The ‘Stereotypical’ Mosque

Volume 51, Issue 2 :: Abdulgader S. Naseer

Inventing an architectural form to provide for the worship of an invisible and non-representational deity has never been achieved, and anything that became an accepted form had to be evolved through the passage of time.1 ~ Martin Frishman

In the spring of 2015, as part of a graduate design studio at the Yale School of Architecture, I set out to design a mosque that attempted to challenge the stereotypical image attached to the typology. The response from my studio critic, Leon Krier, could be summarized in one quote by him: “It must have a minaret.” The instant rejection of the idea that a mosque could have a form that is different from the common image of what it “should be” is what fuels this article. Furthermore, this mythical image of mosques has contributed to several political controversies, such as the Swiss referendum in 2009 against the construction of minarets, which was ultimately approved by 57.3 percent of voters.2 By doing so, the Swiss government, and the large public that supported this initiative, reduced the identity of an entire religion to a single architectural element.

Any discussion about what a mosque can look like has become a highly contested topic, as in few places one cannot propose a mosque without a minaret, for example, without being accused of radically attempting to change Islam, largely due to the false belief that such elements are in and of themselves divine,3 and a rejection to them would be an attack on the religion itself. This in large part is a product of the orthodox nature of most Islamic schools of thought, where the notion of innovation is viewed as taboo. However, I would argue that the current image of the mosque is a product of innovation, as the typology has undergone a series of transformations since the birth of Islam nearly 1,500 years ago. Hence, the stereotypical image of the mosque can only be challenged by identifying the paradigm shifts in history. The design of mosques has undergone a series of changes, proving that the typology is not static. The mosque is a fluid condition. Any image of the mosque is a temporal phenomenon that is subject to change. It should be noted that the intention is not to argue for the “purification” of mosques, but to demonstrate that the typology is an ever-changing one, and asking what a mosque should look like is a constructive, not destructive, question.

Islamic “Non”-Innovation

Those of you who live after me will see great disagreement. You must then follow my Sunnah and that of the rightly guided caliphs. Hold to it and stick fast to it. Avoid novelties, for every novelty is an innovation, and every innovation is an error.4 ~ Prophet Muhammad

Sketch of proposed mosque design

Sketch by Leon Krier depicting the image of what the author’s proposed mosque design project should be like.

In order to understand the resistance to innovating the design of mosques, one must contextualize the discourse within the larger issue of innovation, or bid’a, in Islam. As Mehran Kamrava argues in the book Innovation in Islam,5 the above hadith attributed to Prophet Muhammad has served as justification for anyone who opposes innovation in Islam. As a result, the word bid’a over time has acquired a negative connotation. However, a lesser-known hadith by the Prophet alludes to the reality, and necessity, of innovation in Islam: “Allah will raise for this community at the end of every hundred years the one who will renovate its religion for it.”6 These persons are referred to in Arabic as muslihoon: reformers. Tariq Ramadan interprets the notion of islah (reform) here not as radicalizing the primary sources, principles, or fundamentals of the faith, but how the religion is understood and practiced in different times and places. The aim of these muslihoon is to advocate reform with the intention of bringing Islam back to its original state, restoring its purity, and improving upon it. To this, contemporary scholars such as Kamrava and Ramadan point out how Islam, while preserving the essence of its timelessness, could be rethought to take into consideration the modern times. As Ramadan puts it, “There can be no faithfulness to Islamic principles through the ages without evolution, without reform, without a renewal of intelligence and understanding.”7

Poster designed by Werbeagentur Goal

Poster designed by Werbeagentur Goal served as the defining symbol of the campaign, led by the conservative Swiss People’s Party.

Walter B. Denny addresses the issue of innovation specifically in Islamic architecture, with the view that innovation can be seen as a response to the specific needs of the environment at a particular time; therefore, it is only natural. Denny uses the Ottoman mosque as an example, which he claims was a response to both the artistic environment (“as a challenge to the Byzantine structures of the past”) as well as a response to the seismic threats that have plagued the Ottoman capital. The engineering used in Ottoman mosques was a departure from the Persian structures of the 15th century, where environmental considerations were not as important.

While many historians and architects perceive the direct referencing to historical types in the design of mosques as the continuation of tradition, Denny criticizes it as a superficial stylistic r evivalism. According to him, mosques that reflect nostalgia to an earlier age, mostly those that replicate the “Sinanian” style, have lost sight of what made the original buildings special: “It was…not the buildings themselves, but the dynamic spirit of innovation and creativity that they embodied.” Azra Akšamija shares a similar sentiment; she attributes the phenomenon of replicating ancient monuments to a desire to (re)create identities of their builders in the present. She uses the Mosque of Hassan II in Casablanca, Morocco, as an example, where an architect visibly replicated architectural features widely perceived as traditional for that region, while “pushing the notion of historicism to an extreme level of monumentality.”

Mosque as Temporal Phenomenon

The peculiarity of ‘invented’ traditions is that the continuity with it is largely factitious. In short, they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition. ~ Eric Hobsbawm

Hobsbawm argues that all invented traditions use history as “a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.” I will revisit the same history that conservative Muslims (and some Westerners such as Krier) look at to justify the stability of tradition; however, as opposed to referencing pivot moments (mostly the introduction of the Ottoman mosque) to distill a single image for mosques, the typology has always been an invented tradition that changed over the course of its history in order for it to take into account the varied functional, and aesthetic, requirements of societies.

Given that the Qur’an and Sunna serve as the primary reference for both sacred and secular Muslim life, the investigation into mosques should begin in the literature. The Arabic word for “mosque,” masjid, is derived from the verb sajada (to prostrate), which implies that the literal definition of masjid is “a place for prostration.” In all of the 28 occasions that masjid appears in the Qur’an, there is no mention of any physical or spatial characteristics of a mosque, alluding to the common belief that nothing physical is regarded as intrinsically sacred in Islam. One thing that is mentioned in the Qur’an, however, is the specific requirement of facing Mecca when one prays. The qibla serves as the only “spatial” requirement in mosques. As H. Masud Taj points out, “Any definition of the mosque devoid of the qibla is erroneous; any stylistic addition to the definition (that which has domes, minarets, etc.) is superfluous.”

Additionally, while not a requirement for prayer spaces, there is a tendency to opt for width in prayer halls rather than depth when designing layouts. This is due to the belief that the first row of worshipers is more blessed than the rows that follow it, something attributed to the Prophet: “Abdulrahman ibn Awf narrates that the Prophet said, ‘Allah and the angels send blessings upon the first row (in communal prayer).’” Therefore, the horizontal layout in plans is an attempt to realize these hadiths and give more worshippers the opportunity to be so blessed.

However, what is implied by the term “mosque” in itself is unclear. Prophet Muhammad stated, “The earth has been made for me (and for my followers) a mosque and a purifier. Therefore my followers can pray wherever the time of a prayer is due.” This hadith further emphasizes the lack of spatial characteristics of a mosque. The spot that a Muslim chooses to pray becomes their mosque for the duration of the prayer. It can be distilled, then, that the “requirements” for a mosque are an orientation towards Mecca, and the performance of the ritual of prayer. The temporary reuse of city infrastructure and/or large structures, such as sports facilities, for communal prayer alludes to this notion that, for the duration of prayer, any space can be transformed into a mosque. For Muslims, any secular space can become a sacred one, i.e. a mosque, through the ritual act of prayer. This makes a conceptual understanding of mosques more productive for architects than a formal one based on an invented tradition. One cannot help but wonder how the argument for a specific image for mosques can be made when Muslims can demarcate any space as a mosque, at any moment, through performing their ritual prayers.

Short History of Mosques

The evolution of mosques reveals major paradigm shifts where innovation within mosque design occurred. The house of Prophet Muhammad in Medina served as the first prayer and congregation space for the Muslim community, and still continues to provide guidelines for mosque design. While the house was used for prayer five times a day, it also was the vessel for social, civil, and political discourse. This multi-functional nature of mosques remained the case for several centuries, and perhaps could be seen at its full effect in the Great Mosque of Kufa, constructed in the mid-7th century, where the Dar al-Imara (seat of governance) was physically attached to the mosque itself. Furthermore, the Bet Maal al-Muslimeen (Muslim public treasury) was placed within the courtyard of the mosque as it was deemed the safest place in the city to locate it.

The House of the Prophet made no attempt to establish a distinct style of itself that separated it from the built context of Medina. It had no minaret or mihrab, both of which developed later. Bilal ibn Rabah would climb onto the roof of the house to perform the adhan (call for prayer). This simple design was a direct response to the functional needs of the Muslim community. While the Prophet’s house became the prototype for all future mosque designs, its minimal form left the visual trajectory of mosque architecture open-ended.

The first mosque “style” to emerge, under the Umayyad Dynasty, was the hypostyle hall, a direct evolution of the porticos used for prayer inside the Prophet’s house. Its basic unit, the bay, could be infinitely expanded upon as the Muslim community grew, as was the case when the Prophet’s house went through its first expansion under the Umayyad caliph Walid II (705-715). This expansion marked the position in front of the qibla wall, from which the Prophet used to lead the prayer, with a niche, and by extension created the first mihrab in mosque design, which became the reference for all future mosques.

In the hypostyle hall, the dominant central axis in Christian churches which has to do with the Christian liturgy being based on the procession towards the altar, is replaced with multiple and equivalent parallel vectors, all converging on the distant vanishing point of the Ka’aba in Mecca. This, in addition to the religious incentive of a longitudinal prayer hall, gave the “Islamic basilica” a different proportion and characteristic from the Christian church, even though both shared the same typological ancestor.

The directional ambivalence occurring inside the Damascus Umayyad mosque, the first of its scale, due to its construction on the bones of a pre-existing church, and superimposing the hypostyle on the previous nave, was resolved in later mosques. Ultimately, the hypostyle reached its full visual and spatial effect in the Great Mosque, Cordoba.

The hypostyle mosque remained, for the most part, consistent for several centuries. Minor modifications to it took place, such variations of arcades or colonnades, and sometimes adding small domes in the squares between the columns. It was not until several centuries later that the first significant evolution of the typology occurred, where it shifted from the hypostyle to the introduction of the four iwan form surrounding a major courtyard. This development coincided with the rise of madrasas in Muslim communities in the 11th and 12th centuries, and the function of madrasas directly influenced the design of mosques, which for the first time departed from the traditional pillared hall. The rise of this new typology (madrasas) in the 11th and 12th centuries was due to the desire of the Seljuk dynasty to promote orthodox Sunnism. Given the multifunctional nature of mosques at that period, the function of the madrasa halls overlapped with prayer spaces, and eventually challenged and influenced mosque architecture giving rise to a new typology. The presence of the four iwans around a central courtyard allowed for the simultaneous teaching of the four orthodox schools of Islam, which gave justification to the cruciform scheme. In this case, the mosque served as a prayer complex as well as a learning institution. The development within the mosque typology also coincided with the technical mastery of craftsmen in developing the muqarnas, an innovated way to transition from rectilinear to round shapes.

The next, and arguably final/most important evolution is the Ottoman domed hall, pioneered by the Ottoman architect Koca Mimar Sinan in the 16th century. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, this innovated typology spread over the entire Ottoman Empire and was, to some extent, identified with its political supremacy. Today, it serves as the basis of the stereotypical image of mosques. On May 29, 1453, Sultan Muhammad al Fatih captured the city of Constantinople, marched triumphantly into the church Hagia Sophia, and proceeded to pray in the space. This act launched a series of changes, to both the interior and exterior that ultimately converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. This aesthetic has become the preferred style for mosques of that period, which continued to evolve as architects, Sinan included, maintained the culture of innovation throughout the history of the Ottoman empire. The central domical plan, untouched throughout the renovations, had the most lasting influence for centuries to come all the way up to today. Mosques emulated the transformed and prototypical Hagia Sophia. The irony is in the fact that the ur-type for what has become the contemporary image of mosques is based on a pre-Islamic typology and Christian building. It is based on an innovation within the typology.

Cologne Central Mosque

Cologne Central Mosque completed in 2017 by architect Peter Böhm, who said the design ‘should clearly and consciously present itself’ as a mosque.

Stereotypical Image and Symbolism

The symbolic scope of an Ottoman mosque is significantly expanded to be considered as a sign of Muslimhood, and by extension of Islam. More than a mere feature, the minaret together with the dome, becomes a structural metonym of a singular Muslim Identity.
~ Nebahat Avcıoğlu

On June 16, 2007 a group of locals gathered in Cologne, Germany in a demonstration organized by the Pro Cologne Citizen’s Movement to protest the construction of what would be the largest mosque in the city. The criticism, driven by fear that the construction of the mosque would empower the Muslims in the city, used the architectural representation of a mosque as a means to express those views. The placard carried by protesters depicted a diagrammatic drawing of an unmistakable Ottoman-type mosque. The design of the mosque itself is recognizably “traditional” in its appearance, using the canonical Ottoman centrally planned hall and minaret. The public’s demonization of this image illustrates the symbolic power of the mosque’s traditional image, specifically the minaret, as their protest banners read “We want the Cathedral Here, Not Minarets.” To this, Avcıoğlu states: “The focus on the features of the mosque rather than the overall design itself is revealing of the power of a stark image, and the convoluted discourses around it.”
What is more striking is the choice of words the architect, Paul Böhm, used when coming to the defense of his design. He states, “This is a mosque, and it should clearly and consciously present itself as such.” By subjectively claiming that the proposed design is what mosques should, as opposed to can, look like, Böhm disregards all centuries of mosque design that pre-date the Ottoman mosque and reinforces the stereotypical image. To take it one step further, from this rhetoric the identity of an entire religion is reduced to a single architectural element, whether a dome or minaret, and the mosque is reduced to one of its features, the minaret. The resemblance between the diagrammatic mosque on the protest placards and the sketch drawn by Krier shows that it is not only the general public that fall victim to the stereotypical image but architects as well.

In contrast to the case of Cologne, the Mosque of Grand National Assembly in Ankara constructively raises questions about symbolism in mosques. The design challenges the traditional layout and vocabulary of mosque architecture while remaining respectful and true to the requirements for prayer and opens the door for innovation of a new architectural language for future mosques, rather than continue the phenomena of replicating historical monuments.

What is most striking about this mosque is how the traditional elements, specifically the minaret, dome, and mihrab were abstracted and fragmented. The minaret, for example, is stripped away from its primary identifying element: its verticality. Similarly, the spherical dome symbolizing perfection and transcendence has been replaced with a pyramidal structure. The mihrab that is known for its solidity, which reflects the worshipers’ gaze inwards, is substituted with a completely transparent curtain wall that visually extends the mosque beyond the confinement of its physical enclosure and establishes a link with the landscape beyond. These consciously incomplete historical references symbolically remind worshippers that there is an architectural rupture between the traditional past and the present. The architects themselves declared that one of the significant aspects of this project is its contemporary interpretation of the fundamental concepts of Muslim worship space without resorting to the conventional motifs that compose what I have been referring to as the stereotypical image.

The decisions by the architect were an attempt to interpret, in a modern context, an old tradition. It could be argued that, with the accrued intellectual and technological advancements, historical mosque elements such as the minaret have lost their formal meaning as well as their functional purposes; however, these prototypical elements still are relevant symbolically. For this reason, the Ankara project abstracted the elements to serve as a familiar sign and reminder. As the architects themselves state:

The building design focuses its aims at creating a space for the single believer. It is free of the traditional architectural clichés developed throughout the history as both symbols of the state power and of the collective will, focusing primarily on “familiarity.” Such clichés are of no significance here and are avoided. Here, the focus of design is on the iconoclastic nature of Islam.

Dismantling the Stereotype

I question the applicability of formalist methodologies that seek to discover particularly “Islamic” features related to certain historical or formal specificities. The absence of formal definition of the mosque allows for innovation in mosque design. ~ Azra Akšamija

Pro Cologne protest

Members of the right-wing organization Pro Cologne protest against plans to build a new mosque in Cologne, Germany, in 2007.

In order to move past the stereotypical image of the mosque, one must understand and interpret the typology conceptually rather than formally. Such was the case over the course of history when the form of the Muslim prayer space morphed in order to meet the functional requirements of societies while still being true to the religion. Aksamija came up with what she calls “Generative Design Principles” that she believes can assist designers in developing a conceptual continuity with Islamic building traditions in mosque designs while allowing them to execute spatial transformations that respond to their respective social, political, economic, and technological transformations of their respective time and place. She argues that it is the architect who is primarily responsible for “satisfying the spiritual journey of the worshipper, but also navigating through political, economic, and other factors that play a crucial role in the mosque design process.” This can only be achieved by a continuously innovated architectural vocabulary for the mosque that can provide the necessary conceptual continuity of the typology while still abiding the Islamic religious doctrine.

An opposing view of this is that of architect and historian Nader Ardalan, where he attempted to establish a fixed typology of the mosque by defining it according to the occurrence of eight architectural elements that, in his view, constituted a mosque: the courtyard, the minaret, the dome, the gateway, the portico, the plinth, the ablution place, and the mihrab. While the chosen elements were present in 83 per cent of the 113 mosques Ardalan surveyed, by selecting eight elements that he subjectively considered to be “traditional,” he was reinforcing the argument that mosque design is static. Contrary to Ardalan’s view that the prevalence of these eight elements in the majority of the surveyed mosques is due to a representation of “a natural Islamic language of visual forms for mosque design,” I believe they are due instead to the continuation of an invented tradition, as opposed to reinventing the tradition.

The quantification of architectural elements that emerged at different times in history, with the goal of determining whether a building qualifies as a mosque, must end. This does not mean a total rejection of the traditional elements; the symbolic value behind them could co-exist with a conceptual continuity if the discourse on mosque design is opened up to innovation. The goal is not to “purify” mosques or to distill them to a bare minimum; it is to make an argument for dismantling the stereotypical image associated with mosque architecture so that an architecture student or architect can go about designing a mosque without being told “It must have a minaret.”


  1. Frishman, Martin. “Islam and the Form of the Mosque.” In The Mosque: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity, p.30. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994. Print.
  2. Minaret result seen as “turning point”. swissinfo, 29 November 2009. (–turning-point-/7793740)
  3. Amongst the scholars who bring up this question is Mohammed Arkoun: “Are the main components of the mosque intrinsically Islamic and therefore unchangeable through time and culture, or are they arbitrary forms and signs made orthodox by theological definitions, made sacred by collective ritual functions established over centuries?” Quote from “Spirituality and Architecture.” In Architecture Beyond Architecture, edited by Cynthia C. Davidson and Ismaïl Serageldin. London: Academy Editions, 1995.
  4. Narrated by Abi Dawood Sulaiman bin Al-Aash’ath Al Sijistani (817-888 CE).
  5. Kamrava, Mehran. “Contextualizing Innovation in Islam.” In Innovation in Islam: Traditions and Contributions, p.1. Berkeley: U of California, 2011. Print.
  6. Sunan Abu Dawood, Book 37: Kitab al-Malahim [Battles], Hadith number 4278.
  7. Ramadan, Tariq. “Knowledge & Hermeneutics in Islam Today.” In Innovation in Islam: Traditions and Contributions, p. 25.
  8. Denny, Walter B. “Visual Arts of Islam.” In Innovation in Islam: Traditions and Contributions, p. 156.
  9. Ibid, p. 158.
  10. Akšamija, Azra. “Generative Design Principles for the Contemporary Mosque.” In The Mosque: Political, Architectural, and Social Transformations, p. 133. Rotterdam: NAi, 2009. Print.
  11. Hobsbawm, Eric “Introduction: Inventing Traditions.” In The Invention of Tradition, p. 4., Cambridge UP, 1983. Print.
  12. Ibid, p. 12.
  13. Even the notion of orientation, or the qibla, is elastic as prayers can still be performed if the exact direction towards Mecca is unknown.
  14. Taj, H. Masud. “Mosque: Cube and Circle.” Faith & Form 48.3 (2015): n. pag. Web.
  15. Sahih Muslim, Vol. 1, Book 10, Hadith 817.
  16. Sahih al-Bukhari, 438.
  17. Even though the Prophet’s house was the first space for prayer in Islam, the first mosque to be commissioned was the Quba Mosque.
  18. Avcıoğlu, Nebahat. “The Contemporary Mosque: In What Style Should We Build?” In The Mosque: Political, Architectural, and Social Transformations, p. 62. Rotterdam: NAi, 2009. Print.
  19. Social Commentator Ralph Giordano said that the mosque would be “an expression of the creeping Islamization of our land.” (
  20. Avcıoğlu, Nebahat. “The Contemporary Mosque: In What Style Should We Build?” In The Mosque: Political, Architectural, and Social Transformations, p. 63. Rotterdam: NAi, 2009. Print.
  21. “Muslims Should Not Try to Hide,” conversation between Paul Böhm and Thilo Guschas. 2006. Translated from the German by John Bergeron (
  22. Mosque of the Grand National Assembly Project Brief. Compiled by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Geneva: Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 2013.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Akšamija, Azra. “Generative Design Principles for the Contemporary Mosque.” In The Mosque: Political, Architectural, and Social Transformations, p. 139. Rotterdam: NAi, 2009. Print.
  25. Aksamija lays out the five principles in Generative Design Principles for the Contemporary Mosque. They are “prayer exactement,” “spatial cleanliness” (both spiritual and physical), “directionality” (towards Mecca), “volume of prayer,” and programmatic variability.
  26. Ibid, p. 138.
  27. Ardalan, Nader. “The Visual Language of Symbolic Form: A Preliminary Study of Mosque Architecture.” In Architecture as Symbol and Self-Identity, p. 21. By Jonathan G. Katz (ed.) Philadelphia: Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1980. N. pag. Print.
  28. Ibid. p. 22.

The author was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and currently practices architecture in New York City. Besides Instagram (@asnaseer_), he can be reached at [email protected].