Initiating Dialogue Through Islamic Art and Architecture: An Interview With Designer Salam Aref

Initiating Dialogue Through Islamic Art and Architecture: An Interview With Designer Salam Aref on


Salam Aref is a Muslim American designer and a student of Architecture who is introducing SiwarBox, a subscription box that delivers custom designed accessories inspired by Islamic architecture. Her project has more than one dimension to inspire and start a conversation promoting peace and Islamic art. In an interview with ImanWire, she delves into her unique initiative.
ImanWire: As a student of architecture in the West, in addition to your other talents in design, what made you want to explore Islamic Architecture? How did you come about the idea of SiwarBox?   

Salam Aref: Since I was little, I used to make my own jewelry and customize all my outfits. Growing up in the Middle East, I got to travel and experience Islamic architecture first hand. Even after coming to the U.S, my soul still longs for them. I studied Architecture in Damascus and I’m now finishing my degree in Architecture and Art History at the University of Maryland. In 2012, I founded New Dream Designs, a creative company that provides a one-stop-shop for all the visual needs of non-profit organizations and small businesses, from graphic design and photography to website design. I felt like I needed to do something to combine my passion for design and my Architectural studies. SiwarBox was the answer for me. It is basically a fashion initiative to celebrate the beautiful mosaic of our community. Our roots come from many different parts of the world, yet our spirits and humanity are the same. SiwarBox features uniquely designed scarves and accessories that celebrate several artistic and architectural patterns from around the Muslim world.

Islamic Architecture is a world of its own in its patterns and artistic expressions. However, it seems we live in a world that is fascinated with modern architecture, which really reflects the larger picture of departure from the classic to the modern in culture, sources of education, and social and artistic expressions. How does one begin to appreciate the traditional arts again, especially in architecture? And why revive it?   

I agree, the world is moving towards modern architecture. I’m actually a big advocate for modernizing Islamic architecture. You should see my designs at the school of architecture. I always have the most bizarre and futuristic designs. However, modernity sometimes loses the spirit of the place. Traditional Islamic architecture is a gateway to spirituality. Despite its attention to details, it is not intimidating. On the contrary, Islamic architecture is very peaceful and simple on many levels. The geometric and organic patterns used are a reflection of the universe. At the same time, I try to capture these details in a modern style using contemporary techniques and abstraction. In addition, presenting traditional architectural patterns from around the Muslim world brings the humanity and the sophistication of the different Muslim cultures, which is a step deeply needed in times of fear of the other based in ignorance or misconceptions. I believe that everyone has a special talent to help clear the clouds of hatred and introduce peace and mutual respect among different elements of the larger Western community. I believe mine manifests through this initiative.

You marked your SiwarBox campaign as a 'conversation starter'. How do you see the product doing that or affecting the everyday life of an average Muslim woman in the West who chooses to wear this Hijab and accessory?   

Art is a universal language. We are going through difficult times when Islam’s image is being distorted. What SiwarBox does is reflect the beauty of Islam through the peaceful representation of art and architecture. I’m hopeful that this project will be an element in bridging the gap between Islam and the West, and to show the sophistication and peace of Islam. On a literal note, each design is inspired by a certain building that will be explained in the box to spread knowledge. I always get compliments on my Hijab. The conversation starts when people ask about how unique the scarf you are wearing is and you are able to talk about the inspiration behind it. It doesn’t matter how you wear it, around your neck or on your head. SiwarBox is for everyone; it’s for those with high taste and inclusive.

Talk about the actual first campaign and what each design means to you. How do you plan on connecting folks to Islamic architectural heritage?

Everyone is familiar with the idea of subscription boxes. You signup and receive a box of goodies delivered right to your door. SiwarBox is delivered quarterly (every 3 months) and includes a variety of accessories (scarves, necklaces and beauty products). I made it quarterly because I don’t want to overcrowd people’s closets with monthly scarves. What’s so special about our boxes is that each box celebrates a city, an architecture and a cause. The first campaign we launched provides two designs in two different colors celebrating the city of Damascus in Syria and inspired by the Umayyad Mosque there. We included a postcard featuring an artwork of the Umayyad Mosque with information about it. An example of the fusion to make a connection is one of the two designs in my campaign. It is a blend of the star spangled banner and an Islamic architectural pattern from the Umayyad Mosque, which presents one expression of American Muslim identity.

Why do you feel your campaign needs to adopt a cause for women?   

I think every business should have a social impact on people. If you're opening a business just for profit, then you should reconsider the mission of your business. As Muslims, helping others and serving humanity is a main priority. All our money will fade away, but only our deeds stay.

Supporting a cause for women in every quarterly campaign I launch is befitting of the feminine nature of my initiative. My first box is donating 25% of profits to a non-profit to help build houses for internally displaced women and children inside Syria. Each box will feature a different cause and donate 25% of profits to causes helping women.

You're a wife, a mother, a student of Architecture, and a graphic designer. What inspires you to venture into this project? And what do you suggest to those who want to introduce a spiritually/artistically infused business to the public?

I’m a very simple girl. I only have 4 shirts and 4 pants in my closet that I wear regularly but I’m proud of my colorful collection of scarves that reflect my identity. I'm a minimalist in style and believe "less is more". My main goal behind this project is very clear. I want to promote Islam to everyone in the most peaceful, elegant and artistic way. 

Muslims are going through tough times with the spread of Islamophobia. Islam’s image and peaceful message are being destroyed and distorted. The West needs initiatives to introduce people to the serenity, spirituality and artistry of Islam. There isn’t a better time to start a venture like SiwarBox like now. As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, by wearing representations of peace and spirituality, as well as different artistic patterns from cultures around the Muslim world, I stand for all the Hijabis out there. I started wearing the Hijab at an early age and it became part of my identity—a symbol of strength, femininity and diversity. I know many Muslim girls who are facing suspicious looks, even threats about their Hijabs and don’t want to be visibly Muslim. I have no doubt in my heart that God gave me life and He can take it away when He wills. Hiding away my identity means that I fear harm more than I trust in God’s will. We need to feel comfortable in our own skin and have faith in the planning of God.
Find out more about the SiwarBox campaign on LaunchGood at

By ImanWire , 23 Jun 2016

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