Around 750,000 Muslims — 22.3% of Muslims in the United States — currently live in the five boroughs. During the 21st century, New York City’s Muslim community has grown as immigrants, especially from South Asia and West Africa, make new homes here; new mosques have opened to support their communities. Some estimates put the current number of mosques around 300, up from around 100 in 2000, though getting an official count of mosques remains a challenge for demographers.
Post-9/11, some Islamic sites have become a flashpoint in local and national culture wars. Most famously, Islamophobic opposition thwarted plans for Park51, an Islamic community center (not a mosque) to be constructed in the Financial District (not at Ground Zero) in 2011. Around the same time, Staten Island residents stopped the sale of a convent that was to be converted into a mosque, and protestors in Sheepshead Bay unsuccessfully opposed the construction of a house of worship to serve 150-200 Muslim families in the neighborhood. While New York City is often celebrated as a pluralistic metropolis, for Muslim communities seeking space for prayer and ritual, it can be a hostile one.
United Arab Emirates-based architect Azza Aboualam has been training her eye on New York City’s mosques to see how they are creating sacred space in a grid that privileges the profane. Though a handful stand out for their ornate exteriors, many mosques are not-purpose built, and most are easy to miss. Often only a small sign or an awning announces their presence, giving a just a hint of the prayer and ablution spaces, the kitchenettes and classrooms that may be inside. Aboualam explores the under-documented adaptations that mosques in both New York City and Sharjah are making below, sharing some of her photographs and architectural renderings, on view in an exhibition at Citygroup through October 31, 2022.
You’ve visited a wide range of mosques in New York City. Could you share a few that you’ve looked at, and the different kinds of space uses that happen at mosques?
Assafa Islamic Center is a larger mosque that spans almost four floors. Each floor has a different function. The basement has ablution spaces and then the first floor is where the main male prayer hall is. The second floor has a smaller female prayer room and a secondary prayer room for males. The third floor has a large female prayer room, and the fourth floor is classrooms and some small offices.
Masjid Assalam Wal Khair, located in Harlem, is actually two apartments combined into one to create the mosque. It has a small outdoor patio and the female prayer area is just sectioned off with a temporary partition.
The mosques you have documented also take a wide range of approaches to their exterior design.
Obviously, green awnings are a very common aspect. Mosques co-located with Mediterranean restaurants are common. A couple of minarets. Very small, very skinny, and tall. And blue and green doors. Madina Masjid, a small-scale mosque in Lower Manhattan, is identified by the very small and skinny blue minaret that marks its territory.
You enter the Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan through a hallway behind a Mediterranean restaurant. There isn’t any direct appearance on the street except for a sign saying there’s a mosque here. Other than that, it’s relatively hidden. You enter through a very narrow, green hallway: another green appearance. It leads you to an elevator that takes you up to the prayer space.
Many of the structures that you documented are not purpose-built mosques, but buildings like townhouses or storefronts that are adapted to make them more appropriate for prayer. Can you share more about those sorts of interior design practices?
On the street everything looks relatively normal, like it fits within the city grid. You feel the tension in the elements of the interior space once you walk in. The mihrab’s wall, where the imam leads the prayer, is what marks that tension. New York has a very distinct grid, but it certainly doesn’t face Mecca. So, you end up with weird corners because there’s this skewed direction that you have to face.
So we end up with ornate mihrabs that are trying to cover that weird occurrence that’s trying to assert itself. The way you direct yourself to prayer is very much announced with a physical dimension. One of the mosques, I think, was low on budget and it had a sticker on the wall to say, “Pray facing this direction!” With a very ornate, Islamic pattern that seemed to say, “I’m trying so hard, but it’s a plain wall.”
New York City has seen growing Muslim populations over the past few decades. Obviously, Muslim communities are accommodating this growth by building new mosques, but also by making changes to their buildings to accommodate more people. Did you see any adaptations to make room for larger groups of people to pray?
You see mosques expanding vertically. Or taking a horizontal approach: demolishing a wall and combining two apartments. Other mosques simply let the worshipers fend for themselves and pray on the sidewalk. If the mosque is closed, or it’s Eid prayer and there’s a lot of people that want to pray during Ramadan, then the mosque essentially becomes the sidewalk, and people just pray on their prayer mats on the street.
The wide range of Islamic architecture challenges preconceptions of what a mosque is or looks like. There also appear to be significant class differences and access to financial resources at mosques throughout New York City.
You notice it with the smell, actually. As you go north in Harlem, or to Brooklyn or Queens, it’s very different. You start to realize that there are kitchenettes in the mosques. People actually dine: they sit and cook very quick meals in the mosque as a communal thing. Once you go out to Queens and Brooklyn, and the Bronx, you start to see more space. Buildings are physically built to be a mosque, as opposed to townhouses or apartments that are trying to accommodate this feature.
The majority of mosques in New York City are rented. And the rent is usually pooled by the community. In owned structures, you see more facilities, such as classrooms, or more built-in ablution spaces, built-in female prayer rooms. Whereas the rented ones, you can tell there’s a temporariness to them. No walls are put in indefinitely. Some patios, even if they were part of the apartment, are not really taken advantage of.
You’re an architect and professor in the UAE, and have also been researching the adaptations mosques in Sharjah have made to reckon with changing urban life. How do you see Islamic architectures in these two very different cities speaking to each other?
There’s a clear friction between the urban fabric and the mosque structure itself. Islamic architecture in New York is emerging from the need for a space to pray. When walking down the street, you can’t really discern this tension because it fits well within the urban fabric. But once you step inside, you see the skewed carpet, you see the weird angles, the qibla direction that doesn’t really fit with the interior.
Historic mosques in Sharjah have undergone architectural changes of their own: Intense restoration on coral walls, installation of air conditioning and the addition of structures such as housing for imams are the most common. Of course, these responses appear to be in direct relation to the urban expansion of Sharjah. While the expansion of New York mosques is predominantly vertical, mosques in Sharjah commonly expand horizontally in order to adapt to the increasing number of the emirate’s inhabitants.
You took on this work to fill a gap of documentation — there aren’t many architectural studies of the full breadth of mosques in places like New York City. Mosques are also often not represented on government databases. For example, Masjid Assalam in Harlem, from your research, doesn’t appear as a house of worship on the Department of Finance’s website. It’s categorized as multistory retail.
Although I haven’t witnessed it myself, I’ve read that mosques experienced multiple run-ins with the NYPD after 2002. I believe that results in the hesitancy from imams and worshippers alike to announce themselves architecturally.
In addition to reservations regarding policing, there is often community opposition to new mosques. How do you see Islamophobia impacting the siting and design of mosques?
From visiting these New York mosques, there is a clear hesitancy to share information about them, or allow photography of the place, or even take dimensions of the structure, which is what I was trying to do. One of the imams in the mosques I visited questioned whether I was Muslim or not, despite my wearing a headscarf. He was berating me as a woman that I shouldn’t be in a men’s prayer area, but also, that it seemed odd to him that I was an architect seeking documentation. But at the end of the day, I don’t blame them.
That’s why I believe mosques barely announce themselves. The green awning fits within the city’s common way to announce restaurants, or even salons: Any function could be announced by an awning. None of the mosques that I went to, except for one in Manhattan had a minaret. Coming from where I am in the United Arab Emirates, almost every mosque has a minaret and more recently built ones announce their presence on the street with ornate designs and elaborate domes. The general architectural image of the mosque in New York seemed to be using a foreign language to me.
Regardless of the regular tropes that one has, that a mosque has to have a dome and a minaret to be considered as a piece of Islamic architecture, these are examples that say otherwise.
All photographs and drawings by Azza Aboualam