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Divided Congregation pt.1

An Essay and Installtion

the worshipers seemed divided until the mosque by the school was demolished.

once again, fridays have become a time of gathering.

once again, there is a reason to linger around and discuss the week’s highlights (the new electronics store on the main street, the neighbor that is now engaged to an old friend, and the nephews that miraculously grow every week.)


the following questions become immediately pressing:


why do we build mosques?

where does the value of the mosque really reside? is it in its capacity for communion, or its designation as a place for ritual prayer?


congregation: modernity, community, & ritual


historically, the mosque once stood as a symbol for a given community, an embodiment of a collective consciousness linked to the act of worship. the congregational ritual may be viewed as a vehicle mediating the relationship between man and god, which in turn, mediates the relationship between man and his community. hence, the mosque itself becomes emblematic of this set of existential relationships.


evidently oblivious to the extent the modernization of our urban landscapes has affected our behavior as a community, we seem to have forgotten the relevance of this space as a focal point for gathering. the essential relationship between the ritual of prayer and communion has been reduced to an individual physical act performed due to its obligatory status quo. as a result, the mosque has lost its madrassas, orphanages, libraries, and clinics and has been downsized to its prayer hall and ablution (or even toilets only), eliminating the possibility of using the complex for any other purpose than the two, three, or four raka’as characteristic of the physical act of prayer.


mosque building: between place-making & repentance


the act of erecting a mosque has been linked with virtuous values since the dawn of islam. the famous hadith says: “whoever builds a mosque for allah, allah will build for him likewise in paradise.”[1]

this correspondence between the house of god on earth, and the house of its patron in the heavens is the most commonly sought after bounty driving much of the mosque building activity in the city today.

arguably, however, this activity was reserved for government officials (sultans, caliphs, viziers) or merchants/preachers, carefully orchestrated by architects and imams, and always a physical articulation of a particular community in a particular locale. this applies a greater emphasis on the collective consciousness of the genius loci[2] of a particular site, and how it is used and understood by the people settled in/around that said place.

as cairo, damascus, and baghdad testify, traditional arab cities once displayed an intricate pattern of urbanism which integrated religious spaces into the fabric of the city as a direct response to the community’s needs. this took the form of a hierarchal structure of formal congregational spaces depending on use, convenience and capacity. the zawiya, the smallest form of congregational space, is nothing but a corner in the souk used by occupants around its immediate vicinity. the mosallah, an enclosed, basically serviced structure, is built up for a greater catchment area, but still intended for practical use by a small community for daily prayers. friday mosques, or jamii, are those large congregational spaces that imply a symbolic presence in the city and allow for a collective reading of the place. furthermore, these large buildings are usually inaugurated on sites of particular significance symbolizing a certain story, myth, hero, or ruler.

with modern urbanism, the subdivision of the city into regularized plots, and the totalitarian process of master planning[3], that primordial essence of symbolism and place has been diluted. coupled with the desire for comfort and convenience, this phenomenon has led to a shift in priorities. the mosque as center for communion is compromised for a haphazard process of individual efforts competing for that promised house in the heavens. the result is a scattered collection of interventions with no tangible relationship to the neighborhood, its members, or urban setting.





after examining the complex network of community, history, urbanism, and congregation, it seems necessary to address the question “why do we build mosques?”

modernity has reshaped our environment and with it, our traditional values as well.

although contemporary saudi society is always optimistically keen on preserving that delicate balance between past and present, this transformation seems wholly inevitable.

once this fact is fully realized, a critical approach to the endowment, planning, construction, and operation of religious spaces must be implemented. only then would mosques really respond to our contemporary society’s needs, and once again revive the sense of community so evidently lacking.




[1] [sahîh al-bukhârî and sahîh muslim] 

[2] genius loci is a term of latin origin, defined as “the prevailing character or atmosphere of a place.”

genius loci. (n.d.) american heritage® dictionary of the english language, fifth edition. (2011). retrieved august 17 2016 from

[3] “but in practice master plans fail - because they create totalitarian order, not organic order. they are too rigid; they cannot easily adapt to the natural and unpredictable changes that inevitably arise in the life of a community.”

-christopher alexander, the timeless way of building (1980). new york: oxford university press

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