Islamic Lifestyle

Bringing mosques back to the heart of society

Photo: A group reading the Quran at Masjid al Nabawi in Medina, Saudi Arabia, on Nov 30, 2016. Historically, mosques fulfilled educational, social and administrative needs. Today, the educational function of mosques is mostly limited to Quran reciting classes. Abd. Halim Hadi/

Architects and designers in the Middle East are creating structures in urban communities filled with life all day long instead of only during prayer times

The emergence in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of American-style car-oriented urban design has diluted the importance of the mosque from being the hub of social, cultural and educational life to becoming merely a house of prayer used only at specific times in a day.

Architects and urban designers are beginning to question this trend and are advocating a return to the mosque’s traditional role in society, exemplified by, for instance, Al Daleel mosque in Sharjah, which was built in 1919 alongside the thriving Souq Al Asra. The oldest mosques evolved as their role in the community grew, adding educational and communal facilities.

The traditional role of the mosque in the community can be witnessed during a stroll down Dubai’s Jumeira Road during the fasting month of Ramadan. The road has a high density of mosques, each of which organises community iftar meals for the people living in the vicinity, thereby becoming the hub of interaction for residents.

Unfortunately, this level of interaction emerges only during Ramadan, a trend that more contemporary structures are trying to reverse by integrating various facilities with prayer locations as a means of making them vibrant gathering places throughout the day and year.

The Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, inaugurated in 2015, integrates a modern educational facility with its accompanying mosque.

The proposed mosque at Aldar’s Al Dana Development in Abu Dhabi, located at the edge of the waterfront promenade, has multiple visual connections with the sea, the marina and the development itself.

“Gulf mosques are seen as standalone objects. This has created a condition where the mosque has lost its integrated urban character with the neighbourhood. There is no serious effort to consider the functional side of it. That is why we see mosques that are only used a few times in a day. There are no efforts for a mosque’s place in our Gulf society, or the Emirates’ society. The mosque is only a place where you go and pray. That is really the biggest challenge,” said Ahmed Al Ali of the Dubai-based X-Architects, the company designing the Al Dana mosque.  

“The mosques that are in the modern Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates are done in completely different time and context and also planning. We are building modern Arab cities influenced by the American way of looking at cities, which are car-oriented places,” he added.

Can you walk to the nearest mosque? That has become an important question in this context. “When you go to the mosque, you go five times driving. It’s really great when you have a mosque that you can walk to. But usually you take a car,” Al Ali said.


However lofty the aim, the solution may require more than design-driven answers, said Al Ali. “Contemporary mosques are isolated due to architectural language and due to urban planning – the way the city is designed. How to bring the mosque back to the society? It needs a bigger solution than an architectural one,” he said. 

While developers plan mosques to integrate with their surroundings, urban planners and regulators are increasingly cognisant of the need for a wider solution. The Abu Dhabi Mosque Development Regulations (ADMDR) of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) describe mosques thus: “They are primarily a place of worship, but can also be a place of study and a place for community engagement. [The guidelines] will ensure that mosques of the right type and size are distributed efficiently throughout communities – with ease of access for all citizens.”

Through the implementation of the ADMDR, mosques are anticipated to be located within walking distance of all residents. Aligned with the overarching principles of the UPC's Complete Sustainable Communities (CSC), the ADMDR considers aspects such as proximity to other community facilities and the population density of a neighbourhood.

A mosque that is integrated into the community is far from isolated. Comparing Al Daleel mosque to some of the later structures, Ali A. Alraouf, head of research and development at Qatar’s urban planning department, said: “The mosque literally used to be the heart of the city. In old Sharjah the city centre was the Al Daleel mosque in Souq Al Asra. The mosque was extended to make a trilogy between mosque, souq and sahn. The anatomy was structured and integrated. It had cultural, political, recreational use.

“How have we moved from this chapter in history to a situation where you ask people, literally, to pray and leave?” he added, citing the example of Tunisia, where you “have to have a card to enter a mosque.”


Historically, mosques have been designed to fulfil social functions. When examining the UAE vernacular of mosque design, the Mosque Development Committee in Abu Dhabi said: “Within the Gulf region, mosques were generally placed at the centre of communities and were designed as meeting points and places of interaction within neighbourhoods.”

Writing in an article on the subject, the committee said this was in keeping with the function of mosques fulfilling educational, social and administrative needs. After all, mosques were among the earliest institutions of learning in the Arab world, where scholars taught Quran, hadith, fiqh, language and literature, and secular subjects such as chemistry, physics, engineering and medicine. Today, the educational function of mosques is mostly limited to Quran reciting classes.

Socially, the mosque was also a centre for charity collection and a place where the community would meet and discuss current affairs that affect their lives. The mosque was the place where all political, judicial and social decisions were made. “It was a place for meeting envoys and tribal delegations, for signing agreements and for judging disputes. Rulers used their local mosque to address the community before they attended to the administrative affairs of the state,” the committee noted.

Some of the most famous concepts of our time visualise mosques fulfilling various functions. Halide Edip Adivar Mosque, for instance, designed by Manco Architects for a competition by the Municipality of Sisli in Istanbul, brings together private and public spaces. The mosque is based on a reinterpretation of the Ottoman concept of kulliye, a complex of mosque and supplementary buildings with various functions. The architects say: “The Ottoman kulliye is typically introvert and does not connect with the surrounding urban tissue. The modern kulliye designed for the competition is reinterpreted as a project fusing with the neighbourhood where the closed, semi-open and open spaces are open to public use.” 

The Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies and its accompanying mosque perform their part in bringing back the educational function. Designed by Ada Yvars, co-founder of Mangera Yvars, the building made it to the 2017 shortlist of the prestigious Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture given to women architects.

According to Mangera Yvars, the pioneering work undertaken by the faculty in Islamic studies, the Arts, Architecture, and contemporary Islamic society led them to explore innovative building proposals based in historic precedents. “The scheme also relates in part to Qatar as a geo-political centre and a place where contemporary Islamic identity is actively debated,” the project note said.

The building, the architects said, explores the relationship of knowledge and light where the Qur’an places emphasis on knowledge in order to reach enlightenment. The scheme is organised in a spiral arrangement of teaching room and faculty offices, which eventually lead to the mosque. A ribbon of Quranic calligraphy binds the classrooms and external elevations, with a calligraphic courtyard in the centre.  

“It shows true contemporary movement from madrasa to college. There is life going on... there are coffee shops. This is the role of the mosque that we have missed when we transform it to a place to perform rituals instead of representing our life,” said Qatar’s urban planning department’s Alraouf. 

Alraouf is a proponent of creativity – not just in architecture and structure, but in function and activity as well. “Why can’t you eat and have coffee and have a terrace in the mosque, or a children’s park, a family gathering place? Claim your mosque as the centre of cultural, political, creative life – from a place to conduct rituals to ‘my place’ and create a sense of belonging.”

He added: “We have to transform the mosque into a vibrant, not deserted, place. A cost-benefit analysis of the mosque will show that it is a non-feasible building if we use it only for an hour and half a day, if we open it only for prayer and then close the doors.” 

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Shalini Seth, White Paper Media