Essay

Soheb Panja says it’s time for a radical rethink of the design of the British mosque.

Modern Mosques

My granddad used to run a mosque. Well, he and some of his friends hired a scout hall. I was forced to help with the set-up for Friday prayers during school holidays and stay through to the very end. I used to curse the stragglers who hung about way too long and pray for an early finish. The tedium of it all was brutal. (My prayers were answered when one of my granddad’s friends ran off with the donations, bringing the whole enterprise to an end.)

Maybe it’s the memory of those painful years, but I remain fascinated by where Muslims pray in Britain. 

There are 1,500 mosques in the UK, many of which solely operate as spaces for Friday prayers. They don’t include the thousands of repurposed spaces British Muslims jam themselves into. Meanwhile, standalone mosques range from the decaying one by Regent’s Park to one of my favourites – the incongruously located four-storey block in the middle of Soho’s Berwick Street.

Although it’s not clear what proportion of the 2.7 million Muslims in the UK regularly visit a mosque, it’s a safe bet it’s a lot. Mosques in the UK function almost entirely for prayers. Some have small spaces for women to pray. Some teach children how to read the Quran and the basic principles of Islam. Few run activities to attract people who aren’t Muslims but live or work in the local area.

It’s a shame. The design and function of the British mosque has hardly evolved since the first wave of Muslims arrived in the UK, largely from South Asian countries, in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s especially surprising when you consider how sensitive community relations often are in areas with large numbers of Muslims, how much cash mosques generate through collections, and how they’ve been identified by government authorities as places sometimes targeted by extremists to cultivate dangerous ideas.

Many British Muslims talk of a complete rethink. What should a mosque function like for the next 20 or 30 years? How would a mosque be interpreted in the mind of a world-class modern architect with an ambitious brief? How can we build a radical mosque – in a good way?

The brief should start with some fundamental questions. Should broader British society have a more active stake in mosques? Should mosques be open public buildings, with a range of activities? Do they need to be aesthetically appealing? What would that mean?

The needs of a mosque today are different to that period in the ’60s and ’70s when Muslims first arrived in quantity. Back then, they were designed to meet a simple requirement – to have somewhere to pray.

In his book about mosques in Britain, Shahed Saleem, says mosques were ‘vehicles for the dynamic reconstruction of tradition’ by immigrants; a place of comforting familiarity to the homeland and perhaps a refuge from any feeling of hostility in their new environment. How relevant are those feelings for a generation of Muslims who not only were born in Britain, but have parents who were born here too?

Tim Winter, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, says: ‘Contemporary European models of society and growth are evidently unsustainable, as the decline of family life, the growth of loneliness, and the collapse of the environment, all demonstrate. Hence mosques (and all places of worship) should be witness to an alternative and more humane and spiritual form of life.’ 

Remaking a mosque to meet the needs of today’s Muslims should represent an appealing challenge for ambitious architects; one where they can demonstrate the power of good – even beautiful –design to achieve community cohesion, dispel suspicion towards an ethnic group and bring communities together. It’s something costly government policy initiatives have aimed for and, more often than not, failed to achieve.

They should be open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike and designed to function for women as well as men. They should provide educational services, and facilitate activities for the local community, whatever faith they are. The design should signal this and enable it. The modern mosque should communicate the fact that it encompasses a wide range of activities while projecting an image that is transparent, welcoming and alive.

The design industry has long fought for recognition for the intangible value of great design, its ability to attract people, create positive feelings and stimulate people to interact in a positive way. Last April the Cambridge Mosque opened, pointing to a kind of building no one has seen before in the UK. Designed by Marks Barfield and built to a cost of £23m, it could well inspire other trusts and architects. It’s billed as an eco-mosque, but perhaps more radical is the fact that it is explicit in not following any school of Islam and is actively trying to serve as a cultural bridge between communities. But this kind of thinking remains the exception rather than the norm.

A historian in Saleem’s book is quoted as saying ‘Imaginative architecture is a luxury’. That should be fighting talk for an impassioned designer with a view of what great design can achieve. But first, architects would have to disrupt the traditional base that controls the power, money and decision-making behind mosques. It would mean elbowing their way in to the funding behind mosques – whether that’s private donors, governments, charities or trusts.

Winter says, ‘Mosques are typically run by trustees who self-appoint, and are community leaders representing the culture of the first generation of migrants.’ He adds: ‘They tend also to be embedded in ethnic and sectarian positions which to some younger Muslims may seem divisive and damaging.’ Transferring this power to a youthful and ambitious custodian – with a foot equally in the ‘British’ as well as ‘Muslim’ parts of their identity – could be little short of revolutionary. Imagine a brief that calls for a modern interpretation of the way Islam in modern Britain looks and behaves.

Soheb Panja is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Courier magazine