Our Mosques and Art (or lack thereof).

Our Mosques and Art (or lack thereof).

At the age of 41, I have been a grumpy old man for a while now. One of my peeves is the state of our mosques as institutions, the people running them, the maintenance (or lack thereof) and the garish “artwork” and “embellishments” people give as gifts to the mosque.

I am usually not one to question the motives of people, but I firmly believe that a lot of the “decoration” pieces that end up in the mosque are gifts that people have received from friends and relatives who have been to Hajj, Umra or to a Muslim country, the recipient probably thinks “oh man this is ugly and I don’t want it in my house, but I can’t bin it because of the sacred imagery, I know, I’ll give it to our local mosque!” (don’t tell me that you have never thought of it too!) and so, the mosque acquires an eclectic mix of , mass-produced tat, tack, trash, clutter, kitsch, hideously vulgar plastic ornaments and garish flashing pictures that are an anathema to Islamic Art and our history of embellishing the house of Allah with only the best of human endeavours.

In our mosque, on either side of the mihrab someone has “kindly” donated, what can only be described as two mini faux-fish-tanks one with a picture of the Ka’aba and the other with Masjid al-Nabi both immersed in the grotesqueries, which you plug-in to illuminate and to get the water going, wow, the genius of it! If that wasn’t bad enough, the way they have been put on the wall is just plain stupidity – take two “L”-shaped shelf brackets (one for each of the hideous abominations) put the aforementioned on the bracket, get some cellotape and cellotape the monstrosities to the bracket (make sure you do a really bad job of it too) and then screw it into the wall, for that extra special botch job touch, leave the power cable dangling. Arghhhh! Even writing this is infuriating and painful! Alhamdulillah, our mosque was generally quite well decorated when it was built, we have very nice tile-work, calligraphy (although the English script leaves a little to be desired), and the mihrab is tasteful. We had the carpet changed a couple of years ago, and although the carpet is physically of good quality, the mixture of pinks, reds, yellows and greens coupled with floral patterns is a little off-putting to say the least. Over the years, people seem to have put up stickers on the doors and tile work, if a notice has to be put up they don’t use something as discreet as blu-tack, oh no, it has to be duct-tape or that brown packing tape, you have to make sure it leaves behind gunk or when you peel it off it takes a layer of paint with it. Why, why, why? Have people no sense of the aesthetic any more, no appreciation of beauty and art and no commonsense, where did it all go wrong? Are we really the legacy of those who built the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra and made advances in sciences, literature and art? Are we?

I made the mistake of pointing out to one of the senior members of the mosque committee what I thought of the aforementioned ornaments and he totally missed what I was saying and started accusing me of disrespecting the Ka’ba and Masjid Nabi! I don’t think it was in his capacity to make the distinction between the subject matter and the presentation of it, he just didn’t get it despite my feable attempts to explain it.

We have all heard the hadith: In-Allaha jameel wa-yuhibbu l-jamalGod is Beautiful and loves beauty, has our sense of beauty and what is beautiful diminished, just as our consciousness of God has diminished? Have these mass-produced ignoble artefacts become the metaphor of our condition, that there is no depth to us and what we produce? Can’t we see past the fake-gold and ornamentation, be it of the human or of the sacred space?

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14 thoughts on “Our Mosques and Art (or lack thereof).

  1. Sallams.
    LOL i have to agree.

    My local mosque has some ridiculous pieces of ‘art’ on display as well. An ugly fake plant!
    Where have the days gone where a masjid had a ‘real’ garden outside with flowers and fruit?

  2. Salam alaikum,

    I pray in your local mosque every weekday lunchtime. It is quite an attractive building, but suffers as you say at the hands of those who feel compelled to adhere bright metallic labels to every other surface. But more than that, it is generally neglected. The bathroom needs cleaning at least twice a day, not twice a month. The shoe area needs cleaning more than once a week. The papers that get dumped on the shelf on the steps need to be controlled.

    In part it is a case of personal responsibility for those that attend the mosque, but the management do still need to sort the cleaning out properly.

    —–

    Mas’ud says: You are right and I have mentioned this on numerous occasions to various committee members. There is a capital project to get the wudu area refurbished. As for cleaning, I don’t know why mosques don’t employ contract cleaners to come in twice a week to do a thorough clean. I have suggested this also.

  3. Mas’ud bhai, could it be that the the masjid committee don’t want to pay up? If not, then suggest to them to ask the probationary service to provide them with people who are on probation to help clean the masjid lavatories and wudu areas. That’s what my masjid does.

  4. salam
    sidi masud, i could not have expressed any of your words better. but i have to be brutal and add that this low budget technicolor phenomenon is distinctly barelwi.
    Exterior architecture can also be embarrassing with those gold or green coloured curly wurly ice-creams set on top of the building.
    they blend in as much as the big ben would in dubai, which leaves me wondering how on earth they get planning permission for such hideousness?

    Allah help us. amin.

    —-
    Mas’ud says: I think you are right about it being a Barelwi phenomenon, but the sterile blandness of Deobandi and Salafi mosques too far in the other extreme, while Barelwi mosque seem to have too much “life” Deobandi and Salafi mosques are almost lifeless.

  5. Adnan that is a brilliant idea. Unpaid Work is what they call it. Masud I think you have got a free solution.

    I am in my 30s but I gave up with mosques and tacky decoration in my 20s. I pray the potential documentary idea bears fruit.

    Does the mosque needing a makeover have to fork the entire bill or will there be help?

    —-
    Mas’ud says: I think there will be funding for the makeover project.

  6. Salaams Br Mas’ud,

    You are sooo right with your observations – i have seen people walk in with carrier bags full of old qurans, broken clocks (with quranic verses on them) being ‘dropped off’ at the masjid!!

    I would love to nominate High Wycombe Masjid……..we have the funky flashing strobe lights (the kind tacky mobile Discos have). No big event in the mosque is complete unless the flashing lights are turned on.

    A new phenomenon that is now coupled with the tacky decorations is the huge echo that is added to the speaker systems !!!

  7. Salam

    I generally agree with your observations, its refreshing to know that some people out there share the same sort of views on this ‘decoration’ of masjids. I view it as close vandalism especially with regards to stickers plastered everywhere.

    I would add that to some people this “taste” in decor is what they actually like and may honestly believe is attractive, looking at pictures of mazars in Indo Pak and the way they are decorated is similar to what we find in these masjids.

    Finally I don’t find plain masjids of Salafi’s as souless, actually they are very peaceful with less to distract the eye, and maybe perhaps even reflect what some of simpler small masajid dotted across the Islamic world used to look like. Some of the old smaller masjids I visited in the Middle East were decorated in what might be described as a very ‘Salafi’ way. Obviously I am not referring to well known masajid of the Islamic world with their tasteful and ornate decorations.

    Wassalam

  8. Asalaam Alaikum,

    I agree with a lot of what you have said brother Mas’ud. Following on from the Barelwi phenomenon comment, I would go so far as to say its a South Asian thing that our people don’t seem to have much taste in making things look good. But then again you have Gulf funded Mosques that just HAVE to get the biggest chandelier possible, and further tackiness ensues.

    I contacted you a while ago on Facebook regarding a Masjid in Canterbury, alhumdulilah that is now finished. I don’t know what is going on with decorating the Masjid at present, but the plan when I was there was for the students living there to get together and do it themselves. I can give you contact details for the brothers involved there if you are interested in finding out how they are going about it and when they plan to do.

  9. Salaam alaikum,

    Humorous but true. I honestly think that there is an impaired ability to recognize quality and this can be observed not only in masjid decor but also in the poor choice of books available in masjid libraries and in the ineffectual content of many of the speeches given there. As you pointed out, not only is there a problem but there is often a resistance to doing things in a more aesthetic manner. Thanks for this post.

    – Irshaad

  10. I feel your pain, I really do.

    There have been times when I have been so overwhelmed by the state of our masjid that I have experienced chest pains from the stress of it all and have had to leave.

    As a kid the masjid used to have disco lights under the dome. Yes, thats right, disco lights! Now, we have the lights where you chose the speed at which they flicker!!(wow lol..). I have seen people break into a smile (out of pride, not embarrassment!) when the lights are turned on. I could go on and on……But at the end of the day, I think we have to accept that the local community likes this sort of decor (apparently their homes are to a similar taste) and it makes them happy. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder! So we cant blame them for this surely? We may not like it, but there are plenty of people who do it seems.

    The masjid committees also need some sort of system in place for people who want to do a ‘good deed’ and donate to the masjid. For example, in our masjid, the carpet (which wasnt particularly to my taste) matched the colour scheme of the rest of the building etc. Then, one of the Uncles wanted to earn some reward so he decided to have the downstairs of the masjid carpeted-in a totally different colour! I spoke to the Head of the committee at the time telling him they had to stop this madness (as well as people sticking random things on the walls etc). He said that the carpet had been delivered without any prior notice and the Uncle had arranged for it to be fitted! What I suggested at the time was for the committee to have a list of things that the masjid requires. Whenever someone wants to do a good deed they can ask the committee what is on the list and chose something from there.

    I am working with some other sisters to ‘makeover’ the sisters’ hall. Finding plain and simple prayer carpets has been a bit of a mission though so far though..

  11. I guess the main problem is that most small town mosques aren?t really loaded with cash. Hence they?ll gladly accept any freebie.

    Although I think the older generations or the average Asian have a bad taste for pieces of artwork or design. I mean look a typical Asian wedding video and you?ll know what I mean (I love part where the pictures fly across the screen).

    One of the reasons that they have the ?tacky? artwork is for what is represents, than what it is. It is very hard to get something that looks good without costing an arm and a leg.

    On a different note?.that program sounds funny but a great idea. Let me know if you need a design consultant.

  12. People should not use the mosque as a donation place. Instead, we should all decorate the mosque nicely and put things we love inside it, not old junk that we don’t want anymore!

  13. Salam,

    Often the construction of a mosque continues for decades because the new management differs with the old management and so you have hiccups and disruptions in the physical form and presence of the mosque. You can see the dis-unity (is that a word?) in the architecture of the masjid itself so it becomes a priori, the permanent backdrop of all occurrences and an ever-present reminder of divisiveness. The artwork also varies similarly and sometimes the artwork gets stolen.

    di.

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