Throughout the ages, mosques have functioned as holy houses for Muslims around the world, with the most iconic bristling with architectural grandeur. Now, modern architects are now applying contemporary aesthetics to the traditional features of these vital hubs of Islamic spiritual life
Iconic mosques around the world are known for their great stature, ornate detailing and symbolic architectural elements. From long, slender minarets to colourful tiling in the interiors, iconic mosques around the world typically function not only as spiritual hubs for prayer, but also as landmarks for their surrounding Muslim communities.
Today, mosques continue to play a vital role in their communities, providing a sense of solidarity and metaphysical connection with ancestral Muslim traditions. However, with continuous advancements in technology, architects and designers are pushing boundaries and modernising traditional mosque design.
The minaret, quite possibly the most famed feature of a mosque, is the typically large and slender spire that is taller than the associated mosque. Traditionally used for the adhan, the call to prayer by the muezzin, or crier, some of the world’s oldest minarets date back to the eighth century AD. Key examples include the now destroyed minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra, Iraq, and the minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia.
Other architectural elements of traditional mosque design include the mihrab and the minbar, which traditionally go side-by-side. The mihrab refers to the semi-circular niche that indicates the qibla, the direction toward the holy site, Kaaba, which Muslims face during their prayers. In Islamic history, Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) used the mihrab as his own praying room, and during the reign of Uthman ibn Affan, the caliph ordered a sign to be posted on the mihrab wall at the mosque in Medina, so visiting pilgrims could easily identity which way to direct their prayers.
Typically located to the right of the mihrab is the minbar, a raised platform from which the imam addresses the congregation. Sometimes shaped like a small tower, the minbar always incorporates at least three steps, and now stands as a symbol of authority.
Today, architects and designers alike aim to maintain the traditional elements of mosque design in the face of growing appreciation for contemporary approaches. Due to developments in technology such as speakers and microphones, the use of the features such as the minaret and the minbar have slowly developed into symbolic elements of Islamic history and culture rather than being operational.
In the past few years, mosques have been reconceptualised around the world. From Dubai to Kosovo and even Turkey, they are today undergoing significant modernisation. Founder and partner-in-charge of Yaghmour Architects, Farouk Yaghmour, says that during the construction of the Abdulrahman Saddik Mosque in the UAE, he faced opposition to his contemporary approach. However, today, post-construction, the mosque is a key feature of the touristic map of the city and a symbol of a modernising Middle East.
Yaghmour explains: “We believe in liberating the mosque from the traditional to reflect our time and the era we live in, plus utilising the latest technologies and contemporary approaches in construction and materials. Keeping in mind the importance of maintaining the spirituality of the space, of course the orientation towards Mecca comes first. We also believe that contemporary mosques, with simplistic, modern spaces, are attracting younger generations who feel that the mosque speaks to them.”
According to Yaghmour, traditional elements of a mosque’s framework remain present in modern designs; however, they are becoming more and more abstract in their aesthetics. For example, the Abdulrahman Al Saddik Mosque applies a transparent geometric glass screen as the mihrab wall. In this way, the natural light that peers through indicates the direction in which Muslims should face during their prayers.
Yaghmour says: “We are using light as a material… We abstract the Islamic lines, ornamentations and geometries to more contemporary notions, and try to reinvent the calligraphy used by experimenting with different colours and materials. Some elements like the minaret are transformed into a symbolic element, since in our age there is no need to call for prayers from the top of the minaret.”
Today, mosques also include cultural hubs, religious schools and conference halls, and are being incorporated into larger community centres. Architects and designers continue to apply traditional elements, but in contemporary ways, while the grounds on which a mosque sits are growing to incorporate more educational and public facilities.