Month July

  • Eco-mosques and greener domes

    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.

    Pip Montserrat for The National

    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.

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  • ‘The writing life’ A networking event for Muslim women writers

    I often get asked about how I came to be a writer, how I published a book, and what advice I have for aspiring writers. Well, if you are someone who is thinking about writing, then the event that I’m speaking at tomorrow evening is just for you!

    I’ll be on a panel with two other Muslim women writers speaking about our experiences in the publishing world.  Na’ima B.Robert, author of From Somalia with Love and From my Sisters’ Lips will be there, along with Sufiya Ahmed, the author of Zahra’s First Term at the Khadija Academy and Zahra’s Great Debate.

    This is the perfect event if you want to find out about writing, or simply hear about the experiences of those who have managed to make it through a very competitive industry, and actually get published.

    Na’ima says: “I promise that you will go away empowered and invigorated, armed with the experience of fellow writers, ready to pursue your own writing dreams, insha Allah. Please do invite others and come and share your talents and writing dreams with us.”

    The event will be held on Wednesday 21st July from 630pm to 8pm. Toynbee Hall, 28 Commercial Street, E1 6LS. Tickets are £10 on the door.

    And if you wish to pick up a signed copy of any of the author’s books, they will be available on sale.

    See you tomorrow!

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  • Love in a Headscarf now published in Dutch: Liefde met een hoofddoek:

    Exciting news! The latest foreign edition of my book “Love in a Headscarf” has been published! This time, it’s in the Netherlands for a Dutch version. I think they’ve done a great job with the cover – very sassy.

    And for any readers of a Dutch-speaking persuasion, here is the link, and the blurb in Dutch is below.

    Happy reading, Netherlands!


    Het ware geloof heeft ze gevonden, maar waar is de ware in de liefde?

    ‘Toen ik dertien was wist ik dat ik met John Travolta ging trouwen. Op een dag zou hij voor mijn deur staan me ten huewelijk vragen. Daarna zou hij zich bekeren tot de islam en een toegewijde moslim worden.

    Shelina houdt een verrassend geheim verborgen onder haar hoofddoek: ze is op zoek naar ‘de ware’. Met aan de ene kant de imams en haar traditionele familie, en aan de andere kant haar romantische idealen, besluit ze om de weg te gaan van moslima’s: ze wil Mr Right vinden via een gearrangeerd huwelijk. Shelina’s boeiende avontuur begint als een zoektocht naar ware liefde maar onderweg leert ze vooral zichzelf en haar geloof beter kennen.

    Liefde met een hoofddoek is het waargebeurde en grappige verhaal van een van de meest vooraanstaande moslimschrijfsters uit Engeland en biedt een uiterst vermakelijk, fris en verrijkend inzicht in wat het betekent om een zelfbewuste moderne moslima te zijn.

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed studeerde in Oxford en woont in Londen. Ze schrijft columns en artikelen voor tijdschriften en kranten en is vaak te gast bij Britse tv-programma’s.

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  • (Belated) Friday Miscellany (9th July)

    Shelina's Friday Miscellany (Spirit21)I admit that the last few weeks have not been as timely as a weekly Friday round-up ought to be, but I’m sticking with my story that it’s just way too hot in the UK to write regularly.

    According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (yes, I know that I was looking for facts to back up a pre-determined theory), heat can affect the brain by:

    • Loss of concentration
    • Loss of efficiency in mental tasks

    And of course, writing requires both of those.

    Anyway, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts…

    I was reading last Thursday’s Metro as I travelled on the London underground and was struck by two stories carried by the same edition.  The first was aimed at women looking for help in choosing a swimsuit for their summer holidays by the beach. The article begins:

    “Walking around half naked in front of a bunch of strangers is something every woman dreads. But as we jet off for sunnier climes, that’s exactly what we’ll all be doing.”

    It just makes me wonder, if every woman dreads walking around in skimpy clothing, then why do it? The answer appears a little later in the article, albeit somewhat unwittingly:

    “Each season we’re bombarded with campaign images of girls wearing next to nothing as they advertise the latest summer styles for fashion brands…[ … ] ‘Many people are fooled by marketing,’

    But what really struck me as baffling was that elsewhere in the paper, there was a story that read: “One in four men ogle beauties at the beach.” The article added:

    “And 68 per cent of women in the poll of 1,500 people said they often worried about their partner looking at other women on vacation, compared with just 23 per cent of men.”

    So women themselves don’t want to wear skimpy attire at the beach, and then the fact that other women are also dressed scantily (presumably they also feel uncomfortable?) makes them feel additionally anxious.

    But marketing tells women they should do this, so that makes it ok.

    In another news, has started running the Dating Dialogues. Focusing on creating debate around building healthy marital relationships, the dialogues will be a forum which: “aims to explore topics such as gender relations, courtship, marriage, divorce, and sexuality in an honest, engaging, and constructive manner that will help both individuals and communities.”

    You can imagine that with my first book being Love in a Headscarf, I’ll be watching with interest (and participating too).

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  • The Fairytales of Love

    This article was first published in EMEL Magazine.

    I remember the day that I first fell in love. I was thirteen, and the film Grease was playing on TV. And there he was. Cool, trendy, good looking and ready to do anything for his girl. He was of course John Travolta, and I had no doubt that he would turn up on my doorstep and ask me to marry him. Things didn’t quite work out like that – he went on to become a scientologist, and I set off on my own quest for love.

    The stories and legends we grow up with though, make it tough for reality to live up to those kind of epic romances. I thought back to the fairytales that I had grown up with; these were the stories which shape the ideas of our culture about love. Without even realising it, the innocent tales had whispered into my ears, and those of my peers, were simple words that influence the way that we see the world.Sleeping Beauty

    To find true love, I would have to be as beautiful as sleeping beauty, which meant that my prince had to be a strong testosterone fuelled hero who could chop down forests… which seemed a bit, well, neanderthal to me.

    Cinderella's beauty discovered through a shoeOr, to find true love, I’d also have to be as lovely and caring as Cinderella who was nice even to her wicked step sisters, but then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be with a prince who was so fickle that he could only recognise me when I was all dressed up. What! He needed a fancy designer shoe to identify that I was a real beauty inside and out?

    And on both counts, I didn’t feel like I needed to be rescued or saved from household drudgery or from a century long snooze. I was – still am – a modern woman, who is quite capable of saving herself. But just because I can, doesn’t mean that I want to.

    The thing is, I rather like the idea of having someone around – not from financial or social necessity, but to support, love and encourage each other. Love for completion, love for fulfilment. Love for spiritual wayfaring.

    It might be fun to play at princes and princesses, but once you’ve taken away the pretty frocks, glass slippers and big castles, that’s when you know who both of you really are, and what you bring for each other. When you take away the wrapping paper and ribbon, is it still love?

    It’s worth remembering as we enter the wedding season:  Love isn’t perfect or airbrushed, it can’t be. In fact, we should be strong enough to assert that love should not be so hideously plastic or saccharine.    It is easy to love in the moments of beauty and happiness.  The challenge for us is to still love when it is difficult,  because I believe that is when love is  at its most rewarding .

    It is at that moment that our human essence fulfils its purpose to selflessly serve another. And at that very same time, despite our own imperfections, we are intimately recognised and cherished for our own essence.

    Love takes time and perseverance, not just weeks or months, but years – even decades – through those clichéd good times and bad, the proverbial ups and downs. Love starts out as exciting, full of the heady rush of romance, and we must celebrate new couples and help them enjoy the phase of red roses and moonlit walks. Even those who have made it through the journey of life together, can share a moment of exquisite romance and the pure joy that it brings.

    Collecting those early experiences in a memory bank can anchor the moments when love becomes hard work. A memory bank is love’s rainy-day-fund. A memory bank brings the rewards of the investment that all those who wish to love, and be loved, need to make. But those investments must be carefully selected, and cultivated with care and attention.  Love is certainly the enjoyment of the rose, but it is also the pleasure of seeing the plant grow. And that, of course, takes time.

    In our age of speed and convenience – or as John Travolta would have said – the age of ‘Greased lightening’ –  love is the one thing that continues to beat to its own patient rhythm.

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  • Last week’s Friday Miscellany

    Some of you have noticed that last week’s Miscellany was missing. It was hot. Just way too hot. So I’m afraid that the Miscellany was dropped. (sorry). All writers will tell you that they have specific conditions which are / are not conducive to writing, and if you’ve been following me on facebook/twitter you’ll know that I can’t write when it’s too hot. Hopefully we’ll return to more temperate climes in the coming days…

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