Mosques, a constant sign of Islamic architecture, have stood as landmark architectural masterpieces since time immemorial. These religious structures offer a place for Muslims to gather, reflect, pray and celebrate the sacred Islamic religion. Mosques have been seen to grow in size and number throughout the world, spanning multiple decades and reflecting a score of different styles. All these mosque designs follow traditional Islamic principles but are seen to take up multiple forms in their execution through the years.
In recent times, there has been a great development of the traditional mosque design, with a major transformation of the traditional dictionary of former standout examples of the religious building, into designs that reflect our changing society, in terms of material, ornamentation, and basic formwork as well.
But even with all this change in the design of these religious institutions, there are a few common denominators that seem to be continuously used in various examples of modern mosque designs throughout the world. These include:
The main denominator for all Mosque design is the inclusion of principles of geometry in any stage of the design, be it the plan, the elevation, or in smaller building or ornamentation details. Geometry is considered a common factor in Islamic design as it is related to principles of stability, order, and space.
Geometry also signifies the belief of ‘Unity in Multiplicity” with direct derivations from the natural world and the cosmic universe and so is seen and used in various elements of the building, from the complete site plan to the smallest of details of ornaments.
Shah Mosque in Iran features geometry in a variety of ways. The architectural drawings of the sections, plans, and elevations feature different mathematical principles (like the golden ratio, proper proportion and symmetry), reflecting infinity and perfection. Besides the overall form, the various interior details in the muqarnas and the domes, the wall embellishments, etc. also follow a mathematical structure.
2. Layout and Location
Setting up the location and a proper initial layout of the mosque is essential for its proper use. Mosques should be located in a central location, with proper circulation, in a complex kind of setting that supports additional activities like schools, hospitals, retail centers, etc. that can support the large group of devotees that frequent the mosque. Inspiration can be taken from the former külliye complexes, Turkish complexes of buildings centered on a mosque with charitable services like dining, learning, etc., provided for the community around it.
The külliye of the Süleymaniye Mosque, in Istanbul, for example, accommodates several Muslim centred Islamic institutions, marketplaces, hostels, baths, hospitals, etc., for the comfort of the visitors.
The layout and zoning of the mosque should be done in such a way that the main prayer hall is the focal point both visually and functionally, with the auxiliary spaces provided around with proper and easy circulation paths to accommodate the huge crowds. For example, the provision of ablution area, areas for visitors to clean themselves before entering the sacred praying space, at regular intervals, in adequately sized spaces.
3. Building Features
Many mosques share common architectural building elements. A minaret is a tall and slim tower that rises from the main mosque building. The term minaret translates to “lighthouse” or “beacon” in Arabic and consists of a tower with a square, hexagonal, or circular plan, with a dome or pointed top, along with a crescent, the symbol of Islam.
It is used to demarcate the presence of the mosque, while also helping the mosques’ muezzin to call for and announce the daily prayer throughout the neighboring area. There are various classifications of minarets based on the shape of their plan and overall form.
The Mosque of al-Mutawakkil in Samarra, Iraq includes a Spiral Minaret which is a special type of Minaret with an exterior spiral staircase reaching the top. This specific Minaret is an engineering marvel as it rises 70 feet high and can be seen from a considerable distance.
Many mosques also have one or more domes as a defining feature. Domes symbolize the vault of heaven and are usually constructed over the main prayer hall. The interiors of these domes are usually embellished with intricate designs.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque features the use of over 82 differently sized domes, the largest over the prayer hall, all decorated with white marble. These domes contribute towards a simultaneous sense of movement and stability, throughout the entire design.
4. Religious Building Features
In addition to the architectural building elements, mosques incorporate the use of certain specific religious elements within their interiors as well. The Mihrab is an essential feature of mosque design and consists of a niche, within the mosque, from where the Imam prays, directed towards Mecca, the main religious landmark in Islam. Mihrabs usually consist of surfaces with gilded ornamentation and intricate designs, mosaics, and patterns, or calligraphy of religious Arabic inscriptions.
The Mihrab consists of the Qibla wall which is the main wall in the direction of Mecca, towards which devotees pray. The direction and orientation of the Mihrab and the Qibla varies based on the geographical location of the mosque.
The Minbar is yet another religious building element that consists of a raised platform from which the Imam prays and addresses the congregation, on a step lower than the topmost one, in respect of Allah.
The Mihrab of the Madrasa Imami in Isfahan, Iran consists of a niche with intricate mosaics with inscriptions of Qur’anic verses scrolled throughout the structure, along with the frames. This Mihrab shows the earliest developments of mosaics and is currently found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA.
Since Islam does not involve the use of images or statues of Allah, to prevent the practice of idolatry, mosques are covered with representational designs and patterns.
They usually feature a great amount of intricate detail throughout their building elements and furnishings. These designs revolve around geometric patterns, floral decorations, and mosaics all aimed at attaining a sense of unity, tranquility, eternity, and other religious principles. Inscriptions of Quranic texts in Arabic are also incorporated throughout the mosque, to give a constant connection to the historical scriptures.
Many building elements, like the columns, ceilings, walls, windows also include designs that elevate the basic form of the structure to one of great cultural and religious context, bringing a feeling of color, life, and devotion to the space.
The Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran includes extravagant decoration and ornamentation on all of its surfaces. The Mosque features the use of multicolored tiles forming geometric patterns, natural motifs of vegetation and flowers, and Qur’anic inscriptions all contributing towards a state of internal serenity. The intricate details of the designs and mesmerizing colors of these embellishments leave visitors in a sense of awe.
Besides the various ornamentation elements of the mosque, the building usually showcases decoration in terms of furnishings as well. Most mosques feature the use of large chandeliers or hanging lamps as central lighting elements, as light is an important factor in the design of the interior spaces, seeing that prayers usually happen late in the night and early in the morning. These chandeliers provide light throughout, to symbolize the light and omnipresence of God.
Devotees require themselves to kneel and prostrate themselves on the floor, on a surface that should be clean. Hence mosques usually cover their prayer halls with large, embellished carpets, many of which feature the use of arches directed towards the Mecca, that provide the clean space and a cushioned floor for prayer.
Shoe shelves are also an essential feature found near the doorways of mosques. This is done as the people are required to remove their shoes before entering mosques to maintain respect and cleanliness within the sacred space.
An excellent example of extravagance in furnishings is found in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The mosque features the use of the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet (5700 square meters) on its floor, the carpet itself, a symbol of exuberance and function.
The mosque also contains several gigantic chandeliers, made up of gold and brass frames, Italian glass, and Swarovski crystals to light up the interiors.
7. Natural Light
Light is an important element to consider while designing any space. This is especially true for the design of mosques, where natural daylight helps connect the imperfection and the morality of mankind to the spirituality and absolute beauty of God. The design of mosques has to allow the daylight to stream through the prayer halls, for the devotees to attain a feeling of spirituality and heavenly contemplation. This results in the design of a completely functional and aesthetic religious space.
The Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh was designed in such a way to create a heavenly praying area with the dynamic interplay of light and shadow formed due to the perforated walls and roof. Sunlight that bounces off the walls is also used to highlight the Qibla wall and create an ethereal prayer hall.
Islamic gardens have been a constant functional and spiritual element of mosque design. Hence the landscape of the spaces around the mosque requires proper design, as these gardens usually act as an introspective place of relaxation and calmness.
Besides the ornamentation of natural motifs, these gardens act as a clear representation of “Heaven, a land of paradise” and usually consist of symmetric, regular, and geometric landscaped areas, with various forms of vegetation (trees like Palm trees, olive trees, date trees, Pineapple trees, etc.), water bodies and shade to nurture a feeling of prayer, contemplation and rest.
The Education City Mosque in Doha, Qatar features an Islamic Garden throughout the mosque that is designed to act as a “land of paradise”, with different kinds of sensory vegetation from the ancient Quranic scripts (Olive trees, Fig Trees, Ginger trees, etc.) as well as four pools of water to symbolize wine, water, milk, and honey. This garden landscape flows through the exteriors to the interiors and provides peaceful nooks for prayer and contemplation.
9. Water Bodies
Water is yet another essential feature that one must try to include within the design of a mosque. Water, as an element, was always considered an important symbol in the Islamic religion. It refers to a state of emotional cleansing and reflection while emulating the “land of paradise”.
Mosque designs should feature waters’ sense of stillness and purity by incorporating fountains or reflection pools within the landscape. These water bodies, besides heightening spirituality, provide aesthetic value and help in cooling the area down too.
The reflecting pools provided by the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque provide not only a space for introspection but create an optical illusion of a larger mosque by reflecting the building and arcade by the pool. The dazzling blue still waters create a calm and peaceful area that highlights the importance of water in Islam.
A general thumb rule for the design of any space, more so a religious space like a mosque is to maintain sustainability throughout the design. Elements should be provided based on climatic conditions, budgetary conditions, and socio-cultural, geographical conditions as well. A focus has to be kept on material choice as well as provisions for proper lighting, energy, and water utilization.
Many mosques adopt passive design strategies, the use of pools of water, courtyards, etc., to maintain temperatures and ventilation throughout the space.
The Hikmah complex mosque in Dandaji, Niger consists of a structure constructed with Compressed Earth Bricks (CEB) made of the local clay, which helps in reducing energy consumption and provides better thermal performance, while reducing the cost of construction as well. The use of this material along with the overall forms, orientation, use of a courtyard, etc. contribute towards a more sustainable design.
Finally, the overall design of the mosque must take into consideration the spiritual journey of the attendees. The design must create an almost heavenly space that radiates peace and tranquility, a space that allows people to gather and pray but must also offer spaces for relaxation and contemplation. It should use the blueprint of a traditional structure but must strive for a modern expression in our fast-changing society.
The design must also abide by traditional Islamic principles of space, form, and geometry, be both functional and aesthetic, and offer a space for people to congregate and reflect on the beauty of Islam.