Mill Road in Cambridge, England, is an unassuming yet bustling thoroughfare of independent shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs and student flats. The mundanity of this urban scenery was broken by an exciting addition in spring 2019. The new £23 million Cambridge Central Mosque is perhaps the most audacious and successful attempt at innovative mosque design in the UK. Absent are the garish pastiche of Indo-Saracenic design features, common amongst many British mosques. Praise be to Allah: there are no dreadful minarets, tacky calligraphy or bearded unclejis to inform you that you’re destined for hell on account of your fresh trim. And whilst the average worshipper may fail to notice it from street level, a beady-eyed six-foot person like me is able to discern a golden dome atop the magnificent building. Alas, a small and sad capitulation to orthodoxy. More interestingly, visitors are welcomed by a meticulously-manicured chahar bagh – a quadrilateral Indo-Persian garden evocative of the Muslim paradise – with English oak benches and crabapple trees adjoining an octagonal stone fountain. The calming murmur of falling water distracts the ear from the surrounding cacophony of pagan and holy tongues. 

The garden leads to a portico with an adjacent cafe, and thereafter an atrium, both columned by the mosque’s crowning glory: octagonal, intertwined and latticed timber colonnades. ‘Say: God is One’ – the expression of Islamic monotheism – covers the walls of the mosque in geometric Kufic script, albeit not rendered in cheap gold paint or Shiite black, but assembled skilfully in Cambridgeshire Gault brickwork. The interlaced arboreal theme, conceptually reminiscent of English Gothic vaulting, extends to the prayer hall: its walls bleached in austere white, its floor carpeted in delicate morning blue and the large space illuminated by skylights. Though open to both genders (a rarity), the prayer hall is disappointingly segregated – an ornately latticed timber screen marking the sexual divide. My female companion, a practising twenty-something English Anglican (another rarity), engaged in conversation with me across the barrier. We chatted, rather astonishingly, without the scolding of exasperated worshippers shocked by the wanton flouting of Islam’s strict gender norms. If that came as a surprise, the ablution facilities were a revelation. Overcome by foreboding on approach to the area, I anticipated the inevitable effluvia of feet, rusty pipes and structural damp. Instead, the ritually unclean are greeted by resplendent turquoise walls – with argentine slate and exquisite plants, modern plumbing and tilework, glistening in a naturally sunlit space. Rainwater from the heavens, a key feature in the mosque’s sustainable design, flushes away, spiritually and physically, their impurities.

The mosque is the work of Marks Barfield Architects, alongside geometer Keith Critchlow, garden designer Emma Clark, and artists Amber Khokhar and Ayesha Gamiet. They have weaved horticulture, sustainability, Islamic geometry and English craftsmanship together to create something unique. The mosque’s architects and trustees wanted an English mosque. Yet the cultural reference seems misplaced at times as the minimalist arboreal design, subtle colours and simple furnishing could suggest Scandinavian. Indeed, if Allah likes IKEA, this is the House for Him. At any rate, the mosque generally is a triumph of Anglo-Islamic architecture.

Shahed Saleem, The British Mosque: An architectural and social history, Historic England, 2018

In The British Mosque, Shahid Saleem suggests that the Cambridge Central Mosque ‘marks a step change in the narrative of British mosque design’ as ‘it is not a building conceived and commissioned by immigrant Muslims’ but one which caters to a multi-ethnic and non-sectarian British Muslim polity. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it has taken British Muslims 130 years to articulate an indigenous approach to mosque design in the UK. For British Muslims, ‘the visuality of the mosque has been one of the fundamental strategies through which Muslim communities have made their presence in Britain known.’ As such, ‘the mosque needs to symbolise its identity quickly and easily to as many of its users as possible, in essence, replicating known and popular images from around the world.’ 

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