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The evolution of the mosque

Published Aug 06, 2013 03:14pm


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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.

Author Image

Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

He tweets @TahirMehdiZ

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (38) Closed

Theislamicdirectory Aug 06, 2013 04:29pm

I think as Islam continue to grow globally I think it make sense to have masjid with small foot print. This complements the core of Islam as green way of life.

Mir Aug 06, 2013 04:41pm

One minaree is good idea this will give identity to the masque. But speaker are not necessary . In these days every one has watch no need to reminded them to come to pray. If person does not want to pray it is his business . He has to answer to his Allah. Even speaker will not push him to pray.

Agha Ata Aug 06, 2013 06:03pm

I think domes and minarets have something more then what meets the eye. Look at Taj Mahal!

jafri Aug 06, 2013 06:43pm

Mr. Mehdi, thank you for a most interesting article.

Alien Sharma Aug 06, 2013 07:11pm

In Pakistan mullahs call for azan loudly on speakers and in West they are so quite, never here them

Paul Aug 06, 2013 08:34pm

Very interesting article. Its a perspective that you don't see written in such an arranged manner usually. Although personally I am not for magnificent places of worship; mosques in Islam are commanded to be simple. The insights, however, are quite educating and interesting.

M J Syed Aug 06, 2013 08:42pm

I found this article very interesting begging for more research.

While travelling through European and American small towns and villages the usual first sight is that of steeples and Church domes. Historically it has served as a vocal declaration of the faith of that community and also psychological fortification of the surrounding areas for that faith. It was very much the case when early Christianity asserted its presence in Europe. It seems logical that Mosque minarets also played a wider role.

akki Aug 06, 2013 09:28pm

... enclosed, within which we moved and prayed,RIOTED, formed an essential part of our religious experience

Parvez Aug 07, 2013 12:57am

In a country were one Muslim is willing to kill another Muslim in the name of religion............does it really matter if there is one minaret or four ?

Muhammad Iftikhar Aug 07, 2013 06:57am

The most important element of a mosque is the people who pray there. The mosques will be beutified more by their attendance than one or four minarets.

Asghar Aug 07, 2013 07:01am

@Mir: There is a very logical reason to remind people through the azaan, one which a watch can not serve. If one truly understood the words and meaning of the azaan there is a very strong chance they would go and pray after listening to it rather than by a reminder from a watch. And it is not so simple to say prayer is ones own business. To "enjoin good and forbid evil" is necessary. Not Taliban style but in a civilized fashion.

Usman Aug 07, 2013 08:01am

Interesting read - thank you Mehdi Sb.

amin valiani Aug 07, 2013 09:37am

I would like to know how the Muslims started building minarets and domes over the roof of Mosque. Wherefrom the idea come first? it is said that during the time of Holy Prophet (p.b.u.h), there was no concept of minarets or dome over the roof of mosque in Mecca/Madina. Some are of the view that Muslims have adopted the idea from Byzantine Empire when they captured Syria. The Christians have copied from Romans and the Romans took the idea from human body. Domes are like female chest while minarets are like the male organ of fertility. I am not assure about its veracity. Kindly help me in this regards. Thanks.

Shah Aug 07, 2013 11:45am

"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".

Exotic for whom? Certainly not for the people of Pakistan. But then again, most writers at Dawn seems to be mentally in a total different place then the general pakistani population. I am still not sure if the same can be said about it's readers.

Mosque or Islamic achitecture is such a facinating subject and this writing do not cover ever 1% of it. My conclution after seing mosques in 4 continents is that there are wide differences in the designs and look whioch reflects the local culture.

Jeevan Aug 07, 2013 11:51am

As a Kaafir I have to say that I dont mind any number of minarets you build but please cut down on the loudspeakers. I live in India and there are three mosques near my house. During azaan they make a terrible cacophony of each overlapping the other. I think there is a competition between the three of them to see who can be the loudest. One of them has recently got one which sounds like a super stereophonic sonic boom. Surely you have watches with you and you can you reach your mosques on time. Why must the whole world know that it is your prayer time ?

ahmed41 Aug 07, 2013 12:22pm

Mr. Mehdi has written a good article.

As times change, perhaps it is inevitable that the architecture of mosques undegoes a gradual hisorical modification.

I like the * barb* about the height of the sole minaret reflects the ego of the dominant local sect.

One wonders what GOD thinks about such petty human weakness. Sounds like the Chatholic Cathedral Vs the Anglican Cathedral rivalry in other places !!!!

Jam Aug 07, 2013 02:42pm

@Mir: Well if we should not remind them to pray, why not stop the azan all together..? The purpose of the azan is a reminder for prayer. Those who want to accept it can accept it. Those who don't does not have to. After all its fair to say most people would want to be reminded for prayers. The same way you would want an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. Unless you are fine with waking up to check if you woke up at the right time. Plus the minarets still have a purpose even today, Placing microphones on top of a minaret causes it to be heard a much further distance. That is why in the past the muezzin used to give the call from top of the minarets. Placing microphones at street level would do nothing but shatter windows and eardrums. Sometimes we should apply logic to our talk..

Khan Aug 07, 2013 03:09pm

Interesting article but your main focus was local not regional or international. I like to add that Mosque in Ha Noi Vietnam was built over a hundred years ago and is fully blended among local architecture without any minaret. While the mosque built in Sai Gon Vietnam around 1935 reflects exactly the pond, open space, veranda , minaret etc. On the other hand, the Chinese mosque in Xi an, Shaaxi province which is around 1258 years old have entire different architecture altogether but of course it was added and renovated over a millennium too.

Khan Aug 07, 2013 03:16pm

@Agha Ata: Taj Mahal is not a mosque or a place for prayer. The intention was to glorify beauty and express love and dedication. ipso facto it has not date..

idiotbacha Aug 07, 2013 05:02pm

@Alien Sharma: thats because Muslims in USA are not allowed to call for prayers publicly -_-

Nizamuddin Ahmad Aug 07, 2013 08:05pm

writer has a good talking point. In reality the minarets and dome is the symbol of Islamic identity. There is a need of a masjid with dome and minarets in western countries more than ever. I always have asked a cab driver in a new city to take me to Islamic centers by describing a construction and I always have reached my destinations. The European will know right away the place I want to go. United States and Canada is no different. We should retain the construction style as traditional as possible. Do not architects dictate the building style.

h l Aug 07, 2013 08:46pm

Nice observations and nicely written. Especially the ending. May we learn something and correct our actions according to teachings instead of pretensions.

h l Aug 07, 2013 08:49pm

@Jeevan: You have a valid point. Its food for thought for us muslims. By the way, its no different in Pakistan either. Its a competition between masjids. I hope we learn and address this issue

Ekbal Aug 07, 2013 09:46pm

@Jeevan: It is fine to be a kaafir and we embrace you as a fellow sub continent-or! I kinda agree that the loudspeakers may be, are a problem for many, especially the morning prayer. It should be analysed rationally. Its primary purpose is to bring the close by people to pray and they will not forget. Here in USA I have visited many masajids and none have the loudspeaker and the azaan is given inside or close to prayer hall. It may be because of laws but MOST IMPT. majority people living close by are none Muslims, so the purpose is not there. I am sorry for your inconvenience.

Mir Aug 08, 2013 12:37am

@jam @asghar I do respect your opinion,that is your progative. My opinion is if you have faith,you pray but if you do not have faith there is no need to persuades a person to pray for show only. If I pray I pray for myself period.

SBB Aug 08, 2013 06:29am

Sirji - this is a very interesting insight into mosque architecture and history. I was not aware of the thinking that went into the structure of building them... so this is informative. Thank you for it.

Kashif Aug 08, 2013 10:14am

I wonder how author missed the main reason for the typical architecture of mosques - it is to stand the building out of surrounding structures.

So that the person who heard the azan and willing to respond by leaving all the important affairs of world can easily find where the mosque is located. It is specially needed when the area is commuted by wayfarers frequently

It would be illogical to declare a common house a mosque and give challenge to worshipers, go find it

Also, the traditional building gives a feeling you would never have in a modern building. People might argue that it is all inside you, the outside environment should not bother the devout worshiper, but it is mere lame statement. A peaceful, quiet and fragrant environment would be ideal to stand in front of the Creator. Just as one get prepared to go to the office, and environment of workplace is also the way it should be.

Maz Khan Aug 08, 2013 11:12am

Interesting article. I have seen masajid being built with 1-4 minarets in America as a symbol of the traditional Islamic architecture, I suppose. They certainly are needed to hang the microphones as mentioned in the article.

My query is as follows: Even though they are commonly used in the masajid today, I am told that the introduction of a loud speaker in the masjid was opposed in the Indian subcontinent on religious grounds when initially introduced a century or so ago. Can the writer, or someone else, shed some light on this subject, backed by historical evidence? Will appreciate the reference. Thanks.

Sikandar Abbas Aug 08, 2013 12:11pm

@Jeevan: Because Azaan is also a tableeg to invite non-muslims to ponder on his existence and purpose of life and hereafter. Islam is not confined to oneself or to muslims only. The message has to be spread and of course without force. But I agree that mosques within few feet distances of each other should not call out azaan at the same time, only one mosque should do it so to be considerate of others.

Kuljit Aug 08, 2013 04:00pm

A very intelligent piece.

LATIF KHAN Aug 08, 2013 05:08pm

In the past, Minarets used to be mosque's beauty and one would recognise them as a land mark. The writer has rightly pointed out that due to invention of loud speakers, the need for more minarets declined. Mosque's exterior and interior architecture and decoration bring pleasant feelings to attendees and provide concentration. However, forcing someone to mosques should not be the work of neither government nor people as Islam is not the religion of compulsion. It should be open to all who wish to pray to ONE God, ALLAH.. A sect based mosque gives opportunities to many differences between sects and spreads hatred amongst communities. This must be stopped.

Ken Aug 09, 2013 01:17am

@idiotbacha: In the US Muslims are allowed to publicly call for prayers. Loud speakers and bells are both forbidden because of the noise competition. The US has freedom of religion, but not freedom to assult with noise.

Tahir A Aug 09, 2013 01:27am

@Kashif: Sadly this is not the case in Makkah where the Haram shariff is callously dwarfed by high rise buildings all round, each of which signify the owners' status symbol of wealth. The higher and massive they are, the more pride it carries for the sheikhs.

TamzaK Aug 09, 2013 03:48am

@idiotbacha: Very interesting ... THEN why are there loud church bells tolling sometimes at odd hours?

ramza Aug 09, 2013 07:00am

good article but I think India and Pakistan media need to have more articles on how to reduce population, lead a quality life for self and for future generations than on religious symbols.

ramza Aug 09, 2013 07:03am

my point is simple .. have more and more articles on web and on TV - which shows the benefit of having smaller families in both india, pakistan and all over. if educated writers spend time writing about temples and mosques then what can you expect from poor and illiterates

Agha Ata Aug 09, 2013 07:44am

The evolution of the mosque? So you do believe in Evolution. Right? :)

Lalchand Aug 09, 2013 09:45am

@idiotbacha: So whats the purpose of calling people Do they forget the time each and every day