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Mosque design breaks the shackles of the past

Mosque design breaks the shackles of the past
Photo: Exteriorof Sancaklar mosque in the Buyukcekmece district of Istanbul, Turkey, designed by award-winning Emre Arolat Architects. Aivita Arika/

Designers in the Middle East are pushing the boundaries of mosque architecture to create structures that are relevant and serve their function more effectively, while regulations play catch-up.

By deconstructing the elements of mosque architecture, urban planners and designers are rethinking mosque design to create contemporary structures that are socially functional, environmentally friendly and true to the local vernacular, with an emphasis on the spiritual and social experience rather than architectural specifics.

“Mosques are seen as a physical representation of faith,” said Shams Eldien Naga, principal at Naga Architects, who traces the presence of the sahn, a square defined by an arrangement of walls and/or arches as the most essential architectural element of mosque design. The sahn is defined from its function in Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) house, which is considered the first mosque. 

A minaret, which Naga says is a regional add-on seen as early as 1724 in Tunisia, serves merely to pinpoint the mosque’s location in a city while functioning as a tower from which to transmit the adhan, or the call to prayer, over a larger distance. Chronologically, says Naga, the mihrab was added later as a niche to mark the qibla. The iwan, which is a vaulted rectangular space, walled on three sides with one end entirely open, essentially emphasises the sahn, and came later.

Photo: Al Zaytuna mosque in Tunis, Tunisia, is the oldest mosque in the country, dating to the 8th century.

According to Naga, modern geo-location, voice transmission and prayer-time cueing technologies have the potential to make a lot of the mosque’s architectural elements anachronistic, leaving designers to focus on the function.

Ali A. Alraouf, head of research and development at Qatar’s urban planning department, said he had found examples of mosques that question the very notion of a mosque and focus on the essentials.  “Architecture emphasises the spiritual experience; how you feel when you are in a mosque. The spatial quality is inviting to contemplate and reflect,” he said.

Alraouf cites the contemporary mosque in Dubai’s City Walk strip mall: “I saw a cube. And as I walked by the cube, I found a glass door. Through the door, people could be seen performing prayers and reciting the Quran. I was invited to go and pray. I had a wonderful time in the mosque. At City Walk they are not interested in minarets because they want the mosque to blend in with the context. They don’t have a minaret and dome.”

In contemporary structures, such as the Sancaklar mosque in Istanbul designed by Emre Arolat Architects and built between 2011 and 2013, the trappings of typical mosque design – such as the use of pattern, geometry, arches, domes and traditional minarets – are replaced by simplicity and an emphasis on spirituality.

“As you enter the site, there is an empty space that is not square or rectangle. You step down into it and come into the prayer space. There is no repetitive geometry needed or arabesque designs or excessive use of anything. The water element is abstract – there is no fountain. There are no eight-star designs or any particular reference to any patterns. Yet this has managed to achieve spirituality,” said Naga, speaking to an audience of his peers, urban planners and government functionaries at the Mosque Design and Development Summit in Dubai.


Naga is currently working on the Al Futtaim Mosque in Dubai’s Hor Al Anz area, which, he said, consists of “a simple arcade without any geometry to create a sense of space, along with a free-standing minaret,” being developed according to local regulatory controls. 

The mosque development committee in Abu Dhabi, for instance, which has issued regulatory guidelines on everything from planning to design, operations, architectural prototypes, functionality and environmental friendliness of mosques, says its mandate is “optimising the distribution of mosques and enhancing their role within communities, encouraging design innovation while preserving Emirati architectural heritage and ensuring that mosques are built, operated and maintained to the highest international standards.”

The committee examines the mosques of the past to inform the present. According to a study by the committee, vernacular design elements in Abu Dhabi mosques “promote an overarching level of simplicity, so as not to detract from the primary use of the mosque for prayer.”

The oldest mosques in the emirate have in common the use of subtle, non-obtrusive colour, texture and pattern, minimal ornamentation and an “ambience that evokes a sense of moving from everyday life to a peaceful, spiritual environment.”

Vernacular components include a portal, a sahn, a riwaq or arcade running along one or more sides, a prayer hall and a mihrab. “If required, a single stout minaret [may be] located within the mosque plot boundary, typically within the sahn,” says the study, listing mosques such as the undated Hamad Bin Sultan Mosque in Al Ain, and the Al Muhannadi Mosque on Delma Island dated 1931, where there were no minarets or adhan platforms.

The Great Mosque of Damascus. VFXArabia/


The mosque today is also seen as a symbol of regional or national identity, along with fulfilling its core function, which is to unite believers at a place of worship.

Developing locally relevant mosques is being taken very seriously by a new generation of urban planners who recognise that mosque design is an evolving discipline rather than referencing the glory days of Islamic civilisation seen in examples such as the Great Mosques of Damascus, Cordoba, Isfahan and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, often showcasing Abbasid, Umayyad or Ottoman styles that date back to no later than the 13th century.

Highlighting the functional and regional nature of mosque design, the Abu Dhabi study says: “As communities grew larger, minarets were introduced at the end of the second century of Islam to allow the mu’athen’s voice to be heard across a wider area ... Minaret structures in different regions of the world show distinct patterns and styles that have developed over time and are recognised as the vernacular of that region. Within Arabia, and particularly the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, mosques were generally developed without minarets.”


Through a study of the past, even as architects and urban planners move away from extraneous elements to design mosques as creative expressions of their times, some elements, such as minarets and domes, find their way into contemporary structures.

The Camlica Mosque by Tuncer Cakmakli Architects in Istanbul, which comes with a tourist park and educational facilities, is considered an example of stretching the possibilities of design. It comes equipped with two minarets.  

The East Park Mosque located in the Bahrain Bay development in Manama, designed by the Burj Khalifa architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), comprises a concrete shell clad internally and externally with natural stone, with a minaret dominating the skyline.

Regulatory control is responsible for some of these elements, restricting architects from veering too far from what has come to be considered normal. In Dubai, for instance, Naga said, “Some of the challenges that we have are when you have a particular style that you have to go by. Because of regulation in many cases we are required to design to a pattern. We have to add on. You have to have a dome, for example. We ended up putting a dome.”

In Abu Dhabi, the regulations mandate, among other specifications such as use of passive cooling technology and cross ventilation, that “the minaret should be a prominent landmark within its surrounding context,” and that “mosques with a capacity below 300 worshippers shall not have domes. Domes shall be set back from the parapet and be low and hemispherical so that they are not prominent from the public realm.”

Planners point out the tension between the past and celebrating the contemporary. Qatar’s Alraouf said: “We selected a paradigm and we are celebrating this because we felt the glory of Islamic civilisation then, but this is not contemporary.”

Harking back to the notion of function over form, architects are questioning many such styles as archaic. Ehab Mokhtar, ‎managing director at Cairo design firm ‎IDIA, spoke about the incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) in mosque construction. “A few weeks ago, I saw jummah prayer in another country through live stream on Twitter. This was not happening a few months ago. We have to focus on the experience and the function. What if we decide to have activities such as a VR trip to Makkah where people have not been before? These aspects will come sooner rather than later.” 

Turkey Istanbul Sancaklar mosque interior

Photo: Interior of Sancaklar mosque in the Buyukcekmece district of Istanbul, Turkey, designed by award-winning Emre Arolat Architects. Samet Guler/


Creative freedom is an aspect that mosque designers are more aware of today. According to Alraouf, the concept of creativity relates to an understanding of visible and inner beauty, which for him is integral to Islam. 

Cities in the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East, are known for pushing the boundaries of design and architecture. However, this approach is not taken with mosques, experts say.

Hans Werner, architect and partner at Wanders Werner Falasi, said: “We are very limited in expression. We should get more possibilities to express on projects like mosques. Here, I can build concepts that I could never build [elsewhere]. We are encouraged to think openly. But most Islamic buildings have this limitation – this is the only aspect where this does not work.”

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Shalini Seth, White Paper Media