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Made in AMERICA

An MIT scholar's study of the architecture of American mosquesreveals a Muslim community in search of itself.

WHEN THE ISLAMIC CENTER of Ocean County is completed, the small southern New Jersey township of Toms River will have its second Islamic house of worship. Ziaulhaq Zia, the chairman of the center's board of trustees, describes what the building will look like. "We will have a minaret," he says. "We will have a dome."

In other words, the building will have the most recognizable features of traditional mosque architecture, reflecting certain tenets of Islam: the dome symbolizing the divine power engulfing the believers; the minaret, as it aspires toward heaven, representing the declaration of faith embodied in the call to prayer.

Does the congregation prefer this traditional appearance? Yes, says Zia, but with reservations. After all, since construction on the center began in 2000, it has been vandalized seven times.

Like other immigrant communities, Muslim Americans have a desire to signal their presence. Yet since 9/11, the Muslim community in America has become both increasingly visible and increasingly nervous about that visibility. The question for America's approximately 6 million Muslims who confront daily not only the charged post-9/11 political climate but also the pressures and expectations of life in a country of strip malls, rap videos, and exuberant individualism is what outward form that visibility should take.

For Omar Khalidi, a scholar of Islamic religion who has been documenting the American mosque for a decade, the approximately 1,500 mosques dotting the American landscape provide an answer, if not always a simple one. Although most mosques in America today are housed in buildings converted from other uses restaurants, storefronts, theaters there are more than 100 that have been built expressly as mosques. These are the mosques built everywhere from New York City to Plainfield, Ind.; from Wayland, Mass., to Albuquerque, N.M. that most interest Khalidi, whose aim, he explains, is to explore "the difficult process of expressing identity through architectural forms."

Khalidi, who is the bibliographer for the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT, is one of several scholars around the country who are examining how mosque architecture in America reflects the tensions and yearnings within America's evolving and ethnically diverse Muslim community. (According to a 2001 survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 33 percent of the mosque-going population is South Asian, 30 percent African American, and 25 percent Arab. Almost 90 percent of mosques have at least some representatives of each of the major ethnic groups.) Today's American Muslims face a heightened version of a question that generations of Christians, Jews, and others have faced before them: Is it best to express identity by preserving old, traditional forms or to discover a new language appropriate to a new setting?. . .According to the Koran, the only requirement for a mosque is that it have a niche, called a mihrab, in the wall, known as the qibla, that faces Mecca. "Everything else is up for grabs," says Akel Kahera, assistant professor of architecture at Texas Tech University and author of "Deconstructing the American Mosque" (2002).

Throughout the Islamic world different cultures have found strikingly different variations on the theme. In Turkey, the Ottoman mosques have expansive domes and pencil-thin, tapering minarets, while North African minarets tend to be square. Mosques in India are often capped with onion-shape domes, while Indonesian mosques have multi-tiered roofs. The adobe mosques of West Africa are built from mud bricks and palm beams coated in mud plaster. Surveying the 100 or so mosques across the United States that were built as mosques, Khalidi identifies three main architectural types: those in traditional Islamic styles; those that combine traditional forms with elements of American architecture; and those that make a clean break with traditional Islamic architecture. These last kind, however, are few and far between. Mostly, Khalidi finds a sort of abstracted, pan-Islamic architectural vocabulary that seems to fulfill a community's need to hold onto some sense of cultural identity while responding to new internal and external pressures. The Islamic Society of North America's headquarters in Plainfield, Ind., is among the more non-traditional mosques. Designed by the Pakistani-Canadian architect Gulzar Haider, it's a solid-looking, unadorned building of big cubes poked by round windows, reminiscent of the great modernist Louis Kahn, whose own monumental buildings of polished concrete, slate, and other elemental materials drew on ancient architecture for inspiration. But its "austere contemporary character," as Khalidi puts it, masks an interior that reinforces Islamic principles, such as economy and the sacredness of the religious rites, and the exterior walls hide a dome that tops the prayer area. In an essay about the building, Haider explains that the design reflects how Islam is more of a private matter in America than in most Islamic countries, where, if it's not a state religion, it often informs state law or political parties.Many congregations, however, are uncomfortable with such departures from tradition. New Mexico architect Bart Prince's Islamic Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque, built in 1986, features no traditional elements beyond the required qibla and mihrab facing Mecca. Prince's building looks like a low set of large white steps with short rectangular towers. Arches and domes, says Prince, "were for their own time and place. It's kind of silly to do that now."While he dealt with "a fairly progressive group" during the design process, Prince says, as the years have passed many in the congregation have made it known to him that they're less than happy with his building. "Some of the guys in there have talked about changing it, even tearing it down," he says. In fact, plans are already in the works for a replacement.

Isam Rajab, the mosque's imam since November 2003, explains that the problem comes down to size: The old mosque holds only about 250 people, while the replacement will accommodate 600. But Rajab does admit to a certain aesthetic discomfort with the structure itself.

"Usually you find that most of the mosques are similar all over the world," he explains. "When I walk down the street and I see one, I know that it is a mosque." In contrast, he says of his building, "I never saw anything like it at all."

Khalidi, too, has his reservations. "How can you totally exclude symbolism?" he asks. "An architectural language has to be inserted so the building will announce itself."

On the other end of the spectrum are the mosques that painstakingly imitate a traditional style of a specific region, such as the mosque at Dar Al Islam, a community in Abiquiu, N.M., established in 1979 as a model Muslim "village" that would help educate Americans about Islam. Employing the functionally airy style and earthen construction of rural Egypt, the mosque, designed by renowned Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, is a gorgeously simple edifice. At first glance, the adobe structure seems to echo the traditional adobe churches that Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived near Abiquiu for many years, often painted.

But, Khalidi says, the building's "highly sculptured style is quite a departure" from the surrounding New Mexican architecture. Besides, he has written, Fathy's mosque doesn't engage in a dialogue with the broader American culture, and therefore the mosque and its community "are in danger of reinforcing Western views about the `otherness' of Islam.". . .In most cases, engagement with American culture, and with changes in the Muslim community, isn't a matter of choice. The expanded role of women in the mosque is perhaps the clearest example.

"Every time we have a foreign visitor from Saudi Arabia or India or Yemen," says Khalidi, "they always comment, `How come you have so many women at the mosque, and"' Khalidi adopts a mock suspicious tone "`what are they doing here?"' In America, architects have found different ways of honoring the separation of the sexes without relegating women to a basement or separate space.

At the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the solution was a women's balcony. Prince's modernist mosque in Albuquerque uses a temporary divide. Inside the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo which, with its skinny minarets and pointed arches, looks to Khalidi "like an implant from Ottoman Turkey in the middle of an Ohio cornfield" the main prayer area has parallel rows for women and men separated only by a low barrier. "The women can observe the imam directly," notes Khalidi, "instead of on a closed-circuit TV."

Another factor driving the design of new mosques is the desire of congregations for educational facilities and social gathering spaces often brought together under the roof of what have come to be called "Islamic centers" rather than mosques. During an expansion project at the Islamic Center of Boston, located on Route 20 in Wayland, people suggested that the building include all sorts of things a restaurant, a lounge with newspapers and reading material, and so forth. "They wanted to make it a club!" Khalidi says.

Meanwhile, in many places, the demands of institutions such as banks and local planning boards often cause mosques to more and more resemble their American surroundings. When Saddiq Karim designed an Islamic center in Edmond, Okla., in 1992, the town insisted that it blend in with the neighborhood. The result looks a bit like a nondescript tract-housing bungalow. Elsewhere, local boards have been known to object to the height of minarets, or even to the call to prayer itself.

Kahera imagines a time when Muslim congregations will want a mosque that's essentially American in its image and will "know how to articulate it in terms of aesthetics." But given the uneasy relationship between Islam and American culture, recognizable symbols and forms remain the most straightforward means of expression. When a mosque's architecture is too innovative, as in Albuquerque, the community may reject it. Yet when architects cling too closely to traditional forms, as in Abiquiu and Toledo, there can be an aesthetic falseness.

Occupying the middle ground, what Khalidi calls the more abstract pan-Islamic style, is the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. Built in 1991 on a site purchased jointly by the governments of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, the Manhattan mosque is used by everyone from UN delegates to taxi drivers in search of a place to pull over and pray. Designed by Mustafa K. Abada, a partner of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, in consultation with members of the Muslim community, it incorporates a dome and geometric motifs within a sleek, modernist spirit.

Most interesting, perhaps, about the Manhattan mosque was the committee's insistence that there be a minaret something that is essentially useless in that setting, where the congregation is too dispersed for an effective call to prayer. Nonetheless, the Islamic Cultural Center ended up with a lovely minaret, designed by the Turkish-American architect Altan Gursel. The slender structure reflects no particular Islamic culture or tradition, but seems to announce a unified, if abstract, presence that for both Muslims and non-Muslims seems reassuringly universal.

Theresa Everline has been the editor of the Cairo magazine Egypt Today. She now lives in Brooklyn. 

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