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As the GTA continues to densify, the aesthetics of traditional prayer spaces are evolving to suit the needs of urban life, Fatima Syed writes

(Photos by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

One of Mississauga’s first and most prominent mosques began in a living room.

In 1982, Nazir Khan’s apartment at Dundas Street and Highway 10 was a place for young children to pray and learn about the Koran. As word spread and interest gathered, Mr. Khan decided to create a larger Islamic centre and proper mosque for children and adults alike.

“You only need a space and a basic structure to achieve this,” said Mr. Khan, a past president and founding member of Jam’e Masjid – a former warehouse turned into a place of prayer.

The origins of many mosques in Ontario are similar to Jam’e Masjid’s. A few are newly built. More often they begin life in abandoned churches and unused industrial or commercial buildings. Some are set up in the basements of single-family dwellings.

From the outside, these buildings don’t have the traditional markings of a mosque – no minaret or dome – and for forward thinkers on urban Islamic architecture in the West, the lack of familiar aesthetics is a step toward the ideal modern prayer space.

“Today, function comes first, and form follows, and a pure simple cube can perform that function,” said Zak Ghanim, a Toronto-based architect who designed Madinah Masjid on the Danforth and Jam’e Masjid Markham.

While he did incorporate a minaret and dome into those two buildings, Mr. Ghanim believes the iconic features will begin to disappear from the development of new mosques in the Greater Toronto Area as Muslim communities become more established.

“First-generation Muslims want the traditional village mosque, something from the past, but that will change,” he says.

There are also practical reasons why these structures have less importance today: Minarets are traditionally used as elevated platforms from which to broadcast the call to prayer, an increasing rarity in many cities where people can use prayer alarm clocks or smartphone apps. And domes, in fact, have never had any religious connotation and have only come to symbolize, aesthetically, the vault of heaven.

“These are copies of the past that don’t have any function here,” said Mr. Ghanim.

Mohammad Qadeer, professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at Queen’s University, doesn’t think a detail such as a minaret should be considered a touchstone of Islamic culture.

“In North America, there will be a new type of mosque,” he said. “There will be other architectural solutions that harmonize the structure into the landscape.”

Prof. Qadeer has a special interest in the development of multicultural cities and ethnic enclaves. He cited the Islamic Centre of Kingston as an example of this: The design of this mosque, situated on a rural stretch on the edge of town, has adopted the architectural style of a Canadian barn.

The design of a modern mosque is most affected by its immediate environment: the neighbourhood, the streetscape, even the previous tenant. So the addresses of these four GTA mosques have left lasting marks on their appearances.

Masjid Toronto

The look and location

A short walk from the financial district and Yonge-Dundas Square, Masjid Toronto is a brown commercial building. Beyond the Islamic calligraphy on its frosted windows and the small white signs above the entryways that mark it as “Masjid Toronto” in Arabic and English, there is little architectural indication that it is the largest and busiest mosque in the downtown core.

How it came to be

Formerly a Royal Bank of Canada branch, the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) bought the building in January, 2002. “The focus was to renovate the inside,” said MAC director El-Tantawy Attia, and to make it a permanent place of Islamic congregation. The aim was to serve the growing Muslim population in the area which, according to the 2011 National Household Survey, made up 7.7 per cent of the population in the GTA.

“You don’t need a minaret and a dome” to achieve that, said Mr. Attia.

One thing to change

Mr. Attia wants to “change the outside so it looks nicer and appears like a mosque,” either with new paint or new brickwork.

Madinah Masjid

The look and location

Located near Donlands and the Danforth, Madinah Masjid is a warm, beige-coloured mosque with black-and-white Islamic archways and a glass dome. An ornate 26-metre-high minaret, the first of its kind in the city, is the building’s most defining feature; it towers over the neighbourhood’s two-storey storefronts and the truck rental centre next door.

How it came to be

Madinah Masjid had been a long time in the making. It was founded by the Jamiatul Muslemin of Toronto (JMT) in the early 1970s to serve Muslim immigrants living in East Toronto. At the time, the nearest established mosque was in the west end of the city – the Jami Mosque, a former Presbyterian church in Roncesvalles Village.

In 1983, JMT bought a building on Danforth Avenue that previously housed a Church of

Scientology. It was renovated in 1991 to include proper ablution and funeral facilities. It wasn’t until 2006, when they retained Mr. Ghanim, that the mosque was redesigned with traditional mosque features.

One thing to change

“More windows,” said Imam Aslam, who wishes the mosque had more natural light in the interior. “Maybe skylights.”

Masjid Omar bin Khatab

The look and location

At its current location, Masjid Omar bin Khatab is a storefront mosque in Regent Park situated between a pizza shop and a Middle Eastern restaurant. It is distinguished only by the green sign on the window above its doorway marking it as “Muslim Community Omar Bin Khatab Mosque.”

How it came to be

The mosque was originally set up in this location in 1995 after serving as a makeshift community centre for three years. After 20 years, the Muslim Community of Downtown Toronto is building a new permanent home next door – a warehouse space is being renovated to include a small dome with traditional Islamic doorways and arched windows.

One thing to change

“We would’ve liked a bigger dome. We have a small one now that’s not as visible,” said director Ahmed I. Ahmed.

Jam’e Masjid Markham

The look and location

Located at Denison Street and Middlefield Avenue, Jam’e Masjid Markham meets all the criteria of a traditional mosque. It has a 25-metre freestanding minaret, two domes and shaded arches with a concrete outline. Situated in suburban Markham, this mosque has the luxury of space and ample parking.

How it came to be

The proposed height of the minaret and the large parking lot faced initial resistance from neighbours in late 2012. They argued that the mosque would ruin the visual landscape of the residential neighbourhood, mostly two-storey detached homes, and cause unnecessary traffic.

“The response was based in misconceptions. Some people thought people would be living in the minaret, or that it would be a tomb of some sort,” said Mr. Ghanim. The height of the minaret was reduced from 34 metres to 25 metres as a goodwill gesture.

One thing to change

Those who run Jam’e Masjid Markham have no qualms about its appearance. They are focused on renovating the gymnasium to include basketball hoops and table tennis, while also reconfiguring it to function as additional prayer space during Eid.