Hybrid Spaces of Worship: Muslims in Atlanta


Presented by: Zamila Karimi

In an effort to uphold their values, adopt to new cultures and preserve their heritage and traditions in the host environments, Muslims in North America are trying to carve out places for religious and cultural practices. In the peripheries and in-between spaces of our urban areas Muslim places of worship become performative spatial markers in the cultural landscapes of our cities that provide a window into the social and religious life of these communities. They often situate themselves in the fringes of the city in neglected and dilapidated warehouses, office buildings, old houses and big-box buildings revitalizing the fading suburban communities.

This paper examines the symbolic and cultural value of two case studies that I will critically analyze for different sects of Islam, in the Atlanta Metropolitan area of DeKalb County. They are Atlanta Jamatkhana and Ismaili Center for a Shia Muslim congregation of about 1,000; and Masjid-al-Momineem, largest refugee congregation of 1,000 Sunni Muslims in Atlanta. Although both these cases exist within three miles of each other, they offer a unique insight into the spatial, social and cultural representation of their diverse communities and their impact on the larger socio-cultural landscapes.

Using these specific case studies, I will examine how immigrant communities have become a catalyst to rejuvenate the country’s outdated suburbia. In the process, they add positively to the physical landscape of our cities thereby transforming the social and cultural geography. I explore issues central to Muslim immigrant community’s need to practice their faith within the conservative context of Atlanta. In doing so, I provide a critical analysis of the spatial transformation of the building specifically its spaces imbued with Islamic architectural principles as a visual manifestation of the community’s goal and aspirations within the regional context.

The questions I explore are: what are the tactics employed to remodel mundane urban spaces into places of worship as spatial representations of Muslim identity? How do they impact the social and cultural landscape of the urban fabric in which they exist? How does community engagement play a key role to address larger issues of assimilation, identity, gender and race?

As Muslim Diaspora communities grew in numbers, and the baby boomers settled permanently in their new countries it became vital to establish places of worship and assert their rights in the public space. The metamorphosis of such informal spaces into our cultural landscapes brought forth larger issues of race and identity; education and culture. Several key theorists from Oleg Grabar, to Akel Kahera to Renata Holod and others have brought forth issues of plurality of the Muslim world. The practice of faith represents a diversity of cultures and social attitudes as manifested in the places of worship.

The methodology I will use for case studies will be a combination of ethnographic research tools with mapping strategies to collect primary data. As an architect and interior designer for both these projects, I have access to historical data and ongoing documentation  to show how the projects transformed over the years. I will present the data collected via maps and illustrations to augment the narrative.

Using several key examples of contemporary retrofits of mosques, especially spaces in the Western context. I demonstrate how engaging the community is crucial to the success of such projects. The building acts a catalyst to bring people together, address issues related to assimilation and offer tools to become part of the civic space. The spaces and places of Muslim worship further act as a bridge to ease tensions within the larger socio-political environment. It subtly brings to light the  pluralistic traditions of world’s 1.5 billion people who are ordinary men, women and children of civil society with aspirations for a better life.

References:

  • Kahera, Akel Ismail, Deconstructing the American Mosque. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. (Kahera 2002: 35)
  • Khalidi, Omar; Import, Adapt, Innovate: Mosque Design in the United States; Aramco, 2001
  • Glassie, Henry; Architects, Vernacular Traditions and Society, TDSR Vol 1, 1990
  • Avcioglu, Nebahat; Identity-as-Form: The Mosque in the West, Cultural Analysis, 2007
  • Dunham-Jones, Ellen; Suburban Retrofits, Demographics, and Sustainability, p 10, Places 17 (2), 2005