West African Mosque Architecture: A Brief Introduction


West African Mosque Architecture: A Brief Introduction

By Kafia Cantone**

Apr. 11, 2005

Mihrab-tower exterior of a mosque in Jenne, Mali.

Is there such a thing as a stereotypical mosque? Are all mosques necessarily characterized by a minaret, a dome, and arches? Are all mosques decorated with mosaics or stucco? From North Africa to India, these elements are the defining features of mosque architecture. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Islam reached these lands largely by conquest, and this meant that the know-how of mosque building was wholly imported. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa as well as China and Southeast Asia, the entry of Islam was more gradual and was transmitted by merchants and traders. I would argue that this partly explains why the mosque architecture of these regions conforms less explicitly to the norms of what has become the blueprint of the mosque.

According to Alsayyad, the Arab conquest of the Middle East was motivated by three aims that conform to the notion of colonialism: a divine mission of spreading the Islamic religion; the ruling Arab elite maintaining political power while expanding trade; and finally, gaining profit from the resources of conquered lands. However, Arab conquest did not always encounter confrontation; on the contrary, as in the case of Damascus and Sicily for instance, Arab dominion was preferable to Byzantine exploitation.

Appropriating and dismantling the religious and political buildings of earlier civilizations became common Arab practice. The symbolism associated with such transformations cannot be considered anything but colonial. The takeover of churches and their later transformation into mosques, and the construction of ruler’s palaces in the centre of new or existing cities, … represent colonial urbanism at work.

In contrast, Islam’s penetration of Sub-Saharan Africa dates from around the 9th century via the Saharan caravan routes. Two strands of influence shaped Islam in West Africa: the link between the Maghrib and the Berber-African gold-trading centers such as the pagan Soninke state of Ghana; the other was the eastern route that connected central Sudan—Kanem, Bornu, and the Hausa states—with Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. Although characterized by regional and ethnic variety, one unifying factor in African Islam is the predominance of the Maliki madhhab—the same school of thought adhered to in the Maghrib. In addition to the commercial link between the two regions, a spiritual bond existed with North Africa. Indeed, the majority of Sufi brotherhoods in West Africa originated from the Maghrib, but the spread of the so-called turuq (“path” used to describe the Sufi brotherhoods) did not happen until much later in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Perforations on a roof top, covered with terracotta lids in a mosque in Jenne, Mali.

As the equivalent of masjid in various African languages indicates, the mosque is nothing more than a place of prostration, like its Arabic root: massallatai in Nigeria, and missidi in Futa Diallon. By contrast, diakka in Wolof literally means “to face east.” West African mosques vary from simple roofless enclosures serving the function of places for communal prayer, to magnificent buildings. It would be impossible to do justice to the vast array of stylistic variants of mosque architecture in West Africa; therefore, the regions covered here are primarily Senegal and Mali.

The style and materials of traditional mosques vary according to the ethnic group and the local environment. The style of mosque known as Soudanese, belonging to the area known as the Western Sudan, is perhaps the most famed. Spanning a vast area from the River Senegal to the Niger Bend, as well as Ghana and the Ivory Coast, these mosques are bound by common building material—clay. Their organic forms are typified by buttressing, the use of toron or wooden stakes used for scaffolding during the yearly process of resurfacing, as well as for decorative purposes, a mihrab tower, a flat roof, and a courtyard. Pillars support the flat roof, and the floor is usually covered with sand, on top of which mats are laid. Illumination is evocatively achieved by holes pierced in the ceiling. Save the massive pillars and their arches, interiors are undecorated, yet far from austere. Rather, their elegant simplicity attests to the lack of distraction between the worshiper and his Creator.

Mali was impregnated with a tradition known by the name of its dominant group, the Mande, whence Manding. Among them, those who were Islamized were known as Dyula or Wangara. This group covered a large area during their migration, spanning part of Senegal, northern Nigeria, the Upper Niger Bend, the Guinea coast, and over to Kong in the Ivory Coast. Mande style is characterized by the use of conical forms, particularly found on monumental entrances of courtyard houses and mosques. Decorated with pilasters and elements in relief alternating with voids, these façades are also found in Dogon architecture. But apart from the close affinity between domestic and religious architecture, additional elements such as the phallic pylons testify to the integration of ancestral practices with Islamic ones.

Thus the Mande style, which has come to be associated with the Soudanese style, was transmitted by traders who taught mystical Islam throughout this vast region. Nowadays, however, the transmission of the Djennenké style takes place with the movement of master-builders whose craftsmanship is much sought after.

On this mosque in Ngoni, Mali, the use of plaster and cement is combined with traditional elements such as the toron and decorative pinnacles.

The origins of the Soudanese mosque are not clear-cut: Their monumental and fortress-like exteriors are reminiscent of the defensive architecture of West Africa known as tata. There may also be a relation between these mosques and domestic architecture. The Great Mosque of Djenné typifies the Soudanese mosque and, furthermore, it may have been the progenitor of this type of mosque architecture. Although it was rebuilt under the aegis of the French administration in 1907, the craftsmen, as well as the building technology, are more local than French. This vast mosque dominates the market place from its raised platform. Like its relatives, the mosque is characterized by the use of buttressing, pinnacles, and attached pillars—all of which are punctuated by the toron spikes.

Unlike many other Soudanese mosques, the ceiling of Djenné’s great mosque is very high. The western side of the mosque opens onto a large courtyard, at the rear of which the women’s galleries are situated, one on each side of the entrance.

This mosque has become almost iconic in terms of West African mosque architecture, and numerous village mosques in the surrounding area emulate the Djenné mosque, albeit on a miniature scale. Dominated by their minaret tower, courtyard, and flat roof from where the Adhan is called, yet each mosque has its own distinctive character.

Relatives of the Soudanese mosques in Mali can be found in the Futa Toro in northeastern Senegal. Here, dwellings are generally preceded by a wooden veranda or mud porch, typical of all Tukolor housing in the area. This structure is echoed in the sacred enclosure around Futa mosques, consisting of a projecting straw roof supported by posts, whose function is to accommodate the overflow of worshipers and protect them from the sun. As for the central and coastal area of Senegal, the influence of colonialism left its mark on mosque building and the mosques of Saint Louis, Gorée, and Dakar (Blanchot) are all equipped with a front porch defined by arcades with pointed arches. Furthermore, the paired square towers flanking the triangular pediment of the façade recall church architecture.

The Contemporary Urban Mosque Phenomenon

The technique of toron and decorative pinnacles is also used in Sindegue, Mali.

Sub-Saharan Africa has been a stage accommodating a wide range of disparate influences: ethnic, religious, political, and not least, artistic. It is not surprising, therefore, to find great variety in mosque architecture. Moreover, it would be wrong to represent West African mosque architecture as consisting solely of mud structures. Since the 1960s, mosque construction has boomed in many parts of the world. The experience of European colonialism brought new political systems as well as a new vocabulary of building methods. The introduction of cement was to transform traditional construction techniques considerably. In addition, the revolution of the transport system also contributed to the infiltration of new styles from North Africa and the Middle East as well as from Brazil.

Indeed, the phenomenon of repatriated slaves from Brazil to the Bight of Benin at the beginning of the 19th century, gave rise to so-called Afro-Brazilian architecture. Repercussions of this eclectic architecture that mixes Christian baroque styles with Islamic motifs can be found as far afield as Senegal.

New construction materials also mean new styles. The use of square minaret towers, domes, and other decorative devices such as crenellations, arcades, and stained glass are now commonplace in West Africa. Yet the incorporation of these imported elements is far from being a colonizing process; rather, it is a case of marking the spiritual link with the founder of a particular tariqah’s motherland. These are, therefore, architectural quotations that have not been imposed. In the case of the Great Mosque of Dakar, by contrast, the building was a gift from King Hassan II of Morocco, and was built with Moroccan traditional materials and mostly by Moroccan craftsmen.

Modernization has mainly affected the coastal and most urbanized areas. Indeed, the Futa Toro region in Senegal, or the spiritual capital of the Mourids, Touba, illustrate the phenomenon of economic migration, which results in mosques being rebuilt in cement by the returnees, or by the money they send home. The inevitable result is that the original style is entirely transformed to conform to the minaret and dome standard encountered elsewhere in the Muslim world, and the local knowledge of mosque building is thus eroded.

Internationalization: A New Form of Colonization?

The dome-like mihrab tower of the Mosque of Ba Sounnou Sacko in the town of Segou Sikoro is pierced with toron stakes like the old mosque of Bamako, which is no longer extant.

Contemporary mosques are often more innovative in their designs, breaking the mold of established architectural traditions and gleaning inspiration from further afield—the Gulf States and Madinah in Saudi Arabia. As these countries are often the patrons of such mosques, it is not surprising that their style is more Middle Eastern than African. This trend is not restricted to Africa; rather it is a global phenomenon, stressing the victory of the international mosque over the variety of local traditions and techniques that have mirrored, for centuries, different expressions of Islamic culture. This is not to say that traditional mosques will entirely die out and be replaced by rather anonymous concrete structures. In many regions, the expertise of the masons is still very much alive. Many buildings in Djenné, for instance, are currently being restored under the sponsorship of European funds.

Perhaps the time will come when Muslims relearn to appreciate the roots of their architectural traditions—intrinsic parts of Islamic culture—in order to reassociate the link between built form and the environment, evident in the practice of architecture in West Africa.

**Kafia Cantone holds an MA in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, and is currently working on a PhD on West African mosques. You can reach her at bridge@islamonline.net.


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