Islamic Architecture

Modern Houses of Worship: Mosques in the USA

In the United States there are over 200 mosques that combine traditional designs from Islamic countries with modern American architecture. A report by Abdul-Ahmad Rashid

The mosque in Tempe, Arizona (photo: Omar Khalidi)
The mosque in Tempe, Arizona, consists of a minaret, a golden dome, and an octagonal structure adorned with tiles

​​When it comes down to building mosques, the problems of Muslims in the United States are not much different than those of their fellow Muslims in Europe, according to Dr. Omar Khalidi, a senior research scholar in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who specializes in mosque architecture.

"The biggest problem is that communities need money to build mosques," says the American Muslim. "There are no legal difficulties or state regulations. The most difficult task for communities is to find financial backers to donate the money for them to build large and beautiful mosques."

At first makeshift rooms

Many American Muslims are first- or second-generation immigrants from countries in the Islamic world, and approximately one third of them are African Americans. Like Muslims in Europe, Muslims in the new world first set up their places of worship in buildings not originally built for that purpose: in old fire stations, closed theaters, empty warehouses and stores.

Mosque in Dearborn, Michigan (photo: Omar Khalidi)
The mosque in Dearborn, Michigan is the largest mosque in the United States

​​This development started at the beginning of the twentieth century – in the wake of the immigration of many Muslims from the region of Palestine and what is today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

But the building of mosques experienced its first boom in the 1960s. Today in the United States there are more than 2,000 mosques.

Three styles have dominated American mosque architecture: First, traditional architecture, in which the mosques were built according to ideas transplanted from their Islamic countries of origin.

These mosques strove to convey a feeling of home to immigrants. Other mosques reinterpreted the tradition and include elements of American architecture.

New architectural experiments

Third, a new, modern architectural style has also developed, for which there are no prototypes: "This style strives to create something that does not correspond to the Islamic or the American tradition, but something that is appropriate for the twenty-first century," explains Omar Khalidi.

Mosque in Pullman, Washington (photo: Omar Khalidi)
The traditional minaret of the mosque in Pullman, Washington, combines local climatic demands with the liturgical guidelines of Islam

​​What does modern technology offer? What is the climate like in the region? How high is the budget, and what skills do the people have? "These are the decisive factors for a mosque with a nontraditional design.

People wanted to experiment with new ideas, for Islam is not static, but dynamic, and its community in the United States consists of educated members of the middle class. It is an expression of self-awareness; therefore they express less of a desire to copy other mosques from Istanbul, Delhi, or Morocco." This is both a challenge and an opportunity, says the mosque architect.

Adapting Islam to a new world

A few of these mosques, in comparison to traditional houses of worship, seem almost futuristic; some even do away with the traditional minaret. Those responsible for building these modern mosques are for the most part liberal-minded communities, whose members consist of second-generation Muslims born and raised in the United States.

Mosque in Windsor, Connecticut (photo: Omar Khalidi)
In the mosque in Windsor, Connecticut, there is a gallery built especially for women

​​The traditional design, on the other hand, is preferred more by Muslims who are first-generation immigrants.

For Khalidi, who is of Indian descent, there is no doubt that the innovative mosque architecture of the future will come from the United States:

"We want to separate Islam from its traditional cultural sphere, separate it from the so-called Islamic world. We don't need this culture! It may be good there – but not here. I want to create an American Islamic culture."

Abdul-Ahmad Rashid

© Deutsche Welle/ 2007

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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