Back to top

The British Mosque: a social and architectural history

In Britain, the number of mosques has been steadily and exponentially increasing since the 1960’s, Shahed Saleem's research has found. From the mid 1970’s purpose built mosques have been making an appearance, so introducing the visual language of Islamic architectural symbolism to the streetscape.

The proliferation of mosques, their visual presence, combined with a growing Muslim population has fuelled reactionary narratives of a loss of indigenous British culture and ethno-nationalist fears of being ‘taken over’ or ‘swamped’ by Muslims.

I am currently working on a research project and English Heritage commission and publication exploring and constructing an architectural and social narrative of the mosque in Britain. The research currently underway raises a series of urban, architectural, social and identity issues. To control such a range of issues, the mosque building as an expression of material culture will be the anchor for the other narratives.

To start with, we have looked at how the geographic spread and number of built mosques across the UK relate to Muslim ethnicities, migration histories and schools of thought, asking whether ethnicity and religious denomination impact mosque building. Does the visual language of the mosque embody notions of identity and aspiration within the Muslim communities that build them.

Taking this analysis further, we consider the relationship between Muslim social class and mosque-building, suggesting that more deprived Muslim communities build more mosques. Possible reasons for this will be explored, such as the mosque as a ‘safe space’ for communities doubly marginalised through race and economics, where the mosque may represent the only way such a group can impact the social and public realm.

Furthermore, we explore the British mosque as a gendered space, considering the spatialisation of women within the mosque itself, and also the role of women in mosque establishment and operation. The paper will demonstrate that the participation of women in mosques is low, and ask whether this translates to a wider discriminatory practice within British Muslim societies, or whether the mosque is understood as a male public space while womens’ public participation happens elsewhere.

And then we look at the idea that while British Muslim social and identity transformation is happening in the spheres of lived experience, academia, activism and Muslim institutions, the mosque remains a conceptually static space, unable to diversify from its conservative role as a place for the preservation and perpetuation of religious ritual. The idea of dual British Muslim narratives will be considered, one progressive and adaptive and not physically spatialised, the other static and spatially embedded in the mosque. With this in mind, the future direction of the British mosque will be considered and what factors may precipitate change

Shahed Saleem is an architect running a practice in East London. He teaches at the University of Westminster on the MA in Architecture, Cultural Identity and Globalisation, and is currently writing a book on the history of the British mosque, for English Heritage.