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Deconstructing Diasporic Faith: An Exploration of London's Muslim Identity through Shahed Saleem's Ramadan Pavilion

This dissertation explores how Muslim-British diasporic identity is expressed through the Ramadan Pavilion, designed by Shahed Saleem. As the first purpose-built architectural structure celebrating the lived experiences of UK Muslims, it was displayed in the Victoria & Albert Exhibition Road Courtyard from 3rd March to 1st May 2023. The temporary installation was a collaboration between the Ramadan Tent Project [1] and the V&A – conceived as the inaugural pavilion in an annual series commissioned by the Ramadan Tent Project to celebrate Muslim heritage by showcasing art, design and architecture. The Pavilion is interpreted as Saleem’s response to the idea of cultural transmission through design, demonstrating how Islamic identity can be absorbed into London’s urban landscape through Muslim architectural symbols.


The first of the four chapters of the dissertation contextualises London as a diasporic
city through historical Muslim migration, and then outlines the V&A’s colonial origins. As a minority group who have traditionally been viewed as homogeneous, and whose ‘non-British’ values have been thought incompatible with a liberal secular nation, the UK’s Muslim-British community, now increasingly British born and raised, are negotiating conflicting tensions between Western belonging and trying to maintain cultural heritage and religious belief. Therefore, this dissertation aims to engage with history in a way that provides a contemporary perspective of London’s Muslim community, breaking from typically Eurocentric narratives of history which directly affects the way in which British people today perceive non-western people, buildings and culture. Hence, this dissertation seeks agency in self-representation, reclaiming the right of narrative as to ‘who is British and who has the right to speak about this country’s past and present.’ [2]


Muslims in western countries are currently experiencing a defining moment, balancing their faith within secular societies that are themselves in social, cultural and political flux. This, coupled with growing Islamophobia, impacts notions of what it is to be British. To date, the misrepresentation of Muslims’ religious and cultural practices within the public realm [3] is often rooted in extremist stereotypes about Islam which result in the idea that being ‘religious is not considered modern if you are not a western person.’ [4] Islam is viewed as a threat to liberalism, democracy and secularism. Therefore ‘the question of belonging is one of the most difficult, politically charged and unavoidable political dilemmas of our time’ [5] and the construction of such a Pavilion within the context of the museum, marks a turning point in London’s social, cultural and architectural history, reflecting the importance of Muslim representation in the city’s urban landscape. 


Given that identifying as simply ‘British’ is hard for many migrants, due to the problem of non-acceptance by the wider population, the dissertation focuses squarely on Muslim-British identity. Whilst 43% of Generation Z Muslims identify equally as Muslim as they do as British, 45% identify more with their Muslim faith than Britishness. As a South Asian Muslim woman who grew up in a western country, it means that my positionality when exploring my own identity (culture, faith, architecture, etc) provides unique insights into feelings of belonging, nationality, and the importance of Muslim presence within urban landscapes.


The second chapter examines the Ramadan Pavilion as a hybrid postcolonial structure amid the historiography of pavilion designs. The Pavilion is understood as an intersectional structure, exemplified for its aesthetic, representational and functional qualities in addressing issues of faith, heritage and belonging, and how it reflects perceptions about the presence of Muslims within British society. Historically, pavilions tended to be reserved for privileged access by the ruling elite, being highly ornamented parcels of private property. However, the Ramadan Pavilion exemplifies contradictory values of public inclusion and ‘decolonisation’, which, in Saleem’s view, means ‘recognising the histories and perspectives of those who have been traditionally marginalised … [and] ultimately giving up power and giving back, returning territory and compensating for losses inflicted on the colonised.’ [6] Thus, it is evident that the role of pavilions in contemporary culture has changed, and the ‘in-between’ structure of the Ramadan Pavilion vividly represents Muslim life in the diaspora, making it a deeply resonant symbol which mirrors the multifaceted tensions in individual identity. It openly asks of a former colonising nation like the UK: ‘how do we reconcile opposing forces within national, local, and personal identities?’ [7]


This chapter goes on to note the significance of the V&A’s setting, and also equally engages on a more general aesthetic discussion about cultural heritage based on Saleem’s deconstructed architectural forms – highlighting his attempts to reclaim themes in Muslim art and architecture. Saleem drew on different Muslim cultural styles by referencing photographs, drawings and prints within the V&A’s collection in an attempt to showcase the UK’s Muslim population in a creative contemporary manner. His assemblage reconstructs cultural memories and identities in a new place, ‘by showing historic fragments as being collaged and held together in a new structural frame.’ [8] This juxtaposition also reflects the fragmentation of diasporic identities, which is heightened by racism and homesickness. 


However, there is an inextricable relationship between the act of representing oneself, and the colonial gaze through which these photographs and paintings were framed. Although his design attempts to take ownership of Muslim self-image by placing a response ‘within a significant cultural institution born in the colonial period,’ [9] the images he used as references are situated within a colonial project of ‘Orientalist’ documentation and were bound by where the British Empire staked its claims. It means, ironically, that the Ramadan Pavilion remains rooted in a colonialist narrative, determined by the places visited by orientalists and how they portrayed them – typically as ‘mosque ruins in the landscape as a discovered object.’ [10] Thus, the pavilion’s setting creates a complex dichotomy, being situated within an institution tied to its imperial heritage and with much of its collection taken from former colonies. 


The third chapter considers the reception of the Ramadan Pavilion, which reveals criticisms not only about the Pavilion’s design, and the role of an institution like the V&A, but also the extent to which Muslims can express their faith in Britain’s multicultural yet secular society. With the Pavilion receiving a total visitor count of 156,306 people, it also had a large online presence across social media. The author created an ‘archive’ of its total 1,203 comments as a working method - however, only 115 comments could be categorised as relating to ‘design’, ‘social issues’ and ‘the institution’. Overall, comments complimented the pavilion’s joyfulness, youthful positivity and colourfulness. However, this child-like space of play was one of the main online critiques, with the design described as ‘tacky’ and ‘cheap kitsch’. The Pavilion’s aesthetic critique was also extended to the pavilion’s function, as a chaotic space that lacked unity and harmony, indicating a fragmented Muslim identity. Yet this misses the point that a fragmented identity is an authentic expression of the trauma of migration and the need for reconstruction, which cannot identify with one singular element. 


Given the growth in interculturally mixed individuals, a new hybrid Muslim-British ‘culture’ is created which ‘ranges temporally and geographically across the Muslim world… [and delinks] diaspora communities from their specific historical trajectories…into a broader global community - another conscience and condition of migration.’ [11] Young Muslim-Brits now assert their belonging to the nation, embracing a British identity that incorporates Islam without the pressure to assimilate to British culture. [12] In the context of Muslim displacement, integration reshapes identity construction, where being Muslim-British is a spectrum which includes (but is not limited to) individuals who associate more with being British, those who practise Islam less rigidly, or Muslims who do not consider themselves British. Saleem believes that interpretation of hybrid Muslim identity should ‘always retain an element of otherness – their distinction and their strength is that they also relate to another culture and another place.’ [13]


The dissertation concludes by envisaging a Muslim-British identity expressed through the complexities raised by the Pavilion, and emphasises how such cultural constructions - albeit temporary - enable Muslim identity to transcend architecture and permeate to the level of the city. As a ‘reinterpretation of colonial histories and colonial archives being presented in a colourful and playful manner within the V&A,’ it represents newly mixed identities in the UK, emphasising Muslims’ rights to the city. Given that young Muslims struggle with experiences of ‘othering’, and that ‘there was little representation of Islam they could relate to in public life,’ the Pavilion’s engagement and visibility in public space significantly enhances feelings of belonging, self-determination and acceptance which overshadows any Islamophobia it received. By enabling prayer in an institution rooted in colonialism, the Pavilion is a momentous assertion of Muslim legitimacy in the UK. It shows that Muslims can continue to exist in British society, and do not need to assimilate in the traditional sense or compartmentalise their identity in order to validate their belonging to the UK.


Fig. 1: Author’s illustration highlighting key themes explored by the dissertation in relation to online public perception.

SM illustration.jpg

Fig. 2: Author’s illustration of the Ramadan Pavilion

[1] The Ramadan Tent Project is a charity formed in 2013 by a group of SOAS students who aspired to create spaces of representation and understanding of Islam through artistic, cultural and creative events. 

[2] Fatima Manji, Hidden Heritage: Rediscovering Britain’s Lost Love of the Orient (Chatto & Windus, 2021), 5–6. 

[3] Farouq Tahar, Asma Mehan, and Krzysztof Nawratek, ‘Spatial Reflections on Muslims’ Segregation in Britain’ Religions, 349, 14, no. 3 (March 6, 2023): 2, 

[4] Interview with Bushra Mohamed (artist, researcher & educator) by author. Online via Zoom, 18 June 2023.


[5] Driss Habti, ‘The Religious Aspects of Diasporic Experience of Muslims in Europe within the Crisis of Multiculturalism,’ Policy Futures in Education 12, no. 1 (2014): 159,

[6] 'British Mosques & Decolonising Islamic Architecture, Shahed Saleem,’ Bayt Al Fann, January 23, 2022, https://


[7] Gillespie, Hope Elizabeth. ’Imperialism, Identity, and Image: Looking at Colonial Objects in English Museums,’ The Coalition of Master’s Scholars on Material Culture, September 11, 2020. 


[8] Alice Finney, ’Shahed Saleem Creates Mosque Pavilion as a 'Reconstruction of Migrant Histories,'’ Dezeen, March 16, 2023, 


[9] Christopher Turner, ‘The Ramadan Pavilion by Shahed Saleem,’ in Ramadan Pavilion, 2023, 6.

[10] Interview with Shahed Saleem (architect, researcher & educator) by author. London, 4 July 2023.

[11] 'Research as Practice 2.2 | Lecture by Shahed Saleem | An Architect Contemplates Diasporic Longing,’ Facebook, March 17, 2022, shahed-saleem-an-architect-contemplates-diasp/265558062313489/.

[12] This is particularly the case in analysing to what extent an individual has ‘assimilated’ to British culture to determine who can and cannot be considered ‘British’. The more an individual has assimilated, the more likely they are to be accepted as British. 

[13] Pamela Buxton, ‘Mosques: East Meets West,’ RIBA Journal, 6 April 2018, mosques-shahed-saleem-context-book-review. 

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