The mosque; the Islamic holy place of prayer, carries a distinct structural characteristic and identity. It is a serene and spiritual architecture that brings individuals closer to their faith and divine entity. Prophet Muhammad’s original house in Medina (in present-day Saudi Arabia) is believed to be the first place of prayer, and served as a model for early mosque architecture; a mud-brick structure with living quarters on one side of an enclosed rectangular courtyard. Soon after, the allocation of open spaces in the center of towns where Muslims could gather and pray became more frequent, resulting in several spaces of worship with a universal spatial characteristic: their orientation towards Mecca.
The design process of the mosque started with a single enclosed geometric form, reinforcing the idea of spirituality and seclusion. Soon after, this simple spatial prototype evolved into the first formal hypostyle mosque, known for its vast prayer hall and series or arcades. Variations of this model saw the first mosque in Medina, known as the Quba Mosque (622 CE), the Kairouan Mosque in Tunis (670 CE), and the Umayyad mosque in Damascus (715 CE), some of which incorporated column details from ancient Greek and Roman architecture. However, the role of mosques evolved throughout the years from just a place of worship to an architecture that helps in re-establishing the values of Islam and offers contributions to society, including educational, civic, and ceremonial.
Islam embraces three elements: belief (iman), performance of religious obligation (‘ibada), and altruism / right doing (ihsan), all of which complement one another organically. At the core of the religion’s law stands its five pillars: The Declaration of Faith (Al Shahada), Prayer (Salah), Almsgiving and Philanthropy (Zakat), Fasting of Ramadan (Sawm Ramadan), and Pilgrimage (Hajj). Given that prayer is a core pillar and a religious obligation, the space in which believers pray plays a huge role in the spiritual and physical connection between the worshiper, the religion, and God.
In principle, prayer, which is performed 5 times a day, is conducted on three levels: individually, congregation / the community, and the entire Muslim population, with each having a designated type of mosque. The masjid is used for daily prayer and is usually the smallest in scale, the jami’ holds a larger capacity and is used for congregational and Friday prayers, and Mecca, home of Masjid al-Haram (Sacred Mosque) which welcomes millions of worshipers for pilgrimage and is the focal point in which all mosques are oriented.
Architecturally, the style, layout, and ornamentation of a mosque is defined by the year, scale, geographical location, and regional traditions of where it is built. However, because its function is universal, certain architectural features are found in all mosques, which are the prayer hall, mehrab (a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca (qibla), minaret, minbar (a pulpit where the imam (leader of prayers) stands to deliver sermons), and ablution area.
Given that congregational mosques should be able to hold the entire population of a city or town, the structure should have a large prayer hall complemented with an open courtyard and a fountain, a natural cooling system. These mosques often feature covered open porches surrounding the central courtyard as well, known as Iwans, which offer shaded zones for worshipers. The dome, although not Islamic per se, is also a prominent architectural feature alongside the minaret, which hold significant value as urban markers alongside their initial function.
Along with the spatial and architectural characteristics, mosque architecture, similar to most religious structures, evoke emotions. Through the storytelling of the design, architects have created a series of transitional spaces that enhance the act of worship by taking the worshiper on a transitional journey throughout the building. The hustle of the outside is gradually abandoned and replaced by a sense of sacred intimacy and oneness with God. Natural light is also used as a tool to enhance this feeling of spirituality, reinforcing the connection between Earth and the divine, along with scale, which also plays a role in creating this sense of holiness and grandeur. Interior walls and facades are adorned with calligraphy, which are often excerpts from the Quraan, praise for rulers, or aphorisms that further connect the worshiper to the faith.
What do mosques look like today?
Due to geographical, environmental, and social factors, the role of mosques today has been re-imagined as people adapted new ideologies, techniques, and rituals, and blended them with existing ones. Drawing reference from traditional typologies, mosques today reframe their interior spaces to encourage communal functions alongside its purpose as a space of worship. On a contextual scale, traditional architectural elements have also been experimented with to complement its urban fabric and its surrounding geographical characteristics, such using innovative and/or vernacular construction material and building techniques.
In countries that are home to multiple cultures and religions, mosques serve as an urban communication tool – a “seed for urban evolution”. Architects are taking into account how children, reverts, and non-Muslims interact with the space given that mosques are complemented with additional functions beyond just a place of worship.
While some of these mosques have been recognized globally for their ingenious architectural designs, contextuality, and material selection, there has been an ongoing debate on whether these structures are a “true representation” of typical Islamic houses of worship, raising questions like how much is “too contemporary” for a mosque design? Why are mosques nowadays being built without the minaret and dome, which are perhaps its most recognizable feature on an urban scale? What is an Islamic feature and what is a cultural one that has transcended generations, and has been adopted as a religious emblem?
In March of this year, the Abdullatif Al Fozan Award for Mosque Architecture held a two-day conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to assert the stark existence of the ideological, architectural, and urban conflict facing contemporary mosques around the world. This conflict is traced from the relationship between mosques and their surrounding urban contexts, including their visual and spatial distribution, as well as imperative environmental, social, political, and demographic responsibilities. During the conference, architects, Islamic teachers, and academics shared their views on modern-day mosque architecture. From an aesthetics perspective, many argued that “humbleness” is no longer evident in contemporary mosques, an attribute that contradicts its distinguished sanctity, as opposed to mosques that are nothing but a simple cubic form in the middle of the forest without any indicator that it is a place of worship. Women’s prayer halls were a topic of discussion, given that mothers bring along their kids to the mosque, but are not offered with the same spatial experience and scale as the male counterpart.