gambia

West African Mosques 

Mosques built in parts of the Muslim world where Arabs migrated or took control of through wars developed a distinct tradition of domes and minarets. In areas where Islam spread mostly by returning traders, traditions of mosque building were determined more by local skills and approaches.

According to Al Sayyad, 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 maintenance of political power by the ruling Arab elite whilst expanding trade and finally to gain profit from resources of conquered lands. However, the Arab conquest did not always encounter confrontation. On the contrary as in the case of Damascus and Sicily, Arab dominion was preferable to Byzantine exploitation:“Appropriating and dismantling the religious and political buildings of earlier civilisations 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 constructions of ruler’s palaces in the center of new or existing cities, represent colonial urbanism at work.” In contrast, Islam’s penetration of Sub-Saharan Africa dates to around the 9th century via the Saharan caravan routes. Two strands of influence shaped Islam in West Africa. One was the link between the Maghreb and the Berber-African gold-trading centres 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 characterised by regional and ethnic variety, one unifying factor in African Islam is the predominance of the Maliki madhab – the same school of thought adhered to in the Maghreb. 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 originate from the Maghreb but the spread of the so-called turuq (Arab. ‘path’ used to describe the Sufi brotherhoods) did not happen until much later in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As the equivalent of the word “masjid ” in various African languages indicates, like its Arabic root, that the mosque is nothing more than a place of prostration: massallatai in Nigeria, 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 alone, therefore the regions covered here are primarily Senegal and Mali.
Mali was impregnated with a tradition known by the name of its dominant group, the Mande, whence Manding. Among them, those who were islamised were known as Dyula or Wangara. This group also covered a large area during their migration, spanning part of Senegal, Northern Nigeria, the Upper Niger Bend, Guinea coast and over to Kong in the Ivory Coast. Mande style is characterised 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 as 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.

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 along with 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 characterised by its 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 are very high. The western side of the mosque opens onto a large courtyard at the rear of which are situated the women’s galleries, 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 the flat roof from where the adhan is made, each mosque has its own distinctive character.Relatives of the Soudanese mosques in Mali can be found in the Futa Toro in north-eastern 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 worshippers 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.

Text by: Kafia Cantone