The aesthetic features of the American masjid can be codified under the rubrics of image, text,
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. 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.
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!”
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.
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
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
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
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
utilization of a “religious image”
gives outward expression and meaning to the presence of an Islamic practice in
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.
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
themes, are evident in the first major congregational masjid
constructed in North America, in Washington DC.
In selecting the
“prototype” and aesthetic image of
the masjid, the client turned toward
fifteenth-century Mamluk Egypt.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
3. Is it possible to achieve visual affinity with an extant model without
using hyper-rationality or blatant mediocrity ?
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.”
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.
everywhere in the world adhere to this ontological rule; it is both an
esoteric affirmation and a universal expression of belief.
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 ).
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.
The Muslim cosmological order can be defined by five ordering themes: belief,
order, space, materials, and symbols.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
*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.
The discussion in this paper concerns the masajid (sing. masjid) built in America during a period of forty years, (1950–90).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
tile work pattern using decorative tiles from Turkey was secured to the
walls of the prayer hall.
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.
‘Alaq 96:1–5 is, chronologically, the first passage revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. In translation it is as follows:
the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
the Name of Thy Lord and Cherisher
man out of
And thy Lord
Which he knew not.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The qiblah is universally recognized by its mihrab, which signifies the point where, facing Makkah, the imam stands, leading the faithful in prayer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
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.
One text that could provide an interesting discourse is Manuel Toussaint’s Arte Mudejar En America, Editorial Porrua, Impreso en Mexico, 1946.
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