CAMBRIDGE: Green is the color of Islam and also the color that symbolizes eco-friendly, sustainable living.
A building under construction in Cambridge seeks to marry both in what will be Europe’s first eco-mosque.
The project is 10 years in the making and has tested the ingenuity of architects and engineers. But it is on track to open in early 2019 not only as a place of prayer but also a space for teaching and welcoming people of all faiths.
“It is a place for the whole community, not just Muslims,” said Tim Winter, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Cambridge University.
Winter converted to Islam almost 40 years ago, taking the Arabic name Abdal Hakim Murad. He has studied in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and performed Hajj three times. His day job is lecturing in Islamic studies, but his other passion is the mosque.
A place for Cambridge Muslims to worship in is long overdue. According to the last census in 2011,
Cambridge is home to 8,000 Muslims, but that figure fails to take into account overseas students at the two universities (Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin) and 50 language colleges, or the growing number of “new Muslims.”
At last count, there were 100,000 Muslim converts in Britain.
Cambridge has five mosques, but none is purpose-built and all are too small. For years, worshippers have made do with rented halls, often spilling out into the corridors or street. So, 10 years ago, Winter established the Cambridge Mosque Trust, a registered charity dedicated to raising funds to build a mosque that was fit for purpose.
It was also his idea to make the mosque as “green” as possible. Care for the environment is important in Islam, but the eco-mosque should also keep the bills down, too.
In 2008, the trust acquired a one-acre derelict site for £4 million in Mill Road, an area of Cambridge with a significant Muslim population. The city council unanimously granted planning permission and, in 2009, an international architectural competition was held to find the right design.
A jury with representatives of the trust, the Muslim community and an architecture lecturer chose a design by London architects Marks Barfield, the firm behind the London Eye.
Winter gave Arab News an exclusive tour of the project. Even in its half-finished state, the building looks breathtakingly lovely. Curved timber supports shaped like trees hold up a latticed ceiling. The walls will be clad in honey-toned gault bricks with red bricks in relief. Entrance to the mosque from the street will be through a garden and open portico with Turkish marble tiles featuring a geometric design.
As well as a prayer hall holding 1,000 worshippers, the complex will have a restaurant, teaching spaces, a room for weddings, an exhibition area for local artists (of any faith), and two four-bedroomed apartments for a resident imam and the center’s director.
At the rear of the building will be a fully fitted mortuary for those taking their last journey, and another garden with a play area for children.
The mosque’s green credentials are impressive. The timber supports are made of Scandinavian larch wood from a sustainable forest. The complex has underfloor heating and rainwater collection points on the roof. Water from the ablution areas will be recycled for use on the garden and for toilet-flushing.
The roof will be covered in sedum moss, which improves insulation and provides an environment for insects and birds to thrive. Heating and hot water will come from photovoltaic panels donated by a local businessman. A sophisticated heat pumping system will identify pockets of warmer air and constantly adjust the overall temperature.
“As technology improves over time, we should be able to reduce our energy costs even more,” said Winter.
The complex also has eight boxes for swifts. These will provide a habitat for a species that is endangered in Britain and also evoke the sight of the birds that circle the Suleiman mosque in Turkey.
“It’s called ‘creation care’ —
acknowledging and respecting the order in nature created by a higher being,” said Winter.
Raising the £22 million cost of the project began with crowdfunding and has continued with private donations. Some have been sizeable — a million riyals from a Saudi princess, an even larger sum from an Emirati, and substantial sums from a Muslim group in Hong Kong — but most are small amounts from individuals.
“We carry out due diligence for anything over £10,000. We have to be sure where the money is coming from and there must be no strings attached. It would be hard to say no to requests or demands if there are strings,” said Winter.
He hopes the mosque will host parties of schoolchildren and other visitors “coming to learn about a religion that is misrepresented and misunderstood.”
The Cambridge community has been almost entirely supportive, he said. “The only opposition has been from the far right. There have been two marches organized by the English Defense League and the police operation was the biggest ever in South Cambridgeshire. The people in the march were not local, they were bussed in. The local people are all on our side and we had a spike in donations afterwards.”
The prayer hall has two spaces for women: one an area with partial screening at different heights “for those who require it” and a gallery upstairs “for those who want a grand view of what’s going on.”
Cambridge has a long association with Islam, dating back to traders and scholars in the Middle Ages. After the Crusades, masons came from Syria and worked on English Gothic architecture.
More recently, Muslims began arriving in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Today, there are also sizeable contingents of Turks, Kurds, Algerians and Kazakhs, as well as “new Muslims.”
“At last count, there were 100,000 converts in Britain,” said Winter.
Sunnis and Shiites will worship together at the new mosque “as they do in most places.” The imam will be chosen carefully. “There is no place for sectarianism or radicalism here.”
Winter, 57, is a founder of the Cambridge Muslim College, which trains British-born imams (and where he is known by his Arabic name Abdal Hakim Murad). A widely respected scholar, he is frequently included in the list of 500 most influential Muslims published by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center. Shepherding the mosque project is clearly an act of faith, but it is also a labor of love.
“I want this to be a place that brings people together and benefits not only Muslims in Cambridge but anyone from anywhere who comes here,” he said. “This is not a place to keep Muslims apart but a place for the whole community to enter.”
As to what form the grand opening will take or who will officiate, Winter said there are no firm plans yet.
A member of the royal family, perhaps? “I really don’t know — although we do have a Duke of Cambridge, don’t we?”