In the increasingly dense neighbourhood of Faidabad, Uttara, a humble brick structure outshines the nearby tall apartment buildings. Bait Ur Rouf mosque on the outskirts of Dhaka city stands out as an architectural masterpiece. Yet its earthy red hue blends into the surrounding landscape. ... Terracotta bricks, an ubiquitous building material locally, are used on the exterior and interior but left bare, which gives the structure of the mosque character. Marina Tabassum, the architect, explained her use of brick by her strong belief that “architecture should be rooted to its place”. At the 2014 National Architecture Conference in Perth, Tabassum also stated, “You can take a very simple material and by the action of your own creativity and innovation take that to any level you like.”
The mosque is minimalist with almost no furniture. Other features include an opening at the front of the mosque which lets a crescent of light through. Natural light filters into the mosque during the day. It is inspired by Sultanate mosque architecture in Bengal between the 14th–16th centuries.
Bait Ur Rouf skips the now conventional dome, minaret or mihrab. The roof of the mosque is strikingly beautiful, with the fans and incoming rays of sunlight combining to create a lovely interplay of light and shadow. Porous brick walls ensure that the temperature inside the prayer hall is significantly cooler, a welcome relief in the scorching heat of noon.
Mohammad Zahir, the muezzin, is a motor mechanic by trade. A local, he performs the call to prayer at the mosque five times a day voluntarily. The khadem, or caretaker of the mosque, Mohammad Abul Kalam Azad, says that the capacity inside the mosque is 450 people. “On Fridays, however, up to 850-900 worshippers pray in, outside, and even on the top floor of the mosque.”
On being asked whether there are spaces for women to pray in the mosque, Islam said that sometimes women come and pray to the side of the prayer hall or in the small space upstairs (earmarked for a library in the future). There is no formal space allotted for them. This is not unusual in mosques in Bangladesh, most of which do not have dedicated sections for females to pray in.
Crucially, however, women who wish to pray inside Bait Ur Rouf are not turned away. We witnessed the imam himself bringing prayer mats for some women who asked if they could pray inside the mosque. Only around 10-12 women on average come to the mosque to pray in a week, says Islam. None, however, pray there regularly and are visitors who do so if it's the time for prayer.
Marina Tabassum won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2016 for the Bait Ur Rouf mosque. It was, and remains, quite unusual for a female architect to have designed a mosque in a country where women rarely pray in public though there is no shortage of mosques. In fact, as Tabassum points out, “In Bangladesh, mosques are rarely designed by professional architects.”
Bait Ur Rouf manages to be both an aesthetic and inclusive space. It is as much a place of prayer as it is a community space. Recently, a major event was held on the mosque premises. The photography exhibition 'Embracing the Other' by Shahidul Alam, eminent artist and founder of Drik Picture Library, featured the mosque itself. The use of the mosque as both the subject and venue of the exhibit was only natural, according to Alam. “It was a lived, open space, forgiving, open and receptive, just as the Prophet had intended mosques to be.”
Visitors at the event commented on how open the imam and muezzin were. Energetic children ran around playing with a ball, those more tired were sleeping in the mosque out of the brutal heat. Female visitors, and those of other faiths, wandered in without the convention of covering their heads before stepping inside a mosque. They milled around quietly admiring the architecture while worshippers prayed or sat silently in contemplation.