The woman behind the Sakirin Mosque

The modernist Sakirin Mosque, designed by Zeynep Fadillioglu, is the first mosque in Turkey designed by a female and comes at a time when Turkey remains deeply divided over the role of religion within society. In such an environment Fadillioglu hopes the mosque will become a symbol of unity.
Every surface of our globe can be a mosque, the Prophet Muhammad once said. With sincere intent, a faithful Muslim can conjure a mosque almost anywhere, transforming an airport departure lounge, a city pavement or a grassy knoll at a college campus into a sacred space simply by pausing to prostrate his or her head to the ground and pray.

But this innovative spirit has declined in recent decades, leaving most Islamic skylines dominated by the dome-and-minaret model which first appeared centuries ago. Istanbul, once the seat of the caliphate and the capital of the Islamic world, is now dotted with this familiar architectural design. The city’s skyline has, however, received one distinctive addition in recent weeks, a radical exception of sorts.

The metal sphere of the Sakirin Mosque cuts into the city’s horizon, a sharp contrast to the otherwise uniform shapes set against the pale sky; specialists in Istanbul hand-crafted the enormous wrought -iron and glass façade, painstakingly etching verses from the Holy Qur’an into the interior glass. An asymmetrical bronze and Plexiglas chandelier constructed in China and made from thousands of individually crafted shards of glass, which mimic raindrops, appears to dangle precariously from the ceiling of the 130 foot diameter dome. The glass drops are inspired by a prayer which asks that Allah’s light should fall upon the supplicant like rain.

The mimbar, or pulpit, resembles a graceful white stairway, which one imagines will continue to the heavens, but stops short at a platform where the Imam will stand. And finally, the mihrab, a stylized niche designating the kibla, is tulip-shaped and a vibrant turquoise in color—“an opening to God,” says the designer.

And who is the designer who subtly blended modern techniques and materials into what might be the world’s most conservative design vernacular? It is a she – Zeynep Fadillioglu, the first female in Turkey to design a mosque. Fadillioglu has made a name for herself designing restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars and private residences across the globe – London, Kuwait, Berlin and Paris, to name a handful of the cities marked by her creations. For almost 25 years, Fadillioglu and her husband, a glamorous, party-loving pair, have been creating sophisticated hot spots that are the number-one destinations for Turkey’s glitterati.

Fadillioglu began her career as an interior designer with an eclectic taste. Her own home showcases a treasure trove of possessions amassed from her frequent travels and flea-market sprees. In less capable hands, her home would appear to be a cultural hodgepodge of Eastern and Western pieces, but Fadillioglu has a knack for making things Oriental and European sit together in easy, informal arrangements that never feel artificial or pretentious. The same is true for her design of the Sakirin Mosque; it is an effortless union of the modern with the traditional and the West with the East.

Istanbul’s wealthy Sakir family commissioned Fadillioglu to build the Sakirin Mosque as a memorial to their mother because of Fadillioglu’s harmonious design sensibility. “When I was offered this project I cried,” she said. She wept not only because she considered this the opportunity of a lifetime, but because she felt the project refuted the myth that Islam marginalizes women, discouraging them from playing an active, leadership role in the community. Her excitement and pride, however, was tempered by the pressure she said she placed upon herself to create a stunning place of worship.

Despite Turkey’s strictly secular status, much of the country remains religiously conservative, and the Sakir family selected one of Istanbul’s most religious areas to erect the mosque. Fadillioglu made a concerted effort from the very beginning to marry tradition with modernity. “Designing everything we tried to be contemporary, but not too futuristic or avant garde,” she explained. “We want the public to feel part of the place, rather than watching it as an incredible art object.” To achieve a comfortable, uncontrived balance, Fadillioglu hired both craftsmen trained in traditional Islamic architecture and artisans experienced in creating contemporary designs.

Fadillioglu consulted art historians and theologians at every step, not wanting to unwittingly offend anyone, particularly those of a more conservative mindset. She found the same response to all of the design ideas she cautiously put forth to Islamic scholars: “Why not?” The calligraphy artist for the Sakirin Mosque was an Imam and when she first introduced herself to him, Fadillioglu braced herself for a look of disapproval, at best, but instead she caught nothing more than momentary surprise on his face. She expected resistance but was met with open-mindedness. “I had the prejudice myself, that I would have problems,” she admitted with a smile.

Ironically, Fadillioglu said she faced more problems from staunchly secular friends. “People with Western values, they kept on asking me why I was building a mosque.” Some went so far as to suggest that Fadillioglu had compromised her secular ideals by agreeing to take on the project.

Along with her efforts to build a mosque which balanced the modern design elements with traditional ones, Fadillioglu grappled with another issue: Should women be allowed in a mosque’s main hall or confined to separate quarters? Fadillioglu drew on her own experiences praying in mosques. “In the Prophet’s time, men and women prayed next to each other,” she said. “Lately, with the rise of political Islam everywhere, the women’s sections have started to be covered up and boxed off. I’ve been in mosques like that, and I felt very uncomfortable.” She decided to return to what she felt were the religion’s roots. Fadillioglu designed an expansive balcony overlooking the central hall and divided only by crisscrossed railings. The balcony has an airy, open feel and allows women to have an unobstructed view of the entire mosque.

The Sakirin Mosque comes at a time when Turkey remains deeply divided over the role of religion within society. A recent opinion poll found that 68% of the country believes a conflict between religion and secularism continues to threaten the country. In such an environment Fadillioglu hopes the mosque will become a symbol of unity. “I think this mosque has all the Western and Eastern values nicely blended.”

Zehra Rizavi is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah

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