Morphological and functional categories of the Mosque

by Rabah Saoud Published on: 17th January 2002

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The mosque plan was developed through a process of change and modification resulting in the emergence of four main forms reflecting the main periods of Islamic attainment.


Summarised extracts from a full article: A review on Mosque Architecture by Rabah Saoud

The mosque plan was developed through a process of change and modification resulting in the emergence of four main forms reflecting the main periods of Islamic attainment (see Scerrato, 1976).

These were the dates when Islamic World and sometimes regions were under the control of righteous and strong leadership. In this respect, the period of early Khalifs and their progressive successors developed the first type of Mosque.

Being the earliest and most spread, this type had the form of hypostile hall consisting of a main hall composed of a number of parallel aisles defined by arcades of columns and pillars. In addition to creating a beautiful and emotional atmosphere which envelops the faithful as he enters the sanctuary, the extension of rows of pillars and arcades on all directions emphasises the limitlessness of the space, a symbol of the infinity of the Divine. This is further expressed in the system of organisation of prayers which consists of longitudinal rows of worshippers facing the qibla wall, and side ways forming a lateral expansion. The area near the Mihrab is defined by special treatment emphasising its sanctity. The use of dome in the square (crossing) in front of the Mihrab and the widening of the nave leading to it as well as the aisle closest to the Qibla wall are some of the main spatial arrangements introduced for this purpose.

Further demarcation of this area is also defined by some stucco, floral, geometric and calligraphic decoration with intended meditation messages. Started in Medina from the Prophet’s Mosque and developed in Iraq and Syria, the hypostyle mosque soon entered North Africa, Andalusia, Sicily and Persia and countries of South Asia.

The eleventh century saw the rise of Seljuk Caliphate as a reaction against deteriorating conditions and weakening state of the Fatimids in Syria and Palestine and Ghazanavids in Persia and northern provinces of Azerbijan, Tajikstan etc… This had far reaching consequences as the success of these early Turkish people to the throne of Caliphate left its imprints on the general architectural and artistic character of Islam and set forth processes for the establishment of the Ottoman power.

Under the patronage of Suljuk princes, Iran (Persia) developed new style of mosques known as “Iwan” mosque. Here, a high vaulted hall was built to function as a great entrance leading to the sanctuary and domed area before the Mihrab and sometimes leading to the Sahn. The roof of the Iwan is vaulted and commonly covered with “Muqarnas”. Historic sources established the first appearance of this style about 890 in Friday Mosque of Shiraz as well as in Friday Mosque (Masjid-I juma) in Niriz in Fars built about 970 (Scerrato, 1076, p.58).

Persians historically knew the Iwan as they used it under the Sassanian rule as a ceremonial forum. Later, it spread to the rest of the Muslim world especially to northeastern parts of Islam, which had strong connection with Persia. The Iwan was successfully adapted to other building forms such as in educational buildings known as “Madrassa” where it served as lecturing hall and on its sides rooms were converted providing rooms for students.

Another useful adaptation of the Iwan plan was in hospitals and caravanserais, which spread in Iran, Syria and Anatolia. The popularity of this type of Mosques in Persia reached its peak in 11th century leading to the introduction of the four Iwan mosque (figure 3) which first appeared in Isfahan Friday Mosque (11th century).

Figure 1: Masjid-I-Jami, Isfahan (11th Century), the first four Iwan Mosque.

The succession of the Ottomans to the Caliphate in the 14th century, at the hands of their founder Othman (d.1326) and reaching its apogee in the 16th century, resulted in the introduction of new features to the design and construction of the Mosque. Under the Ottomans the mosque evolved from the traditionally horizontal space to a vertical structure rising into the sky through its domed roof, which was arranged in a number of small domes rising progressively like steps towards the main dome of the central nave. In this type, the infinity is expressed through verticality and hence the dome became the dominating skyline of Muslim mosques, probably influenced by Hagga Sofia as many Western academics would suggest.

Furthermore, this mosque stressed another important symbol involving the oneness of God, conceptualised by Al-Tawhid, which forms the essence of Muslim faith. The perfect centralisation of the space under the main dome affirmed its unity and confirmed the symbol of one God. In the view of Davies (1982, p.127):

“The interior is then one unit to be perceived in its entirety at a single view. Its reality is not to be found in the domes and arcades but in the cavities they define. Plenitude of space … majestic space … continuous space … tawhid (the consciousness of divine Unity) made visible.”

Ottoman domed mosques themselves displayed a variety expressed in the style and number of domes employed. At first, the roof was made of a number of small domes sometimes combined with a central larger one (mother). The first of these is the Yesil Cami Mosque (Bursa) which was founded by Mehmet I (1403-1421) in 1419. The Mosque was located in a complex site that included a bath, a tomb, and a Medrassa. Typical of Ottoman mosques, Yesil Cami was dominated by its domes, which covered most of the interior space.

Figure 2: Sinan’s Suleimaniye Mosque, Istanbul (1550-1557)

The fame of the Mosque is connected to its Persian made blue and green tiles decorating its walls which were made by artisans from Tabriz city (Hoag, 1969, p.42). The general decor and ornamentation of the mosque recall that of Hall of the Ambassadors at Alhambra. It is a mixture of both late Suljuk and early Ottoman art as seen in the style of its entrance which clearly emphasised the Suljuk tradition of extensive use of Muqaranas.

These cupolas later increased in size and number first in Bayzid II Mosque in Istanbul (1501-1506) built by Kheyruddin and then at Suleymaniya Mosque (1549-1557), Sinan’s masterpiece (figure 4). The second feature of the Ottoman mosque is the pointed slender minaret, which differs greatly from the rest of the Muslim world.

The fourth type of Mosque is the one developed by the Mugal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent. Here, a successful combination of the three above styles evolved into a fascinating new style consisting of a horizontal hypostyle hall area for the practice of rituals, covered with flat roof incorporating large onion shaped (bulbous) dome, and a large porch entrance recalling the Persian Iwan as seen in Delhi’s Jami Masjid (India between 1644 and 1658) (figure 5).

Figure 3: Jami Masjid in Delhi, India (1644-1658), a combination of hypostyle
and iwan styled mosque with bulbous domes.

In addition to their formal and design styles, mosques were also categorised in terms of their function and status in a similar fashion to that of the (salat) prayers. The five daily prayers are attributed to the individual and can be performed in the (Mesjid) Mosque. Although daily prayers can be individually performed but in a congregation they have higher merit (up to 27 times). A Mosque providing for the individual and daily congregational prayers is a first category Mosque.

The Friday prayer, however is performed once a week gathering the whole community in one bigger place that is called Jami, an Arabic reference to gathering the faithful from all corners of the built up area, and sometimes even from neighbouring villages and hamlets. The Jami has the highest status locally (nationally) and comes after the Kaabah, Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. The third type of prayer is the Eid Prayer which is done twice a year in Eid Al-Fitre and Eid Al-Adha. Here, the whole town goes out to pray in an open surface known as Mussala.

Lastly, the one life time prayer (at least) in Kaabah during Pilgrimage which gathers an enormous populous from the Muslim world to circumcirculate around the Kaabah and to stand on the Mount of Arafat near Makkah.

Outside these categories, we find other small mosques having other functions rather than congregational prayer. Among these are the Mausoleum mosques, which are structures built as burial places for important people such as rulers, holy men and other personage. These are usually located outside towns with modest size, but some have monumental character as in Gur-i-Mir mausoleum (Samarkand) and Taj-Mahal (India).

The Madrassa is a collegiate mosque used for teaching as well as praying as in Al-Azhar mosque. The Zawyia, however, is a monastic mosque where the devoted faithful could retire from this world into a holy environment. Zawyia is also used as a boarding teaching base for student followers of a particular scholar, fulfilling the role of Madrassa. We have to note here that monasticism in Islam differs greatly from that of Christianity. The Itikaf tradition as set by the Prophet (pbuh), allows devotees to go into retreat but for no more than 10 days a time.

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