The Islamic Center of Washington was “the first major congregational mosque” in America and remains one of the country’s most magnificent. From the outset, the mosque was a multinational effort between diverse Muslim groups living in the capital to construct a shared worship and cultural space.
Although the mosque’s architect Mario Rossi was Italian, he had a long career in the Middle East and converted to Islam. In the 1920s he was invited to work in Egypt where he became an influential mosque designer, drawing from Fatimid and Mamluk motifs in his works. The Washington, DC, mosque was his last major religious project and his only mosque located outside of the Middle East. At a glance, the Islamic Center may seem similar to his Egyptian projects, but it possesses a unique character influenced by the international background of its founders.
A key figure in the mosque’s construction was Joseph Howar, a Palestinian American businessman. Following stints in Bombay and New York, Howar moved to the District of Columbia as, “if it was good enough for the president, it was good enough for me.” Though he began in 1904 by peddling linens door to door, he quickly secured a job as a construction contractor and became one of the most important in the city. After losing everything in the Great Depression and briefly returning to Palestine, Howar decided to return to the United States to successfully rebuild his businesses.
When the Turkish ambassador to the United States died in 1944, there was no place in the city to host an Islamic funeral, which highlighted the need for a mosque in the capital. The conspicuous absence of a mosque in the District galvanized Howar and Muslim diplomats from to work together. Ambassadors from Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, as well as diplomatic representatives from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Lebanon were present at the laying of the cornerstone. In the eyes of its founders, the international cooperation intrinsic to the mosque’s construction evidenced the global character of Islam. A pamphlet promoting its construction even referred to Islam as “the pioneer and the forefather of the present United Nations Organization,” owing to the religion’s prominent international connections. Indeed, the inside of the mosque reflects its location in the DC diplomatic quarter known as Embassy Row, with flags of the various countries who contributed to the center’s construction.
Though the exterior style of the mosque is inspired by the Mameluke and Fatimid architecture that Rossi encountered in Egypt, the interior is noticeably more eclectic. Eclecticism is a nineteenth and twentieth-century architectural style that incorporates a mixture of elements from various historical styles – such as structural features, historical ornaments, local and global aesthetics, to create a unique and original design. For example, Mahmut Akok, a tile-maker in Kütahya, Turkey, made the ceramic tiles on the walls that were donated by the Turkish government. The colors of the tiles are typical for classical-era Ottoman mosques. The carpets hail from Iran. The calligraphic choices also reflect late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century eclecticism, with inscriptions in thuluth and kufic styles.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the mosque’s location in the American capital, it has played an important political role. It was dedicated by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 and has remained an important connection between the presidency and American Muslim communities, visited by President George Bush in the wake of 9/11.
Beyond serving as a locus for Muslim worship, the Islamic Center of Washington was intended to more broadly promote cultural exchange and international dialogue. To accomplish this, two wings attached via the courtyard house a library, museum, and offices. In addition to hosting practicing Muslims during regular daily prayer and holy day meetings, the center also provides assistance to families in need, officiates marriage, engages in educational outreach and government and non-governmental organizations to promote better understanding of Islam and the Islamic Center’s ideals.
Questions for reflection
- What architectural styles are places of worship in your community designed in?
- During construction of the Islamic Center of Washington diplomats and Muslim Americans formed an important international relationship. In what other ways are there connections across Muslim communities in different countries? (Hajj, Red Crescent, etc.)
- Calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran are written in Arabic throughout the Mosque. Do other religions have similar sacred languages? (Old Church Slavonic, Sanskrit, Hebrew, etc.)
Abdul-Rauf, Muhammad. History of the Islamic Center. Washington, D.C.: The Islamic Center, 1978.
Adams, George. “American Muslim, Former Immigrant from Palestine, Builds Washington Mosque,” 1950s. 2014.02.07b. Joseph Howar Archive.
Arab American National Museum Howar Family Collection
ArchNet Islamic Center of Washington