MOSQUES SHOULD looknot like cluttered office space, but more like places of worship. Unfortunately, very few mosques in America in general, and on American campuses in particular, can claim to follow the rich tradition established by Islamic architects and calligraphers over the centuries. This tradition turned a building into a masterpiece that reminded God’s visitor of Him at every turn. Perhaps most striking were the dancing strokes of master calligraphy that gave color and form to God’s words and helped to create a space of calm repose.
The renovation of the campus mosque at Georgetown University is a small, yet significant step towards embracing this tradition in American mosque design. A project undertaken by the renowned calligrapher and craftsman Mohamed Zakariya, construction began in 2002 with the generous support of the university’s Office of Campus Ministry and other donors. The mosque was originally a room known as the Repository of Holy Relics that housed over 300 artifacts, including the bones of Italian saints and a sliver from the “True Cross”. In the 1970s these items were gradually removed and in 1987, at the request by Muslim students for a space to perform their prayers, the Campus Ministry offered to clean out the Repository and convert it into a Muslim place of worship, which it has been ever since.
When approached in 2000 for his help in turning Georgetown’s existing blank and dreary prayer-space into a mosque proper, Mohamed Zakariya responded positively. After all, he shared the student’s vision: “The purpose of a mosque [is] to have a place where people want to pray, sit study, relax, use the books within, meet with each other properly … a place where Muslims would want to go, a congenial place, a special room.” With the help of a small team of students, alumni and contractors, this September saw the completion of the room: new carpets had been laid, the paint had dried, the furniture had been placed and the last piece of calligraphy was hung.
The campus’s Mosque of Two Pillars (Masjid al-‘Amudayn) derives its name from the two Byzantine-style columns that were part of the collection of religious artifacts donated to the Muslim students by the University when the room was converted in 1987. The stone columns marked the direction of the qibla in the northeast corner of the room for over ten years. As it was not possible to integrate them into the architectural scheme envisioned by Zakariya, the columns were moved outside the room, marking the entrance to the staircase that leads down to the mosque.
COLOR AND STRUCTURAL DESIGN: AMERICAN ISLAMIC ART AND ARCHITECTURE
The relevance of this mosque’s current design extends far beyond Georgetown. The Mosque of the Two Pillars serves as a model for mosques around the country. It says that Muslims can and should devote proper attention to their prayer spaces. It also shows how to combine traditional Islamic elements with modern American ones in order to create a suitable space for prayer that is both functional and beautiful.
The question of what exactly is “Islamic” will confound anyone who tries to answer it in a sound bite. As Mohamed Zakariya explains, “it can mean a whole lot of things. It can mean something that is used by Muslims in their daily lives, prayer lives or home lives; it has a religious sanction of some sort Calligraphy is called Islamic and not Arabic; likewise, this mosque is Islamic art, not Arab, Turkish, American or ethnic anything. It’s an Islamic happening because it fulfills a definite Islamic purpose.” In other words, we know from the result when art is Islamic. Though small, the mosque that resulted from Mr. Zakariya’s changes epitomizes modern American Islamic art and architecture, and one hopes campuses and communities around the country will mimic it
Mohamed Zakariya began with structural changes to the room. He replaced the drop ceiling with a raised one. This results in a sense of permanence that a place of worship should have. He also constructed a mihrab, painted the walls and laid new carpet In order for the room to welcome its visitors inside, he explained his choice of warm colors: deep pinks, yellows, browns and greens. The windowless prayer space was designed to appear “as if it were full of its own internal sunlight”
Zakariya also emphasized the importance of the space as a “knowledge nest” particularly as it was located on a university campus. He placed several bookshelves in the mosque fashioned from a natural American pinewood with simple elements that subtly draw from Islamic historical precepts of design. “With the proper books, you’ll have people go in and learn a little bit about their religion.”
A total of eight beautiful calligraphy panels adorn the mosque. Mr. Zakariya “wanted the calligraphy to contrast with the color scheme . . . but also harmonize with it Black is [one] color that harmonizes with just about everything. I used gold over the mihrab; that’s the other color that harmonizes with everything. For the other pieces, I used an interesting yellow ink that harmonizes with the pieces on the walls, that makes them stand out and makes it fantastic.”
Included amongst the calligraphy compositions are the Declaration of Faith (shahadatayn) and Allah’s Name. They are, of course, central to Islam. Mr. Zakariya explained the reasoning behind the other six pieces in the Masjid al-‘Amudayn:
And turn your face to the direction of the Sacred Mosque.
“[This] instructs the Prophet and his community on the direction to turn when praying. It is famous for [being] plac[ed] on the mihrab.”
And Your God is One God.
[Qur’an, 2:163, etat]
“The singularity of God is such a beautiful thing and such a keystone concept in our religion. This [verse] expresses it beautifully, without using the buzzwords like tawhid [“Oneness of God”] that have been so used that they become like a slogan, and may lose meaning to some listeners.”
My Lord! Forgive me, and my parents, and everyone who enters my house, from amongst the men and women believers.
“This [verse] signifies the mercy of God, and the mercy on those who come into the mosque, be they men or women. [The verse mentions both the male form for believers – mu’minin – and the female form – mu’minat.] This [prayer room] is a place in which I would like to see both young men and women come in and take care of what they need to take care of without the problems they face in some mosques … People need to have their individual and collective privacies in locations within the mosque, but… if people learn the proper adab [behavior] in a mosque, then [they] shouldn’t have to take [other] measures. [Proper behavior] is a personal responsibility, and the set-up of the mosque helps that”
And I return my [every] affair to God. For surely, God ever sees His worshippers.
“This contains a message of which all Muslims should be aware because it concerns our relationship with God in all of our affairs. We have to inform ourselves that we must entrust our affairs to Him and He will take care of them for us, even as we must take care to do what we can and operate as fully functioning people.”
And [those who] hasten to all good works [are among the righteous].
“This is a good [piece] for students and non-students alike, because [it tells us that] instead of devoting [ourselves] to negative things and criticizing people, we can cooperate on any number of levels to promote that all-inclusive concept of khayrat: everything good. This [verse], in just three … words, paints a lovely picture of how that operates.”
“The Hilyeh is a description by ‘Ali of the Prophet’s moral and physical characteristics. That’s a very important piece to have around because it allows us to personalize the Prophet in a way that makes him accessible to us, and helps us to know him better, so we don’t think of him as a distant mouthpiece. He was a rather extraordinary person with extraordinary capabilities …”
A MODEL GIFT
Perhaps as breathtaking as the sight of the new mosque is the spirit that went into its renovation. Mohamed Zakariya donated his time and work (normally valued at tens of thousands of dollars). His hope is that his efforts might serve as encouragement to others to contribute their time and skills to the community in acts of American and Islamic volunteerism. “Muslims are not used to doing volunteer work, and if they do, they do very small things, with not a lot of follow-through … [What is] big in America is to take the responsibility of getting something done and not worry about what you’re going to get for it. This is like [the Islamic] concept of the left hand not knowing what the right hand gives. So if you give of what is most valuable to you without worrying what you’re going to get out of it you’ve lived up to this Islamic and American concept.”
Apart from the Muslim students and staffai the University, there are others who benefit from the mosque too. Many non-Muslim students are asked by professors in their theology courses to visit the mosque and observe Muslim prayer services as part of their coursework and research. The University conducts guided tours of its religious heritage, which includes visiting the various churches and chapels, and now the mosque on campus. The mosque is easily accessible and is clearly identified on the GUMSA website. In fact a number of popular search engines list the university mosque as one of the few locations in the vicinity of downtown Washington DC in which to pray.
For a community of Muslims, it is imperative that they have a mosque that serves as an appropriate worship and gathering space. Mohamed Zakariya possessed of both an American ethos and expertise in Islamic calligraphy and architecture – was one of the few who possessed the skills for helping to create such space. “We have in Islam [concepts of] fard kifaya (general communal obligation) and fard ‘ayn (individual obligation). Doing this to me was like a fard kifaya: someone had to do it and if more people knew how, they would do the same; they would be going around fixing up mosques.” As more people learn about and come to realize the importance of transforming America’s mosques to create appropriate worship and gathering space, hopefully his idea will spread.