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Mosque Spotlight: Islam & Ecoism – A Deeper Look at the Cambridge Eco Mosque

by in Identity on 10th July, 2019

On Friday the 15th of March, as the Imam of the Cambridge central Mosque said in the khutbah of first Jummuah for this mosque – 11 years in the making, it is a “historic moment”. In many ways too, and for more than one community. Europe’s first Eco Mosque, located in the ancient city of Cambridge, opened for the first congregational prayer, welcomed by various volunteers from the local community.

And maybe it was the news that woke the world that Friday, and maybe it was having woken up to murder in the Masjid, but this Jummuah and this Masjid, felt different. The Masjid is the house of Allah, and also the only place in the world that any Muslim – traveller, stranger and student alike can go to and feel at home. In the Masjid, the community gathers, marries and prays. Children run across the jamat khana playing, hiding behind wooden pillars and sisters take turns carrying and rocking babies as their mothers pray.

The masjid is central to the Muslim as are concepts of time and nature – in our five daily prayers, as we prostrate and leave the world behind with our surrender to Allah almighty, perhaps the few times fixed in time and yet, the time we spend, prostrating, in sujood timeless.

And according to the natural cycles of sunset, sunrise, when the sun is at its highest point and when the sun sinks again. While time has become part of the modern capitalist anxiety of our society, the time of Salah is a reminder that our lives are rooted in nature. Adam and Eve came from the gardens of paradise and so life began in the gardens, and in this world, we can only hope to return to the gardens of paradise. There is a cyclical structure inherent in these beliefs of return. And the Cambridge Mosque project symbolises the consistent and continual interconnectedness of faith with nature

From the solar panels and glass on the roof flooding the space with natural light to the wooden structures made to replicate an internal tree structure, there is a sense that the mosque, like a Muslim’s life, is rooted in nature.

There is a beautiful simplicity in the design, grey carpet with underfloor heating, acquired with donations raised by Cambridge’s local youth charity Al Ansaar, covers the floor. The surrounding aesthetic of the mosque is based on the idea of preservation – of the community and nature. Funding for the mosque has been based on resourcefulness and a spiritual connection with nature, as proceeds from a nature meditation trip were given to the trust.

On a practical day-to-day level, the collection and recycling of rainwater will be used to water the garden, flushing and other required cleaning. This will significantly contribute to the mosque’s environmentally friendly approach. And to encourage eco-friendly commuting, areas surrounding the mosque have been designated for bike racks.

While an emphasis on environmentally friendly buildings seems to be a current political trend, sustainability has always been a command for Muslims. The Qur’an and accompanying hadiths condemn waste:                                                                                                                       

“But waste not by excess: for Allah loveth not the wasters”

(Qur’an 6:141)

The concept of a European Eco-Mosque however, is first. Tim Winter, also known as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, the chairman of the Mosque project trust as well as the dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, and a professor at the University of Cambridge considers the idea suited to the city of Cambridge, which he described as an “intellectual crossroad”. Cambridge has a rich intellectual tradition with the existence of both the world-renowned University and key Islamic institutes such as the Cambridge Muslim and Islamic Colleges where scholars are trained. Cambridge has been significant to the history of Islamic scholarship for many decades now and continues to be with a growing number of Muslims living and studying here.

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@cambridgemosqueproject is weeks away from opening its doors to the general public and worshippers alike… Who wants to go on a road trip? – It’s cost £23 Million pounds and 11 years to complete, but Europe’s first eco-mosque is nearly ready. – Based in historic Cambridge, UK, the project was started by dean and lecturer of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, and received over 10,000 individual donations to complete. – This architectural masterpiece is from the minds of the architects behind the London Eye, and embodies the Islamic principle of stewardship of the Earth. – Watch our video on the Cambridge eco-mosque here and head to Amaliah.com to read more about it now…

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Though Winter made clear to me he was an academic and had no intention to take up a formal position at the mosque once it had been completed, it was apparent that his input, and his contribution to the University and Muslim community, was significant to the success and unifying vision of the project.

While media attention surrounding the Cambridge, Mosque has focused on its environmental achievements and architecture, it should be noted that a broader idea of fostering resourcefulness within the community is present in the project plans. Too often, places of worship are empty till it is time to pray or a day in the holy calendar arrives. Here, on the other hand, the mosque will be constantly in use. In the time of the Prophet [PBUH] the mosque was a space for prayer, but also for meetings and for meals, community gatherings and events; events of all kind. The mosque was central both geographically and communally.

Winter emphasised how this mosque has been a community project at every stage of its development. Residents’ concerns about parking for instance, led to the addition of underground parking. A garden with benches, ideal for children and families, is located at the mosque’s entrance.

These gardens are designed with inspiration from the Qur’an where gardens are considered a reward, the resting places in paradise:

As for those who obey Allah and His Messenger, We will admit them into Gardens with rivers flowing under them, remaining in them timelessly, for ever. That is the Great Victory.

(Qur’an 3:13)

Those who believe and do right actions will have the Gardens of Firdaws as hospitality, remaining in them timelessly, for ever, with no desire to move away from them.

(Qur’an 18:107-108)

A fountain sits in the middle of the garden emphasising the association between worship and purity.  And the trees planted on both sides of the building take direct heed from the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH): “There is no Muslim who plants a tree or sows a field for a human, bird, or animal eats from it, but it shall be reckoned as charity from him.” [Bukhari, Muslim].  As the garden is located in front of the entrance to the mosque building, it invites non-Muslim members of the community to make use of the space, too.

Other developments, such as a café is open to all, and promised to have an “upscale but not too intimidating” (Winter) design, with a resourceful space; large enough to host weddings and feed the community during Ramadan, while operating daily for more casual gatherings. There will also be various spaces around the mosque, inviting the community beyond the scope and times for prayer, such as an art exhibition area. This resembles a sort of coffee shop model mosque – whereby the mosque is modelled around the idea of being a space for all kinds of gathering. The Cambridge mosque has the versatility of catering for the local community as well as serving as a national flagship centre in the UK in Cambridge as symbolic for the contribution and growth of British Muslims in a historically intellectually rich city.

Given the current political arena, with narratives of populist, aggressive nationalism and Islamophobia on the rise, the support this mosque has received from residents of Cambridge is encouraging. Cambridge’s Christian community has donated to the project – Emmanuel United Reform Church gave 150 pounds –  and local political groups such as the East Mill Rd action group have praised the efforts of the mosque. And in 2011, when the English Defence League staged protests against the mosque’s construction, residents outnumbered them in a counter-demonstration, welcoming the mosque’s presence in their neighbourhood.

There seems to be a genuine understanding from the residents who are in solidarity with the Muslims of Cambridge despite that very little space in the city is dedicated to our religion. Christian architecture forms the skyline, and tolling bells and towering church steeples signify communal spaces on almost every street corner. Muslim students and residents, on the other hand, must gather, have Iftaar, perform Friday prayers in a few tiny venues. The hall of St Columbus Church, a barn on the North of the city and a house mosque on Mawson road where Muslim residents spill onto the streets – are the dispersed and small venues we perform Friday prayers. It is easy to feel that the lack of a physical large space translates into a lack of space for Muslims altogether within Cambridge, and a denial of the contribution and growth of the Muslim community.

These small prayer rooms cannot accommodate the city’s growing Muslim population. Winters, who has lived in Cambridge for many years, notes how during his undergraduate years in 1980 there were only 45 people at the Eid prayer. This number has now grown to a significant 3000. The Cambridge mosque will create space for the entire community of residents and students from the city’s two universities, with Muslim heritage, open to Muslims of all denominations. But the mosque will be more than a larger prayer hall – it will serve to highlight the contribution of Muslims to this global city; the golden dome among ancient buildings, shimmering in the skyline.

Importantly, the mosque will also provide three different areas specifically for women; to pray, to use for social gatherings as well as Halaqa’s that regularly take place in the Masjid. Though mosques have always been a space for women, many mosques in Britain have come under scrutiny, for failing to designate space for female worshippers. This is related to the differences in usage of the mosque, while the Prophet’s [PBUH] mosque was central to the Muslim’s life, today there is a spectrum of how different mosques have historically and currently been used. Many British mosques, unlike the Cambridge mosque project, were built decades ago –  by converts or by a miniscule Muslim population – often this was men who immigrated to the UK temporarily for work or without their families and communities. At that point, the mosques were created to accommodate to the small number of Muslims and used solely to perform daily prayers and thus functioned as Mussallas. Like the current Abu Bakr mosque in Cambridge, many were also simply too small to have designated areas other than a single main prayer hall. Mosques then also sprang from national and cultural identity, which influenced the usage of the space. As a result, women now often do not have particularly large spaces in local mosques.

But the Cambridge mosque, suited for growing and diverse Muslim families and a growing community, has no national or denominational identity, it is intended for a variety of purposes well beyond ritual prayer. And Muslim women in Cambridge were consulted as early as 2009 through a survey asking them what kind of space they would like – whether they wanted to pray in a female-only space, whether they wanted a partition, and, if so, what the height and transparency ought to be. Winter explained that there was no consensus, so the mosque has taken on board the diversity of responses the survey received, resulting in multiple designated areas for women. A transparent but soundproof room for women and young children has been provided, with their own Mihrab. Women also have their own area in the main prayer hall alongside a movable screen of different heights and empty spaces in between – ideal for children running between parents. Women also have their own balcony space upstairs – with the best view of the main prayer hall.

The screen accommodates those who choose to worship in congregation and privately, as the screen has various heights, women can stand together in prayer, unified, despite and in different positions according to their particular beliefs. Women form some of the trustees and life members of this mosque too, there is also a classroom designated specifically to women, a pushchair zone, a nappy changing room and a health and wellbeing room are amongst the facilities.

The entrance of the mosque is also open to all – with a separate entrance at the back if some women choose to enter separately. It is these nuances of the Cambridge mosque that demonstrate how the project is truly working towards the inclusivity Islam teaches.

The development and existence of this mosque is a true community project and a hopeful sign for the sustainability of this masjid and community.

You can find a sense of unity in the mosque’s principles – there will be no divisive sermons held –  and the Khateeb spoke only in Fushaa – the Arabic found in the Qur’an and English. While the Masjid is adorned with geometric Islamic patterns, reminiscent of Islamic art, found in old cities such as Granada and Marrakesh, except there is no grandeur. Instead, the intellectualism of Al-Andalus, the age of mathematic and geometric inventions is evoked as the feature marble floor in the atrium is designed with depictions of geometric dividers. The geometric designs are a feature of the entire building, they are intricate, layered, and detailed, while the centres of the wooden pillar tree style structures against while walls, are lit naturally through skylights. And the transcendence of Allah, the reminder and groundedness in nature is felt.

The project has been in development for years, and 23 million pounds spent.

Ecoism and sustainability in Islam also involves spending money resourcefully. And in the awe felt at the aims of the project it would be dishonest if I didn’t consider expenditure. However, the materials used and bought, are investments. The usage of wood, as well as physically reminding us of nature and the reliance early Muslims had on wood to record ayahs of the Quran as they were revealed, uses significantly less energy when produced. And the golden dome is actually a durable copper alloy; ‘tecu gold’ from Germany. Beyond this, much of the money has been directly invested into the infrastructure– with only 0.09% of the funds used for the administration fees. Many Masjid’s in the UK cannot afford to pay employees of the mosque, and show the required appreciation, here, the Imam and Director are full time employees and part of the building is two houses for them, alongside the mosque building. The raising of the money has come from the local community as well as the global Muslim community, and as these funds are raised from dispersed individuals and communities – there is nothing attached other than Allah’s promised reward for charity. And the raising and usage of this money continues to emphasise community efforts as does the physical building. Just as the wooden pillars inside, holding up the mosque roof most accentuate the idea of unity, the project too is centred on creating a sustainable community and fostering unity. There is a sense as you walk around the masjid that the wooden, tree like branches hold up the roof of the Masjid, and their roots grounded in key beliefs accepted by all. These roots are faith and belief in Allah and tawhid – the oneness of Allah, the existence of Allah.

As a community that has gone so long without a designated, accommodating space for worship, we must continue to be united by common fundamental beliefs as the mosque symbolises. This is indeed a long standing, sustainable project with features and a purpose that will serve as constant reminders of Allah’s transcendence and the importance of sustainability in the house of Allah, and subsequently, our homes and our ummah.

And this is what felt different, I entered the mosque to remember Allah in prayer, but, as I entered every feature I saw and step I took, became a part of my worship.

And this reminder of community and sustainability also left with me.

Majida Begum

Majida Begum

Majida Begum is a current English Literature undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. She writes on theempoweredprole.com, about her experiences as a Muslim student in the hope to further accessibility for her community in institutions that traditionally seem alien. She is also a tutor and most passionate about inspiring people: to question the limits they pose on themselves, and to question the narrative perpetuated about Islam in right wing media. Instagram: @theempoweredprole Twitter: @majidaa_