Home - T Singapore

In Bangladesh, Reimagining What a Mosque Might Be

By Michael Snyder

The concrete pavilion of Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury’s Chandgaon mosque (2007) on the outskirts of Chittagong.
Rajesh Chakraborty/DRIK
The concrete pavilion of Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury’s Chandgaon mosque (2007) on the outskirts of Chittagong.

The amber denim mosque sits at the back of a factory compound deep in the industrial sprawl north of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s frenetic capital (population: more than 18 million). Its walls are a Tetris grid of concrete blocks that recess in tiers toward open centres, like moulds for tiny Aztec pyramids. Pipes left over from a plumbing job serve as pillars. Steel struts branch upward toward the 18-foot roof like the skeletons of umbrellas open against a monsoon. On a hot spring morning, the punishing deltaic sun bounces off the shallow moat that surrounds the structure, drifting over the concrete.

The mosque, completed in 2016, was the second project by the seven-year-old Dhaka firm Archeground to be built at the Amber Denim garment factory, which produces reams of fabric for the garment manufacturers that are the engine of Bangladesh’s new economy. A year earlier, the firm had constructed an open-air loom shed of bamboo, concrete and the same repurposed pipes that would be used in the prayer hall: It was an affordable prototype for humane industrial architecture in a nation plagued by deplorable, sometimes fatal working conditions. The loom shed originally contained a small prayer hall at its western end, but the weavers complained that the clacking from the looms disrupted their prayers, and so Jubair Hasan, 39, one of Archeground’s principals, approached the factory’s owner for another patch of land on which they could build a mosque. “We wanted to create a prayer space that would be connected to our climate,” Hasan says. “So there are no windows, no doors. Light comes in from all sides.” Since its completion, Hasan has encouraged the 1,500 employees who work, and in some cases live, on the compound to make their own adjustments by, say, fashioning bamboo curtains to block cold morning air in the winter. “Really, the people are making their own mosque,” he says.

Mosques have been at the centre of civic life in eastern Bengal, the ancient region surrounding the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta, since shortly after the Sufi missionaries arrived in the 13th century. Of the 165 million people now living in Bangladesh, a nation roughly the size of Iowa, about 90 percent are Muslim. Aside from the red brick ruins of ancient monasteries, remainders of 400 years of Buddhist rule that ended in the 12th century, the only structures to have survived from antiquity are the austere brick mosques left by the Bengali sultanate (which controlled the region until the 16th century), some Hindu temples and a handful of civic structures built by the Mughals, who ruled the area until the rise of the British East India Company in the 18th century. Otherwise, the vernacular architecture of Bengal, a land of estuaries and mangroves, of shifting soil and torrential storms, largely consists of thatched-roof huts built with mud or bamboo and open-sided pavilions that accommodate, and often succumb to, the extreme climate.

Naquib HossainThe concrete prayer hall in the Louis Kahn-designed Parliament complex (1982) in Dhaka was one of the first Modernist Bengali mosques.
The concrete prayer hall in the Louis Kahn-designed Parliament complex (1982) in Dhaka was one of the first Modernist Bengali mosques.

But Bangladesh, as the world knows the country, is a modern invention. When the British relinquished their colonial stranglehold on the subcontinent in 1947, they split it along religious lines: The predominantly Hindu western side of Bengal became a state in India, and the Muslim east became East Pakistan (separated by a thousand miles from West Pakistan). Over the next two decades, a resistance movement emerged in Bengali-speaking East Pakistan as the local population demanded greater representation — and eventually freedom — from the Urdu-speaking political elites in the West. In 1971, after a brief but brutal war, Bangladesh won its independence. In its early years of nationhood, the country had a distinct but austere tradition of mosque architecture to draw on. To set themselves within the framework of a more global Islam, engineers and architects relied on Turkic domes, peaked Mughal arches and massive Arab minarets — the pan-Islamic shorthand for sacred architecture — to indicate the buildings’ importance. These mosques had little to do with Bengal itself.

Beyond these mosques, Bangladesh was rapidly developing the most robust Modernist tradition in all of South Asia. This is largely because of the American-trained architect Muzharul Islam, whose College of Arts and Crafts (now the Faculty of Fine Art at the University of Dhaka), completed in 1955, has remained a touchstone for contemporary Bengali architects. Throughout the 1960s, Islam invited Western luminaries such as the architects Paul Rudolph (Islam’s professor at Yale), Stanley Tigerman and Louis Kahn to study and build in his homeland. Islam and his visitors excavated the traditional, nature-oriented forms that had once defined the region: They used brick (the only long-lasting indigenous material) and concrete to build simple, inexpensive structures that opened themselves to the elements rather than fighting them. Most of these buildings — Robert Boughey’s 1964 Kamalapur Railway Station, Masud Ahmed’s Mausoleum of the Three Leaders, completed in the 1980s — were secular, public spaces. Modernism, Islam hoped, could give physical form to a shared history while shaping a democratic political future. Bengalis will often tell you that theirs is the only nation founded on a language. It might also be the only nation founded on Modernism. And for the last 60 years, that tradition has been passed down through generations of architects, many of whom still describe themselves as “disciples” of Islam (who died in 2012, at the age of 88). The trio of principals at Archeground, Hasan and his 39-year-old partners Lutfullahil Majid and Nabi Newaz Khan, are only its latest inheritors.

Until recently, though, a building like the Amber Denim mosque would have been inconceivable. Modernism was secular; mosques were religious. But this century, as the rapid growth of the textile industry has brought unprecedented wealth to one of the world’s poorest nations, families and businesses have increasingly chosen to channel their new fortunes toward zakat (charity), one of the five pillars of Islam, commissioning public mosques on private land. Raised around a Modernist aesthetic but without the secularist impulse of those who first developed it, these patrons and the architects they hire have brought Modernism and its utopian ideals into the religious sphere at a moment when their nation, like so much of the world, teeters on extremism. The results are some of the most creative, beautiful and radically designed religious spaces being built today.

Shahidul Alam/DRIKThe brick facade of Marina Tabassum’s Bait Ur Rouf Mosque (2012) in Dhaka.
The brick facade of Marina Tabassum’s Bait Ur Rouf Mosque (2012) in Dhaka.

When Louis Kahn began work on the Parliament complex in Dhaka in 1962, he included in his plan what would be one of the first and, for decades, the most important Modernist mosques in Bangladesh. A lofty cube, its corners girded by oversize hollow cylinders, the prayer hall, from a bird’s-eye view, extends into the moat surrounding the hulking, fortresslike Parliament complex at a slight angle, as though caught in a gentle tide. It disrupts the building’s near perfect symmetry only so that its mihrab could face precisely toward Mecca. Inside, it is a study in light and texture: Eight immense round windows bend around its corners, the continuations of their arcs spreading into the hollow columns like flying buttresses. Sunlight filters in through the open tops of the columns and flickers over the sculptural imperfections in each hand-cast concrete slab. Triangular squinches angle up from the corners, the beginnings of a dome that never materialises. Instead, Kahn placed his closest approximation of a dome, the most enduring symbol of Islamic architecture, over the floor of the neighbouring assembly hall: a vaulted octagonal structure soaring 117 feet over a space dedicated to the mundane work of governance. While the assembly hall is grand, the mosque is introspective. Democracy, the building suggests, would become the state religion, fortified by a quiet, inclusive faith.

It would take 25 years for anyone in Bangladesh to build a religious space anywhere near as inventive. Under the military governments that mostly ran the country from 1975 to 1991, many major mosque projects were commissioned by rulers, says Ehsan Khan, 54, “so they were designed for political purposes and used a cheaper symbolic language.” Khan spent his early years in architecture at Islam’s firm. In 1996, shortly after Sheikh Hasina was elected to her first term as prime minister, the Bengali cultural ministry commissioned Khan to design a mausoleum for Hasina’s father, Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The architect surrounded the grave with a ring of perforated concrete, recalling the carved jali screens found around Sufi tombs and other Indo-Islamic structures, and crowned it with a concrete shell that borrows its shape not from typical mosque domes but from the bowed rooflines of traditional village houses. The mausoleum combined Modernist techniques — porous surfaces, bold geometries — with regional Muslim codes, but those innovations were likely only welcomed because the building was not, technically, a place for prayer. Despite that, Khan’s mausoleum suggested an architecture that could help define and express Bangladesh’s own religious aesthetic.

Then, in 2005, Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, the now 48-year-old principal of his firm Urbana, received a commission from a rich Dhaka-based client to design a mosque in Chandgaon, a neighbourhood at the northeastern edge of Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city. Completed two years later, the Chandgaon mosque is simpler and more abstract than Khan’s: a long, white rectangle suspended among bananas and palms, perforated by a low threshold that leads into a forecourt beneath an immense oculus. Glass doors open to a prayer hall capped, in Chowdhury’s only concession to tradition, by a small dome, split like a book in wedged glass. “[The patron] said he wanted a modern mosque, something that would bring the area forward,” Chowdhury says. “I wanted to go back to the beginnings of mosques.” For him, this meant stripping away ornament to uncover the building’s essential function as a shaded place for Muslims to pray. In reducing the mosque to its most fundamental elements, Chowdhury landed on something straight out of Bengal’s past: a basic pavilion, its every surface open to the voracious world. In 2012, the Dhaka-based architect Rafiq Azam took that premise a step further in his renovation of a family graveyard at a residential compound set among rice paddies in Bangladesh’s rural south. Azam raised the plot on a platform and set it off from the rest of the site with a wide, low staircase and a broad concrete threshold to represent “a line we can cross anytime” between the celestial and terrestrial worlds. Chowdhury and Azam adapted the fluidity of space that inspired the region’s early Modernists into the spiritual realm. And, in its own way, the Chandgaon mosque proved that the dichotomy between secular and religious architecture had always been false.

Daniele Domenicali, courtesy of ShatottoA family graveyard (2012) in Noakhali, a district northwest of Chittagong, designed by Rafiq Azam’s firm, Shatotto.
A family graveyard (2012) in Noakhali, a district northwest of Chittagong, designed by Rafiq Azam’s firm, Shatotto.

As Dhaka has grown over the last 50 years, paving over gardens and filling in lakes, this new urban landscape — choked with traffic instead of water hyacinth, cloaked in smog rather than mist — has challenged the viability of the old remaining structures. When the 49-year-old architect Marina Tabassum started designing her Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in 2006, in the city’s dense, impoverished periphery, there was little infrastructure to accommodate the rapidly growing population of migrants from the countryside. To create a sanctuary away from the construction and dust, Tabassum (who was formerly Chowdhury’s partner at Urbana and wife; they divorced in 2005) studied the dark, hermetic 15th-century mosques of the Bengali sultanate for inspiration. She built her mosque like a set of nesting dolls: the square sanctum set in a circle set in another square, its walls made from screens of angled bricks that allow air to filter in. Light slips through perforations in the roof to dapple the sanctuary floor, like sun passing through a thicket of mangroves. The mihrab is a white razor of light vertically cleaving the point where the two outer walls meet. Intimate as Kahn’s prayer hall yet porous as Chandgaon, Bait Ur Rouf, completed in 2012, translated the traditional rural pavilion to the language of the city, creating a community space and a respite from the heat, noise and crushing pressure of urban life.

International praise for both Chandgaon and Bait Ur Rouf led to a surge of nontraditional mosques. Now, virtually every major architect in Bangladesh has a mosque project underway. Since completing Chandgaon a decade ago, Chowdhury alone has designed four more. In Gulshan, a wealthy business and residential district in Dhaka, he wrapped a seven-story hall in a concrete screen of abstracted Arabic letters that spell the words la illaha illa Allah (“There is no God but Allah”). And in Keraniganj, a conservative, working-class district across the Buriganga River from Old Dhaka, the architect built what he calls the Red Mosque (2017): a glass structure encircled by a channel of water, its roof held up by branching columns cast in concrete the colour of burnished sandstone. The Red Mosque is his most traditional, the forest of columns suggesting the infinitely receding arcades of, say, the famous mosque of Córdoba, Spain, built in the 10th century. It is also, perhaps, the most Bengali: A covered pavilion with transparent walls that open entirely to the rain and wind, it’s hardly a building at all.

Iwan BaanThe entry to Chowdhury’s Gulshan Society Mosque (2017) in Dhaka.
The entry to Chowdhury’s Gulshan Society Mosque (2017) in Dhaka.

Today, due in part to the garment industry, Bangladesh is less equitable than it has ever been. Rising sea levels threaten to imminently submerge the country, two-thirds of which lies less than 17 feet above sea level. Religious extremism has, in the last few years, resulted in several violent outbursts, including the murders of atheist bloggers and gay rights activists. These incidents have disrupted Bangladesh’s image of itself as a moderate, progressive nation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, currently in her fourth term, has been accused of using those attacks as an excuse to stifle political dissent. Last year, Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister and leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was sentenced to 17 years in prison on embezzlement charges, and thousands of other activists and political figures have been jailed. One government functionary told me in early 2018 that Bangladesh would soon “hold elections to re-elect our prime minister.” His prediction proved correct. In December, Hasina won 98 percent of the vote in an election that members of the opposition, journalists and election observers claimed was riddled with irregularities. Democracy, clearly, is notional at best. (Hasina’s government has denied the accusations of persecution and vote rigging and maintains that democratic ideals persist.) “We have probably the best democratic building in the world, but we certainly don’t have the best democracy,” said Shamsul Wares, the dean of the School of Science and Technology at the State University of Bangladesh, referring to the Parliament complex.

These modern mosques, then, have come to represent both a spiritual refuge from the crumbling democracy and a physical manifestation of Bangladesh’s original ideals — perhaps none more so than Chowdhury’s Chandgaon. Coated in a whitewashed layer of cement plaster, the concrete building has not aged (as the architect will admit) especially well. Moisture stains run in black streaks down the walls. The glass aperture of the dome has bloomed an algal green, like the inside of a fish tank, and the detritus of decaying leaves blocks the recessed skylight. Despite neglect, the building remains otherworldly. On a March day, the facade shone gold and then blazing white as the sun slipped into the blank blue sky. It looked more like a dimensionless plane of light than a wall, a field of illumination where the heavenly meets the earthly. It could, like Bangladesh itself, dissolve at any moment, washed away by the ocean — or the rising tide of autocracy. But in the meantime, it could also help the people who come from all over the region to pray there look back, which, in Bangladesh, is also a way of looking forward.