West African Mosque Architecture – A Brief Introduction

by Cleo Cantone Published on: 31st March 2006

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Mosques built in parts of the Muslim world where Arabs migrated or took control of through wars developed a distinct tradition of domes and minarets. In areas where Islam spread mostly by returning traders, traditions of mosque building were determined more by local skills and approaches. Here is a brief look at the tradition in West Africa.

West African Mosque Architecture - A Brief Introduction
The Mosque of Djenne, Mali

Is there such a thing as a stereotypical mosque? Are all mosques necessarily characterised by a minaret, a dome, arches and be decorated with mosaics or stucco? From North Africa to India these elements are the defining features of mosque architecture. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Islam reached these lands largely by conquest and this meant that the know-how of mosque building was wholly imported. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa as well as China and South-East Asia, the entry of Islam was more gradual and was transmitted by merchants and traders. I would argue that this partly explains why the mosque architecture of these regions conforms less explicitly to the norms of what has become the blueprint of the mosque.

According to Al Sayyad, the Arab conquest of the Middle East was motivated by three aims that conform to the notion of colonialism: a divine mission of spreading the Islamic religion, the maintenance of political power by the ruling Arab elite whilst expanding trade and finally to gain profit from resources of conquered lands. However, the Arab conquest did not always encounter confrontation. On the contrary as in the case of Damascus and Sicily, Arab dominion was preferable to Byzantine exploitation:

“Appropriating and dismantling the religious and political buildings of earlier civilisations became common Arab practice. The symbolism associated with such transformations cannot be considered anything but colonial. The takeover of churches, and their later transformation into mosques, and the constructions of ruler’s palaces in the center of new or existing cities, […] represent colonial urbanism at work.”

In contrast, Islam’s penetration of Sub-Saharan Africa dates to around the 9th century via the Saharan caravan routes. Two strands of influence shaped Islam in West Africa. One was the link between the Maghreb and the Berber-African gold-trading centres such as the pagan Soninke state of Ghana. The other was the eastern route that connected central Sudan – Kanem, Bornu and the Hausa states with Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Although characterised by regional and ethnic variety, one unifying factor in African Islam is the predominance of the Maliki madhab – the same school of thought adhered to in the Maghreb. In addition to the commercial link between the two regions, a spiritual bond existed with North Africa. Indeed, the majority of Sufi brotherhoods in West Africa originate from the Maghreb but the spread of the so-called turuq (Arab. ‘path’ used to describe the Sufi brotherhoods) did not happen until much later in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As the equivalent of the word “masjid ” in various African languages indicates, like its Arabic root, that the mosque is nothing more than a place of prostration: massallatai in Nigeria, missidi in Futa Diallon. By contrast, diakka in Wolof literally means to face east. West African mosques vary from simple roofless enclosures serving the function of places for communal prayer, to magnificent buildings. It would be impossible to do justice to the vast array of stylistic variants of mosque architecture in West Africa alone, therefore the regions covered here are primarily Senegal and Mali.

The style and materials of traditional mosques vary according to the ethnic group and the local environment. The style of mosque known as ‘Soudanese’, i.e. belonging to the area known as the Western Sudan is perhaps the most famed. Spanning a vast area from the River Senegal to the Niger bend as well as Ghana and the Ivory Coast, these mosques are bound by common building material: clay. Their organic forms are typified by buttressing, the use of toron or wooden stakes used for scaffolding during the yearly process of resurfacing as well as for decorative purposes, a ‘mihrab tower’, a flat roof and a courtyard. The flat roof is supported by pillars and the floor is usually covered with sand on top of which mats are laid. Illumination is evocatively achieved by holes pierced in the ceiling. Except for the massive pillars and their arches, interiors are undecorated yet far from austere. Rather, their elegant simplicity attests to the lack of distraction between the worshipper and his Creator.

Mali was impregnated with a tradition known by the name of its dominant group, the Mande, whence Manding. Among them, those who were islamised were known as Dyula or Wangara. This group also covered a large area during their migration, spanning part of Senegal, Northern Nigeria, the Upper Niger Bend, Guinea coast and over to Kong in the Ivory Coast. Mande style is characterised by the use of conical forms particularly found on monumental entrances of courtyard houses and mosques. Decorated with pilasters and elements in relief alternating with voids, these façades are also found in Dogon architecture. But apart from the close affinity between domestic and religious architecture, additional elements such as the phallic pylons testify as to the integration of ancestral practices with Islamic ones.

Thus the Mande style – which has come to be associated with the Soudanese style – was transmitted by traders who taught mystical Islam throughout this vast region. Nowadays, however, the transmission of the djennenké style takes place with the movement of master-builders whose craftsmanship is much sought after.

West African Mosque Architecture - A Brief Introduction
The Mosque of Djenne, Mali

The origins of the Soudanese mosque are not clear-cut: their monumental and fortress-like exteriors are reminiscent of the defensive architecture of West Africa known as tata. There may also be a relation between these mosques and domestic architecture. The Great Mosque of Djenné typifies the Soudanese mosque and furthermore it may have been the progenitor of this type of mosque architecture. Although it was rebuilt under the aegis of the French administration in 1907, the craftsmen, as along with the building technology, are more local than French. This vast mosque dominates the market place from its raised platform. Like its relatives, the mosque is characterised by its use of buttressing, pinnacles and attached pillars all of which are punctuated by the toron spikes. Unlike many other Soudanese mosques, the ceiling of Djenné’s great mosque are very high. The western side of the mosque opens onto a large courtyard at the rear of which are situated the women’s galleries, one on each side of the entrance.

This mosque has become almost iconic in terms of West African mosque architecture and numerous village mosques in the surrounding area emulate the Djenné mosque albeit on a miniature scale. Dominated by their minaret tower, courtyard and the flat roof from where the adhan is made, each mosque has its own distinctive character.

Relatives of the Soudanese mosques in Mali can be found in the Futa Toro in north-eastern Senegal. Here dwellings are generally preceded by a wooden veranda or mud porch typical of all Tukolor housing in the area. This structure is echoed in the sacred enclosure around Futa mosques consisting of a projecting straw roof supported by posts whose function is to accommodate the overflow of worshippers and protect them from the sun. As for the central and coastal area of Senegal, the influence of colonialism left its mark on mosque building and the mosques of Saint Louis, Gorée and Dakar (Blanchot) are all equipped with a front porch defined by arcades with pointed arches. Furthermore, the paired square towers flanking the triangular pediment of the façade recall church architecture.

The contemporary urban mosque phenomenon

Sub-Saharan Africa has been a stage that accommodates a wide range of disparate influences: ethnic, religious, political and not least artistic. It is not surprising, therefore, to find great variety in mosque architecture. Moreover, it would be wrong to represent West African mosque architecture as consisting solely of mud structures. Since the 1960’s mosque construction has boomed in many parts of the world. The experience of European colonialism brought new political systems as well as a new vocabulary of building methods. The introduction of cement was to transform traditional construction techniques considerably. In addition, the revolution of the transport system also contributed to the infiltration of new styles from North Africa and the Middle East as well as from Brazil.

Indeed, the phenomenon of repatriated slaves from Brazil to the Bight of Benin at the beginning of the 19th century gave rise to so-called Afro-Brazilian architecture. Repercussions of this eclectic architecture that mixes Christian baroque styles with Islamic motifs can be found as far afield as Senegal.

New construction materials also means new styles: the use of square minaret towers, domes and other decorative devices such as crenellations, arcades and stained glass are now commonplace in West Africa. Yet the incorporation of these imported elements is far from being a ‘colonising’ process, rather, it is a case of marking the spiritual link with the founder of a particular tariqa‘s ‘motherland’. These are therefore architectural quotations which have not been imposed. By contrast, in the case of the Great Mosque of Dakar, the building was a gift from King Hassan II of Morocco and was built with Moroccan traditional materials and mostly by Moroccan craftsmen.

Modernisation has mainly affected the coastal and most urbanised areas. Indeed, in the Futa Toro region in Senegal or the spiritual capital of the Mourids, Touba illustrate the phenomenon of economic migration which results in mosques being rebuilt in cement by the returnees or by the money they send home. The inevitable result is that the original style is entirely transformed to conform to the minaret and dome standard encountered elsewhere in the Muslim world and the local knowledge of mosque building is thus eroded.

Internationalisation: a new form of colonisation?

Contemporary mosques are often more innovative in their designs, breaking the mould of established architectural traditions and gleaning inspiration from further afield such as the Gulf States and Medina in Saudi Arabia. As these countries are often the patrons of such mosques, it is not surprising that their style is more Middle Eastern than African. This trend is not restricted to Africa but instead it is a global phenomenon demonstrating the victory of the International Mosque over the variety of local traditions and techniques that have mirrored, for centuries, different expressions of Islamic culture. This is not to say that traditional mosques will entirely die out and be replaced by rather anonymous concrete structures. In many regions the expertise of the masons is still very much alive: many buildings in Djenné, for instance, are currently being restored under the sponsorship of European funds.

Perhaps the time will come when Muslims will again learn to appreciate the roots of their architectural traditions – intrinsic parts of Islamic culture – in order to re-associate the link between built form and the environment evident in the practice of architecture in West Africa.

West African Mosque Architecture - A Brief Introduction
View of the Great Mosque from the northeast as it looked in 1910. From Félix Dubois’ Notre beau Niger (Source)

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