Visual Dhikr™
returning to remembrance

Developing European / Western Islamic Architecture

Recently the biggest mosque in Germany opened in the city of Duisburg and has already become a symbol of successful integration. A beautiful mosque borrowing strictly from the Ottoman era, with its distinctive multi-dome and spiked minaret, the mosque is a clear reflection of the predominant Turkish Muslim community in Germany.

But this is where I also find that the Muslim communities in the west have on most occasions resorted to building Mosques in the style of their homelands. Be that in the North African (Moorish) style for a mosque in Paris or a very Indian sub-continental styled mosque in London, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to avoid modern architecture.

I am no expert on architecture, but I do know that traditional Islamic architecture embodies historical legacies, symbolism and magnificence that is unmatched in anything else I have seen. Every mosque from Morocco to Malaysia is built beautifully and somehow contains a spiritual atmosphere that is hard to replicate in modern architecture.

But stop and look closely you will find that almost in every country that Islam has spread to, the mosques have always borrowed something from the local architecture. Look at the Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem or look at Chinese mosques in their distinctive Chinese styles. Wherever Muslims have gone they have adopted local cultural design and developed it into something they are comfortable with. Often this is evident in clothing, when Muslims often adjust local clothing styles to suit the Islamic codes of modesty

So why, when you have the opportunity to build a symbol of integration, build a mosque that is strictly designed in a ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’ style to that of the local native population? Would it not have been a better example to borrow from the long established and respected German architecture? Do we have to put our distinctive cultural styles on our local mosque as a deliberate distinction of our foreign identity? Is modern architecture so devoid of spirituality that it cannot ever match the great buildings of Muslim Spain or Isfahan?

The 20th century has seen German architecture be transported around the world. The clear lines of Bauhaus excerted a strong influence and moulded a new international style. I think it would be a very wrong to ignore western architectural achievements, especially that of Europe. At the same time I am not ignoring that there are some great examples of modern Islamic architecture, some notable ones are in the United States.

This is not imply that Islamic architecture has nothing to offer, far from it. The various Muslim architectural styles are a great example of borrowing, developing, innovating and ultimately exemplifying the sacred act of prayer. The mosque has always been a functional place, a multifunctional centre for the whole community, an aesthetic marvel and a physical magnet of the Muslim community. We should pride ourselves in making sure we do not just build a simple mosque, but if we have the funds, to build something of a landmark.

I would love to see a fusion of Islamic architectural elements such as the minaret, dome or courtyard brought out in a uniquely German or Dutch style. This, to me, would be a great example of integration – something that both Muslims and non-Muslims could marvel at. You often do see attempts at this with Churches or Synagogues throughout Europe, so why not for Mosques?

But it is clear the most difficult part of building a Mosque is to assign to it a unique architectural style (so that it is obviously place of importance) and somehow give it a spiritual atmosphere that is felt by everyone. Or maybe that spiritual feeling is only developed through the build up of memories, history, the worshippers and people’s attitude to a sacred building?

What are your thoughts?

- Ruh, Visual Dhikr

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 |

Learning Calligraphy in Turkey

I get a lot of emails and requests for advice on learning the fine art of calligraphy, often about going abroad or where one would find teachers. Some are dedicated to long term learning and others who wish to 'try it out' or improve their handwriting.

My learning has been confined to Egypt and my own personal experience, therefore I am interviewing other calligraphers who have pursued their dreams of learning abroad. So look out for some posts in the coming year on learning abroad.


Turkey is famous for its Arabic calligraphy and some of worlds greatest masters of penmanship have come from there. I got in touch with British calligrapher, Soraya Syed Sanders, as she has studied for several years in Istanbul and gives us some quick answers to common questions you may have.

What is studying calligraphy abroad compared to home like?

There is no comparison really. As there were no teachers here (UK), i had no choice but to go and study abroad. Somewhere like Istanbul is buzzing with calligraphy!

How did you find out about who to study with and where?

Can't remember how i found out- but i knew who my teacher was as soon as i met him- and he was from Istanbul.

How did you prepare for it, both for living in Turkey and learning calligraphy?

I didn't prepare really- i just said Bismillah and totally trusted that if this was what i was supposed to be doing that Allah would provide and make things easy- and He did alhamdulillah!

How long should one stay abroad to study?

The longer the better- 3 -5 years if possible.

What is unique about the Turkish calligraphers and system of learning?

What you receive form a Turkish master who has received the ijazah- is not only his or her wisdom but the many centuries that preceded as the Ottoman-Turkish silsila of calligraphy is unbroken.

Is the art of calligraphy being revived or maintained in the country?

Yes- without doubt there are so many calligraphers now and it can be argued that the art has surpassed all levels- what will happen next what direction will the art take as it becomes more competitive are questions i ask myself?

Any recommended places or individuals to study at/with?

It is difficult to list the places as calligraphers tend to change venues where they teach. But the next generation of great calligraphers are people like Davut Bektash, Mehmet Ozcay, my own teacher Efdaluddin Kilic and there are others. See my FAQ page for more info.

What is it like for women to practice calligraphy in Turkey?

They are encouraged to and they exhibit widely and take part on all the competitions but if they are married and have children it is extremely difficult but not impossible.

Is Arabic essential to doing calligraphy, if so, where could one learn?

Strangely enough- it isn't essential but highly recommended. Probably a beginners course on Arabic would suffice to start with- anywhere from London to Amman!

[ed: One can study Arabic locally before leaving for abroad]

Soraya Syed Sanders was born and raised in London. Of mixed Pakistani-French origin, Soraya returned to the UK after completing her apprenticeship and receiving the icazetname (Islamic Calligraphy Diploma) in Istanbul. She attended the Arts Foundation at Central St. Martin’s, London. She read Arabic and History of Art & Archaeology at The School of Oriental and African Studies, and in 2001 graduated from the Masters programme in Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London. Her written and visual work has been published and exhibited in the UK and abroad. She now resides in west London with her husband and baby daughter.

To see some of Soraya's work, please visit:


Written by: Ruh al-'Alam, Visual Dhikr

If you have your own story about studying calligraphy abroad or have advice, write to me: info at visual dhikr dot com - or simply leave comments below.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008 |

Rehan Jamil - Snapshots in and around East London Mosque

A short video feature on photographer Rehan Jamil, who spent years and years capturing the development of the East London Mosque complex in black and white. A very talented and diverse photographer, mashaAllah.

Friday, October 03, 2008 |