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Design of Mosques and the problem of esthetics

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Partial elevation of an Ottoman mosque. (Drawing by Latif Abdulmalik)

The hegemonic dependence of many Muslims in Europe and America to their cultural origins and history is testimony to the problem of understanding the polemics of Muslim architectural esthetics in the West. Furthermore the problem of balancing the claims of art historians against those of an architect or designer and the emotional attachment of a client can easily aggravate the decisions for a building program. Architects are required to understand a host of historical similarities and differences, and the interplay of regional and material relationships. Esthetic differences are most evident in the pre-modern mosques of Egypt, Turkey, North Africa, Iran, China, Malaysia, India, and West Africa.

For example, the West African adaptation of the hypostyle plan has been influenced both by the local environment, the availability of permanent building materials and a host of ver­nacular features. As the architect interprets any extant mosque from the Muslim world s/he needs to consider how scholarship has influenced our understanding of history; while profoundly enlightening, the view of the art historian is not always balanced because it more often gives emphasis to Arab-centric perspective in the framing of theoretical issues. For example, when a promi­nent Islamic art historian was asked about Muslim architecture in sub-Saharan Africa, he simply replied, ‘there is nothing there to study,’ to which we replied, ‘what about the thousands of manu­scripts available to scholars in the libraries of Timbuktu? ‘

 

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Section of an Ottoman mosque. (Drawing by Latif Abdulmalik)

And what about the extant building traditions of Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, and elsewhere? Twentieth century, Western-dominant (oriental­ist) attitudes towards race and ethnicity may have affected his judgement and indeed the judgement that ‘African architecture ‘ in general had no special significance, except for North Africa and Egypt.

This may be overstating the case a bit; in any case the standard language used by art historians, even those who write about Islamic architecture, speak of the non-standard ‘primi­tive’ varieties of buildings in Africa, merely to draw attention to the sophistication of buildings in the Levant, Turkey, and Iran. For example, critical to the art historian’s notion of beauty is the surface treatment of mosques, which often carry a textual mes­sage. The West African mosque does not; it is treated with the elasticity of earth to render sculptural forms similar to the images one finds in the masking tradition and ancestral pillars of the region.

 

 

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An Ottoman mosque. (Drawing by Latif Abdulmalik)

 

 

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Drawing (floor plan) of the mosque of Sidi Uqbah at Qairouan, Tunisia. (Drawing by Latif Abdulmalik)

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Drawing of the mosque of Sidi Uqbah at Qairouan, Tunisia. (Drawing by Latif Abdulmalik)

It follows from this premise that the language of Muslim architectural esthetics does produce an accurate mapping of dif­ferences and what each example demonstrates is in effect dis­tinct conceptual and contextual processes. Furthermore failing to understand how to translate spatial order, geometry, mate­rials, treatment of space and symbols etc., or interpret these themes may lead to fragmentation.

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Drawing (floor plan) of the mosque at Dingueraye, Guinea, West Africa. (Drawing by Latif Abdulmalik)

In this discussion we focus on the heritage of the West African mosque as an example that is particularly apt to the problem of interpretation. Returning to the earlier remarks, the lack of clarity and appreciation for West African architecture raises many questions about topography, landscape, and mean­ing. This argument is particularly apt to the interpretation of building traditions of West Africa for three specific reasons. First, two distinct accounts bid to explain the attitudes of urban assimilation, which posits a wide attitudinal gap among dispa­rate West African Muslim communities in Europe and America in central cities. Second, the transnational identities are affected by race and then divided by the language of place. Finally, emigre masons and builders and other types of technicians have not played a key role in the production of space and the building of the mosque. The Mande mosque incorporates ‘space concep­tions’ that reflect the thoughts and ideas that give meaning to these structures, as end products and visual concepts. Finding creative ways to explain Mande mosque architecture must also consider building traditions, which are enriched by the ver­nacular world in which they live. In this sense the architecture of these buildings serves as a corollary of knowledge, of philo­sophical axiology meaning and esthetic reasoning.

If the earlier suggested rendition of visual forms and spatial elements identifies the West African mosque as having regional uniqueness, then it could be argued that the buildings demon­strate a progressive expression in the development of mosque architecture. Through this development, specific examples of building typologies have evolved over time. The cultural trans­formation of the vernacular hypostyle recognizes the existence of underlying elements, which share a symbiotic relationship with the ‘archetypal’ model of the original mosque of Madinah.

Because of the stability and growth of Mande settlements and trading centers, the vernacular hypostyle associated with these settlements was able to sustain and thus promote architectural variations. Some of the elements, which are quite prominent in these variations, are the pinnacles on the roof parapet, the tri­ple minaret on the front facade, the buttressing of exterior walls, and vertical exterior rib effect. In most cases the ribs become a series of decorative crenellations of varying size as they termi­nate at the parapet. The minarets are always engaged with the building facade and are heavily reinforced with timber mem­bers (toron). The roofs are flat and the use of the characteristic domes or vaulted structures, typically associated with Muslim architecture, are nonexistent.

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Key facade features of the West African mosque. Source: ( Mosque en adobe )

On the one hand, the Mande mosque shares a functional defi­nition with the wider community of Islam; on the other hand, the Mande mosque remains unique to its particular context and is thus categorized as an anomaly, within a larger esthetic con­text. Here the schema of decorative elements of the mosque has varying degrees of expression, and some of these elements are explicit while others are metaphorical or associative.

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Plan and elevation of a West African mosque (Northern Ghana). (Drawing by Latif Abdulmalik)

One example of an explicit element is the minaret, which in the Mande mosque has been merged with the mihrab to form one element. In some instances the mihrab bears a close physical and sculptural association to the baobab tree, which deserves further study. Natural earth is used by the Mande to build the mosque in the same way the prophet built his mosque at Madinah, and his prescription (sunnah) of not embellishing buildings lends itself quite easily to the Mande buildings either by coincidence, i.e. the nature of the regional environment, or by an intentionally conscious act of creativity. Yet, the absolute simplicity of the Mande mosque cannot be denied and in this way it is more faithful to the Madinah model than the richly embellished buildings of the Levant.

But we know through study of building plans that the Mande mosque is a hypostyle plan, which conforms to the archetypal plan. The problem occurs when we begin to deconstruct the non- liturgical elements, such as the mihrab ‘ the minaret, the facade, the parapet details, the structural components of the building, or when we try to decipher the meanings of these elements within other cultural contexts. The Mande builders themselves and their particular crafts are probably key to most of this understanding, since they know best what the elements actually represent and why and how they have been employed in the composition and functionality of the mosque. Most of the studies thus far have not engaged the builder in the analytical process but have relied more on distanced analytical and anthropological speculation.

 

Summary: place, image, and people matters

This vast introduction has been narrowed to focus on the idea of a space conception in citing the example of the West African mosque by virtue of the fact that Islamic art historians have generally neglected it and thus it has not formally entered mainstream discussion or practice. The general assumption behind this interpretation is that we can learn from the complex dimensions of space making and language patterns, via the con­struction of cultural and regional esthetic expressions. This dis­cussion has raised more questions than it has answered because the emergence of any esthetic genre is always linked with human interventions.

which are by their nature multifaceted and always varying in relation to emerging contexts. It is clear that many different factors in effect produce a diverse mapping of esthetic languages, forms, and decorative genres of vocabulary.

The most salient feature of ‘Immigrant Islam’ is a search for ways to accommodate tradition and modernity, while reinvent­ing religious identity, reinterpreting religious practices, and con­fronting the idiosyncrasies of a secular and politically charged society. In this regard, we may embrace Professor Jackson’s argument (2005:136):

At the bottom their depictions point to the fact that … traditionally, this has entailed at least two interrelated challenges. First how are religious communities to relate to the dominant culture? Second how is religion to oper­ate under a secular democratic state?

There are a number of issues here and we may ask the follow­ing question: Why this perplexing lacuna? First, the concept of modernity may give the idea that it represents a break with tradi­tion and is thus diametrically opposed to tradition; such a notion would undoubtedly be false. Second, every society in the mod­ern world has embraced and accepted various traditional ways of life and inherited practices. On the other hand, Muslim prag- matists speak in a familiar idiom, especially Muslim women like Rabia Van Hattum. In her essay ‘Ranchos Mosque: A Memoir’ (1995), Rabia reveals a poignant elucidation of piety, love, and labor, to commemorate the beautiful teamwork of Muslim men and women, engaged in the construction of a small fifteen by twenty-five foot mosque at Abiquiu, New Mexico:

I’m [reminded of] when we raised the Ranchos mosque. The hearts of all the creatures are between our Lord’s hands, and it is He alone who can cause goodness or other than goodness to grow here.

Finally, like-minded Muslims are in agreement that the mosque must take into account the welfare and the raison d’etre of the whole community. In other words the notion of the whole shapes any activity or inquiry and the common basis on which the community can begin to adjudicate among differing claims and

interests. From this brief discussion it is clear that the accumulation of concepts and practices that are produced by a community are closely related. In this way the architect and designer must also consider a whole array of issues. The pri­mary task of this book therefore is to make explicit the meth­ods and conventions that govern the design and construction of a mosque within varying contexts; it provides architects or designers, as well as clients and/or design reviewers, with crite­ria upon which they can determine the organization of a concept and subsequent build form. The book will help the reader to:

  • select programmatic design language for research whilst iden­tifying the possibilities and limitations within their own cost parameters for conducting the design of a mosque;
  • decide on the most effective planning and design strategies;
  • select and use appropriate design data (e.g. land use, mixed use) to develop a building in a manner that promotes energy conservation, to meet the needs of the present without com­promising the needs of the future;
  • choose and implement methods of data collection to create ‘equity’ and a sustainable edifice, to take advantage of a com­pact building design and to minimize negative impact on the immediate environment;
  • think critically about ‘green design’ and the nature and val­ues of the research agenda, especially the collaboration and cooperation with municipalities in planning efforts to help the architect tackle common environmental problems.

As emphasized above, no single authoritative style exists about which consensus rules. Simply take, for example, again the idea and form of the minaret, which remains largely symbolic today. What are the essentials that determine or define its height, size, proportions, and/or shape to its greater audience? In the absence of a so-called universally accepted standard, does this mean that anything goes? Likewise and more linked with modern standards, how can an architect establish such common and often thought of as innate procedures as the ratio of parking spaces or egress requirements in relation to the assembly occupancy and size of the Muslim prayer area vis-a-vis a typical church pew or seating cri­teria as often established in the nomenclature of particular zoning or building codes. Finally, what gives precedent to the adaptation of one style over another such as the style of a dome or minaret? All of these questions require a formulation of design criteria that architects and designers can use to form the parameters of design.

 

Source: Design Criteria for Mosques and Islamic Centers : Art, Architecture and Worship (by Akel Kahera, Latif Abdulmalik and Craig Anz)

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About the Author
Dr. Kahera holds a Masters in Architecture from MIT and a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from Princeton.
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