Nick Leech visits one of Abu Dhabi’s very last street mosques and finds a living tradition of prayer with direct links to the city’s past
It is midday and over 100°F when Syed Akmal Ahmed arrives at his local mosque with a car boot full of small cartons of mineral water. Ahmed will not be in Abu Dhabi for Ramadan, but the water is a donation toward the Iftar meals that his fellow worshippers will soon share each evening after the Maghrib prayer. Amjad Iqbal, the mosque’s imam, receives the donation gratefully and stores it in the janitor’s room of an adjacent building. There is nowhere to keep anything in the mosque itself because it has no permanent walls, ceiling, or even a name.
Sandwiched between an electricity substation, a derelict building, and one of the many high-rise towers in Al Markaziyah, the mosque is made of little more than a tattered woven screen that forms its qiblah wall, a low wooden rail made from recycled pallets that defines the prayer area, a faded carpet, and a collection of brightly coloured prayer rugs.
Remarkably, given the ephemeral nature of its construction, Mr Ahmed and almost eighty fellow worshippers have been gathering to pray outdoors in this area for almost twelve years. As he explains, “The local mosque was closed for renovation so the local residents and shopkeepers started to pray on the pavement. Now it’s too hot for every prayer so we just do the evening prayers here but excluding three months, from June to September, we do every prayer here and every prayer is busy.”
For local workers like Amjad Iqbal, prayer at the mosque is largely a matter of convenience, but the experience of prayer is the same wherever it is performed. “Prayer is from the heart, not from the place. Muslims can pray anywhere. We just need a clean place. If I am driving somewhere, I can stop the car by the road, turn to the qiblah, and I will start praying there.” As a good Muslim, Mr Ahmed agrees, but also admits that there’s something else that keeps him coming back to worship in the same place. “There’s a comfortability [sic] level praying with people you know. Once I started coming here, I saw the same people every day and we got to know each other.”
This ‘mosque’ is one of the last of its type in Abu Dhabi. These structures, that were once a regular feature in the city’s urban fabric but have all but been eradicated since 2008, when Khalfan Sultan al Nuaimi, the director of construction permits at the Abu Dhabi Municipality announced that “the idea of the temporary mosque is finished” and that mosques should be “nice buildings”. In the same year, Amiri decree #61 established a Mosque Development Committee under the management of H.E Falah Mohammed Al Ahbabi, General Manager, Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC), whose work will come to fruition later this summer when the UPC publishes its new Mosque Development Regulations.
Designed to ensure that “an appropriate number, size, type and design of high-quality mosques are strategically located in all communities across Abu Dhabi Emirate,” the new regulations will ensure that new mosques adhere to the principles of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, as well as providing guidance on their architecture, technical design, and operation once they are complete. The UPC also identifies new mosques as a vehicle for the promotion of “Emirati vernacular design to celebrate Emirati culture and heritage,” a decision that represents the architectural equivalent of the Emiratisation that has been taking place in Abu Dhabi’s labour market over the same period.
An attempt to improve the design and quality of Abu Dhabi’s mosques is broadly welcomed by academics like Dr Geoffrey King, a founder and former Academic Director of the Abu Dhabi Islands Survey and author of The Historical Mosque Tradition of the Coasts of Abu Dhabi, a book published by the National Centre for Documentation and Research, the organisation charged with acting as Abu Dhabi’s ‘memory’. “These new regulations could be a really good idea. The Sheikh Zayed mosque set out to be a superb piece of Islamic architecture worldwide but the same thought process has not informed the design of any of Abu Dhabi’s lesser mosques. They’re complete anarchy, as is the case across the whole of Arabia, and have nothing to do with Abu Dhabi’s past.”
The latest generation of Abu Dhabi mosques bears testimony to this. In April, a new mosque was inaugurated in the Al Nahyan area inspired by Abbasid (Iraqi) architecture while another is planned for Al Nahda military area that will feature Andalusian detailing. Dr King blames the tendency to adopt foreign styles on a lamentable but understandable ignorance of traditional Arabian architecture amongst architects. “There simply hasn’t been the knowledge amongst people who design and build mosques of what the local traditions were in the first place.”
Dr King also identifies problems in attempting to tap into local architectural traditions. “The trouble is, there are only three surviving mosques on Delma Island and some in the oasis at Al Ain, but those are yet to be studied.” Piety, and Abu Dhabi’s break-neck modernisation in the 1960s and 70s played a key role in destroying many of the Emirates traditional mosques, as Dr Ronald Hawker, author of Building on Desert Tides: Traditional Architecture in the Arabian Gulf explains. “When oil concessions were first negotiated and money began to flow into Emirati communities, the first thing people did was rebuild the mosques.”
Dr Hawker believes that a nuanced understanding of traditional local architecture is required if it is to act as a guide for designers in the present and that it’s vital to recognise the subtle differences between the UAE’s very different tribal and building cultures. “I think one can talk about several Emirati vernaculars. This is a theme that emerges in all aspects of Emirati culture [and] there are distinct differences between the… coast, the desert, the alluvial fans, and the mountains.”
For DrGeoffrey King however, there is one tradition of mosque building that is found historically across the whole of Abu Dhabi. “You’ll find another type of mosque on all the islands and the mainland… a simple stone outline on the ground with a mihrab. More often than not, it just consists of a qiblah wall, mihrab, and that’s that. It was very, very simple.” Ironically, this is a genuinely local tradition that temporary mosques like the one in Al Markaziyah most accurately reflect, yet it is the practice that local authorities have been trying hardest to eradicate.
Over the past twelve years, Al Markaziyah’s temporary mosque has managed to survive changes in location, the pressures of redevelopment, and the fate of the vast majority of its contemporaries, but its survival in the face of the latest wave of regulation seems doubtful. For one group of worshippers at least, its passing will be a source of regret. As Syed Akmal Ahmed explains. “This is the house of the Lord, whether I pray here or somewhere else does not matter, but obviously I would be sad to see this mosque go. Having prayed here for such a long time, you build a sentimental attachment to the place. All the residents who come here, we take care of each other.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi