This article was published over the weekend at The National in the UAE.
Growing up in Britain during the early waves of Muslim immigration, the mosques that I visited as a child were of two types. The first were ephemeral, ad hoc locations – hired halls, school rooms or community centres that functioned as mosques only during the time they were populated by Muslims. The second were permanent structures converted from old town halls, schools or even churches, and now dedicated solely to their new function as a mosque.
What baffled me most, even as a child, was the crowning of these latter buildings with a little green dome, a homage to the iconic dome of the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, painted deep green. I understand why it was done – a symbolic marking of the building’s new life as a Muslim centre and a replica of the traditional typology of a mosque with dome and minaret. But was it necessary, I wondered. Why did these historic buildings often need to have such incongruous aesthetics that jarred with their surroundings?
It seems that I was not alone in my thoughts and that mosques around the world are starting to think that the relationship of a mosque to its surroundings is about more than just transposing and replicating historic architecture.
This week, the city of Cambridge announced the design of a £13 million (Dh34m) “eco” mosque to be built on environmentally sustainable principles. Tim Winter, the chairman of the trust behind the development, who is also known as Abdul Hakim Murad, said: “We are using the latest heat pumps, conservation technology and green roofs so that we’ll have an almost zero carbon footprin. t is stated in the Quran that God has made believers the stewards and protectors of the Earth and so to harmonise this important environmental ethic with the most important place of worship in Islam makes perfect sense.”
He is certainly part of a growing global Muslim movement towards eco-friendly living. The movement echoes the very principles on which the mosque in Medina was first built using local materials – stone foundations, mud bricks for the walls, and palm trunks for the pulpit and the columns.
In Abu Dhabi, students of the school of architecture at the American University of Sharjah have created a sustainable template for “mosques of the future in the UAE”. It takes no electricity from the grid. Instead, it incorporates solar panels, wind towers, geothermal cooling, shading devices, wind turbines and natural ventilation.
Dr Ahmed Mokhtar, associate professor of architecture at the school, said: “I wanted my students to understand that architectural design can significantly impact the resource consumption of a building. I also wanted them to see how energy-saving strategies as generators can be used in innovative architectural forms.”
Dr Mokhtar said the students analysed Abu Dhabi’s weather data using computer software and decided on appropriate design strategies that fitted the two seasons of the city: winter with cool to temperate conditions, and summer with hot and humid conditions. The strategies included large openings that encourage natural ventilation during the winter season, as well as the use of the minaret for wind capture. Roofs would be built to maximise the use of solar energy with solar panels that run absorption chillers during the summer.
In a region known more for the flamboyance of its mosques – the construction costs of Abu Dhabi’s magnificent Sheikh Zayed Mosque is estimated at more than US$500 million (Dh1,800m) – this focus on resource management and sustainability reflects a change of ethos.
In Singapore, the country’s first eco-friendly mosque was built in May last year with energy-saving solar tubes that are also skylights, a garden rooftop and motion-sensor lights, earning it the Green Mark certification from Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority. One complaint often made about mosque cloakrooms, where worshippers carry out their ablutions, is the amount of water that goes to waste. This mosque has taps fitted with regulating devices that provide a much lower flow.
Interestingly, neither the template produced by the Abu Dhabi students, nor the mosque in Singapore feature domes in their design.
It is worth noting that the Singapore mosque also features family-oriented spaces, including child-friendly lavatories, a reading and play area as well as a function hall. Such community and pastoral features are increasingly common in mosques that realise that maintaining a strong relationship between the edifice and its congregation is essential to the core function of the mosque.
Like the move towards mosques that are more in tune with their natural environment, more and more mosques are considering their relationship with their urban environment – its people.
Abdul Lateef Whiteman, a British Muslim architect with a rigorous modernist training, says that it was in North Africa that he first experienced the notion of “building as sanctuary a place offering refuge and a stillness”. He seemed particularly drawn to natural materials such as adobe, which confer what in his mind is an important benefit on a communal building – it has to be regularly maintained by the members of the community, quite literally investing themselves in the building. He is right – this community involvement is critical, for it is the people and their intention that make the space sacred.
A faith building ought not to be about imposing power, but rather about fostering inclusivity; and that can mean inclusivity in the creation and maintenance of the building, as well as the worship that occurs within its walls. For me, it is these relationships between the individual and the congregation, and the people and the building, that must be at the heart of any successful modern mosque design. Eco-friendliness is just one component of the relationship between the mosque and its surroundings. As for the trend for epic grand mosques – and it is undeniable that the design must inspire the worshipper towards the sublime – it cannot be so aloof as to exclude. Its design, construction and pastoral services have to flourish from the worshippers themselves if they are to have meaning and be long-lasting.
The mosque must be geographically close to the worshipper so its artistry and design can fulfil its objective of constantly inspiring the worshipper. It must also create intimacy with the worshipper so that the worshipper can at once feel part of the congregation, but also feel like a unique individual. Most importantly, individuals must recognise something of themselves in the design. That is why mosques that reflect the local cultures are so powerful.
When I travelled to China, where the first mosque was built around the 7th century, the most unexpected thing is that the mosque architecture has a strong resemblance to Chinese temples, with successive courtyards, gardens and the prayer halls in the shape of pagodas. That in itself is inspiring, because it reflects the diversity of creation and grounds the building into the community.
It is definitely an important point that the construction of the mosque be environmentally sustainable. However, what needs constant investment and nurturing in order to ensure its long-term sustainability is the community itself. If a house of worship has no worshippers – no matter how eco-friendly, with no matter how many domes or minarets – it is nothing but a beautiful edifice haunted by a community that either was, or could have been.