The Mosque as Magnet: Situating the Mosque in the Urban Morphology of Contemporary Cities in the Islamic World as an Integral Part of the Process of Rebuilding

It is a time for re-evaluation and re-evolution.

Growing up Muslim in Saudi Arabia, I have had plenty of opportunities to pray at various mosques in the Kingdom, and sometimes even on beaches and in the desert. I have seen how the place one stands to pray transforms into a magnet with an organic congregation forming around the first person praying. All the world’s a mosque, and the men and women merely prayers!

I was 17 when I moved to Hyderabad, India, a city I had up until then known only as my birthplace and occasional summer holiday location, and not much more. I moved there to study architecture, because I somehow had a feeling that the glistening skyscrapers of the Gulf were not all that architecture could be about, that history mattered just as much as contemporary architecture, if not more. In my few visits to India, I had noticed the richness of the built heritage, though not well-maintained or aggrandized, it was still something to marvel at. I knew that this place would teach me about architecture even if the school did not.

Hyderabad has an intriguing history that is multi-layered and can be best read through its architecture and built form. Once the seat of power of the richest man in the world, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, this princely state was not confined to a city as it is today. At its peak, the State of Hyderabad and Berar covered over a quarter of British India, and was an independent territory, allied with the British. The cities that excelled under the Nizam were of peculiar construct, with Hyderabad itself built around a square mosque-monument oriented towards the Ka’aba in Mecca, with streets and arches at cardinal points named for the places they lead to: the sea, the palaces of the royal family, the City of Lies, and the four arches themselves leading to the Charminar, literally, four minarets.

Hyderabad, I learned, is modeled after Isfahan in Iran, known as one of the best designed cities of its time in the 1400s. A city of squares, plazas, gardens and arches, this was a city to be studied and emulated. However, these are not the only cities that place a mosque at their center. Most cities in the Muslim world during the erstwhile days of its grandeur were planned in such a manner that the entire city oriented itself toward the Grand Mosque in Mecca, considered the center of the world. Of all Muslim cities that are based on their relation to Mecca, Mecca itself is the most peculiar and unique, and also not replicable. The only mosque in the world oriented centripetally, the entire mosque is forever in a state of flux with everything revolving perpetually around it: not only do people face the Ka’aba at its center to pray, but they also circumambulate it throughout the day and night as there is no fixed time for this, the Tawaf, unlike the congregational prayer.

It would make for a very potent and fascinating study to understand the changing role of the mosque in the morphology of historically Islamic cities. I have spent the last couple of years traveling to various cities in the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East, and have had the chance to interact with many different Muslim communities and pray in many different mosques. The mosque, however small or hidden, is an orientation device in Muslim communities, just like the sun. I have had the opportunity to study various styles of architecture as reflected in mosques of different eras, cultures and climates, from the mountain mosques of Ladakh to the Dutch mosques in Sri Lanka to the more contemporary interpretations in Bahrain and Dubai.

In my final undergraduate year of architecture school, I took a semester off to explore a very pressing issue I had felt I had not done justice to. One of my designs was that of an urban mosque, and I was dissatisfied with the outcome that tended towards the cliched. I asked myself over and over, what is a mosque? What should a mosque look like today, without replicating the obsolete elements of the past? Minarets which were once used to administer the call for prayer from have been replaced by speakers. Domes that were designed to echo and reverberate the reading of prayer are now an aesthetic element if they exist. I took six months to study precedents from all over the world, then began the hardest process of unlearning in order to design a contemporary mosque. I concluded that a mosque is nothing but a plane surface to pray on and an orientation device. This question of what a contemporary mosque should look like has evolved into a deeper questioning of the role of the mosque in Islamic cities, and how or if it has transformed today.

My recent travels have once again piqued my interest in learning about the way cities grew in the Islamic World. Further, the stark difference between the heritage mosques and the contemporary ones of the newly-built countries in the Gulf beg the question, what is the role of a mosque in contemporary society? What is the vocabulary of a contemporary mosque beyond the obsolete minarets, domes and arches? Do cities and communities still revolve around the mosque or has it become sidelined or replaced by other, more relevant structures. I know the answers to these questions in my city. Even though Muslims are a minority in India, Hyderabad is predominantly Muslim. The call for prayer or the azaan rings out loud and clear five times a day, from multiple minarets in a cacophony of choruses. Even though the Charminar, the foundation mosque at the center of the city has long been closed for prayer, almost every neighborhood has its own mosque, and no matter how small, congregations spilling out of mosques and lining the streets are a common sight.

Not only in Hyderabad, but the filling of streets with Muslims praying in congregation continues to be a “problem” of most Indian cities. In recent years, India has been under threat of slowly devolving from a historically open, accepting, diverse and plural democracy to a radicalized, xenophobic society. The current political climate is so charged that it spares no one and there is no escape from taking a stand, no option to remain apolitical. I believe it is one of the responsibilities of an architect to take a political stand. Every week, we hear of “problems” created by the Muslim population. The call for prayer five times a day is a disturbance, as is the spilling out of congregations from mosques or praying in public places such as parks. Lynchings on the premise of cow slaughter have become a common occurrence and isn’t even considered news anymore. Though Muslims are a minority in India, we are in a different position from other countries where minorities consist of immigrants or slaves. Muslims have a well-established historical presence in the Subcontinent, one that has frequently been in the upper echelons of society if not in power in some places. This adds another layer of meaning to my quest and questions.

Having lived in “safe” places all my life, where Muslims are a majority or dominant, it is a new feeling to be rendered so insecure as a community over so short a period of time. Until now, I have only observed from afar the suffering of Muslims in different parts of the world. The news shows the struggle of many Muslims to keep their faith and identity amidst turmoil and threat, or difficulty. The news is filled with imagery of teenagers standing up against soldiers in Palestine, of kids going to school or to the mosques which have been partially destroyed by bombings. We see documentaries about people in Iceland fasting for 22 hours a day in the month of Ramadan. It is not just man-made factors that create hardship in the faithful’s life, but also nature itself. We question how Muslim astronauts pray in space.

Many Muslim countries have been torn asunder by war and aggression in the last few decades. The focus needs to be narrowed to distressed communities where Muslims are being targeted, or have been in the past, places within the Muslim World that are going through a state of flux and turmoil, overturned governments sometimes from within, such as Syria and Libya, and sometimes by external powers as in Iraq and Afghanistan, people’s revolutions like in Egypt and before that in Turkey and Iran, places where Muslims are a distinct minority and are persecuted for their faith, such as the Uighurs of China and the Rohingya in Myanmar, and places where there is Muslim aggression against other Muslim sects, such as in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. I have travelled to Sri Lanka, where Muslims were recently targeted in Kandy by Buddhist monks, to Kashmir, whose large Muslim population never recovered after the Partition of India, to Qatar that has been ostracized by other Muslim countries in the GCC and Bahrain, where Shiites and Sunnis are at loggerheads.

Amid all this mayhem, there is also a sense of order. The day is divided into five parts, the routine of prayer continues. The process of rebuilding has already started in many Muslim countries affected by political upheaval or revolution, and in some places it is complete. Some countries have left uncertainty in this sense in the past, and some are in the course of doing so. How does a city redefine and redesign itself after so much has been destroyed? What role does the mosque play in this scenario, or does it play a role? There is a need to study this process and how it can be applied to newer problematic regions. Just as one city modeled after another, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the rebuilding of damaged cities and communities, lessons in planning, design, self-organization, policy, organic systems and bottom-up, organic re-evolution.