In a former life, when I was working on a PhD in South and Southeast Asian literature, I had the opportunity to visit many different Muslim countries. It was always struck by how Islamic culture varied so widely from region to region. In India, Muslim women wore saris, and in Indonesia, they wore long robes. In the Middle East, people ate grilled meats, and in Pakistan, they ate spiced rice cooked with lamb. But one thing was the same in all these places. During the call to prayer, Muslims around the world take out a prayer mat, situate it in the direction of Mecca, and pray together.
Around the world mats often have a traditional Middle Eastern design, like the kind you might find on a Persian carpet. There is usually a pattern at the top that looks a bit like the pointed arch of a mosque, which is meant to be directed toward Mecca. But a Brooklyn-based designer, Myhra Mirza, wants to create mats with a modern, colorful, and abstract design for a new generation of Muslims. She’s just launched a new direct-to-consumer brand called Niyya that sells these mats online.
Mirza, who trained as a digital designer, has worked at design firms like Work & Co and Huge. “Because I create in the digital world by day, it’s natural to look to offline activities for balance,” she says. “It is super gratifying to create something that can be touched, and transform in purpose depending on the person.”
Mirza spent a lot of time designing a mat that would be portable. She says that travel prayer mats tend to be made of thin fabric or plastic, which can be hard on one’s knees. “When searching for partners and for fabric, it was important to me to find something that would be soft yet durable—so that it would remain comfortable for prayer regardless of the surface the mat is laid upon,” she says. “The mat can easily be washed and dried, yet is soft and has a bit of weight to it.”
She also wanted to make sure the mats were multifunctional. “By using a thick, woven cotton the flexibility of use opened up,” she says. “This makes it more multiuse, not only great for praying but also for sitting on or wrapping as a scarf.” She hopes that non-Muslims will also buy them for other purposes, like decorations or beach mats, allowing the mats to be a bridge between cultures.
Each of the mats tells a story. Mirza has designed four patterns inspired by a different meditative state of mind within the Islamic tradition: Tahara (purity), Sabr (patience), Dikhr (remembrance), and Salaa (prayer). If you look carefully, you’ll notice that each mat also has a pointed arch, much like what you’ll find in a traditional mat. “While a big aim was modernizing and evolving traditional designs, I still wanted to evoke familiarity, so keeping an arch motif was very important,” she says.
There are also abstract splashes of color and strokes that are reminiscent of the Arabic alphabet. Green makes an appearance in each mat partly because it is associated with Islam. “It also lies in the middle of the color spectrum and is very present in nature, so it represents a balance of life,” Mirza says. “I think this element is meaningful in context of the intent of the mat being utilized in a person’s life in any way they choose as well as balancing the primary creation being for prayer.”
The $70 cotton mats are woven in North Carolina, by a family whose ancestors were among the first weavers in the American colonies. This was a deliberate decision on Mirza’s part. She wanted to support local businesses by creating a product that made it clear that Muslims are part of this country and want American industries to thrive—especially at a time when discrimination and hate crimes are surging in the United States.
“There’s a beauty in creating an item whose predominant use is to achieve inner peace, but can also be used by others outside the faith for whatever intent they chose, whether as a shawl, beach mat, scarf, throw,” Mirza says. “I hope it unites more communities by proving that no matter what your background, a simple object can impact your daily life in a meaningful and different way.”
You can see Mirza’s forthcoming designs on Instagram here.