Mosque and State

Volume 44, Issue 1, by Michael J. Crosbie

What role should the mosque (or the church, or the temple, or any religion) play in the modern state? For Nasser Rabbat, Islamic architecture scholar and director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the answer is unequivocal: for the sake of the state, for the sake of religion, and for the sake of art and architecture, there should be no connection between religion and state.

In his keynote address at the Yale School of Architecture’s conference “Middle Ground/Middle East: Religious Sites in Urban Context” (sponsored also by the Yale Divinity School, the Yale Center for Middle East Studies, and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music), Rabbat recounted the history of the Middle East, which for many years was a cosmopolitan middle ground of different cultures and religions. In the past 60 years, in Rabbat’s view, the function of the Middle East as a middle ground has eroded, becoming a collection of nation states, each of which encompasses the identity of the people, the culture, and the religion. And, Rabbat notes, many of these states choose the building of mosques to manifest this national identity.

Rabbat cited several recent mosque projects in the Middle East, each one more dazzling and lavish than the last, built by the state as a national identity in stone. Many of the projects are named for the benefactors who paid for them, such as the Mosque of Hassan II that overlooks the Atlantic in Casablanca, Morocco. Named for the former ruler of the country and accommodating more than 105,000 worshippers, it is the fifth-largest mosque in the world. Designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, the mosque exhibits the strong influence of traditional Moroccan architecture. In fact, many of the large state-built mosques, noted Rabbat, are conservative in architectural style because traditional building is seen as part of the nation’s identity. The implication, Rabbat explained, is that the builders of these new mosques are connected through traditional architecture to the distant leaders of the past, made manifest with materials and craft that seem impervious to change.

For Rabbat, the state support of mosque architecture contradicts the modern idea that nations and religions should be separate institutions. Architectural quality is compromised because of this conflict and because, Rabbat pointed out, many of the state-sponsored mosques are designed by Western architects whose ignorance of Islamic architecture he finds “astounding.” Rabbat characterized such designs as “cut and paste” architecture.

Is the separation of religion and state likely to result in good architecture? And does the state’s support of religious buildings always result in bad design? State-supported religions throughout such modern nation states as Germany, Denmark, and Great Britain suggest that state-sponsored religious building can result in good, sometimes great, architecture. The Congregational meetinghouses built by English emigrants to North America were state-sponsored religious architecture, and most of us hold them in high esteem as houses of the spirit.

There must be another reason for poor design in state-sponsored religious buildings: bad architects.

This issue of Faith & Form is dedicated to the materials that we use to shape and embellish our places of worship. We hope the articles might inspire new uses and interpretations of these age-old materials of the spirit

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