Friday, March 9, 2012

Mosque Architecture(s)

ASIAN Geographic magazine in Singapore
ASIAN Geographic's Islam Edition
Mosque Architecture(s)
By: Dr. Yasser Mahgoub

The focus of this article is not on the historical or traditional features of mosque architecture but rather on the changing paradigm of mosque design as it relates to social, cultural, economic, and human conditions. Its development throughout history reflects constant, changing and transformational variables related to political, social, cultural, economic and climatic conditions. Mosque design "is" - and "should" be – a narrator of the changing conditions of human and Muslims conditions. While adhering to fundamental elements that serve the religious requirements; i.e. orientation towards Mecca and equality between people, the mosque has also served social, cultural and community needs. Meanwhile, the mosque has suffered from political pressures aiming at limiting its role to religious practices.
The spread of Islam during the 1st hijra century (7th century AD) encountered long standing cultural, religious, political, economic and, in general, human conditions packed with long established civilization and social systems much older than where Islam originated. It added and blended with these conditions and created non-identical forms of societies and hence mosques’ architectures. Its call for a monolithic belief and equality between people attracted believers and adherents that carried its message to other parts of the world.
For centuries, the mosque played a central role in religious, cultural, economic, and political activities. The design of the mosque reflected the accumulated human achievements and conditions in different parts of the world. Commonalities and differences are easily identified in mosque design in different parts of the world. Yet the essence of mosque design as reflection of human development and aspiration were oppressed under political pressure to limit its role to religious practices aiming at making it "benignant" to political change. The use of "historical and traditional" images of mosque design was an attempt to "freeze" it in the past and hindering it from performing a contemporary role.
During the 20th century mosque design reflected positive and negative political and cultural intentions of different Muslim communities. Today there are new attempts to relate the mosque design to constantly changing human aspirations. While some mosques are designed by Muslim designers, others are designed by non-Muslim designers reflecting different views and understanding of the religion and the changing role of the mosque in society.
What the Mosque should be and look like is an eternal question! The general population accepts as true that the mosque should give the impression of a "traditional" building where religious practices take place. This traditional "container" image encourages the freezing of the religious dialog limiting it to historical accounts and teachings. The future of Muslim society will always be tied to the mosque as a place of worship and religious practices. Yet, it must develop and relate to changing human needs and conditions facilitating progressive and forward looking vision of the society. It should not limit its lessons to past "perfect" practices and behaviors. It should highlight contemporary positive practices to promote and encourage future generations. This vision should be reflected in the mosque design promoting a new dialog and condition.