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Designing A Multi-Faith Prayer Room (pt 1)

muslim prayer room leeds university
My design brief for designing a college prayer room was complex but a great challenge.

One of the A-levels I took at college was Product Design: Textiles & Graphics. I immensely enjoyed the challenges of the subject and as a Muslim was able to explore my arty Muslimness on a professional platform.

A-Levels are for two years, forming the college years of keen British students. In my second year I took on my first clients (I was 17) from the neighbouring city of Leeds; Trinity and All Saints University, a multi-faith environment were renovating several of their rooms and I just happened to be the designer of their new multi-faith prayer room.

I met with the Chaplain Paul A. Vary (whom on more than one occasion I accidentally called Paul Ovary). He, the dude who worked with him, James, and I formed a holy trio as we planned what was to be painted, decorated and rewired in the empty room.  Then I set about researching and sampling fabrics.

The completion of the prayer space and my coursework took 7 months, beginning with the client brief as follows:
Today's multicultural society has particular needs regarding religious beliefs. Organisations such as airports, schools and colleges are attempting to fulfil this need by provision of prayer rooms. This enables members of society wishing to express their beliefs in appropriate surroundings. Trinity and All Saints University, situated in Leeds, is one of many organisations that is providing a prayer space for the university's students, in addition to the existing church area. This prayer space is allocated for all the faith groups including Buddhism, Bahai'sm, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. I have been commissioned by TAS to design a range or decorative textile items for this prayer room which do not conflict with any religious beliefs.

Making and Learning from Mistakes
In college you have irritating criteria and exam modules to meet so there's limits to how crazy one can go and stamp work with your style. I couldn't physically decorate the whole room which was the size of a modern kitchen (an upper-class modern kitchen), and after an initial misunderstanding of who would use the prayer space (the target audience), I had to rethink the design options (i.e., no giant pitchers of the Kaba or Arabic inscriptions). At 17 I was also a young passionate Muslim, clad in jilbaabs, boots, glasses and books, therefore everything around me had look Muslim too.

Fortunately I was given other perspectives. Paul (Ovary) and James would sit with me sometimes in the Chaplain, sometimes on the prayer room floor and compare views on iconism, permissibility of portraits of Christ, symbolism in colours, who Allah said He was, why prayer rooms were needed in contemporary or secular living and we'd discuss the multitude of religious groups.

Trinity and All Saints, now called Leeds Trinity College, had a large Christian intake, Muslim students were second, but I also had to cater to the other faith groups in designing the prayer room. These groups were, in addition to Chrisitanity and Islam, Buddhism, Bahaism, Judaism and Hinduism. All those -isms were confusing, not for their existence but because I got tired of the Europeanised -isms. Zaufishanism.

I had heard of Bahaism but this was the opportunity to study the more modern faith group, after all members of the Bahai brotherhood would contemplate and critique whatever I designed their personal prayer room with. Heavy pressure, that.

Understanding Bahai Religion
Bahai (Bhai) is a Persian-Urdu word literally meaning 'brother', hence the group is structured as a brotherhood where equality and co-operation are pillars of the faith. Later I found out Omid Djalili was a Bahai, I'm a fan.

So to break this down, to design the prayer space I had to,
  • Design and make a couple of textile/graphic products
  • Which would be put on display/hung/used in the prayer room
  • Which could be practical as well as of pure aesthetic value
  • That were themed on common ground between all 6 faith groups, without giving priority to one or offending any
  • That passed health and safety tests, were not a fire hazard nor dangerous
  • That reflected designers I researched and/or techniques I studied proficiently

Oh hell. That's what I said at 17. SubhanAllah is what I exclaimed a year later.

To be continued...

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