When is a Mosque not a Mosque?

Volume 50, Issue 4, Michael J. Crosbie

The Guardian newspaper recently carried a story about a brand new mosque just being completed on a prominent site in Tehran. The new mosque is a low-slung building, designed by Fluid Motion Architects, built next to a modern landmark, the City Theatre. As it now nears its opening, the new mosque has come under attack from, according to The Guardian, “Iranian hardliners” who are “refusing to recognize it as a mosque, complaining that it does not have a minaret, or a proper dome, and that it is dwarfed by the theatre.” Funding for completion has been cut off, leaving the building’s fate uncertain.

The way the architects explain it, the mosque design is reflective of values found in the Qur’an: “We tried to design this mosque with modesty, simplicity, and good faith, and not a mosque which would get its pride from its structural height,” according to The Guardian article. They add that the design is in keeping with the tradition of the earliest mosques, which were simple structures. “A mosque is a place for worship,” note the architects, “and the Qur’an doesn’t dictate a special structure for it. It’s what it contains that is important.”

The importance of “what it contains” was on display for a group of graduate architecture students and myself when we recently visited a mosque in Connecticut as part of our research for the design of a mosque as an architecture studio project. We were warmly welcomed to the mosque, attended the Friday prayer service, and listened to the remarks of a visiting Imam, Asif Hirani, who spoke about the material distractions in one’s life that compete for our attention to those truly important things—the realm of our faith and our interactions with family, friends, and strangers. Hirani observed how we allow material things in our lives to overtake us, goad us to compare ourselves to others—a better watch, a fancier phone, shiny rims on our car. Such comparisons never have a bottom. It reminded me of a sandwich-board sign that I saw on a New Orleans sidewalk a few years ago; it said: “Comparison is the thief of joy,” a quote attributed to Teddy Roosevelt. The Imam’s point is that such distractions are not only ultimately empty, but they make us blind to the very treasures before our eyes.

What is a mosque without a minaret? What is a church without a dome? What is a temple without a fine, silver menorah? Perhaps they are not buildings that compare to those of the past. Maybe they are settings of architecture and art that focus on the nurturing of community and acceptance, no matter their “missing” pieces. We all have a tendency to over-value the things of our childhood, the way we remember the religious buildings we grew up in. This is what people mean when they say that they “want a church that looks like a church.” It is a wish founded on nostalgia, and a comparison: how we remember the way it used to be, compared to something new, something different. This awards issue has quite a few projects that don’t look like the masjid, the church, the temple, or the synagogue you grew up in. Maybe because they are unfamiliar, they invite us to look behind the façade at what’s important inside.

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