Faith building

Exploring the styles, features and challenges of mosque architecture.

Ornate floral patterns and colours on an Iranian mosque. (Francisco Fernandez/ITP)
Ornate floral patterns and colours on an Iranian mosque. (Francisco Fernandez/ITP)

Exploring the styles, features and challenges of mosque architecture.

It's one of the most recognisable symbols in the Islamic world. It is at once a house of worship, a space for social interaction, a dispute resolution centre, a monument of higher learning, a place for retreat and a manifestation of the Muslim faith.

Five times a day, it summons the faithful to prayer and, over the course of a lifetime, it plays an integral role in defining one's faith and identity.


Though the column, the arch and the dome have been described as the trinity of Islamic architecture, the crowning glory of Islamic art is undoubtedly the dome.

From an architectural point of view, however, mosques are a bit of an enigma.

With a worldwide following of around 1.2 billion, an annual growth rate of around 3% and Islam being represented on every inhabited continent on the globe, it stands to reason that the physical structure in which Muslims practice their faith would be universally recognisable.

For example, it would be difficult to mistake a building with long pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses for anything other than a gothic cathedral.

Likewise, a cylindrical structure, located near a body of water, emitting a sweeping beam of light will usually be a lighthouse.

And, a very large circular building, ordered around a central playing surface or viewing area will, more often than not, be a stadium or arena. These are general architectural rules for buildings that are meant to serve a specific purpose for their users.

And, while mosques play an incredibly important role in perpetuating one of the world's fastest growing religions, their architectural forms are as dissimilar and dynamic as the followers themselves.

In fact, a short visit to any Muslim neighbourhood will reveal mosques of all shapes, colours and sizes that divulge little as to the rules by which they were designed or built.

The components of a mosque

Because of the intricacy of design and overall uniqueness of their facades, mosques are a fascinating commentary on the dynamism with which Islam can be outwardly understood.

That said however, by its very nature, a mosque cannot exist as simply a singular building and group of followers.

For all of its external individuality, there are architectural components that must be included in order to make a mosque, a mosque.

Whether they're shaped like an onion, a saucer or half an arch, domes are very prevalent in mosques throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

Thought to be a connection between heaven and earth, domes are many things to many religions, but in Islam are not liturgically relevant.

In Islam, domes very seldom feature human or animal forms but instead, contain ornate designs or geometric patterns. In Islamic architecture, the interior and exterior of a dome is both a symbolic and a creative element.

An iwan is a large vaulted hall with an arched opening. Iwans generally open up to a gathering space or courtyard and were a trademark of Persian architecture before being adopted by Islamic architects.

A mihrab is a niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla, or, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

The qibla is the direction Muslims should face when praying and thus, it is extremely rare to have a qibla face a direction other than toward the Kaaba-though this circumstance does exist.

Contemporary mihrabs vary in size, are usually ornately decorated and often designed to give the impression of an arched doorway or a passage to Mecca.

As well as providing a visual cue demarcating a Muslim community, minarets are the traditional perch from which the call of prayer was given.

In more recent applications, minarets provide a vantage point from which the muezzin, or chosen person, issues the call to prayer via a speaker system.

Minarets generally consist of three parts: a base, shaft, and a gallery.

The base is simply the ground underneath the tower; minaret shafts are conical, cylindrical or polygonal, and generally feature a winding counter-clockwise staircase; the gallery is an ornately designed balcony which encircles the upper section where the muezzin gives the call to prayer.

For all intents and purposes, a minbar is a pulpit from which the leader of prayer delivers sermons.

The function and position of the minbar is similar to that of a lectern, which is meant to emphasise contact with the audience. Usually similar in structure to a small tower with pointed roof, the minbar is often richly ornamented and situated to one side of the mihrab.

The Arabic word madrasah means learning or teaching, and while madrasahs did not appear in early Islamic structures, they are integral components in larger mosques today. Put simply, madrasahs are schools of higher learning.

There are few architectural rules for madrasahs but they generally follow the style and form of the main buildings of the complex.

A sahn, or courtyard, is perhaps the most unifying component in all of Islamic architecture. Featured in buildings ranging from homes to universities to mosques, these internal gardens are the manifestation of the Muslim concept of community.

Except in very rare occasions, every mosque will have a sahn, which is surrounded by a high walled arcade and will contain a meda, or, fountain for performing ablutions.

Mosques around the world

Because mosques play a significant role in so many facets of Muslim society, it would be unfair to characterise them as simply a place of worship.

Mosques are true community centres in that they are the cornerstone of the interconnectedness of Islam.

Thus, when considering them from an architectural point of view, like any other cultural building, mosques represent as much the society in which they stand as the belief system for which they're built.

For example, the ornately coloured domes, arches and courtyard of the intricately designed Royal Mosque in Isfahan, Iran, is a far cry from the crisp geometric shapes and earthen materials of Java's Demak Mosque.

Istanbul's marbled Suleyman Mosque is an asymmetrical bulbous structure that speaks clearly of an Ottoman baroque influence.

While the Gaudi-esque West African mud mosque of Bougouni, Mali, mimics post-Byzantine architecture and employs thick walls and tapered minarets as it melts into the surrounding landscape.

Moreover, the Tang dynasty's Great Mosque in Xian, China, is indistinguishable from the surrounding architecture.

It incorporates the sweeping gabled roof, timber frame, intricate carvings and bilateral symmetry so common in Chinese architecture. Xian's mosque incorporates no minarets in its design, but in both Chinese and Islamic tradition, features a large gated courtyard.

The building-block geometric shapes, earthy tones and understated simplicity of Cairo's Ibn Tulun Mosque vary greatly from the golden roof and coloured tiles perched high on display in Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock.

The columns and archways of the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, are very clear examples of Roman architecture, while its candy-striped double-arches within smack of a North African Islamic influence.

Interestingly, Cordoba's Great Mosque is one example of mosque in which the qibla faces south instead of southeast toward Mecca.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of architectural uniqueness comes from the great spiralling minaret of the Malwiya Tower at Iraq's Samarra Mosque.

Sitting on a square podium of arches, the snail-shaped Malwiya Tower and the mosque itself display ornate floral and geometric designs throughout, which represent early Islamic decoration.

Once the largest mosque in Islam, Samarra's open-plan Great Mosque was designed to function without iwans.

While the mosques mentioned above represent only a sample of the remarkable architecture that defines these unique buildings, it's important to note that all of them, regardless of how ornate, natural or unbalanced, contain these basic elements and thus qualify as mosques.

That said, it seems Islamic architecture is more about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

When considering mosque architecture, the postmodern notion of form following function is turned on its head. In fact, according to Ernst J. Grube in Architecture of the Islamic World, "It may be said that Islamic rarely, if ever, designed as a single balanced unit; where such a design was originally adapted, or even conceived, it soon disappears to become part of a greater complex."

The final word

Mosque architecture tends to be organic and evolutionary in nature and thus, the exterior form of a mosque may continue to change over time. This sheds a bit of light on the unbalanced or seemingly inconsistent forms mosques have taken throughout regions and history.

"The very possibility of enlarging a given structure in almost any direction by adding units of almost every conceivable shape and size to the original scheme, totally disregarding the form of the original structure, is a characteristic that Islamic architecture shares with that of no other major culture," says Grube.

If it is indeed the case that Islamic architecture has few structural rules outside of orientation toward Mecca, a fundamental question arises.

To what do architects look to establish context? It seems that the major challenge for architects building mosques is one of ensuring all the necessary components are housed within a structure that is designed on an expandable site and built to be altered.

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