text, and form. In the discourse that follows, these features will be examined, with particular attention given to the idiosyncratic treatment and the usage of image, text, and form. 

      The first debate examines the heterogeneous use of image. In the American masjid, image is appropriated in an anachronistic manner; it is used as a display of ornament without regard to time or context. Image is essentially concerned with satisfying an “emotional” condition that has historical efficacy to the immigrant Muslim community. The appropriation of a familiar image vividly evokes a mental picture or an apparition that closely resembles an extant form, object, or likeness emanating from the past.[5] 

      The second debate examines the appropriation of form. Architects have re-interpreted multiple geometric forms and spatial elements found in various extant models and decorative conventions. The intent is to produce a new aesthetic language that will be appropriate to the American environment. Inasmuch as the interpretation of form falls under the purview of the architect, the divergent ways in which architects have interpreted the architectural features of an extant model or decorative convention make an intriguing study. It should be noted that the attributes of form are distinct from those associated with image. Unlike image, form is concerned with the “ordering” of a design program for a masjid, and the production of a ‘coherent’ site condition. The interpretation of form is further complicated by the nuances of American architectural practice. For instance, architectural pedagogy considers form to be the shape, structure, and pattern of an object or the “secular” mode in which an object exists, acts, and manifests itself by derivation and by composition.[6]

      The third debate examines the use of epigraphy; it concerns the treatment of textual inscriptions in a masjid. Because textual inscriptions have customarily been sanctioned in religious buildings in the Muslim world, it is an aesthetic convention that appeals to the Diaspora community as well. The use of epigraphy is further complicated by the fact that the linguistic makeup of the American congregation is very different; most American Muslims are non-Arabic speaking. Hence, the utilization of Arabic inscriptions in an American masjid raises several issues: Is the purpose of a pious inscription simply to evoke a “symbolic charge”—a term I borrow from Professor Oleg Grabar—or is it intended to be decorative, and a means to enhance the image of a structure or merely to adorn a wall?. Who reads the text of the inscription? Would a masjid with a pious inscription be more “reverent” than a masjid lacking an inscription? These issues are all equally provocative and deserve further discussion, for they are relevant to the ensuing discourse. I will return to them.

      An overriding debate deals with the production of an image. Within a climate of uncommon architectural language, where extremes of architectural diversity exist, the meaning of an image can only be fostered only through use of one or more aspects of a “known” architectural convention. Since the immigrant community views Muslim “religious” architecture to be clearly more homogeneous than Western architecture, the use of a “known” architectural convention takes precedent. I would, however, hasten to add that the study of art and architecture anywhere, or indigenous to any culture, is cognizant of internal variations and aesthetic complexities.[7]

      By reanimating an image from the past, the first generation of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, have held firmly to the production of a recognizable religious image.[8]  The utilization of a “religious image” gives outward expression and meaning to the presence of an Islamic practice in North America.[9]  A recognizable image imparts, beyond the aspect of a place for communal worship, identity, and also produces an emotional charge. Emotions and sentiments are, therefore, evoked through the agency of memory; despite geographical, historical, and chronological nuances, the features of an extant image, when reanimated, become a common aesthetic ethos and is happily embraced by the community.[10]  By recalling an image from the past, one no longer remains in an alien environment, but becomes part of an environment where belief and emotions are nourished by familiar aesthetic themes.


The Problem of Image

       Familiar aesthetic themes, are evident in the first major congregational masjid constructed in North America, in Washington DC.[11]  In selecting the “prototype” and aesthetic image of the masjid, the client turned toward fifteenth-century Mamluk Egypt.[12] The masjid was designed by Mario Rossi, an Italian architect, who had designed several buildings of this type in Alexandria and Cairo between 1940 and 1950.[13]    He designed the Washington masjid using what can be called a neo-Mamluk vocabulary. The resulting image discloses the geographical origins of Rossi’s clients. The principal client was a Palestinian Muslim, but the financial sponsors of the building were several Muslim ambassadors from the Middle East, Turkey, and the Indian subcontinent, who were assigned to Washington, DC.

      By recalling the past, Rossi’s design for the masjid makes a statement about “memory” and image in two principal ways. First, it ignores the American architectural context, it makes no effort to address the prevailing architectural language or the “sense of place”. Secondly, it reinforces “memory” by using traditional crafts and calligraphy that were imported from Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, along with the craftsmen whose skills were engaged in the decoration of the masjid.[14]     

      The plan of the building is a three-iwan hall framed by an exterior double riwaq arcade, which serves as an extra muros space or ziyadah. The orthogonal arcade remains perpendicular to the street, but the masjid is set out at a tangent to conform to the qiblah axis, which was calculated by using the Great Circle or the shortest distance when facing Makkah.[15]  In Mamluk buildings, there would be a sahn or courtyard open to the sky, which shares a contiguous space with the iwans, but, owing to climatic reasons, the whole central space of the masjid is covered with a modest clerestory dome.   A riwaq, consisting of five contiguous Andalusian arches (perhaps symbolic of the five pillars of faith), is slightly proud of the façade, and serves as an entry portal. The riwaq is yet another anomaly. Andalusian arches are not to be found in Mamluk buildings.  

      The entry portal runs parallel to the street and for added emphasis it is recognized by an inscription band of neo-Kufic script at the upper part of the façade, which reads, “In houses of worship which Allah has permitted to be raised so that His name be remembered, in them, there [are such as] extol His limitless glory at morning and evening,” (An-Nur 24:36). Several verses of the Qur’an have been arranged in a symmetrical configuration and in various patterns on the interior walls and ceilings of the masjid. The Divine Names of Allah (asma’ Allah al-husna) and several familiar and often-quoted verses from the Qur’an such as ( Al-‘Alaq 96:1–5), are inscribed in large framed borders of Thuluth  script along with smaller framed panels of ornamental Kufic script.[16]

      Two inscription bands run horizontally across the face of the mihrab. The one at the top reads, “Verily we have seen the turning of your face to the heaven . . . ,” and the lower band, just slightly higher than a man’s height, continues, “. . . surely we shall turn you to a qiblah that shall please you.” (Al-Baqarah 2:144). The mihrab is a hybrid element: its decorative treatment follows the Iznik and Bursa tradition of using glazed tiles—blue, red, and green—which are commonly found in Ottoman buildings.

      The masjid’s composition epitomizes an array of Muslim aesthetic themes; the overall image the inscriptions evoke is, in regard to the use of epigraphy, significant in two ways: first as a devotional theme and secondly as an emotional device. While the symbolic meaning of the inscriptions would satisfy one with a quiet, devotional disposition, the masjid’s form evokes the image of a “religious prototype” that has been reanimated from the fifteenth century ce.


Tradition versus Modernity 

      The production of an extant prototype demands traditional workmanship, materials, and skills, all of which are not readily available in the United States. Moving away from a strictly traditional approach, the designers of the Manhattan masjid have explored the use of modern technology as a compositional device without limitation. The Manhattan masjid confronts the issue of tradition and modernity by seeking to reinterpret various aesthetic themes associated with an extant model found in the Muslim world.[17] There are several observations to be made in this regard. First, the surface motifs reflect geometric themes which are employed as a unifying element throughout the masjid’s interior and exterior. The geometric motifs bear a close resemblance to Mondrian’s paintings, particularly his work entitled “Boogie Woogie Broadway.” These motifs can be seen primarily on the carpet where worshippers assemble for prayer in horizontal and parallel rows facing the qiblah. They also appear in the surface treatment of the minbar, the exterior façade and in several other interior elements as well. Geometry is a fundamental theme in Muslim cosmology, but in this case it comes closer to a modernist, secular rather than to a traditional, cosmological, interpretation.

      The inscriptions included in the decorative features of the masjid’s interior are rendered in a geometric Kufic style. They are set in straight, horizontal, and vertical arrangements, which accommodate a modernist concept of order. For instance, around the mihrab,  the geometric Kufic script reads, “Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.” The text is composed so as not to “corrupt” the mihrab’s geometric themes, which would have been frenzied by a stylized script such as Thuluth.[18]  A stylized Thuluth or a floral Kufic script would be in disharmony with the overall modernist composition and surface treatment. The modernist interpretation and its resulting aesthetic image raises the question whether the masjid’s composition has positively achieve a desired aesthetic balance using epigraphic and geometric themes.

      Admittedly, the use of traditional inscriptions as a decorative element is in some respects incongruent with the idea of a secular, modernist interpretation of surface treatment. Using geometry as a spatial theme, aided by a corresponding angular Kufic inscription, produces a visual affinity; a less complementary script would have put the theme of composition and “order” at risk. The aesthetic treatment of the interior of the dome over the central prayer hall further illustrates this last point. The dome’s structural ribs have been left bare and rudimentary, providing a bold geometric texture to the dome’s inner face when seen from below. The inner drum of the dome is covered with a band of angular Kufic inscription, but the pattern of concentric ribs clearly dominates the composition, especially since the text of the band is largely unreadable from the main prayer hall below. Both compositional elements—epigraphy and geometry—were clearly intended by the architect to be an operative aesthetic device, and to have, besides, a specific religious character and image, connected to text and form.

      Can an American masjid redefine the geometric themes found in Islamic cosmological patterns such as trajectory (ramy ), line (khatt), balance (ilmam ) and posture (ishba)? In the final example, the architect’s interpretation represents an introspective (batin) definition of the essence of geometry that aims to obtain a rich set of aesthetic ideas that are thematic, cosmological, and non-decorative. The masjid of the Islamic Society of North America, at Plainfield, Indiana, was designed by Professor Gulzar Haider.[19] The operational scheme of the edifice reinterprets the square, which is repeatedly rotated along the longitudinal trajectory (ramy) of the plan. It is anchored to one end of the plan in the form of a masjid. The masjid itself is a set of vertically juxtaposed squares. On the opposite end of the plan, a much larger pattern of the same theme assumes the purpose of administrative and ancillary services. When geometric elements of the square are juxtaposed, a set of very interesting additive and repetitive spatial cores are created. In this scheme, the multi-unit geometric themes employed have to do with a two-tiered order: first, their essence and esoteric structure (batinı), and, second, their external appearance (zahiri). There is no attempt to diffuse the hierarchies of spaces that emerge as a result of juxtaposition. Geometry is central to the design of the building, to the extent that Qur’anic inscriptions have been de-emphasized. Unlike the Manhattan masjid, where the inscriptions can be considered as simply a decorative agent, in Professor Haider’s scheme, decoration is disassociated in order to allow the essence and primacy of geometry to dominate. By emphasizing the elements of a cosmological geometric form and de-emphasizing text, the architect has achieved a desired balance that considers the use of technology suited to the efficacy of American construction methods. The scheme achieves this balance without having to compromise the spirit of the extant tradition of using geometry as an ordering principle[20]


The Meaning of Text

       The decision to use or not to use inscription as part of the design vocabulary of an American masjid raises several unique problems. First of all, one must evaluate the symbolic value of an inscription. Secondly, the functional intent within the overall design concept of a masjid is equally to be considered. Masajid in America have de-emphasized the use of inscriptions, but perhaps for a very practical reason. Skilled calligraphers are not easily found within the American Muslim community, but the use of inscriptions raises several concerns: Would a worshipper—who may not be able to read the text—be more concerned with the decorative quality of the inscription or with the spiritual charge it emits? Would the space for prayer be enhanced by the presence of an inscription? The fact that such a large community of non-Arabic speaking Muslims reside in America raises the question whether inscriptions are necessary at all. Whether to use inscriptions or not is a matter that, in the end, each individual community must decide for itself. If we consider the premise of a precedent as a decisive criterion, we could argue that inscriptions are not used in many instances[21]  Both the designer and the client may be persuaded by an imitative approach, in which case inscriptions are significant for the purpose of satisfying an “emotional” condition. On the other hand, the designer who takes an entirely rational approach would find that inscriptions are less significant and may even be viewed as being extraneous to a masjid’s overall aesthetic condition.

      Three crucial questions remain unanswered with respect to the composite use of aesthetics found in extant models.

      1. Can a contemporary architect design a masjid that expresses the idiomatic qualities inherent in the composite features of an extant model?

      2. How does the architect define what the expressive qualities of an extant model actually are?[22]

      3. Is it possible to achieve visual affinity with an extant model without using hyper-rationality or blatant mediocrity ?[23]


The Meaning of Form

        In framing these three questions in a discourse, and in regard to image, text and form, it becomes evident that the aesthetic language of the American masjid remains an enigma. I would like to conclude with some tentative considerations about the complexities of the enigma apropos of the subject of historical continuity and the primacy of ‘ibadah. In taking into account the complexities of the enigma, we must consider the two assumptions made at the beginning of this essay. The first assumption postulates the primacy of salat as a necessary criterion in studying the characteristics of a devotional space. It regards salat as the essence of ‘ibadah, which has been summed up in a much-quoted advice of the Prophet Muhammad: “The whole earth is a masjid for you, so wherever you are at the time of prayer, make your prostration there.”

      Even in a most rudimentary setting, the place of prostration (sujud) retains an association with the ontological axis, the qiblah, which orients a worshipper or an edifice in the direction of the Ka‘bah at Makkah.[24]  Masajid everywhere in the world adhere to this ontological rule; it is both an esoteric affirmation and a universal expression of belief.[25]  The indicator of the qiblah, the mihrab, may be expressed in two principal modes: as a simple, demarcated niche on the ground indicating the qiblah, or as an embellished vertical element in the qiblah wall of a religious edifice. But, as an ontological axis, both the qiblah and its mihrab are decidedly understood by the community of believers (ummah ).[26]  The mihrab symbolizes an aesthetic expression which endorses the adherence to a prescribed mode of devotion. A further manifestation of various indigenous expressions of the mihrab is also evident in myriads of regional and ethnic architectural idioms.

      Viewed in terms of historical continuity, the masjid finds its expression in a valued origin with an affinity to the first masjid at Madinah (seventh century ce). The development of the first prototype and its later aesthetic expressions were sustained via a commonly understood cosmological order.[27] The Muslim cosmological order can be defined by five ordering themes: belief, order, space, materials, and symbols.[28]  These ordering themes find their primordial origin in the Madinah masjid, which originally was a simple, demarcated orthogonal walled space, with an open court yard with two or three doors and, at one end, a shaded rectangular portico (musalla) facing Makkah[29] The portico was supported by columns which were spaced at regular intervals to support the roof structure. This simple structure became the paradigm for future masajid, which were built following the spread of Islam in the first century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Later masajid demonstrate a regional development and refinement of the Madinah prototype. Regional building traditions outside Madinah had a direct influence on the early development and aesthetic relationship between what was perceived by convention to be modeled after the Madinah prototype. The Madinah prototype was conveniently modified to accept idiosyncratic aesthetic themes found in later regional models.

      Rational sciences were engaged as means of expressing the idiosyncratic aesthetic themes and a holistic architectural expression, in view of belief, order, space, materials, and symbols.[30] In the development of the American masjid, the use of rational science as an ordering device is not an end in itself inasmuch as the compliance of historical continuity in terms of image, text and form has also been also considered.



        I have attempted to illustrate an overriding problem of aesthetic complexity apropos of the ordering of an American masjid. Owing to the importance attached by the community to the use of an extant aesthetic precedent, two idiosyncratic aspects of image, text, and form emerge: A “collective memory” imposes itself as an operative aesthetic device along with a corresponding sense of historical continuity.

      The American masjid is an edifice in evolution. In the very act of attempting to define its ordering principle, we are searching for a definition of a new but enduring regional identity—an identity with a sense of historical continuity. Art historians can contribute to the inquiry by aiding in a discourse that interprets the exigencies of meaning and the usage of an extant precedent. Allowing the embodiment of an intrinsic aesthetic meaning to become an objective component in the idiom and in the ordering of a new regional expression would help define more clearly the complexities of image, text, and form.[31]   

      More specifically and to the point: art historians, architects, and their Muslim clientele have much to share with one another in the discourse. An acute reading of the history of Muslim art and architecture can cultivate and direct the evolution of a set of aesthetic conditions for the American masjid.[32] Ultimately, these conditions would enhance the aesthetics of the American masjid, thereby allowing it to acquire an unconstrained regional character. The aesthetic disposition of the American masjid must recognize the element of historical continuity, but it must also exclude the use of aesthetic anomalies apropos of the idiosyncrasies of image, text, and form. 

*Archict/historian ‘Akel Isma‘il Kahera is Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Texas at Austin. His areas of specialization are Art, Architecture, and Urbanism. This essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book. It is dedicated to the late Al-Hajj ‘Akel Karam and Al-Hajjah Khaledah Karam of Newark, NJ, Professor Muhammad ‘Izz-al-Dın, Al-Hajj Awad Isma‘ıl and Farouq ‘Abd al-Quddus.

[1]The discussion in this paper concerns the masajid (sing. masjid) built in America during a period of forty years, (1950–90).

[2]The word masjid is derived from the Arabic verb sajada, to prostrate oneself (literally: he prostrated himself). The noun masjid bears a semantic connection  to both the act of prostration and the place where one performs prostration. This is significant since, in Islam, the kernel of worship (‘ibadah) is salat, performance of which is rigidly tied not to a particular place or space but rather to a prescribed time. In conventional usage, the word masjid can be further specified with reference to function, for example, in the expressions al-masjid al-jami’ (congregational mosque), al-masjid al-mahalli (local or neighborhood mosque), masjid al-‘Id or the musalla (a large open space used on the occasion of the ‘Id \ prayer following Ramadan or the Hajj. See Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1960– (hereafter EI2), s.v. masjid, musalla. In the United States, the term al-markaz al-Islami (Islamic center) has been adopted since the American masjid incorporates an expanded use of all of these functions in addition to many other civic functions.

[3]For example, early, modest structures were built or established by immigrant communities at Ross, North Dakota in 1929; and at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the 1930s. See Yvonne Y. Haddad, A Century of Islam In America, Occasional Paper No.4, The Middle East Institute, Washington DC, 1986. An indigenous African-American Muslim community existed in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, in the 1940s. See Jameela A. Hakim, History of the First Muslim Mosque of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, n.p., n.d. Undoubtedly, early African American communities predate the immigrant communities, but  they have so far been inadequately researched. Allan Austin provides us with an excellent study on African Muslims in antebellum America. See his seminal work, African Muslims in Antebellum America, Garland Publishing, Inc. , New York, 1984.

[4]The anecdote was reported by the Imam of the masjid, who overheard the truckers’ conversation. The mosque of Toledo, Ohio (completed in 1983), and that of Cleveland, Ohio (completed 1995), both attempt to replicate a fifteenth-century Ottoman structure. The double minaret which both buildings employ had distinct political meaning in the Ottoman world from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries; the patron of a double minaret building was often a government minister (wazır) or a prince or princess. For a concise discussion of Ottoman architecture, see Ulya Vogt-Göknil, Living Architecture: Ottoman, London and Fribourg, 1966; Aptullah Kuran, Sinan, Institute of Turkish Studies, Washington, DC., and ADA Press, Istanbul, 1987; D. Kuban, art. Sinan in Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects, Macmillan, New York, 1982,  4: 62–72.

[5]On the question of image, see T. Breitinger, Critische Abhandlung von der Natur, den Absichten und dem Gebrauch der Gleichnisse (Critical Treatise on the Nature, Purpose, and Use of Imagery) Zurich, 1740. Oleg Grabar describes image as “seeing” and “showing.” See his “Islam and Iconoclasm,” in Anthony Bryer and Judith Herrin eds., Iconoclasm, Center for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, 1975, 44–50; Erica Cruikshank Dodd and Shereen Khairallah, The Image of the Word, American University of Beirut Press, Beirut, 1981.

[6]For two contrasting analyses of form—one in religious and the other in secular terms—see Abraham Edel and Jean Francksen, “Form: A Philosophical Idea and Some of its Problems,” VIA 5 (1982), 6–16, and Jan Holt, “Architecture and the Wall Facing Mecca,” ibid., 24–28.

[7]For an analytical treatment of the homogenous nature of Muslim art and architecture, see Muhsin S. Mahdi, “Islamic Philosophy and the Fine Arts,” in Proceedings of Seminar Four, The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, held at Fez, Morocco, 9–12 October 1979.

[8]For an extensive discussion of this point, see Franco Ferrarotti, Time, Memory and Society, Greenwood Press, New York, 1990; especially his treatment of “Memory, Context and Tradition,” 63–81. Ferrarotti suggests that “there is no possibility of memory without tradition.” His argument was adumbrated by Alexander, who had dealt with the problem earlier. See S. Alexander, Space, Time and Deity, vols. 1 and 2, Dover Publications, New York, 1966, especially, 1:208–262

[9]The symbolic elements of church and synagogue architecture also render visual identity to the adherents of those faiths. The problem of Christian aesthetics and the contemporary church as a design problem also presents us with an interesting discussion. See Botond Bognar, “The Church and its Spirit of Place,” a+u 8401, 107–108; “Inquiry: Religious Buildings,” Progressive Architecture, No. 12, 1990, 78–85; Frank Burch Brown, Religious Aesthetics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1989; James Alferd Martin, Jr., Beauty and Holiness, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1990.

[10]For further discussion of the Diaspora Muslim community, see Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Adair T. Lummis, Islamic Values in the United States, Oxford University Press, England, 1987; E. Allen Richardson, Islamic Cultures in North America, The Pilgrim Press, NY, 1981; Kathleen M. Moore, Al-Mughtaribun, State University of New York, NY, 1995.

[11]Conceived in 1949, the building was inaugurated by President Eisenhower in 1957. Chronologically, the Islamic center and masjid in Washington, DC, is not the first masjid or the oldest to be established in America. It was, however, the first in a major American city. Earlier, modest structures existed (see note 3, above). With the inauguration of the Washington masjid, the year 1957 signaled a major turning point in the development of masjid architecture in America. See Muhammad Abdul Rauf, Al-Markaz al-Islami bi-Washington (The Islamic Center of Washington) Colortone Press, Washington, DC, 1978.

[12]The Mamluks were a military dynasty who ruled Egypt from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries ce.  They were prolific builders. See EI2, s.v. Mamluk.

[13]The architect, Mario Rossi (also known as Muhammad or ‘Abdur Rahman Rossi?), an Italian Muslim, was at that time employed by the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) in Cairo. He designed similar buildings in Alexandria and Cairo, using the same design theme.

[14]The tile work pattern using decorative tiles from Turkey was secured to the walls of the prayer hall.

[15]There is an ongoing debate among American Muslims as to the most accurate method for calculating the qiblah direction. See, Al-Hajj Riad Nachef and Al-Shaykh Samir Kadi, The Substantiation of The People of Truth That The Direction of Al-Qiblah In The United States And Canada is to The Southeast, Islamic Studies and Research Division, The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, Philadelphia, 1410/1990. The qiblah of the masjid in Washington, DC, was determined by reference to the Great Circle (Northeast) or the shortest distance.

[16]‘Alaq 96:1–5 is, chronologically, the first passage revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. In translation it is as follows:

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Read! (or: Recite!)

In the Name of Thy Lord and Cherisher

Who Created—

Created man out of

A mere clot

Of congealed blood:

Proclaim! And thy Lord

Is Most Bountiful—

He who taught

With the pen,

Taught man that

Which he knew not.

[17]The designer of the $20-million masjid  in New York (completed in 1990) explained that the client's design parameters for the building were dictated by two camps:

1. Camp A: the traditionalist, who demanded faithful adherence to a predetermined concept of the building dictated by historical models.

2. Camp B: the non-traditionalist, who allowed absolute freedom in the design vocabulary, but  were rigidly conscious of the need not to violate any religious principles [such as the blatant use of imagery ] even in a minute detail.  See Architectural Record, 1992, 92-97.

[18]The six major scripts of Islamic calligraphy are Diwani, Farsi, Nasta‘liq, Kufi, Naskh, Ruq‘ah, and Thuluth. For further discussion, see Y. H. Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy, Shambhala, Boulder, 1979; Martin Lings, Yasin Hamid Safadi, The Qur’an,  World of Islam Publishing Company Ltd., London, 1976.

[19]For a brief discussion of the architect’s principles of designing, see Places of Public Gathering in Islam, Seminar Five, The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1980, 123–125. The building was completed in 1983, Professor Haider collaborated with Moktar Khalil AIA, of Dana Associates as the architect of record for the design of the project. Haider discusses the formative themes of Muslim aesthetics and the cosmological basis of belief in a very poignant essay entitled , “Faith is the Architect: Reflections on the Mosque,” Architecture and Comportment, Nos. 3–4, 1995, 67–73.

[20]Geometry is common to Muslim cosmology, and its many manifestations, such as ramy, khatt, isbah, and ilmam, can be seen in many extant examples of Muslim art and architecture. For a discussion of geometry and Muslim cosmology, see Nader Ardalan and Laila Bakhtiar, The Sense of Unity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1973; Keith Critchlow, Islamic Patterns, Thames and Hudson, 1976.

[21]Arabic sources tell of no inscriptions in the Prophet’s masjid at Madına during his lifetime or in the period of the four righteous caliphs. See Gazeh Bisheh, “The Mosque of the Prophet at Madınah throughout the First Century A.H.,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1979. Many West African masajid follow the principle employed at Madinah owing to their similarity in construction. For an analysis of the West African mosque, see Labelle Prussin, Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986; Akel Kahera, “The Architecture of the West African Mosque: An Exegesis of The Hausa and Fulani Model,” M.Arch. Dissertation, MIT, 1987; Fabrizio Ago, Moschee in Adobe, Edizioni Kappa, Rome, 1982.

[22]For two opposing analyses of the expressive qualities of a contemporary masjid and the use of precedent, see architect Abdul Wahid al-Wakil’s discussion of the problem in Al-Muhandis 5 (1412/1992), 2:78–79; see also the discussion by the Italian architect of the Rome masjid Paulo Portugesi in Al-Benna 12 (1413/1993), 7:70–75.

[23]These and other questions have been investigated in Yasir Sakr, “The Mosque Between Modernity and Tradition: A Study of Recent Designs of Mosque Architecture in the Muslim World,” M.Arch. Dissertation, MIT, 1987; see also Martin Frishman and Hasan Uddin Khan, The Mosque: History, Architectural Development and Regional Diversity, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1994.

[24]The qiblah is universally recognized by its mihrab, which signifies the point where, facing Makkah, the imam stands, leading the faithful in prayer.

[25]An individual worshipper in an outdoor open field must also face Makkah. The act and the intention are prima facie states of belief and devotion.

[26]Iconography is consciously absent from the aesthetic features of masjid architecture since it constitute a principal agent of polytheism (shirk), which is a gross violation of the principle of the unity and oneness of Allah (tawhid). Masajid throughout the world adhere to this aesthetic principle.

[27]For an excellent discussion of the cosmological order, see Titus Burckhardt, The Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd. London, 1976, especially 56–76; Issam El-Said, Islamic Art and Architecture: The System of Geometric Design, ed. Tarek El-Bouri, Keith Crithchlow, and Salma Samar Damluji, Garnet Publishing Limited, Reading, England, 1993.

[28]For an extensive discussion of the question of perception, see Oleg Grabar’s, “Symbols and Signs in Islamic Architecture,” in Proceedings of Seminar Four, The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1979.

[29]The Prophet’s masjid originally faced Jerusalem, but a divine injunction in the second year of the migration to Madinah changed the direction to Makkah.  See Qur’an 2:142–145, 149–150, trans., Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, The Muslim World League, New York, 1977; see also EI2, s.v. qiblah.

[30] The formative principles of belief, order, space, materials, and symbol, described above, are unrelated to the Vitruvian principles of firmness, commodity, and delight (firmitas, utilitas, and venustas ), spelled out by Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture, trans., Morris Hicky Morgan, Dover Publications, NY, 1960.

[31]For further discussion of this point, see Sibel Bozdogan, “Journey to the East: Ways of looking at the Orient and the question of representation,” Journal of Architectural Education,  41 (1988), 38—45; 43 (1989), 63–64; Ivan Zaknic on Le Corbusier’s Comments on the Blue Mosque of Istanbul in La Voyage d'Orient, trans. of Le Corbusier’s Eastern Journey, Oppositions, No 181979, 87–99; Christopher Alexander, “Battle: The History of a Crucial Clash between World-System A and World-System B,” Japan Architect , 8508, 15–36. I have discussed the question of the search for aesthetic truth while building a contemporary building in a traditional context. See my discussion of the design for  “The ENPPI Headquarters Building, Cairo,” Mi‘mar, 38 (1991), 68–76.

[32]One text that could provide an interesting discourse is Manuel Toussaint’s Arte Mudejar En America, Editorial Porrua, Impreso en Mexico, 1946.

[ Back ]