Lebanese mosque that reflects diversity, coexistence

Sunday 26/02/2017
A picture taken on January 19th shows the exterior of the Amir Shakib Arslan mosque. (AFP)

Mukhtara - From a distance, there is little to suggest that the building at the entrance of the Druze heartland vil­lage of Mukhtara in Leba­non’s Chouf mountains is a mosque.
After all, despite practising a faith that is an offshoot of Shia Islam, the Druze do not worship at mosques and the building strays far from the traditional rendering of a Muslim prayer house.
The Amir Shakib Arslan mosque, however, is intended to make visi­tors reflect on religion and moder­nity — and on the symbolic gesture of constructing a mosque in a vil­lage whose residents worship else­where.
It is named after the grandfather of Walid Jumblatt, the head of Leba­non’s Druze community, who com­missioned and funded the project, and replaces a mosque that once stood in Mukhtara but was de­stroyed decades ago in a feud.
Its unusual design is the result of Jumblatt’s decision to give architect Makram el-Kadi free rein to reinter­pret what a mosque could look like. Instead of the traditional domed roof alongside a minaret tower, a cage-like structure of white steel beams has been constructed to sit over an existing traditional Leba­nese stone building like a “veil”, Kadi said.
At one back corner of the roof, the white blades of the structure bend up towards the sky in a tower that implies a minaret. Light and air flow between the blades, which contrast with the heavy sand-coloured stone of the one-storey traditional build­ing beneath.
In places, the spaces between the blades are filled to create two words that can only be perceived from a distance: on the minaret above, Al­lah and below, al-Insan or “human being”.
For Kadi, the project is the prod­uct of years of reimagining the ar­chitecture of the mosque.
“There’s nothing scripted, nei­ther in the Quran nor in the Hadith that tells you what a mosque should be,” he said.
Despite the lack of religious con­straints and the young demograph­ics of Islam, the design of mosques has remained largely static.
“Given this big number of young people in the religion, you do not see as much experimentation in the architecture of the mosque as you would expect,” Kadi said.
Inside, the Mukhtara mosque’s walls are mostly bare and white, with the sun streaming in from a skylight cut into the vaulted roof. At the back of the room, where reli­gious texts are traditionally stored, the word Iqra or “read” appears in wooden latticework, a nod to the first word of the Quran and a re­minder, Kadi said, of the religious imperative to read, not merely re­cite.
The interior is dominated by a striking carpet featuring an abstract black-and-white pattern — a first-of-its-kind print of sound waves taken from a recording of Quranic recita­tion.
“The carpet is a new kind of cal­ligraphy, in the sense that it’s a visual representation of spoken language,” said artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who conceived the piece.
Moments in the sound waves where the word “God” appeared were removed, in part to avoid the possibility of visitors stepping on the word.
“But also to reflect something that’s very important in this mosque… that God is both con­cealed and ultimately very present,” added Abu Hamdan.
For all the innovation of the mosque, it retains certain elemental features, including an orientation towards Mecca, which Muslims face to pray and, for now, a traditional adhan, or call to prayer.
Abu Hamdan produced a rein­terpreted adhan, with the words spoken rather than sung, but it was deemed a little too avant-garde and has been replaced for now with a standard sung recording.
For Jumblatt, the project’s aims were twofold: To emphasise the ties between the Druze faith and other branches of Islam but also to pro­mote religious tolerance.
Lebanon still bears the scars of its 1975-90 civil war, in which all fac­tions and sects committed abuses, and it has been rocked by the con­sequences of the conflict in neigh­bouring Syria.
“I think the message that we have to say again and again, always in Lebanon, is that it is a place of di­versity and coexistence,” Jumblatt said.
“Lebanon cannot survive but through its diversity.”
The Chouf area where Mukhtara is located witnessed some of the bloodiest massacres of the civil war, committed both by and against the Druze. More recently, the Druze have been among the religious mi­norities targeted for forced conver­sions and expulsions by jihadists in Syria who consider them apostates.
For Mukhtara residents, the mosque is something of a curiosity, regarded as a gesture towards out­siders rather than a potential prayer house for themselves.
“I haven’t been inside, but from the outside the design is really nice,” said 50-year-old Sabah Abdel Samad, whose pharmacy is oppo­site the mosque.
“It’s something very lovely, pro­moting pluralism and acceptance of the other,” she added. “Many of our Muslim brothers pass through here. It is a good thing for them to have a place to pray.”
Kadi said the mosque is an “act of bridging” between the different branches of Islam at a time “when such gestures… are rarely being made”.
“The fact that it’s done in this way, that it is done at this time spe­cifically, sends a strong message: that there’s an alternative. You can be religious without being close-minded.”
(Agence France-Presse)