For people of all creeds, visiting a mosque can be an intense, often overwhelming, experience. Faith plays a major part, of course, but non-Muslims are also moved by the elaborate shapes and intricate details of these monumental structures, as well as the ways in which light and shadow respond to mihrabs, minarets and the spaces in between. As Leyla Uluhanli writes in the introduction to her coffee-table book, Mosques: Splendours of Islam, “the mosque is the perfect vehicle to express architecture’s transformative power”.
The book, published by Rizzoli and launched in Dubai earlier this month, features dozens of photographs to savour, but through 10 essays by leading Islamic experts, it also traces the evolution of the mosque from the seventh century CE right through to the present day. There are sections on everything from the origins of mosque design to the sacred objects stored within the walls of these buildings.
It is determinedly global in scope, too: we see mosques from, among many other places, North Africa and Spain, India and Pakistan, and Russia and the Caucasus.
The variety of shapes, angles and colours you encounter from page to page is extraordinary: the inside of a dome in the Masjid-i Jadid-i Abbasi mosque in Isfahan, Iran, where a kaleidoscope of azure, yellow and green tiles form a brilliant floral pattern; the chalky red sandstone columns (Hindu temple-like) of the Jami’ Masjid of Fatehpur Sikri mosque in Uttar Pradesh, India; the milky curves of the crown mouldings on the Nuruosmaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, which trace the silhouette of the building.
Mosques: Splendours of Islam challenges our conceptions of what a mosque might look like. In his foreword, Prince Amyn Aga Khan writes: “These experts illustrate how mosques express the needs and aesthetics of widely varied and distinctive communities unified by a common spiritual quest, a shared ethic.”
Heydar Mosque, Baku:
Uluhanli, an interior designer based in Moscow, was born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, during the Soviet era. The city was busy with mosques, but Baku, under Soviet rule, was not a religious town. As a result, Uluhanli’s interest in mosques has always been primarily visual, something she wanted to reflect in the book.
“On my route to school, I would pass some of the most beautiful mosques,” she says. “I appreciate the obvious religious significance but believe that the beauty transcends religion. This is something that needs to be shared with people from all over the world.”
The techniques used to instil mosques with a sense of spirituality also differ from those used in other religious buildings. “Mosques are unique because they do not incorporate figures or portraits,” says Uluhanli. “Through geometric patterns and ornaments, the artists still manage to inspire people and impose a feeling of godliness without using the figurative portraits used in other cultures and religions. With very limited instruments, mosques still achieve an effect of grandeur and power.”
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The ways in which architects achieve this effect continues to evolve. The concluding section of Mosques: Splendours of Islam focuses on nine modern-day structures. “Contemporary mosques take every form from historic eclecticism to nearly total abstraction,” writes Philip Jodidio, author of more than 100 books on art and architecture. “They offer a fascinating point of intersection between tradition and modernity, often fuelled by a desire to assert the contemporary value of Islam in society.”
And none more so than the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which was completed in 2007. “This is one of the few modern mosques that made it into the book,” says Uluhanli. “It is one of the most beautiful mosques in the world today. We picked it because of its sheer scale and its crisp architecture. The white stonework is amazing, too, as are the panels and the ornaments.”
It is one of the highlights of a book that, Uluhanli believes, is capable of uniting people over architecture. “I want to show that this architecture belongs to the world,” she says, “and can be viewed apart from the religious element”.
Mosques: Splendours of Islam, published by Rizzoli, is out now