Category: History


Tracing the peculiarities of two diverse architectural styles, this research tackles the problem of the brisk dispute between traditionalism and modernity in the contemporary architecture. The major goal of this paper is to discuss the essence of these contradictory concepts, comparing two cult structures, Taj Mahal and the mosque of Al-Qiblatein. Special attention is paid to the representation of the above-mentioned trends in the architecture in terms of their design. Moreover, this paper investigates the historical and cultural background of these trends and traces their general implementation in Islamic architecture.

Comparison between a Traditional and a Modern Mosque

The duality between the long-established traditionalism and the present-day tendencies in the contemporary mosque architecture is the topic of debates. Some researchers promote traditional building style, severely criticizing the current architectural trends in Arab-Muslim societies, focusing on the degradation of the high art. Their opponents insist on the positive features of modernity, drawing attention to the development of the architectural identity in the Muslim societies.

The Architecture of a Traditional Mosque

During the long period from ancient times until the 21st century, brilliant patterns of Islamic culture have been erected by Muslims in different countries, “from Spain to Africa to Indonesia and China” (Huda Dodge, 2013).  Mixing different styles and techniques, Islamic design building represents a fusion of spiritual, practical, and decorative essentials nowadays (Huda Dodge, 2013).

The pearl of the Islamic architecture is truly considered to be the building design of mosques. “The mosque is the principal religious building of Islam and paramount among its many functions is communal prayer” (Hillenbrand, 2011). Being extremely religious in its entire essence, the mosque architecture develops such basic symbolic elements, as a courtyard, minarets, qibla wall, mihrab, a fountain with water intended only for drinking. Since 628 AD, a minbar, a stepped pulpit, was provided in congregational mosques, from which the prophet catechized his followers. Originally being three-stepped, minbars transformed into higher structures with the upper seating overspread with a canopy. Traditional mosques had an allegorical niche within the direction of the qibla. Symbolizing the joining element with Mecca and uniting all Muslims, well-decorated and lightened mihrab-qibla became the key element of the mosque. In fact, the mosque architecture solves the key problem of noise, reducing it. To illustrate, most windows in a mosque are located high in the structure to avoid the disturbance of people during the pray. Many mosques are adorned with a dome. This architectural detail does not bear a spiritual or symbolic message and serves as a decorative element. The inner part of a dome is traditionally ornamented with floral, geometric, and other motifs. Being a Muslim place of worship, traditional mosques usually have “one or more minarets, slender towers with balconies that are “often decorated with elaborate tracery and texts from the Koran” (Mosque, 2013). Minarets differ in their height, style, quantity. Originally, minarets were located at the sides of mosques toward neighboring houses. Habitually protected with a roof that has a sharp end, minarets initially were used as a special high place to call people to prayer. Nowadays, minarets continue to be an ornamental element of the majority of mosques. They may take a square, round, and octagonal shape.

Despite the fact that people can pray privately, the congregational prayer takes a key place in Islam culture. Traditionally, being bordered by arcades, the courtyard is used for this purpose. The prayer area takes a significant place in mosque architecture. Being a place “where congregation line up behind their imam and parallel with the qibla to say their prayers every day of the week and to receive the sermon, khutbah, delivered from the minbar by the khateeb”(A brief note on Islamic architecture and its relevance to Qatar).

The Taj Mahal

Historical and cultural background. Being an example of a traditional approach in the Islamic architecture,the Taj Mahal is truly considered to be architecture masterpiece, one of the eight wonders of the world. This is a picturesque burial place for adored wife of Shah Jahan (Tillotson, 2008, p.3).  Created by the Mughals, the Muslim governors of India, this masterpiece sympolizes the power and fame of the fifth emperor of the dynasty, Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. Taj Mahal is translated as “CrownPalace,” this is a Mausoleum where the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are located.The Mausoleum was constructed by the famous architect of that time, Ustad Isa. Approximately twenty thousand people buils the Taj Mahal during twenty-two years. With a construction finished by 1648, it costed a significant amount of roughly thirty-two million rupees.

The architectural design. The architectural design of the Taj Mahal complex involves several principles. First, “A rational and strict geometry is ensured by the use of grid systems based on the Shahjahani gaz” (Koch, 2005, p.139). Second, the architect involved brilliant symmetrical planning, focusing on bilateral symmetry along a central axis that holds the major elements. Third, triadic divisions combined in proportional mixture, provide the configuration of plans, height, and architectural design of the Taj Mahal. The typical repeated idea is the tripartite composition that comprises the key element in the middle, flanked by two similar details. The fourth feature is “the hierarchical grading of material, forms, and color down to the minutest ornamental detail” (Koch, 2005, p.128). The most impressive in the Taj Mahal architectural design is the color scale. The hierarchic use of covering materials of white and red colors is specific for Mughal building design. This phenomenon is taken from ancient Indian idea of the Shastric literature. The materials of white color were prescribed for Brahmin constructions, while red covering was used for Kshatrias, symbolizing the clearness and the authority. In fact, in the entire Taj Mahal complex, the exclusive building clad in white marble is the mausoleum. The rest buildings of the ancient memorial are covered with red sandstone. Although, certain elements, such as the domes, may be faced with white marble. The fifth feature is “the uniformity of shapes, ordered by hierarchical accents” (Koch, 2005, p.141).

In the entire Islamic building design, the Taj Mahal is the most significant set of palaces, created by the same architect. Covering a territory of about forty-two acres, the Taj Mahal is built on a convex square platform 186 feet by 186 feet. Being truncated, its four corners take the shape of an octagon, having eight straight sides and eight angles (Koch, 2005, p.128). Persian, Islamic, and Indian architectural techniques were mixed. The whole Taj Mahal comprises of five main components, such as Darwaza, Bageecha, Masjid, Naqqar Khana, and Rauza (Taj Mahal Architecture, n.d.)  Bageecha is gardens, Masjid is a mosque, Naqqar Khana is a rest house, and Rauza is the main mausoleum (Koch, 2005).

The garden occupies the area 300 meters by 300 meters. The perfect symmetry is observed in the garden design.  Mentioned in the Holy Quran to be a symbol of Paradise, green grass represents sacredness, making the garden a pattern of the Islamic style. Four quarters are separated by the alleys, creating 16 pieces of ground that are decorated with patterns of approximately 400 plants in each flowerbed.

“The mausoleum is set at the northern end of the main axis of a vast oblong walled-in complex that measures 896.10 x 300.84m” (Koch, 2005, p.128). The grave of Mumtaz Mahal is located on a square raised level surface, on the height fifty meters. The tomb garden’s measurements are 561.29 x 300.84 (300) m (Koch, 2005, p.130).  There is a burial chamber in the Taj Mahal houses, with the graves of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Being a classic feature of the Mughals’ mausoleums, the false tombs and perforated marble screens pass sunrays into the burial crypt. These tombs contain semi-precious stones. The tomb of the Mumtaz Mahal is decorated with handwriting that mentions the ninety-nine names of Allah. Four minarets are located on each corner of the square, “facing the chamfered angles of the main and are deliberately kept at 137 feet to emphasize the beautiful and spherical dome that itself is 58 feet in diameter and 81 feet high” (Taj Mahal Architecture, n.d.). The mosque is designed in the western part of the Taj Mahal complex. Being built with a look towards the holy city of Mecca, the mosque is used for religious aims. “Adorned with pietra dura on the outside, the mosque in Taj Mahal of Agra boasts of four octagonal towers and three elegant domes” (Arches of Taj Mahal Mosque, Agra (BW), 2011). Created out of sandstone, the mosque is to the west of the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, while the Naqqar Khana, which means ‘rest or guest house,’ is to the east of it. Having a clear difference in color, both above-mentioned constructions are symmetrical. Although they are built opposite each other, these buildings are exactly the same ones (Taj Mahal Architecture, n.d.). A mirror reflection of the mosque makes a great impression. Being made of red sandstone, the mosque is used for people to pray. On the other side of the major portal, an Iwan, there are two smaller arches. “Three narble coated domes and four little domed kiosks with marble veneer make up for the splendid visuals of the mosque” (Taj Mahal Mosque, 2013).

Tawaza is the main gateway. It is located at the end of the artificial channel for water. Adorned with the beautiful handwriting that cites the Holy Quran and shaped like a dome, its central chamber was built during the period from 1932 to 1938. Produced out of silver, the authentic door of the large gateway was created to stop people from peeping and disturbing the grave of  Mumtaz Mahal. Having vertical proportions, the major gateway of Taj Mahal is decorated with Arabic handwriting with lines from the Quran, designed out of black stone (Taj Mahal Architecture, n.d.).

The Contemporary Mosque Architecture

Current Western architecture and its general stereotypes have made a certain impact on the identity of the modern Arab building design. Establishing colonized Islamic communities, worldly national systems have led to a widespread adoption of western patterns of evolution and update. Having received education overseas, local designers developed Western ideas in their projects (Sakr, 1987, p.5).

The contemporary mosque architecture has several key approaches: traditional, conservative, new classical Islamic, and eclectic. The traditional trend can be represented with New Gourna Mosque in Egypt, Riadha New Mosque in Kenya; conservative, or conventional approach is invlolved in Abu Abbas al Mural Mosque in Alexandria, Zamalek Mosque in Cairo (Egypt), Nakhoda Mosque in Kolkata (India), Malman Mosque Karachi ( Pakistan) (Mosque Architecture (East – West), 2013).

Mosque at Bobo Dioulasso- Burkina Faso. In Africa, there is a range of mosques, Islamic religious constructions, having rather specific architectural stylistic features.  Mosque at Bobo Dioulasso – Burkina Faso is famous for its unusual sloped construction. The feeling of monumentality is rendered by means of numerous vertical elements. In the second half of the twentieth century, the rapid growth of the Saudi Arabia economy promoted the development of new tendencies in numerous sectors of the state’s society to reach the Western world. Despite strong Wahabi religious traditions, the Islamic architecture underwent innovative trends, being in tune with the time. Nevertheless, some researches consider the mosque the ugly representative of the contemporary modern architecture (Mosque at Bobo Dioulasso- Burkina Faso, 2011).

The mosque of Two Qiblas in Medina. Being one of the first mosques, created by the Prophet Mohammed, the mosque of Al-Qiblatein takes a unique place in Muslim culture. Nevertheless, the Saudi government decided to rebuild it, explaining this decision by the mosque’s  simplicity and the lack of its significant architectural value. Situated in the suburbs of Medina, the mosque had the triangular suburban site and was surrounded “on the west by an ancient cemetery and by two streets on the two other sides” (Sakr, 1987, p.14).

In comparison with the traditional architecture patterns, Al-Qiblatein as a representative of modern trend, has certain peculiarities.In the modern design of El-Wakil’s project, the qibla wall borders with the southern street, ensuring the building has a rectangular form. A small courtyard is designed in front of the building.In traditional mosques, the courtyard has a function of “an intermediate spatial layer between the urban domain and the prayer hall” (Sakr, 1987, p.27). It performs psychic and liturgical functions. The courtyard occupies a larger space than the prayer-hall in many traditional mosques. The rest of the basic structural elements of mosques, such as the domes and the minaret, did not fulfill the similar enduring function. “El Wakil’s elimination of the courtyard and his eclectic consolidation of less significant elements like the facades, domes, and minaret seem therefore debatable and controversial on the ground of his premises” (Sakr, 1987, p.27). In this modern mosque, the courtyard symbolizing the introversion is replaced by the prayer hall. This peculiarity is employed in raising “the mosque on a podium, the disposition of the entrance’s volume with its imposing minarets, and the vernacular loggia and, more significantly, his facade” (Sakr, 1987, p.27). Sakr claims that all the above-mentioned features cause a severe contradiction between the traditionalism and modernity. Twin minarets and twin domes, main and false, decorate the structure. Living accommodations for the Imam, the Muezzin and the caretaker are located to the west of the major building. Entrance to the prayer hall is created from the courtyard, facing the north. Supporting barrel-vaultsrunning parallel to the qibla wall, numerous arches comprise the prayer hall. The above-mentioned vaults “are interrupted by two domes which establish an axis in the direction of Mecca” (Qiblatain Mosque, n.d.). The key dome, facing the southern side, is elevated on a drum of clerestory windows, permitting sunrays to light the place on top of mihrab. The false dome is connected with the major one, symbolizing the transition from one qibla to another.


Everlasting disputes over the issue of benefits and detrimental features of the two contradictory concepts in the mosque architecture, such as traditionalism and modernism, have been arising during the last years.

The mosque is the principal religious building of Islam and, among its many functions, communal prayer is paramount. Being extremely religious in its entire essence, the mosque architecture develops such basic symbolic elements as a courtyard, minarets, qibla wall, mihrab, a fountain with water for drinking.

Comparing two such diverse patterns of mosques as the complex Taj Mahal and Al-Qiblatei, certain peculiarities are apparent. The architectural design of the Taj Mahal involves principles of strict geometry, symmetrical planning, triadic divisions, the hierarchical grading of materials, forms and colors, and the uniformity of shapes, while the architect of the mosque of Al-Qiblatein used orthogonal geometry and symmetry, designing the mosque. In Al-Qiblatein, the difference in levels at the corners is observed, while traditionalism provides strictly symmetrical approach towards shapes of the cult structures. There are four minarets located on each corner of the square in the Taj Mahal, and Al-Qiblatein comprises of twin minarets and twin domes, the main and the false one. In traditional mosques, the courtyard has a function of “an intermediate spatial layer between the urban domain and the prayer hall.” It performs a psychic and liturgical function. The courtyard occupies a larger space than the prayer-hall in many traditional mosques. The rest of the basic structural elements of mosques, such as the domes and the minaret, did not fulfill the similar enduring function. The mosque of Al-Qiblatein has changed the direction of prayer from the qibla in Jerusalem to the qibla in Mecca.” Al Wakil’s elimination of the courtyard and its eclectic consolidation of less significant elements like the facades, domes, and minaret seem, therefore, debatable and controversial.

Examining all the above-mentioned arguments and facts, the key idea has arisen: despite brisk debates between the supporters of traditionalism and the adherents of the modernism, the conclusion is simple: each tendency of the architecture is charming in its own way. 

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