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Saturday, July 4, 2020

On Minarets and Munificence

by Julia Wheeler

Children reading the Koran - The light airy interior of this mosque is the ideal setting for reflecting of the meaning of the Koran

Among the many delights of the UAE are the many beautiful mosques that delight the eye and remind us of our faith 

Take a look at an old photograph of Dubai. The Creek is obvious, the sand is plentiful, the wind towers are in full force, but you will have to look hard to distinguish one type of building we are so used to seeing in today’s aerial views … the mosques of Dubai.

The number of mosques in the city, and throughout the United Arab Emirates, appears to have begun to increase during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, with the growth in population and the wealth of the country. The success of the Emirates and its people prompted some to build mosques as a sign of thanks – and as a way of ploughing their own good fortune directly back into the community. Of course, the growth in members of that community has made their endeavors welcome others.

According to the latest figures collected by the Juma Al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage, in Dubai there are currently 88 mosques in Deira, 61 in Bur Dubai and another 39 outside the central areas of the city. The neighborhood mosques tend to be used for weekday prayers, with worshippers traveling further afield to the larger mosques for Friday prayers. Most conform to what is described among the architectural fraternity as the Anatolia structure, identified by a massive central dome something very prominent, for example, in the construction of Jumeriah Mosque. A smaller number are modeled on the Iran and Central Asia architecture, technically known as the bi-axial four iwan type. They have more domes covering different areas of the mosque.

It is probably fair to say that there are as many mosque styles as there are mosque architects, each creating a building with its own (however minuscule) difference to the next. But each mosque in Dubai has one thing in common – it fits into the style the Muslim community here believes it should.

The same is true of the rest of the world, of course. A mosque in western China with its detached pavilion and walled garden would look a little out of place in Rashidiya. Similarly, the Moslem community in central Asia may feel less able to relate to the style of the King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah, when it is more used to worshipping in a structure sheltered by a layered, pyramid-shaped roof.

Despite talk of an increase in global communications and worldwide images providing a more universal style of architecture for all buildings, including places of worship, the mosque architects know that they must provide an anchor for the identity of the community. That sentiment is perhaps magnified when it is a member of that community who is the patron of the mosque.

Islam came early to this part of the world, bringing with it a marked change in attitude for many of the people who lived here at the time of the Prophet himself. After his death there was a rebellion among the local tribes on the East Coast, which was put down by the forces of Islam. The testimony to their battle is visible at the foot of the mountains behind Dibba; an area of simple standing stones provides the testimony.

The oldest mosque to be found within the boundaries of the UAE today is in the Emirate of Fujairah, along the road between Khor Fakkan and Dibba. The village of Badiyah with its two watchtowers overlooking the road is home, to what is thought in fact, to be one of the oldest surviving mosques in the world. Known as the ‘Ottoman Mosque,’ it is square in shape with four round, almost squashed domes on its roof, by no minaret. Inside, a massive central supporting pillar splays out to form the ceiling and brightly coloured prayer mats cover the floor.

The date the Badiyah mosque was built is unknown, but one recent study on the subject dates its construction to between end of the 15th and the end of the 16th centuries.

Of course, things have changed since that time; take the call to prayer for example. Traditionally the muezzin made it from the top of the minaret. But, ‘Allah-u-Akbar’ is now more commonly heard courtesy of high-powered speakers and with the aid of modern amplifiers.

The mosques of the Emirates provide a very visible – and, five times a day, an audible – symbol of the way in which the past and present live together comfortably.

Local legend has it that the mosque at Badiyah was built by a fisherman giving thanks for the discovery of a particularly large pearl; a sentiment undoubtedly mirrored in the minds of a great number of today’s mosque patrons. Even after four or five hundred years of history, some things remain constant.

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