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Humble house of worship: the "temporary" mosque in Al Markaziyah, Abu Dhabi, has been attracting worshippers for almost 12 years.
Humble house of worship: the 'temporary' mosque in Al Markaziyah, Abu Dhabi, has been attracting worshippers for almost 12 years.

No walls, but plenty of support for this Abu Dhabi mosque

A temporary mosque tucked away amid the high-rise towers of Al Markaziyah may have something experts say is lacking in some mosques built before design regulations are introduced this summer - local architectural tradition.

A temporary mosque tucked away amid the high-rise towers of Al Markaziyah may have something experts say is lacking in some mosques built before design regulations are introduced this summer - local architectural tradition.

ABU DHABI // It is midday and almost 40C when Syed Ahmed arrives at his local mosque with a car boot full of small cartons of mineral water.

Ahmed will not be in Abu Dhabi for Ramadan but the water is a donation towards the iftar meals his fellow worshippers will soon share each evening after the maghrib prayer.

Amjad Iqbal, the mosque's imam, receives the donation gratefully and stores it in the janitor's room of an adjacent building.

There is nowhere to keep anything in the mosque because it has no permanent walls, ceiling, or even a name.

Sandwiched between an electricity substation, a derelict building and one of the many high-rise towers in Al Markaziyah, it is made of little more than a tattered woven screen that forms its qiblah wall, a low wooden rail made from recycled pallets that defines the prayer area, a faded carpet and a collection of brightly coloured prayer mats.

Remarkably, given the nature of its construction, Mr Ahmed and almost 80 fellow worshippers have been gathering to pray outdoors in this area for almost 12 years.

"The local mosque was closed for renovation so the local residents and shopkeepers started to pray on the pavement," he says.

"Now it's too hot for every prayer so we just do the evening prayers here. But excluding three months, from June to September, we do every prayer here and every prayer is busy."

For local workers such as Amjad Iqbal, worshipping at the mosque is largely a matter of convenience, but the experience of prayer is the same wherever it is performed.

"Prayer is from the heart, not from the place," he says. "Muslims can pray anywhere. We just need a clean place. If I am driving somewhere, I can stop the car by the road, turn to the qiblah, and I will start praying there."

Mr Ahmed agrees but also admits there is something else that keeps him coming back to worship in the same place.

"There's a comfort level praying with people you know," he says. "Once I started coming here I saw the same people every day and we got to know each other."

This mosque is one of the last of its type in Abu Dhabi. The structures, once a regular urban feature, have all but been eradicated since 2008.

That year Khalfan Al Nuaimi, director of construction permits at the Abu Dhabi Municipality, announced "the idea of the temporary mosque is finished", and that mosques should be "nice buildings".

In the same year, a decree established a mosque development committee under Falah Al Ahbabi, general manager of the Urban Planning Council (UPC), the work of which will this summer be published in the council's new mosque development regulations.

Designed to ensure "an appropriate number, size, type and design of high-quality mosques are strategically located in all communities across Abu Dhabi emirate", the regulations will ensure new mosques adhere to the principles of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, and give guidance on their architecture, technical design and operation.

The UPC also regards new mosques as a way to promote "Emirati vernacular design to celebrate Emirati culture and heritage".

An attempt to improve the design and quality of Abu Dhabi's mosques is welcomed by academics such as Dr Geoffrey King, author of The Historical Mosque Tradition of the Coasts of Abu Dhabi.

"These new regulations could be a really good idea," Dr King says. "The Sheikh Zayed [Grand] Mosque set out to be a superb piece of Islamic architecture worldwide but the same thought process has not informed the design of any of Abu Dhabi's lesser mosques.

"They're complete anarchy, as is the case across the whole of Arabia, and have nothing to do with Abu Dhabi's past."

The latest generation of the emirate's mosques bears testimony to this.

In April, a mosque was inaugurated in the Al Nahyan area inspired by Abbasid (Iraqi) architecture, while another is planned for Al Nahda military area that will feature Andalusian detailing.

Dr King blames the tendency to adopt foreign styles on a lamentable but understandable ignorance of traditional Arabian architecture among architects.

"There simply hasn't been the knowledge amongst people who design and build mosques of what the local traditions were in the first place," he says.

Dr King also identifies problems in trying to tap into local architectural traditions.

"The trouble is, there are only three surviving mosques on Delma Island and some in the oasis at Al Ain, but those are yet to be studied," he says.

Piety and Abu Dhabi's rapid modernisation in the 1960s and 1970s played a key role in destroying many of the emirate's traditional mosques, says Dr Ronald Hawker, author of Building on Desert Tides: Traditional Architecture in the Arabian Gulf.

"When oil concessions were first negotiated and money began to flow into Emirati communities, the first thing people did was rebuild the mosques," Dr Hawker says.

He believes a nuanced understanding of traditional local architecture is required as a guide for designers, and that it is vital to recognise the subtle differences between the UAE's very different tribal and building cultures.

"I think one can talk about several Emirati vernaculars," Dr Hawker says.

"This is a theme that emerges in all aspects of Emirati culture [and] there are distinct differences between the coast, the desert, the alluvial fans and the mountains."

But for Dr King, there is one tradition of mosque building found historically across the whole of Abu Dhabi.

"You'll find another type of mosque on all the islands and the mainland a simple stone outline on the ground with a mihrab [arched niche in the wall]," he says.

"More often than not, it just consists of a qiblah wall, mihrab, and that's that. It was very, very simple."

Strangely, this is a genuinely local tradition that temporary mosques such the one in Al Markaziyah most accurately reflect, yet it is the practice that local authorities have been trying hardest to eradicate.

Over the past 12 years, Al Markaziyah's mosque has survived changes in location, the pressures of redevelopment and the fate of the vast majority of its contemporaries. But its survival in the face of the latest wave of regulations seems doubtful.

For one group of worshippers, at least, its passing will be a source of regret.

"This is the house of the Lord," Mr Ahmed says. "Whether I pray here or somewhere else does not matter, but obviously I would be sad to see this mosque go.

"Having prayed here for such a long time, you build a sentimental attachment to the place. All the residents who come here, we take care of each other."

newsdesk@thenational.ae

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