It is hard to believe in a country where minarets dot the skyline. But the oil boom wiped away many traditional mosques. Now guidelines on new constructions are set to herald a rebirth of Emirati tradition, writes Anna Zacharias
Revival for Emirati mosques
In recent months specialists have scoured the UAE on a mission to discover what makes a mosque Emirati.
In a country where minarets punctuate the skyline, it does not sound like a difficult task. But the mosques of the pre-oil era have disappeared long ago from Abu Dhabi’s cityscape.
The hunt for the quintessential Emirati mosque took Abu Dhabi’s Mosque Development Committee to pearling settlements on the West Region islands, to palm orchards in Al Ain and to a mountain village at the edge of the Indian Ocean.
When Abu Dhabi Executive Council decreed that all new mosques in the emirate should be built in a traditional Emirati vernacular, it fell to the Urban Planning Council (UPC) to define what a traditional Emirati mosque is, and what it could be.
The council’s Mosque Development Committee made a survey of 10 traditional mosques to create a framework for the design of all future Abu Dhabi mosques.
The guidelines, announced in June, will revive Emirati mosque architecture: simple and bold. Emirati mosques without ornamentation, rectangular in shape, mute in colour and flat-roofed, built to symbolise modesty before God and offer a clean place for prayer and reflection in an unforgiving environment.
“What we’re striving for is to say really in 100 years time people will look back and say this is an Emirati mosque,” said Ali Al Zahid, a senior associate planner at the Mosque Development Committee. “It’s about leaving a legacy behind; it’s about researching historic built form and trying to manifest that in existing and future architecture.”
At a local level, the decree is part of a larger initiative to regulate mosque distribution, design and maintenance for a growing population.
Surveyors collected photos, blue prints, satellite imagery and historic maps and worked with researchers from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, the Emirates Centre of Strategic Studies and Research and the National Centre for Documentation and Research.
“I think the UPC were very clear from the beginning that although they wanted to have forward-looking architecture and use the best of modern materials, they also wanted very much to try to create a structure that would have all the surviving bits of Emirati architecture to be carried forward,” said Peter Hellyer, a historical consultant on the project and a columnist at The National.
The committee found that until late last century, Emirati mosques were not so different from the Prophet Mohammed’s mosque in Medina.
The traditional Emirati mosque followed a spatial progression from the profane to the spiritual: a well-defined boundary wall with a clear entry portal, an inner courtyard (sahan), an arcade (riwaq), a prayer hall and prayer niche (mihrab) to indicate the direction of the Kaaba.
In the tradition of early Arabian and East African mosques, Emirati mosques usually lacked a minaret. Minarets, first used in Damascus, were needed in dense urban populations but unnecessary in the small communities of the Gulf. Instead, people used prayer platforms.
Minarets that did exist were short and stout, cylindrical or tapered in body, with round, pyramidal or conical shaped tops.
Mosques were built with materials from the sea, desert and mountain: gypsum and limestone, mudbrick and stone, beach stone and coral, date palm fibres.
Mosques had a modular design determined by the span of palm trees or imported mangrove poles. One example is Delma island’s Al Muhannadi Mosque, which is based on a 3.6 metre module, the average height of a local date palm.
The constraint posed by roofing poles is an aspect of traditional architecture that dates back to at least 2,700 years to the Columned Hall at Muweilah in Sharjah.
This limitation was only overcome in recent decades. As such, the same ratios will be applied to Abu Dhabi’s future mosques. Any unit length can be used as long as the ratios are followed.
Mosques held traces of the country’s maritime and Indian Ocean heritage. They were crafted with coral stone and ceilings were often built with mangrove poles from East Africa. The Muhannadi Mosque that served the Delma Island pearling community had sailing ships carved into its crumbling plaster.
Yet for the most part, the mosques had little ornamentation. Columns had minimal detailing, plain niches held Qurans, and mihrabs were simple, with a vaulted or domed ceiling. Decorative screens provided ventilation and reduced glare.
The framework takes composition and traditional ornamentation, or lack thereof, into account. It will allow for an “infinite variety” of designs, from traditional to contemporary, that employ these spatial components, character and understated design.
“We’ve moved away out of proscribing a set design and the architects can be as creative as they want,” says Mr Al Zahid. “You can come up with any number of designs and that’s what we want to encourage. It’s not about copying and pasting.”
New mosques, like the region’s first mosques, will make use of scarce resources.
The Government’s Estidama standards for sustainability are integrated into the new requirements. Designers will be given a choice of credits that allows them to achieve a two-pearl Estidama rating.
This is particularly important in water conservation, because mosques’ ablution requires more water than any public building.
New mosques will have automatic faucets and water meters. To save electricity, large Friday mosques will be partitioned and partially closed during the week.
“The whole concept of sustainability is embedded in the teachings of Islam and what we’re doing is reinforcing that in the modern architecture and lifestyle,” says Mr Al Zahid.
New mosques will have prayer areas reserved for women.
Two new model mosques that are in the works will be among the emirate’s new mosques that seek and recognise national identity through art and design.
Mosques were the first buildings to be replaced with the advent of wealth and oil in the UAE, and mosque construction proliferated from the 1970s.
“With the coming of the oil and money there was enormous rebuilding of everything,” writes Dr Geoffrey King, an expert in Islamic art and archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in The Historical Mosque Tradition of the Coasts of Abu Dhabi.
“It was religious piety, not destructiveness; people thought they should have better mosques for Muslims. But the result was that between the coming of the oil and the mid-1980s, almost everything just disappeared. All of old Abu Dhabi was just swept away.”
Post-oil mosques were built and designed by expatriate workers in traditions of a dozen homelands, making the UAE mosque design one of great diversity and fancy.
Rich Islamic architectural heritages were incorporated into the UAE’s rising cities: Mamluk and Mughal, Ottoman and Umayyad.
Mosque expenditure grew with the nation and by the millennium, monolithic mosques started to appear on the skyline. Built in the name of Gulf royals and wealthy patrons, these structures replicated Islamic architectural masterpieces.
Kuwait’s Dh16million Al Sadeeqa Fatimatul Zahra Mosque was a smaller likeness of the 17th century Taj Mahal mausoleum, transformed into mosque form with Quranic inscriptions.
Dubai’s Al Farooq Omar ibn Al Khattab mosque, an exact replica of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque by the business man Khalaf Al Habtoor, opened in 2011. Fujairah’s skyline is dominated by the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, another Ottoman inspiration with an Umayad interior.
Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque tours emphasis the mosque’s multicultural story: Iranian carpet, German gold gilded chandeliers and British prayer clocks.
Now in its fifth decade, the UAE has pushed for a reawakening of national identity and heritage. The shift can be seen across the Arabian Gulf. Weeks after the Abu Dhabi announcement in June, Qatar announced that all of its new mosques must use one of 19 designs based on its traditional architecture.
Abu Dhabi’s existing mosques will be maintained and can be extended in keeping with their existing architectural style. They will remain a symbol of the Emirates’ multiculturalism before the renaissance of Emirati tradition.