Islamic geometric principles link the modern Jumaa Mosque to its heritage
Walking from Souq Waqif towards Barahat Al-Naseem – the main square of the Msheireb development – you transition from one contemporary reintroduction to Qatari’s past to another. Across from the reconstructed hundred-plus-year-old Souq Waqif is Msheireb’s Heritage Quarter, combining the Eid ground (the gathering place for worshippers during the end of Ramadan), the old house of Jassim bin Mohammed Al-Thani (the founder of the State of Qatar), and three historical houses of the Ansari and Jalwood families, and the family of Sheikh Abdullah bin Qassim. Among them rises the 25.2m-tall minaret of John McAslan + Partners’ Jumaa Mosque, boldly and suitably located along the main axis, the historic Massat Street, connecting Barahat Al-Naseem with Souq Waqif, and claiming the southern edge of the street by mediating the height of the adjacent National Archive building.
The white stone building – gracefully patterned and subtly indented – is restrained but assured in how it addresses Qatar’s visions for a self-reflecting and locally encoded built environment. Built in a period of vertiginous socio-economic transformation, manifested in the country’s burgeoning multi-scalar, multi-faceted and sprawling physical environment, such need to encapsulate value and meaning is ever more present.
These are the premises behind the massive regeneration scheme that is the Msheireb development, built anew in place of 35 hectares of dense but deteriorating inner-city fabric. Amid controversy for its radical demolition of such a vast, historically laden part of inner Doha, the architects have used the wider urban revitalisation programme as an opportunity to dig deep into the past, learn and extract meaning, principle and cultural essence, and erect an edifice from scratch that is abided by all. John McAslan + Partners were already working on the regeneration scheme, contributing a wide range of residential, commercial and educational projects, when they won the open competition for Jumaa Mosque, the first religious intervention in the Heritage Quarter.
JMP’s design is drawn from a long look back into the seventh century to trace Qatari principles in designing religious edifices in the House of the Prophet in Medina (Al-Masjid an-Nabawī), built in 622 CE. It takes from it the simplicity in layout and commits to an unwavering geometrical logic of a square plan, which becomes a symbol of ‘oneness and unity’ (tawḥīd) and is reflective of the four ‘pillars’ (al-arkān) in nature: the equally essential elements of earth, air, fire and water. It makes reference to other mosques found in Qatar – Al Yousef Mosque (Old Salata, Doha, 1940), Al Subaiei Mosque (Al Wakrah, 1940), Abdullah Bin Soragah (Al Rumeila, Doha, 1940) – and borrows additional commonly found design principles, such as the sahan (courtyard), liwans (narrow colonnaded exterior passages) and an overall sense of strongly relational, simply composed geometry.
The adopted geometrical foundation serves a core theocentric principle. The omnipresence of the He, the Absolute, is not geometrically gravitated, but resonates in perfectly symmetrical and proportioned spaces. Both in plan and elevation, the Prayer Hall of Jumaa Mosque is composed of seven equal multiples of a 3.6m square module, combining the dimensions of the prayer rug (600 x 1200mm) and the number seven – one of the most significant numbers in Islam (for example, Allah created seven heavens, the Qur’an is revealed in seven letters or dialects, there are seven doors to paradise). The strict adherence to the rule is even maintained in the relationship between exterior and interior, with each dimension achieved as a multiple of that module, accounting even for wall thicknesses. The minaret also abides by this rule, having its height seven times the base diameter of 3.6m. Such keen attention to Islamic geometric principles speaks of an erudite theocentric design and a reverence to regional precedents. Although, arguably, the strict symmetry might not be attributed specifically to Qatari mosques (most are, in fact, not axially strong), the achieved geometrical simplicity and programmatic straightforwardness is very much a locally rooted design trait, making Jumaa Mosque look and feel Qatari.
‘JMP’s design is drawn from a long look back into the seventh century to trace Qatari principles in designing religious edifices’
The ocentricity is also the underlying narrative in the passage from the bustling urban to the contemplative inner context when proceeding through the spaces of the mosque. Three processional walls are encountered as the visitor makes the transition from the outside reality into the sacred inner space, from the collective daily social to the individual and his direct relationship with Allah.
The gateway wall, first, is the urban threshold, the face of the front volume that houses part of the programme and the ablution spaces. Three parts assemble the entry portal through a layering of white stone, bronze pattern and deep offsets with continuous patterning – a distinctly modern interpretation in surface treatment, materiality and three-dimensionality.
The gateway volume is followed by the sahan, a space of remarkable geometrical simplicity, which is flanked by two liwans, and maintains an axial centrality with the gateway wall, marked by a pool of water. Again, strong reference is maintained to the significance of water as a source of wealth, fertility and health in Islamic tradition and as part of the purification process before prayer. The sahan is meant to impart a sense of coolness, silence and contemplation.
It is collective in layout, yet engenders self-reflection and a refocusing on the inner being in preparation for connecting it with the Absolute.
The procession continues through the Prayer Hall wall, which is also of great simplicity, celebrated with an exceptionally high entry door, finely crafted in multi-layered patterned bronze. The pattern is repeated in a stone frame around the glistening portal, subtly offset from the main facade, but flush with the entry door; it distinguishes yet combines, as if aligning a reverence to the Absolute with the humility of the reverers.
Finally, the Qibla wall, oriented towards the Kaaba in Mecca, completes the passage and marks the threshold into the outer world. The wall is humble in appearance, its finish in plaster panels intricately patterned to remind of the indistinguishable line between the visible and the invisible, the latter being a core practice of personal investment in Islamic cultures.
‘This close adherence to Islamic principles, coupled with a strong reference to historic Qatari examples, imparts a recognisably local feel and cultural authenticity’
The interior space between the two walls – the Prayer Hall and Qibla wall – is a perfect cube, again, an innovative volumetric interpretation rooted in the square layout of the House of the Prophet. It’s here that a distinctly different feel of materiality, physicality and the absence of it is encountered. The white stone flush surfaces of the exterior volumes and their strong physicality, both in and of themselves and as part of the urban context, are all of a sudden replaced by light; their significance, materiality and purpose is left in the outside realm. Inside, light dematerialises everything. And it is light from above, a metaphor facilitated by three-layer patterned and perforated glass reinforced concrete panels, topped by round skylights, hardly discernible, but functionally quite successful.
Light – the most essential Islamic metaphor – is duly signified through the overlaying of patterned surfaces, filtering it through to achieve the mysticism and divine resonance that captures worshippers’ emotive state. A large window facing north further illuminates the Prayer Hall with daylight filtered through an interpretation of the rubʿ al-ḥizb Islamic eight-pointed star symbol. The daylight is abundant but restrained, minimising the need for artificial illumination in the day, but filtered to provide intimacy and a feeling of sanctity.
This close adherence to Islamic principles – light, water, pattern, entry and procession – coupled with a strong reference to historic Qatari examples, imparts a recognisably local feel and cultural authenticity to Jumaa Mosque. The pairing of traditional and modern in the design is carried through with exactness and sensibility without overstating or gravitating towards either. It is JMP’s response to a Modernist brief in which design history and religious culture are to be reflected and spatialised in contemporary interpretations.
Noticeable in both plan and section, the female prayer hall is the element that stands out as most distinct from historical precedents. Lifting it onto a mezzanine above the male prayer room guarantees the required gender separation without need of a full enclosure. If women in mosques are often relegated to overcrowded back rooms, perpetuating their habit of staying home to pray, here they are brought to the fore, as closely as possible to the light-filled ceiling. Project architect Hannah Lawson sees it as a ‘celebration of the importance of women within the Muslim faith’.
Another notable achievement of Jumaa Mosque is its urban contextualisation. Immediately noticeable is the permeability and alternation of public and private spaces in relation to the wider Heritage Quarter. Surrounded by heritage courtyard houses, whose open spaces spill into the public realm, the mosque participates in alternating solids and voids to create fluid permeability while preserving the sense of being an urban sanctuary. Its entry square is shared with the Jassim bin Mohammed house opposite, while its courtyard is flanked by screened liwans that integrate with the outside – allowing a direct visual and physical connection on both sides, yet containing the intimacy of the sahan. From the sahan there is also a visual and physical connection to the courtyard of Sheikh Abdullah bin Qassim’s house across Massat Street. The sequence of public, semi-public and private spaces that populates the entire Heritage Quarter achieves a recognisably modern, urban feel while maintaining the allusion to the site’s historical precedent.
Completed in 2015, as part of Phase 1A of the Msheireb development (due to publicly open in 2017), Jumaa Mosque is being praised by its users and guardians. The local community seems to have a general sense of identification, reflection and ownership with the mosque and, in general, with the wider Heritage Quarter, which speaks of the former’s loyalty to the local site’s history.
It stands not as a design invention or a statement that imposes a sense of modernity on site, but as an interpretation and a recital of history, culture and locality, visualised through the innovative application of materials, surface treatments, texture, pattern and geometrical compositions, contextualised seamlessly within existing historic fabric. In the end, it is in this negotiation of past principles and future aspirations that the guidelines for a Qatari contemporary design brief find their content.
Architect: John McAslan + Partners
Project manager: TiME Qatar
Local consultant: Arab Engineering Bureau
Photographs: All photographs by Hufton + Crow