On Cavalry Road, Mughalpura

On Cavalry Road, Mughalpura

by Ahmad Rafay Alam

We all know mosques are places of worship. But occasionally stepping outside the confines of this limited relationship can be rewarding. Few see mosques as anything other than places of worship. But, as a type of structure, I wager there are more mosques in Pakistan than any other type of structure. At no time – readers, especially urban based readers, can try this experiment for themselves – is one outside the sight or sound of these ubiquitous places of God.

For this reason, mosques are the most dominant characteristic of our built environment. Yet most of the people I mention this to don’t seem to get the point, nor do some of the architects I know: From a real estate development of construction point of view, I would think that mosques would be the first thing young architects would get themselves busy with. Demand is high, so the potential of work opportunities that build and develop a profile of related work would appear unlimited. Yet how many architects or developers specialize in the mosque business, so to speak?

One of the reasons for this, I have been told, is that mosque construction and design isn’t considered attractive work. Most mosques are small affairs, and the client – and by client I mean the person or community that’s actually footing the bill for its construction – is more interested in cutting costs than, say, re-interpreting the symmetry of the Al-hambra.

Whatever the reasons for this, mosque design and construction in Pakistan appears to be outside the architect’s realm. The architect seems more at ease designing a high-rise or farm-house. Or school. But not mosques. Because architects are largely removed from the design of mosques, the position has been taken up by the contractor or, in some cases, by the client.

The most obvious type of mosque design is the Moghul Mosque. It has familiar features. A curved, almost onion shaped dome, minarets and, quite often, an open courtyard. A perfect example of the Moghul Mosque is the Badshahi mosque. Or the mosque inside Aitchison College.

Over Badshahi Mosque

I was taken on a charter flight over Lahore earlier this year – an experience I recommend to everyone – and got this shot of the Badshahi Mosque proudly exhibiting its characteristics.

Modern versions of the Moghul mosque are rare. I can think of only a handful of mosques in Lahore that boast a curved dome. I have been informed one possible reason for this is that most contractors lack the complex knowledge of engineering required to construct onion shaped domes. Skill comes at cost, and onion shaped domes, I am told, are also expensive to commission. Whatever the reason, whenever I spot one, I tend to marvel at the labor of love a new Moghul Mosque must have been. MashAllah, so to speak.


MashAllah - an modern onion-shaped dome on a mosque on the Ferozepur Road

Martand Khosla described this as a "Cone-Dome"

MashAh-oops - an example of some of the problems that come up in the execution of an onion-shaped dome (mosque in the National Engineering Works area behind the Shalimar Gardens). My friend Martand Khosla described this as a "Cone-Dome"

In contrast to the Moghul Mosque is what I call the Masjid ul Nabwi mosque. Like the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina, these mosques boast a signature green dome and single minaret. The most prominent example I can think of a Masjid ul Nabwi mosque is the Masjid e Khizria at the intersection of Lahore’s Mall and Canal intersection. This mosque, a well known encroachment, was, according to a 1927 Survey Map of India that I have, once the shrine of Hazrat Baba Hazarwala. But that survey map also tells me there was a protected forest near Kot Lakhpat. The forces that continue to morph and change our cities are too powerful to be moved by sentimentality or nostalgia.


A classic portrait of Masjid ul Nabawi in Medina, prominent are the green dome and single minaret

A Masjid-ul-Nabawi style mosque on Lahore's Mall Road

A Masjid-ul-Nabawi style mosque on Lahore's Mall Road

The reason the Masjid ul Nabawi style mosque have the type of dome design they do is because of the dome design of the Masjid ul Nabawi in Medina. At the time that dome design was finalized in the 12th century – and by all accounts it was as technically advanced in design as anything else seen in the region – Arab masons had not yet mastered the science of the curved dome. That achievement was claimed by the Great Moghul, who perfected it in the execution of such memorable structures as the Taj Mahal or the Jama Masjid.

The Dome + 1 Minaret formula is a popular one. Perhaps because of increasing influence of Arab traditions in Pakistan. Perhaps because of the aesthetic. In the contractor-run world of mosque building, this theme is paramount, cuts across the major differences I am pointing out and has been played out in many a subtle permutation.

I have also noticed that, in the Cantonment and DHA areas, mosque design is much different. Obviously, the money to construct these houses of worship comes from the deep pockets of our armed forces, may Allah bless them. If, therefore, there is exception to my general rule that the mosque architecture business isn’t a lucrative one, this is it. If mosque design has changed at all in Pakistan, it has done so most notably in these areas. As a result, in these military areas we find examples of what I call the Military Mosque.

I suspect it is the relative secularism of the armed forces that have freed them from dutiful observance of Mogul or Arab design. Also, when architects are given the liberty of designing a mosque, the idea of incorporating old ideas into new must be attractive. Sometimes, as a result, we get modern mosques shorn of some of the ornamentation found on mosques outside the Cantonment.


Detail of façade ornamentation –mosque on Rajgarh Road near Chauburji


Entrance of same mosque, Rajgarh Road


Entrance of mosque in Krishanagar

If anything, the Military Mosque is a simplification of the dome and minaret elements of the mosque. Examples of the mosques opposite Fortress Stadium, the mosque inside the Cantonment Board Office and on the intersection of Abid Majid and Sarwar Road.

On Shami Road, Lahore Cantonment

Opposite Fortress Stadium, on Shami Road

Mosque in Cantonment Board Office premises

Note the blue dome and single minaret ala Masjid ul Nabawi (Mosque inside Cantonment Board Office

Sarwar Road mosque

Sarwar Road mosque

My super-cool architect friend Martand Khosla’s father, the uber-cool Indian architect Romi Khosla once told me that the clutter and ornamentation outside a mosque was inversely proportional to the authoritarian elements found propagated inside a mosque. This may well be so, but Romi is an Indian and a Hindu. His comments about mosques in Pakistan may be considered by the more cynical amongst us to be about as off-the-mark as those of a lawyer speaking about architecture!


Minimalist design of Masjid ul Nabawi mosque, Phase V, DHA

Nonetheless, some modern mosque architecture in areas run by the military is downright, well, military. In Phase V, Defence, several mosques have been constructed that look like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and a .202 cartridge.

Mosque in Phase V, DHA

Mosque in Phase V, DHA

Other than the Moghul Mosque, the Masjid ul Nabawi mosque and the Military Mosque, the last category of mosque design I have been able to discern in the built environment is what I used to call the two –dimensional, or 2-D, mosque. A perfect example of such a place of worship is on along one of the walls in the Moghulpura Railways Workshop area. Here, the dome and minaret elements of a mosque are depicted on nothing more than a boundary wall – in two dimensions.


Two dimensional place of worship in the Moghulpura Railway Workshops area (notice the real dome on the other side of the wall)

At first, I believed the 2-D Mosque was a product of necessity. Of un-scalable walls or illogical building regulations. It was only later I realized that a better categorization of such sacrifice of form to function would be The Poor Man’s Mosque.

The Poor Man’s Mosque can be located anywhere and offer the devout ample opportunity to fulfill their obligations to the Almighty. Most notably and because, no doubt, of budget constraints, these constructions pay only formal notice to the dome and minaret. Often, because of its expense and complexity, the dome is sacrificed entirely. In its place is a façade with several miniature minarets – what my friend amusingly Martand Khosla coined Mini-rets.

Yet whatever the intent behind their design outside or dogma inside, mosque architecture in Pakistan, though not in the hands of trained architects, is fast developing a vocabulary of its own. It is a shame the liberal elite is so dismissive of the Islamic culture that connects every Pakistani to another. Perhaps an appreciation of the unskilled and semi-skilled labor that went in to designing these magnificent structures would be the first of many steps in the right direction.

(An edited version of this article was published in The Friday Times)

2 responses to “Mosquarade!

  1. Great piece, Rafay.

  2. Interesting observations. They are really all over the Place. Some of us are quite aware of this though. Being an architect I can tell you that the number of maulvis approaching architects to build a mosque is the same as ones who walked into your office asking about their carbon footprint. We have offered no-profit services for mosques for decades and still people wont show up! A more interesting question is ‘who determines that a mosque is required at a particular location and how do they approach this decision?’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s