With the number of Muslim people increasing worldwide, the demand for Islamic buildings, particularly, mosques has also increased. However, unlike other forms of art or architecture, the mosque’s design is challenging to develop due to its sacred and spiritual nature. Hence, contemporary mosques architects strive to create a mosque design that delivers symbolism and spirituality while not imitating the traditional forms. Like old, traditional monuments, contemporary mosques still retain some symbolism and meet basic functional and ritual requirements such as Minaret, and Minbar. However, they significantly depart from traditionalism, with extensive symbolism favoring more technology-oriented and abstract forms of architecture. The paper compares the differences in the depiction of power and symbolism between conventional, classic Islamic architecture and contemporary mosques. It uses the case of Arabic mosques in the Middle East.
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Before analyzing the similarities and differences between these two forms of art, it is crucial to define them. Classic, traditional Islamic mosques include Ottoman mosque design, Egyptian, Shami, Moroccan, and Iranian styles (Mirlohi, 2020). These forms of architecture vary based on the historical and social context of the region; however, they retain the essential elements of the first Islamic mosque – minaret, facade, and dome, among others (Mirlohi, 2020; Tantawy & Khamis, 2021). Meanwhile, the most common approaches to contemporary mosques include historicism, modern expression, and regionalism (Alkhaled, 2019). Although the classification of traditional and non-traditional is contested among scholars, it is generally accepted that the definitions mentioned above are appropriate.
The spatial structure of the Arab type of mosque was finally formed during the Umayyad Caliphate. In addition to a rectangular courtyard with galleries around the perimeter and a prayer hall with a flat roof adjoining one of the sides of this courtyard, such a mosque necessarily had a prayer niche – a mihrab – and a pulpit – a minbar in the prayer hall (Sujak et al., 2021). The prayer hall was separated into the main transverse and longitudinal naves (Sujak et al., 2021). The central nave was wider than the longitudinal ones and led to the mihrab. A dome marked the position of the mihrab.
A small decorative pool with water for ritual ablutions was installed in the mosque’s courtyard, which accentuated the center of the entire composition. The spatial axes that passed through this point were fixed by two or four aivans (Asfour, 2016). An important place was given to the minaret – a tower from which believers were called to prayer. The entrance to the mosque was located at the end of the building, which received a transverse plane. In the cathedral mosques, a maksura was also built – a place of prayer for the ruler protected by bars from possible attacks. An additional mihrab was installed opposite the maksura (Asfour, 2016). Under the influence of Roman and Byzantine basilicas, the second – the basilical (longitudinal) version of the layout of the prayer hall of the mosque was formed (Asfour, 2016). All these spatial features have been preserved in modern mosques in the Middle East.
However, it is impossible to talk about a mosque without discussing its semantics. The structure of the mosque reflects the idea of the world and its creator. The cosmic meaning of the universe’s structure, which in all centuries architects have tried to embody in their works, is seen in the idea of ornamental construction of space (Sujak et al., 2021). In the ornament, conventional forms of displaying reality prevail (Asfour, 2016). The fundamental idea of the cosmogony of Islam is the creation of the world from a single point, called the universal mind. From this first mind, ten bits of intelligence arise in succession, each of which accordingly forms the celestial sphere (Sujak et al., 2021). Moreover, the process of creation itself is depicted in the traditional imagination as moving in a circle, and the driving force that generates each new sphere is the desire to comprehend its essence. The point in space and time, where the initial act of creation took place, or the “center of the world,” has a maximum of sacredness (Sujak et al., 2021). The axis of the world passes through this point, connecting the earth and man with the sky and the creator in the shortest way (Sujak et al., 2021). The architecture of the cosmos, comprehended in this form, naturally has a direct bearing on the architectural symbolism.
Mosques are the most conservative type of structures that retain their regional specifics; however, there is also a place for experiments. To harmonize different directions, architects experimented with various forms, often resulting in a curious mix of historical, traditional, local, and international imagery. An exciting and essential example of the nation’s status and modernity expression was found in many countries with a predominantly Muslim population in the guise of ceremonial mosques. The ceremonial mosques of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur (1965), Pakistan in Islamabad (1966), and Kuwait in Kuwait (1976) testify to an irresistible desire to express modernity. In the architecture of the Gulf countries, it is possible to identify several varieties of mosques due to the influence of Islamic traditions in various regions (Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem, Isfahan in Iran, and others).
The center of the Muslim world is the Kaaba in Mecca, to which all mosques are oriented, no matter where they are. Accordingly, all centric compositions are associated with the centric structure of the world and the Kaaba as its symbol (Kamil & Darojat, 2019). The structure of the mosque assumes the presence of such parts as a courtyard surrounded by galleries with a water source in the center, a multi-column or vaulted prayer hall, a mihrab with an arched wedding, pointing to the Kaaba in Mecca, and a minbar pulpit (Alansari et al., 2017). The minaret is intended for the proclamation of prayer and rises above the mosque. These parts are mandatory for all mosques and are canonical (Alansari et al., 2017). From here comes the similarity of all mosques. If one analyzes their volumetric-spatial structure, they will find a general scheme.
However, local traditions and regional characteristics have left their imprints on the architecture of the regions and each mosque. In the architecture of the mosques of the Gulf countries, several varieties of artistic interpretations of the classical structure of the mosque can be distinguished. Especially noteworthy is the Al-Qubib mosque in the city of Doha (Appendix 1). It was built in 1998 on the model of a mosque destroyed in the 1950s, but now of concrete and reinforced concrete blocks and is a unique example of a multi-domed mosque (Salama & Wiedmann, 2016). Its external forms deliberately emphasize the old prototype with its rough wall surface; the corners are fixed by towers with spiral ends, like the minaret in Samarra in Iraq. The conical minaret is completed with a small dome. The main prayer hall is covered with 44 domes; the courtyard is surrounded by a reinforced concrete arcade of a stylized lancet shape. These features have become significant for the mosques in Qatar. The fate of this mosque is deplorable: it was demolished again in 2009 (Salama & Wiedmann, 2016). However, on another much larger site in Doha, a state mosque is being re-built, enlarging the features of the Al-Qubib mosque (Appendix 1). In this peculiar way, the tradition continues.
The limited set of architectural forms forces architects to seek their way of interpretation. Another striking prototype for the mosques of the Persian Gulf countries is the Qubbat al-Sakhra temple in Jerusalem (681-691), distinguished by its laconic form (Appendix 2). On an octagonal base with a raised cylinder rests an almost spherical golden dome. The temple walls are covered with ornamental tiles, emphasizing with their ornament shallow arched niches, which create a calm metric step of articulation of the monumental form. The central composition of this temple has served as a model for the Grand Mosque in Kuwait, the golden-domed mosque in Doha, the Al-Fateh Grand Mosque, and Bab-al Bahrain in Bahrain (Tucker, 2019). Thus, the traditional forms find their place in modern architecture.
Comparing these two forms of art in different periods reveals that mosques’ contemporary forms are significantly different from the old, traditional ones. The only significant similarity between the conventional and modern mosques is that they both aspire to present the symbolic and spiritual aspects of the mosque, but in different ways and to varying extents. Although contemporary mosques still compromise symbolism, they pronounce less Islamic values and rules of strict Islamic architecture, particularly regionalism, modern expression, and postmodern approaches, departing from traditional forms, decoration, and symbolism (Alkhaled, 2019). Thus, the current states of mosques try to use technology and adapt it to the new demands of visitors in the face of globalization.
In conclusion, it is worthy to emphasize that the identification of the center in architectural compositions embodies the principle of unity in diversity. This is reflected in the fact that, on the one hand, no two mosques are alike, and on the other, they are all built on the same principles. The universal law of such invariance is ornamentation, which uses archetypal forms (morphology) that are stable for a given culture with their inherent meanings (semantics) and repetitive construction techniques (syntactic). An essential feature of the medieval organization of space was the opposition of the structural ornamental organization of the ensembles to the surrounding chaos of residential buildings. The explicit symmetrical ordering of mosques was contrasted with the “irregular” chaos of streets, lanes, dead ends, and the walls of residential buildings that form them. In the considered modern objects, structure and organization are predominant in both the forms of structures themselves and the spaces adjacent to them.
Alansari, A. A. M., Mosaad, Y., & Hirao, K. (2017). Towards a systematic approach to preserving historic buildings. A case study for the maintenance and restoration of the Kaaba during the Islamic Era. International Design Journal, 7(4), 161-176.
Alkhaled, Z. (2019). Contemporary mosques conventional and innovative approach in mosque design at Turkey. Journal of Design Studio, 1(1), 37-44.
Asfour, O. S. (2016). Bridging the gap between the past and the present: A reconsideration of mosque architectural elements. Journal of Islamic Architecture, 4(2), 77-85.
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