These Muslim Artists in the West Are Reenvisioning the Prayer Rug
Baseera Khan, Mosque Lamp and Prayer Carpet Green from Law of Antiquities, 2021. © Baseera Khan. Courtesy of the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, New York.
“Sit down. Be humble,” raps Kendrick Lamar. Every day, five times a day, millions of Muslims around the world perform salat, a ritual prayer, and do just that—upon a prayer rug. They bow their head to the ground in complete prostration or sajda, submitting themselves to God as they face qibla, the direction towards the Ka’aba, an ancient sacred site in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
The prayer rug, though not a necessity, marks a clean physical space and the intention to supplicate. It is treated with the utmost care, lasting a lifetime or even generations.
Now, contemporary Muslim artists living in the Americas and Europe—like Saks Afridi, Baseera Khan, Abdullah M. I. Syed, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Samira Idroos, Hamra Abbas, Mounir Fatmi, and Anusheh Zia—are upturning the traditional decorative vocabulary of the prayer rug to foster understanding of an often misunderstood and misrepresented religion.
These artists nimbly negotiate the sacred and profane, plucking the prayer rug out of Oriental tradition and into decolonial theory by incorporating elements of contemporary culture like UFOs, sneakers, and hip-hop lyrics and using unconventional materials. The carpet is their medium to preserve artisanship, challenge capitalism, censorship, and patriarchy, and to, above all, firmly plant their roots in the East and the West.
Baseera Khan, installation view, from left to right, of Purple Heart, Lunar Count Down, and Act Up in “Long, Winding Journeys: Contemporary Art and the Islamic Tradition” at the Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, 2018. Handmade wool rugs custom designed by the artist, made in Kashmir, 48 × 30 in, installed on marble platform, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Simone Subal Gallery.
“The deeper I go into my work, the closer to myself and God I feel. I see my work as a form of prayer,” said Saks Afridi, a multidisciplinary New York–based artist who tests the physical limits of the carpet. He quoted Rumi while in conversation over the phone: “Your homeland flows in every direction. Why pray facing one minuscule section?”
Afridi collaborates with third-generation Pashtun weavers from his homeland of Pakistan to produce his carpets, a process that takes up to nine months. “Everyone knows what it feels like to be an outsider,” he said, referring to his choice of extraterrestrial imagery and the positive and curious reception to his work by the villagers. Through a genre he has named “Sci-Fi Sufism,” Afridi’s practice serves as a meditation on belonging amid the perplexity of transnationalism. And though he has not made it to the land of the extraterrestrial (yet), he has entered the NFT space with gusto, dropping a newly minted magic carpet each week.
The people Afridi commissions to fabricate his textiles are not primarily weavers today; many work as doodwallas, selling milk along the village roads. Machinery and global commodification have rendered the artisanal trade of carpet-making obsolete and the prayer rug ubiquitous, available in bulk packs on Amazon.
“It is fast fashion,” said Baseera Khan, who collaborates with Kashmiri artisans to fabricate their prayer rug designs. “There’s a whole economy to it.”
Abdullah M. I. Syed, Flying Rug, 2008. Photo by Mahmood Ali Ahmed. Courtesy the artist and Aicon Contemporary, New York and Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Sydney.
Abdullah M. I. Syed, detail of Flying Rug, 2008. Photo by Mahmood Ali Ahmed. Courtesy the artist and Aicon Contemporary, New York and Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Sydney.
Once upon a time, carpet weaving flourished as a trade under the proliferation of the Islamic religion. In the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal dynasties, families of artisans extending along the Rug Belt from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia made their living by hand-weaving prayer rugs. Usually crafted from silk, cotton, and wool, rug styles were distinct to specific regions. The textiles were traditionally decorated with aniconic images like the Ka’aba, latticed floral patterns, and geometric tessellations, in adherence with Islam’s prohibition of figuration.
Many of these carpets can now be found in Islamic art departments of museums and as a major export product. Vintage prayer rugs from “the Orient” remain a highly desired collector item, as evidenced by the 2009 Sotheby’s London auction “Arts of the Islamic World,” where a Safavid silk, wool, and metal-thread prayer rug sold for $4.3 million.
When Abdullah M. I. Syed moved from Pakistan to the United States, he observed that instead of the theological government he was accustomed to, the pursuit of money reigned supreme in the U.S. His choice of currency as a medium investigates “the current nature of power in a political climate of the degeneration of democracy and staggering levels of social inequality.” His work Flying Rug (2008) is meticulously made of folded U.S. dollar bills organized into an Islamic geometric pattern, indicating the religious significance of prayer rugs in his homeland and paying respect to the intense crafting process it requires. Simultaneously, through the title, Syed shares a personal reflection on migrating “from the East to the West for security and a better financial future,” he said, as well as the commodification of the rug itself as a Pakistani export item, the shadows cast on the walls suggesting an “Oriental dream.”
In Khan’s 2017 solo exhibition “iamuslima,” the artist unveiled their “Psychedelic Prayer Rugs,” a series of custom-designed handmade wool rugs. The series explores intersectionality by blending secular, religious, and personal symbols. Khan invited participants—Muslim and non-Muslim—to interact with and pray on the rugs as they wished. The exhibition opened with a declaration in the form of a pair of Air Force 1 high-tops, emblazoned with “iamuslim” and “muslima.” After Nike banned consumers from customizing their sneakers with words like “Muslim” and “Islam,” Khan found a lexicon loophole to circumvent the censorship. Later, they emblazoned a depiction of sneakers on a prayer rug.
“Islam never oppressed me,” Khan said. They are now readying to open “I Am an Archive,” the Brooklyn Museum’s debut solo exhibition by a South Asian, Muslim, femme-identifying person. The show will include a continued study of prayer rugs and carpets including “Snake Skin,” a series of column fragments—referring to the ruins of the Roman empire—wrapped in silk hand-made rugs from Kashmir, made by the same artisans Khan has collaborated with for years. This combination cuts “to the core of the insidious nature of empire and colonialism.” The show will also feature new works that examine objects from the Museum’s Arts of Islamic World collection such as Mosque Lamp and Prayer Carpet Green, an archival inkjet print highlighting the economics of historical goods in collecting institutions.
This is not the Brooklyn Museum’s first time displaying contemporary installations featuring the Islamic prayer rug, however. In 2012, Mounir Fatmi’s Maximum Sensation (2010) went on view, an installation of skateboards wrapped in prayer rug textiles; the piece is now back on display as part of the exhibition “The Slipstream: Reflection, Resilience, and Resistance in Art of Our Time.” No stranger to artistic censorship, Fatmi has used the prayer rug as a mode of commentary on social equality for years, particularly through his use of collage.
In many Muslim-majority countries, LGBTQIA+ rights are eschewed and homosexuality is illegal. In Behind the Rainbow (2014–15), Fatmi stitches together strips from prayer rugs of various hues. By placing a fragment of the Ka’aba central amid the spectrum of colors, Fatmi appeals to a realm of possibility and universal acceptance.
Contemporary installations by Muslim artists, especially women, introduce an intersectional perspective that challenges its patriarchal contexts.
In most mosques around the world, women are physically separate from men, praying behind them or in another room altogether. Shoes are never to cross upon the material. French Algerian artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah confronts these borders with her installation Silence Noir (2016), which has traveled globally to critical acclaim—and outright censorship. The installation features a grid of nine prayer rugs arranged in three rows. At the base of each rug, where one would normally stand, a perfect circle has been cut out and replaced with a pair of high-heeled shoes.
Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015, Silence Noir was set to be shown in Clichy la Garenne, a suburb of the French capital. The mayor of the town condemned the installation, citing potential threats via a letter from a local Muslim organization. Boabdellah was coerced to show another work instead.
Samira Idroos, Ibn Said, n.d. Courtesy of the artist.
Samira Idroos, Sit Down. Be Humble, n.d., from the series “Music is my Sanctuary,” n.d. Courtesy of the artist.
“This was itself a violent act,” Boabdellah said recently via Whatsapp. “The rug is not an object of adoration. It is just an object—a capitalist object,” which is demonstrated further by the fact the rugs were sourced from the local market and produced in China. Boabdellah challenges a social norm, asserting that Muslim women belong in both profane and sacred spaces.
Central to these artists’ intentions is the assertion of their relationship to multiple nations, consolidating identities that stretch along migration routes. Samira Idroos noted that while growing up in Los Angeles in a Muslim Sri Lankan family, emcees like Mos Def showed her that “you could be American and be Muslim and be cool as hell.” This inspired her series “Music Is My Sanctuary,” which draws parallels between Islam and hip-hop. Like Afridi and Khan, Idroos melds traditional decorative patterns with custom designs. Her works include embroidered song lyrics, logos, and scenes like the Hollywood sign.
“It is Islamic tradition to reimagine,” said Idroos, who is now incorporating collage and directly manipulating the textile. Not all the reception to her work has been positive. Cyber-trolling zealots have sent her messages accusing her of blasphemy and desecration. Idroos, who considers herself a proud Muslim, uses this harassment as motivation to make sure her work is intentional and well-crafted.
Anusheh Zia, Lavender, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Indigo & Madder.
Across the Atlantic, in London, Anusheh Zia returns to the very origin of the prayer rug—the Earth itself. She uses natural materials such as lavender, flowers, clay, and twigs, along with “natural material processes including watering, imprinting, hammering, and extracting,” to create site-specific prayer rug installations. These works are ephemeral, establishing temporality and exploring existence within the greater ecological environment. As one of only two Muslim students in her collegiate cohort, Zia has observed that over time, she’s had to explain the parameters of Islamic prayer less and less to the community she is sharing with.
These artists demonstrate that by honoring an artisanal craft through innovative contemporary artworks, they are preserving culture, bridging connections, and establishing themselves as belonging.