Scholar Studies Architecture of American Mosques



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)

 


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