A Dialogue on Sacred Space

Volume 48, Issue 3 :: By Ozayr Saloojee and Richard Vosko

Al-Hidaya Center and Mosque, Latham, New York

Al-Hidaya Center and Mosque, Latham, New York

Editor’s Note: The Tenth Anniversary Celebration of the Muslim-Roman Catholic Dialogue in the Capital District of New York took place on June 2, 2015 at the new Al-Hidaya Center and Mosque, Latham, New York, designed by Reza Hourmanesh. The event was called “Sacred Spaces” and featured illustrated lectures by Ozayr Saloojee, associate professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota, and Richard Vosko, a liturgical designer from Clifton Park, New York. Both are editorial advisors to Faith & Form. What follows are excerpts from their presentations.

Ozayr Saloojee: Unity Through Diversity

The sacred architecture of Islam, like the faith itself, is not homogeneous. While there are architectural or spatial conventions that are common (universal, even) the forms of this faith are, in the very best nature of the tradition, about celebrating the notion of “unity through diversity.” Whether speaking of the great mosques of Djenne and Timbuktu, the expansive heritage of Mameluk, Egypt, or the contemporary mosques of Turkey that sit side by side with the great Ottoman exemplars of Hoca Mimar Sinan, whether we look at the work of Hasan Fathy, Abdulwahid al-Wakil, Paolo Portoghesi’s Rome Mosque, or Bjarke Ingels’ winning entry for an Albanian Mosque, there is an overwhelming multiplicity in the sacred architecture of Islam. This is, in a way, a kind of spatial echo of the Qur’anic verse that notes: “We have created you from nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” This diversity of form, of expression, of detail and ornament, of pattern and process, is ultimately about unity and community. From difference we attain understanding, harmony, accord.

There is nothing definitive about the construction or making of space through the texts of the Qur’an. In contrast, while verses from Kings and Chronicles may give us concrete dimensions and proportions of Solomon’s Temple, in the Islamic world analogous passages from the Qur’an are probabilistic in nature, speaking to qualities of space that emphasize beauty, serenity, and wonder, emphasizing that the ultimate purpose of creation is a recognition of God’s majesty, mercy, and elusive beauty. The sacred architecture of the Islamic world—buildings, cities, urban form—are all tied to equally diverse histories. For Muslims, these spaces are rooted in the spiritual and ethical framework of Islam, not only the imperatives of desires of human beings.

The forms of this faith therefore celebrate, at their most fundamental level, the Oneness of God (Tauheed in Arabic), and they serve as spatial catalysts that help facilitate the spiritual journey of a worshipper towards God. These architectures, after all, create a regular axis between anywhere on this planet (upon which humans have been placed as stewards and vicegerents, according to the Qur’an) to the Ka’ba in Mecca, believed by Muslims to have been first built by Adam, then restored by Abraham and Ismail, and lastly cared for by Muhammad. This is perhaps the ultimate exemplar of unity through diversity, that the manifold communities of Muslims around the world (from America to Zambia) all turn towards this First House, recognizing the larger arc of a spiritual and community ethos that underpins all the spaces of Islam—past, present, and future.

Embodied within this larger narrative are other constants in the architecture of Islam: that these spaces are not merely spaces, but are embodiments of a deep environmental ethic–of sustainability, of resiliency, of landscape and terrain. This is a religious tradition that does not have the sculptural legacy and emphasis of the Renaissance or the Baroque, but what it does have is a deep and profound well of symbolic clarity, a fundamental connection (not just literal) to narratives and stories of Islamic views of life. While there is less of the plastic brilliance of Bernini in the architecture of Islam, there is rather the subtle genius of unnamed stonemasons and craftspeople who tile the zelij patterns of the Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez, the Mosque of Hassan II in Casablanca, the carved muqarnas stalactites of the Süleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, or the serene interior of the Sancaklar mosque 500 years later on the outskirts of the great metropolis.

The form of this faith and the faith of this form are deeply intertwined, connected in a timeless dialogue of space and spirit, tradition and modernity, meaning and expression. Like the other great architectural examples of the Abrahamic traditions, the sacred architecture of Islam offers a glimpse at an ocean of difference, of cultural expression and regional variety. Like all sacred architecture, these spaces can often be contested and provocative, generating strong sentiment and opinion (both inside and outside the community). They are, however, at their most meaningful when they act as bridges to understanding, to engagement, to knowing each other.

Richard Vosko: Creating Common Ground

Our ancestors in faith sensed that their lives were affected by a higher being or power. They set aside spaces and erected objects and buildings to mark their experiences with their gods or goddesses. There are ancient references to holy places in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. In the Tanakh, God saw that all of creation was good. (Genesis 1:24) Jacob saw angels on a ladder in his dream and thought it must be the house of God. (Genesis 28:10-19) Moses stood on holy ground near a burning bush. (Exodus 3:1-15) Solomon built the First Temple symbolizing the presence of God among the Israelites. (1 Kings 6:11-13)

The Christian Testament speaks of the dwelling place of the holy one in metaphorical terms. The apostle Paul said, “Your bodies are God’s temples,” (1 Corinthians 3:16) and “You are living stones.” (1 Peter 2:5) Early church writers reminded their audiences that Christians did not build temples to honor God. Of course, the history of Christian architecture reveals a very different understanding of these figures of speech.

In the Sahih Bukhari (one of six prophetic traditions of Sunni Islam) Ibrahim said, “Allah has ordered me to build a house here, pointing to a hillock higher than the land surrounding it.” (Volume 4, Book 55, Number 583) The Prophet added, “Then they raised the foundations of the House (i.e. the Ka’ba). Then Ibrahim and Ismail prayed, “Our Lord, accept [this] from us. Indeed You are the Hearing, the Knowing.” (Qur’an, Surat Al-Baqarah 2:127-128).

These three religions were birthed from the same father (Abraham) and two mothers (Sarah and Hagar) and each seeks to retain harmonious relationships with their supernatural heroes. According to all three faith traditions, rituals of prayer coupled with charitable works are two ways to express love of God and neighbor. An important feature in each religion is the practice of building structures for the purpose of strengthening bonds in the community, worshiping God, and studying the sacred texts.

As a liturgical designer I have noticed there are several common elements that contribute to the honorific claim that these are “sacred” spaces. While doctrinal differences may hinder the dialogue among religions, there are artistic, architectural, and liturgical facets in our houses of prayer that create a common ground. The most noticeable commonality is the description of sacred spaces as metaphors. They symbolize who we are, what we believe, and how we behave in public. We shape our places of prayer and they shape us. Here are a few examples:

On the outside of our buildings we create pathways to remind us of our pilgrimages in life. Magnificent doors greet us and symbolically open up unimaginable possibilities. Domes, peaks, and towers point beyond this earthly realm to signal perhaps there are alternative ways to live. There are solar collectors and wind turbines on the property to help produce and conserve energy. Collectively our buildings are more environmentally and user friendly than ever before.

On the inside there are other similarities. A baptismal font, a mikvah, or a wudu tap is available for initiation or purification purposes. An inviting lobby affords room for greeting each other and related activities. There are spaces for offices and different meetings. The interiors of many churches, mosques, and synagogues use glazing to admit more natural light. The worship center itself shows similarities. In many synagogues the ark houses the Torah on the east wall. In mosques the qibla points to Mecca. In a more traditional way many churches and synagogues are returning the sanctuary, chancel, or bimah to the center of the space. There it fosters an egalitarian spirit and increases congregational engagement with rituals and prayer leaders.

Some of these houses of worship also are places of memory of deceased loved ones and of spiritual models — holy men and women. The buildings serve as narrations linking the past and present with the visions of the community. And, finally, these buildings are expressions of beauty. Appropriate scale, proper proportions, natural materials, and pleasant colors are touchstones stirring the sensation that these are indeed “sacred” spaces set aside for extraordinary purposes.

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