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Design and Architecture of Mosques

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Over the past few centuries, mosques have become the heart of Islamic life throughout the world. They were built in order to deepen Islamic worship and knowledge, while also giving them the ability to deeply connect with Allah and have the opportunity to unify in prayer. Mosques are important because they are able to help us trace Islamic architectural development and help us determine why early architects used certain designs in their work. Mosques are lavishly decorated with different patterns, materials, and colors that symbolize a vast variety of Muslim ideas and religious beliefs. Although all mosques are a central representation of Muslim identity and beliefs, they are very diverse through unique designs and architecture that portray different meanings.

All mosques share four important types of symbols that unify them across the world. One of the most important being the idea that mosques serve as places of paradise. Jale Nejdet Erzen explains that “Muslim culture stress the idea of paradise almost beyond any other.” Mosques are built with an attempt to create an atmosphere of paradise where people are able to resolve tensions with other people. This is important due to the Muslim people chasing to lead a peaceful and religious life. Another way mosques represent paradise would come from the designs, calligraphy, decorations, etc. that cover the walls and ceilings which results in an immersive experience. The next main symbol would be viewing mosques as the heavenly theater. As Erzen explains, “The ritual of prayer is a performance of adoration and prostration to God… designed to be clearly visible.” Mosques have no furnishings except a higher platform to portray a “theater” showing the ritual of prayer that can be visible from all parts of the mosque. This `reflects the fact that Muslims believe that God is always watching from everywhere. They also have inscriptions located at the entrance that prepare whoever enters the mosque to properly experience the performance. The third most important symbol of mosques is that they are viewed as urban sculptures. Erzen explains that the Ottomans, “created an architecture which was open to the exterior and developed a type of mosque that stood out in the urban space as a sculptural form.” Architects wanted to develop a type of architecture when building mosques in order to help it stand out from the surrounding buildings. By making the mosque stand out, people experienced a connection and would utilize the mosque to guide their orientation in the city. The mosques would then become an asset to the city and would contribute to people’s familiarity with the city. The last important symbol of mosques is the cosmic spiral. Erzen explains the symbol as a “three dimensional form… that has no beginning and no end which is the basic principle of space and time.” The spiral has played an important role in Muslim religion, including their music with a lot of “repetition” and “circular progressions” and also spatial units are arranged in mosques in a more circular way.

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Although mosques have many similarities spiritually, the designs and architecture for mosques are very unique. They vary from all sorts of colors, shapes, and a wide variety of luxurious materials. John L. Esposito states in the Oxford History of Islam that “the depiction of living things is forbidden in Islamic art.” Their depiction is forbidden because Muslims believe that God can only be represented by his word due to how unique his state is. Instead, depiction of people became more popular through the use of shapes and vegetal elements. More private mosques however did contain art representing humans for example the Umayyad palace of Khirbat al-Mafjar that was served as a party house for a prince which contained many art pieces with women on them. Another example that mosques are different would be the use of geometrical design. As Esposito explains, “Because figural imagery was unnecessary, other themes of decoration became important.” Geometric designs had made their way into a majority of mosques and were used to represent different scenic works that included nature, religious beliefs, humans, and many more. An example would be the Great Mosque of Cordoba that incorporates stems and leaves that create interlacing geometrical designs. With this new hallmark of design, many more different ideas and designs came to be. Esposito furthermore explained that “geometric designs commonly used in Islamic art were often enhanced by color.” Mosques had colors that went along with what colors represented that area. For example, white can be seen to convey loyalty, royalty, and death; black can convey vengeance and revolt; blue was used as it was thought to get rid of evil; green conveys the idea of good luck, fertility, and youth; and so on. This gave the design meaning and further enhanced the beauty of the mosque. Many mosques are also designed in order for viewers to be able to see all of these designs and colors from any part of the mosque that amplified its beauty. Soon after Muslim architect started incorporating glass mosaics in their work. The colors used mainly were those that symbolized the surrounding geographical area and created a unique look for mosques everywhere. Later on, discovered was a newer method to make mosaics more efficiently by taking larger surfaces and separating the colors with a greasy substance which would cut the time and cost of these additions. Mosaics were seen to be luxurious and created an “overall effect of such interiors is glistening.”(Erzen,256) Not only were exotic colors becoming used, but materials never before used were being put to use. An astonishing example would be that of the “Taj Mahal” which incorporated not commonly used materials such as white marble into the exterior of the mosque. In order to have a beautiful shine when it reflected light from the sun, it was inlayed in many multicolored stones such as lapis, onyx, jasper, topaz, carnelian, and agate. Using these types of materials created a smooth pearly white color “that emphasized the jewel like qualities of the building.”(Erzen, 258) Another example of different materials used would be how the Abbasids utilized bricks to decorate buildings. Esposito claims that “its durability was preferred, in regions with a more extreme climate.” In order to keep the mosque durable, bricks replaced other materials in areas with harsher climate. By setting bricks in a pattern, they could also enliven the walls surface by using the sun and creating patterns of light and shade. This method was used for tall towers connected to mosques, which would revolutionize Muslim architecture. Mosques also use a vast arrangement of shapes to further help it stand out from the rest. Many mosques are created with more simple shapes such as rectangles, squares, circles, but another way mosques can stand out from the rest is with a more complex plan. Rina Avner from “the Dome of the Rock In the Light Of…” explains that “the octagon was chosen as the basic shape because of its connection with the sequence of events leading to the birth of Christ.” Certain examples such as the Dome of The Rock prove that mosques can vary immensely depending on what religious values are most important in that region that they are trying to portray. Carving is also a way to incorporate a unique style of work that can be seen as one of the main hallmarks of Islamic art. There were seen to be three molded techniques that were used for different reasons. Soon was used for a multitude of materials. Erzen described the first as a “carved technique derived from vegetal decoration…the second style is characterized by the use of crosshatching for details… the third style is a molded technique suitable for covering large wall surfaces.” These techniques gave scholars the ability to greatly enrich the interior of these mosques. Soon after, these techniques were being used many different types of materials including wood and materials that are easily carved such as rock crystals. These different materials were mixed in together to create stunning patterns that covered all of the interior spaces of the mosque. This new technique would start to be used throughout many mosques to be built in the future that will create even more different mosques from the rest.

Arches came to be as large mosques used longer pillars that would need to have support and would be stabilized by the arches. In later constructed mosques, those arches became two-tiered in order to maximize the size of the building. Different colors with luxurious materials embellished the interior walls.

While mosques all represent the central beliefs of Muslims, they all are created differently when viewing their structures, materials, and many other components that make up the mosque. These differences come from different culture and customs found in all of the different areas that contain mosques. Colors and materials usually represent the geographical area and is influenced by factors such as climate, average weather, and similar factors to create a stunning view of the building. The shape and design of a mosque is usually based on the areas beliefs and most important ideologies, for example the Dome of the Rock being an octagon to represent the events that Jesus Christ was put through. All of these facts are the result of an array of stunningly beautiful mosques that represent the heart of Islamic life.

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