Interview: Behind Niyya’s Design-Minded Prayer Mats with Founder Myhra Mirza

Balancing tradition and style, the brand encourages expression of identity with pride

Religious wares are oftentimes traditional, ornate (even outdated) and this makes sense considering they’re rooted in rituals that are thousands of years old. It’s not common that a religious object is functional and authentic while also being contemporary and design-forward. But for Brooklyn-based designer Myhra Mirza, prayer mats (used predominantly within the Muslim faith) existed on two ends of the spectrum: they were either traditional and detailed or intentionally plain. She wondered if there could be a middle ground. With her brand Niyya, Mirza produces pieces in America from 100% woven cotton. They can be used for prayer, but also act as a piece of homeware, a personal accessory or travel item. We spoke with the designer about finding the middle ground between tradition, religion and style, and how good design could even help remove some of the misconceptions surrounding Islam.

How’d the idea for Niyya come to mind?

I had this idea two years ago when I had just switched jobs and had some extra time to mess around with design. I was preparing for an upcoming vacation and was searching for a portable prayer mat and noticed that it was one of the few Islamic items to really be rethought visually. I thought it would be a fun and interesting project to undertake—to create something contemporary, but familiar.

It’s meant to help bridge communities, especially in this socio-political climate, to have people from different walks of life use the same product for what they dictate as important.

I picked the name Niyya (Niyyat/Niyyah—the Islamic word for intention) because I thought it was beautiful to build a brand around the concept of intention and how that can vastly differ from owner to owner. The primary intention I created it for was prayer, but by creating it with durable and multipurpose material, it allows the prayer mats to be utilized by all. Basically, it’s created for whatever purpose you intend, whether it’s as a neck scarf, shawl, throw, beach mat, or for prayer on the go. It’s meant to help bridge communities—especially in this socio-political climate—to have people from different walks of life use the same product for what they dictate as important. Be in prayer or relaxation. As well as a flexible tool for the Muslim community to use with pride. Niyya promotes being thoughtful throughout your day with your intentions and actions and now through the use of this product.

Also, when researching travel mats, I found that most don’t offer much padding between you and the ground. So I not only wanted to create an item that resonated with a younger, more contemporary audience, but also wanted an item that provided a little more padding between the user and the floor. Creating a portable mat that is thicker and softer than a thin sheet opened up the ability to be utilized for a variety of uses. I liked that I was creating a mat that could be worn as an accessory or can serve other functions for the user throughout the day and then be changed for the use of prayer. It creates a greater purpose for that object and also is in line with the mindset of ethical consumption—you can to get better use of the product as well as always having it readily available.

What does a prayer mat have to provide or include?

The requirement for a prayer mat is essentially a clean surface between you and the ground, and without any illustrations of animate objects. An example of this is growing up there would be plenty of times when my family were on vacation and hadn’t packed a mat, so we would use the spare clean towels that the hotel provided as our makeshift prayer mat.

How do you turn something so traditional and steeped in history contemporary?

It was an interesting process when creating these first four designs. Prayer mat designs are so iconic. Most get very detailed and ornate and usually are made up of geometric or floral designs. There is usually a top end in the design that represents the mihrab of a mosque, which is an arched wall that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. That is usually visualized in as an arch or peak on the mat to indicate the direction you should point it. Also, the area on the mat is usually an indicator of where to place your head when you go down into sajdah/sujud (when one kneels which hands and head to the ground in prostration whilst in prayer).

My intent is to inspire younger generations with thoughtfully functional products that allow them to pray on the go and express their identity with pride.

While a big aim was modernizing and evolving traditional designs, I still wanted to evoke familiarity, so keeping an arch motif was very important. Additionally, I used abstract shapes that were influenced by strokes of the Arabic alphabet to create patterns within the mat. With the first four styles in the Niyya collection, you can see a common theme of every mat containing a shade of green. This is because it is the color that is representative of Islam. It also lies in the middle of the color spectrum and is very present in nature so it represents a balance of life or lifestyle. This element is meaningful in the context of my intent for the mat being utilized in a person’s life in any way they choose as well as balancing the primary creation being for prayer.

When designing and naming these first four mats, I thought it was important to base it around its main purpose, prayer and the process that helps you achieve peacefulness: Salaa (prayer), Dhikr (remembrance and mindfulness), Sabr (patience) and Tahara (purification and cleansing). The colors and designs are also, in turn, representative of that. When selecting colors, I wanted to evoke energy yet speak to the concept behind that specific mat. For example, the blues and whites that are present in the Tahara mat (purification) helped evoke that idea of being cleansed. Usually we associate blues and white with light and water and those are two elements that can purify an object.

How does a Niyya-made mat differ from traditional iterations? Is it about appealing to a younger generation?

I was born and raised in London but emigrated stateside with my family not even a week after 9/11. Needless to say, that was a very tense time for Muslims in America. Also, for me, transitioning from a diverse all-girls school with school uniforms into a Floridian wear-what-you-want atmosphere in my awkward preteen years was certainly an adjustment. When looking back at those younger years of my life, instead of people celebrating our differences and what made us unique, they were mostly brought to attention in a more negative way. I think not having as many resources and well as contemporary products made for the modern Muslim out there didn’t help with that “other” feeling. I have always wanted to use my design skills to enrich the community as well as help the Muslim youth but wasn’t sure how to enter that space. When I switched jobs and started the mat exploration I knew I was on to something. My intent is to inspire younger generations with thoughtfully functional products that allow them to pray on the go and express their identity with pride.

The traditional prayer mat is already a beautiful item in itself, that can have variations depending on the country. But because most are made with a velvety texture, they are usually only used for the purpose of prayer. By switching the material to a durable, easy to clean cotton, it allows the mat to be used for a multitude of uses. But also creating a more abstract and modern design it turns a traditional item into more of a statement piece. I think this is appealing to younger generations because it is a piece that can be incorporated as an interesting accessory but then is taken off and used for prayer. It also allows Muslims who aren’t what the media associated as  “Muslim-looking” to show off and express their identity, through the use of a thoughtful and functional product.

Images courtesy of Niyya