Gaze upwards into the dome of a mosque and you are staring into the celestial skies. To a Muslim worshipper the dome is not just an architectural feature that aids air circulation and amplifies sound, it is a symbol of the vault of heaven and a reminder of Allah’s creation and power.
The architecture of mosques is intrinsically entwined with their function as a spiritual centre and role in Islamic society. Design features such as the dome and minaret are deeply rooted in Islamic history and serve a spiritual as well as functional purpose.
The minaret – the slender spire that towers above the parent building – is the point from which the muezzin or crier, calls the community to prayer (adhan). The height of the minaret may have its origins in the minaret’s function to convey sound over long distances, but the faithful also see its arrangement – towering over the dome – as a perfect expression of submission to Allah. Thus, the minaret remains as a symbolic feature despite the fact that its original function has been long-since replaced by electronic amplification.
Some of the oldest minarets date back to the eighth century AD. Important examples include the minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, the Malwiya Tower, and the minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia.
Other key elements of traditional mosque design include the mihrab and the minbar, which traditionally go side-by-side. The mihrab is the semi-circular niche that indicates the Qibla, the direction that should be faced during prayer, which is towards the Kaaba in Mecca. In Islamic history, Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) used the mihrab as his own praying room, and during the reign of Uthman ibn Affan, the caliph ordered a sign to be posted on the mihrab wall at the mosque in Medina, so visiting pilgrims could easily identity which way to direct their prayers.
The mihrab was traditionally flat, until the reign of Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik (705-715 CE), when the governor of Medina ordered a niche to be made in the mosque of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Today, you can recognise the mihrab by its dome-like shape and the calligraphy that borders the niche.
Normally located to the right of the mihrab is the minbar, a raised platform from which the imam addresses the congregation. It is sometimes shaped like a small tower, and always incorporates at least three steps. It now stands as a symbol of authority.
Today, architects and designers strive to maintain the traditional elements of mosque design as well as embrace contemporary approaches. Developments in technology such as speakers and microphones, have led to the evolution of the minaret and into symbolic elements of Islamic history and culture rather than being operational.
In the past few years, architects have started to rethink the mosque, combining contemporary aesthetics with traditional features. The Assyafaah Mosque in Singapore features a 10-storey minaret built from patinated steel plates, while the mosque in Cologne is characterised by a semi-transparent dome.
Founder and partner-in-charge of Yaghmour Architects, Farouk Yaghmour, says that during the construction of the Abdulrahman Saddik Mosque at Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, he faced opposition to his contemporary approach. However post-construction, the mosque is a key feature of the city and a symbol of the modernising Middle East.
Yaghmour explains: “We believe in liberating the mosque from the traditional to reflect our time and the era we live in, as well as utilising the latest technologies and contemporary approaches in construction and materials.
“It is important to maintain the spirituality of the space but we also believe that contemporary mosques, with simp-listic, modern spaces, are attracting younger generations who feel that the mosque speaks to them.”
According to Yaghmour, the traditional elements of a mosque’s framework remain in modern designs but are becoming more abstract in their aesthetics. The Abdulrahman Al Saddik Mosque applies a glass screen as the mihrab wall, with the natural light indicating the direction in which Muslims should face during their prayers.
Yaghmour says: “We are using light as a material… We abstract the Islamic lines, and geometries to more contemporary notions, and try to reinvent the calligraphy used by experimenting with different colours and materials. Some elements like the minaret are transformed into a symbolic element, since in our age there is no need to call for prayers from the top of the minaret.”
Today, mosques also include cultural hubs, religious schools and conference halls, and are being incorporated into larger community centres. Architects and designers continue to apply traditional elements, but in contemporary ways, while the grounds on which a mosque sits are growing to incorporate more educational and public facilities.
This article was originally published in the September-December 2014 issue of Vision magazine. Photo credit: Antonie Robertson and Yaghmour Architects.