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The evolution of the mosque

August 06, 2013

Not one, not two but three of the mosques' four minarets have gone missing, from all over the country engulfed by mysterious influences through a clandestine process. Only one stands and it stands tall trying to compensate for its missing companions. There is more to it than meets the eyes.

The architecture of mosques has gone through a sea-change over the past half century and it has cast in concrete the distortions that our practices of faith have gone through during the period. I have here attempted to utilise my limited knowledge of architecture to read between the 'lanes'.

Mosques had a peculiar design that was determined by the functions it used to perform and the possibilities and the limitations of the available construction materials and architectural knowledge. A historical prototype would be a rectangular compound with four minarets, standing in each of the four corners and a hall covered by a combination of domes on the side facing Ka'aba. The ablution pond used to occupy the center of the open compound and the entrance to the mosque was well marked by protruding arches, often laden with exotic motives.

All of these architectural elements, and their silhouettes, served as symbols of our faith and the spaces they enclosed, within which we moved and prayed, formed an essential part of our religious experience – sitting on a mat, under a large dome has a peculiar spatial feel and meanings for the faithful. Not all mosques, however, could live up to the classical prototype mainly for want of resources but they all did try to get as close as possible to the ideal.

But then, they stopped making these efforts.

One major change that has crept in recent times is that domes have disappeared. Domes were an engineering solution to roof the halls that had larger dimensions than the maximum available lengths of planks. The brick and mortar domes were also more long lasting than a flat roof built with wooden planks. The introduction of reinforced concrete (mortar of cement, crushed stones and sand embedded with a mesh of steel rods) provided a much better solution to roof even bigger halls. These are more durable and economical than the traditional domes or flat roofs.

From a structural point of view, reinforced concrete literally obliterated the need to have domes. But the mosque builders did not immediately quit it as they valued domes for the spatial experience that most people had come to associate with praying and also for their visual value which served as a strong religious symbol.

Domes in concrete are, however, much more difficult and expensive to construct than flat roofs in the same material. Soon, they started building prayer halls with flat concrete roofs but to compensate for the lost silhouette, a relief of the old traditional mosque is stuck on the outer edge of the hall's roof. It is a two-dimensional cutout of the classical mosque's front elevation pasted on the forehead of the modern one. It's a shadow of the 3-dimensional structural reality that mosques used to be.

So the mosques started using the new age materials but could not construct a new spatial experience that could rival the classical one. They could also not create new architectural symbols and still rely on the old ones despite that, they have no structural significance anymore. Many mosques now place fiberglass domes on their rooftops. This mosque near Pir Mahal, Toba Tek Singh has hoisted a plastic dome on its front, like a flag. It is serving as an advertisement or a sign board for the bigger dome inside that the passer-bys cannot see. I would call it 'sacrilegious architecture'.

The loss of the dome burdened the other most important structure, the minaret, with the responsibility of representation even more. The second most evident change in the architecture of the mosques is that three of its ubiquitous four minarets have disappeared and the remaining one has grown over size. Minarets were never structurally or architecturally essential to the mosque building, in the sense that if you take them out nothing would fall down. Their only function was to elevate the Moazin to a higher pedestal so that Azan could be heard in a wider circle. But loudspeakers made them unnecessary. You can stick a set of speakers to a bamboo to get the same effect and in fact, many less resourceful do just that.

But these towering structures have also served as symbols of power and grandiose. They dominate the skyline and dwarf other structures. Mosques, probably, have never before, been so compelled to make these bold statements. That is exactly why the minarets are constructed now the way they are. Stand on your rooftop and you’ll see that the only spikes in the urban skyline are provided by mosque minarets.

The height of the lone minaret is proportionate to either the religious ambitions of its builders or to the ego of the sect; it belongs to, in a localised context. At some places rival sects invest quite a lot in outcompeting the height of each other's minarets. This mosque being built in the main bazaar Nankana Sahab can be seen as a classical example. There is the Gurdwara Janam Asthan, one of the holiest shrines of Sikhs, at the end of this lane. The gate of the Gurdwara can be seen in the picture. All Gurdwaras install a tall flag with an emblem of Sikhism on the top. The minaret of this mosque is built to dwarf that flag and the entire Gurdwara.

Building a minaret tall enough to match the purported image of its sect is, in most cases, an undertaking equal to or even bigger than, constructing the main mosque complex. The wise maulana sahabs actually take these as two separate projects. They might first prefer to have a roof over the head and then raise the minaret feet by feet.

The minaret of this mosque in Morr Khunda, Punjab is so tall that it seems that this entire small town is living under its shadow. I doubt that there is a point in this town from where it could not be seen.

Mosques mostly do not afford to have the traditional four minarets as their sites are mostly stuck up in cramped streets and bazaars. There used to be only one famous Aik-Minaree mosque in old Lahore, but now it is difficult to find one with four minarets in most cities.

The third distortion in the architecture of mosque is the loss of its facade. Besides the three minarets, mosques have also been deprived of their traditional facade. It has been sold to the bazaar. Architecturally speaking, the entrance was once one of the most celebrated part of a mosque building. Its purpose was to attract and invite but then the rental value of mosque fronts became too tempting and now the mosque gate is lost to shops loaded with merchandise and advertisements inserted to the front and if viable, to the sides as well. But perhaps, this commercial siege is realistic, as inviting people to the building is but a secondary objective, the primary being served by the single minaret and the fully powered loudspeaker.