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In Lebanon, an avant-garde mosque to preach coexistence
A picture taken on January 19, 2017 shows the interior of the Amir Shakib Arslan mosque designed by Lebanese architect Makram el-Kadi at the entrance of the Druze heartland village of Mukhtara in Lebanon's Chouf mountains. The Amir Shakib Arslan mosque is intended to make visitors reflect on religion and modernity -- and on the symbolic gesture of constructing a mosque in a village whose Druze residents worship elsewhere. JOSEPH EID / AFP.

by Sara Hussein

MUKHTARA (AFP).- From a distance, there's little to suggest that the building at the entrance of the Druze heartland village of Mukhtara in Lebanon's Chouf mountains is a mosque.

After all, despite practising a faith that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Druze do not worship at mosques, and the building strays far from the traditional rendering of a Muslim prayer house.

But the Amir Shakib Arslan mosque is intended to make visitors reflect on religion and modernity -- and on the symbolic gesture of constructing a mosque in a village whose residents worship elsewhere.

It is named after the grandfather of Walid Jumblatt, the head of Lebanon's Druze community, who commissioned and funded the project, and replaces a mosque that once stood in Mukhtara but was destroyed decades ago in a feud.

Its unusual design is the result of Jumblatt's decision to give architect Makram el-Kadi free reign to reinterpret what a mosque could look like.

Instead of the traditional domed roof alongside a minaret tower, a cage-like structure of white steel beams has been constructed to sit over an existing traditional Lebanese stone building like a "veil", Kadi says.

At one back corner of the roof, the white blades of the structure bend up towards the sky in a tower that implies a minaret.

Light and air flow between the blades, which contrast with the heavy sand-coloured stone of the one-storey traditional building beneath.

In places, the spaces between the blades are filled to create two words that can only be perceived from a distance: on the minaret above, "Allah" or "God", and below, the word "al-Insan" or "human being".

For Kadi, the project is the product of years of reimagining the architecture of the mosque.

"There's nothing scripted, neither in the Koran nor in the hadith (words and practices of the Prophet Mohammed) that tells you what a mosque should be," he told AFP.

'A new kind of calligraphy'
But despite the lack of religious constraints and the young demographics of Islam, the design of mosques has remained largely static.

"Given this big number of young people in the religion, you don't see as much experimentation in the architecture of the mosque as you would expect," Kadi said.

Inside, the Mukhtara mosque's walls are largely bare and white, with the sun streaming in from a skylight cut into the vaulted roof.

At the back of the room, where religious texts are traditionally stored, the word "Iqra" or "read" appears in wooden latticework, a nod to the first word of the Koran and a reminder, Kadi says, of the religious imperative to read, not merely recite.

The interior is dominated by a striking carpet featuring an abstract black-and-white pattern -- a first-of-its-kind print of soundwaves taken from a recording of Koranic recitation.

"The carpet is a new kind of calligraphy, in the sense that it's a visual representation of spoken language," said artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who conceived the piece.

Moments in the soundwaves where the word "God" appeared were removed, in part to avoid the possibility of visitors stepping on the word.

"But also to reflect something that's very important in this mosque... that God is both concealed and ultimately very present," added Abu Hamdan.

For all the innovation of the mosque, it retains certain elemental features, including an orientation towards Mecca, which Muslims face to pray and, for now, a traditional adhan, or call to prayer.

Abu Hamdan produced a reinterpreted adhan, with the words spoken rather than sung, but it was deemed a little too avant-garde and has been replaced for now with a standard sung recording.

'Diversity and coexistence'
For Jumblatt, the project's aims were twofold: to emphasise the ties between the Druze faith and other branches of Islam, but also to promote religious tolerance.

Lebanon still bears the scars of its 1975-1990 civil war, in which all factions and sects committed abuses, and it has been rocked by the consequences of the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

"I think the message that we have to say again and again, always in Lebanon, is that it's a place of diversity and coexistence," Jumblatt said.

"Lebanon cannot survive but through its diversity."

The Chouf area where Mukhtara is located witnessed some of the bloodiest massacres of the civil war, committed both by and against the Druze.

More recently, the Druze have been among the religious minorities targeted for forced conversions and expulsions by jihadists in Syria who consider them apostates.

For Mukhtara residents, the mosque is something of a curiosity, regarded as a gesture towards outsiders rather than a potential prayer house for themselves.

"I haven't been inside, but from the outside the design is really nice," said 50-year-old Sabah Abdel Samad, whose pharmacy is opposite the mosque.

"It's something very lovely, promoting pluralism and acceptance of the other," she added.

"Many of our Muslim brothers pass through here, it's a good thing for them to have a place to pray."

Kadi sees the mosque an "act of bridging" between the different branches of Islam at a time "when such gestures... are rarely being made".

"The fact that it's done in this way, that it's done at this time specifically, sends a strong message: that there's an alternative, you can be religious without being close-minded."

© Agence France-Presse

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