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Wimbledon and the Isna Mosque in Plainfield: Interior Realities

When I reached the West, like the immigrants described in Regula Qureshi’s essay (this volume), I welcomed the company of fellow Muslims at prayer in makeshift settings. It was the practice that mattered in my case, as no doubt in many others, a practice promised to my mother when I left home. En route to America, on my very first Friday in the West, I prayed in a small English house on a corner lot in Wimbledon. There was no mihrab niche, just a depression in a side wall, a cold fireplace with a checkerboard border of green and brown ceramic tiles. A small chandelier with missing pieces of crystal was suspended asymmetrically in a corner. A rickety office chair with a gaudy plush rug draped over its back acted as the minbar pulpit. The prayer lines were oblique to the walls of the rooms and the congregation overflowed into the narrow hall and other nooks and corners. Was there anything mosquelike about this building, except that people had sincerely spread their mats in a common orientation, willingly performed their sajud in unison, and listened to someone’s sermon, accepting him as their imam?

Via the Syria Mosque, the Cathedral of Learning, and a few Fridays in transit I arrived at the old Georgian campus of the University of Illinois. About twenty of us prayed in the Faculty Club in the Illinois Union Building. We rearranged the furniture, spread rolls of green towel cloth at an estimated skewed angle, and listened to the sermon of a mathematician from Jordan, our “imam of the week.” I was awed by his audacity in presenting Divine Unity as a sphere and in talking of Asma’ al-Husna, Allah’s Beautiful Names (see also n. 5 below), as an ordered state of points defining that sphere. As I recall this, I wonder whether he was—as I would later become—a lost son seeking authentication, in this case through his grandfather’s philosophical geometry.

Soon I felt at home in a community of Muslim students. My turn to lead the prayers finally had to come. In my maiden sermon, I recited those verses of the Qur’an wherein God affirms Abraham and Ishmael’s building of the Ka‘ba as a House for Him.[2] Being away from the elders of my own culture, I felt safe in proposing my own exegesis: that the verse alluded to the sacred nature of architecture in support of the Divine commandments. And, by logical extension, I concluded that architecture could potentially be idolatrous when committed in defiance of the commandments. By 1963, a continental organization had been founded on our campus, the Muslim Student Association of USA and Canada. At its second annual convention, I again spoke, this time on nothing less than the architectural heritage of Muslims.

That year also, I was given permission to substitute for one of my studio projects the design of a mosque in North America. My understanding of Muslim architectural tradition was based on some memories of Lahore,[3] a childhood trip to Agra, and my recent visual encounters with six volumes of A. U. Pope and Phyllis Ackerman’s A Survey of Persian Art (1938–39). But tradition was definitely not a burning issue for a student “going abroad for studies in America.” Our dizzyingly optimistic, forward-looking American campus environment did not present the traditional versus the modern even as a legitimate question. Old was of interest only to historians. Old was the “problem.”

Thus the shift of orientation of the Masjid-e-Shah against the great maidan of Isfahan was posed as one of the problems that needed a new solution. I confronted the problem by eliminating it. My prayer hall was circular in plan: a symbol of “unity,” and free from the demands of orientation. I solved the problem of columns by using a single inverted dish-thin shell. I took the pool from the courtyard, made it much larger, and let my mosque float in it like a lotus. Finally, I proposed a bridge that was symbolically the path from the worldly—the profane parking lot—to the otherworldly, the prayer hall. Inventive energy has its own obsessive momentum, so I cut a laser slice of space right through the circular wall of the prayer hall to create a mihrab ending in the garden beyond. Perhaps the most daring gesture was to propose large-scale calligraphy on the top of the dome. The idea was to let the modern man in flight look down and recognize that this was a contemporary mosque in the West.

The project was graded excellent, and I was sincerely proud of my achievement. Three decades later, I am grateful to God that there was no government, nor any other patron around me, to help me commit this crime on a real site. There are grand projects of that decade across the Muslim world, designed when young architects who had studied in Sydney or London or New York returned to build their modernity-driven, metamorphosed mosques. These are places that distort the imagination of the one who prays. Modernity, in the design context, was too self-consumptive, self-driven, ever-changing, to be relevant to the timeless protocol of the human body on a humble prayer mat engaged in qiyam (standing), ruku‘ (bowing), sajud (prostration).…May God be Merciful to the one who recognizes his mistakes.

My next mosque design was in 1968–69, after I had earned my bachelor’sdegree in architecture from Illinois. This was a joint project with Mukhtar Khalil, another Muslim student. We entered the competition for the Grand National Mosque in Islamabad (now the well-known Faisal Mosque). The site and the beautiful surroundings, complex program, and grandiose scale encouraged us to provide an equally heroic design response. We conceived an Islamic “St. Mark’s”: a trapezoidal setting, with educational blocks on three sides, a horizontal plaza with geometric stone patterns, and an artificially twisted entrance to create an element of surprise. The mihrab area was a round sculpted form inspired by Ronchamp. And further to avoid any remote chance that someone might mistake our building for a “traditional” structure, we proposed a minaret tower four hundred feet high and fifty feet in diameter, visible from the peaks of the Murree Hills, covered with turquoise-glazed tiles, containing a library and a museum on the model of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. St. Mark’s, Ronchamp, the Guggenheim, and a heavy dose of abstract calligraphy, all in one project! The sirens of modernity had cast their spell. It was my good fortune that the design got eaten by termites in a Post Office warehouse.

For about ten years I struggled with various Muslim communities in search of an opportunity to design a place of prayer. It was a period of trials and professional wanderings (Haider 1990). Nothing is more telling of the communal fragmentation of ideas and images than the kinds of mosques people carry in their minds. Recalling my encounters, I have sometimes felt like a volunteer nurse in a room full of Alzheimer’s patients at various stages of their condition. My own mind being a page with far too many images stamped on it, I have always empathized with community luminaries heatedly debating what their mosque should look like—not infrequently illustrated by pages torn from a mosque calendar offered by a Muslim bank or an airline. Usually the majority side favors a modern style and the other aims for recognizable “conventional” imagery.

In 1977–78, while spending a sabbatical year in Saudi Arabia and traveling through Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, I saw the destructive and alienating force of architecture in the name of progress. I started to experience a certain ecology of architecture, literature, belief, philosophy, commerce, culture, and craft still operating in the old bazaars behind the modern façades of the cities I visited. I began seeing architecture as a formative element in culture rather than a mute expression of it—an isolated bit of gallery artwork to be reviewed, honored, bought, sold, and collected.

In 1979, I was invited to design a national headquarters mosque in Plainfield, Indiana for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which had evolved from the Muslim Student Association founded sixteen years earlier. It was the same MSA that had started at my university in Urbana, and the person who invited me was Mukhtar Khalil, my co-contestant in the Islamabad mosque competition of 1968. The invitation was an honor I received with many self-doubts. I recalled Abraham’s House for God, and started my search for a place of prayer for those who, at home or in “occidental exile,”[4] turn their faces to that Blessed House in Mecca and recite:

Lo I have turned my face
Firmly and truly
Toward Him who willed
The heavens and the earth
And never shall I assign
Partners to Him.
(Qur’an 6:79)
I was also very intrigued by the Divine attributes expressed in two of the names of God, “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” I wanted to find in them a special wisdom for the designer, who must create but not confront, offer but not attack, and yet withal express the profound in a language understandable and pleasing to the listener.[5]

To distinguish the exterior from interior, I chose to veil this mosque, evoking the need for meaningful and purposeful dissimulation. I thought of my building as an oyster whose brilliance and essence were internal, while the expressed form sought human ecological harmony, modesty, even anonymity. This was the period, after all, when I had gotten used to friends Americanizing my name to “Golz” and my wife’s from Santosh to “Sandy.”

In my design, I resisted Western exploitation of the visual symbols of Islamic “tradition” rather than the tradition itself. During the nineteenth century and the prewar twentieth, Muslim reality had been observed and projected through many distorting prisms. There were paintings, romantic fictions, exotic travelogues, and, later, circuses, movies, movie theaters, magic potions, exotic foods, and music—all capitalizing on immediate expectations of magic fortunes and paradisiacal sensuality. From Las Vegas and Atlantic City “pleasures for sale” to Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” to Shriners’ temples, all had exploited, with gluttonous appetite, the symbols associated with the Muslim past (Said 1978).

The project was built and has been used since 1982 (fig. 8). It has no expressed dome, although inside there are three domes creating an unmistakable space of Islamic prayer. Those who have been inside are struck by the “mosqueness” of it all. It remains an enigma, however, especially to those Muslims who are used to seeing mosques and not praying in them. Like the makeshift mosque in Wimbledon, what mattered in the Plainfield mosque was the practice—in this case intended to be fostered by the design—within.

Figure 8. The Islamic Society of North America headquarters mosque, Plainfield, Ind. Photograph by Gulzar Haider.
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