What Should Mosque Architecture Be?

Volume 50, Issue 2

The religion of Islam is built upon an understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. Many verses in the Quran urge Muslims to think deeply about creation and the miracles of the universe. Fasting, prayer, and all other forms of worship in Islam are regulated according to the sun and the moon. As a major part of the Islamic rituals, Muslims go to mosques to pray five times a day. Historically, Muslims didn’t go to mosques only to pray, they also went there to gather, discuss, and learn about Islam and all other aspects of life. The first mosque in Islam is the house of the prophet Mohammed, which was built in the 7th century in Medina, Saudi Arabia. It is the perfect example of the simple and functional mosque. Its vernacular architecture resembled the concepts embraced by Islam, such as a minimal lifestyle, the clustered community, and a shared prosperity. In the following centuries, Muslims wanted to show the greatness and holiness of mosques, so they started to decorate them with intricate geometric and botanic ornaments. Although mosques are still being decorated today, most Muslim scholars have never considered ornament a necessity. Islam prioritizes equity, charity, and public welfare before considering the extravagant details.

Inspired by this belief, I think that contemporary mosque architecture should be more concerned with the spatial qualities rather than with decoration. For example, the latest advances in construction science and technology can reduce the number of columns inside a prayer hall, or preferably eliminate them, to preserve the continuity of the lines formed by worshippers, who prostrate themselves during prayer. Curtain walls and skylights might allow natural light to change the ambience of the prayer hall and engender an inspiring atmosphere for prayer. The prayer space can be made more inviting by increasing the transparency of the building enclosure and increasing the visibility from the outside. Solid walls might be reduced to the requirements of function and security. Natural vegetation may be invited inside the space to celebrate divine creation instead of depicting it on the walls. Natural materials, rough or polished, can be forthrightly used for finishes throughout the mosque as the purest way to embrace the human connection with the Earth. Natural ventilation streams might be introduced into the prayer hall through wind catchers and operable windows to sustain a healthy and uplifting environment. The strong relation between the prayer and the Earth discourages elevating the mosque above the ground. To help establish a connection with heaven during prayer might best be accomplished with a simple roof. Pure geometric shapes have strong and iconic characteristics that exceed the two-dimensionality of ornament, and they can be applied exquisitely in three-dimensional form.

The mosque is a place where the connection with God is established, where the purpose of life is understood. Mosque architecture should not only represent Islam’s principles, beliefs, and values to the world; it should also function as a bridge between Muslims and their place of worship. The experiences that such architecture can create, and the meanings it can convey, can be part of the mission and understanding of this faith community—any faith community.

The author is a Palestinian architect who recently completed his master’s degree in architecture at the University of Hartford.