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7-10-2015, 07:07

Mosque, Sub-Saharan: Art and Architecture of

The aesthetic features of the Sub-Sahara mosque owe their origins to three primary religious, cultural, and historical interpretations. First, the institution of the Friday congregational prayer, a legal Islamic requirement for all men. Second, the efficacy of vernacular building traditions, especially in relation to the Muslim Mande, Fulani, and Hausa. These three ethnolingustic groups are among the dominant Muslim populations who inhabit Sub-Sahara West Africa; they were most influential and played an active role in the cultural web of interactions, trade, diaspora, and the early nineteenth-century jihad movements.

The third explanation is more closely related to the history of Sub-Saharan medieval dynasties, that is, the Ghana, Mali, Songhay dynasties, and the later nineteenth-century Sokoto and Tukulor Caliphates. Each dynasty played host to the formation of architectural traditions in Sub-Sahara Africa. During the reign of Mansa Musa, the fourteenth-century ruler of Mali best known for his pilgrimage (hajj) to Makkah, Arabia (1324-1325), religious and educational buildings were constructed at Gao and Timbuktu. Upon his return to Mali, Mansa Musa brought an entourage of scholars from the Muslim world, among whom was an Andalusian architect and poet, Ibn Ishaq as-Sahili (d.1346 in Mali). As-Sahili is reputed to have introduced a “Sudanese” style of architecture in West Africa through the commissions granted to him by Mansa Musa. Scholars have since expressed doubt as to whether the architectural works of as-Sahili were single-handedly achieved.

A number of indigenous factors have contributed to the formation of the Sub-Sahara mosque in general and the aesthetic nuances that we find in the Mande, Fulani, and Hausa mosques in particular.

The Mande Mosque

The Mande, and in particular the Dyula, carried Islam southward from the northern savannah to the forest verges in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. They also carried the basic forms of the hypo-style mosque that can be found at Timbuktu, Djenne, Mopti, and San (Mali); Bobo Dialasso (Upper Volta); Kong and Kawara (Cote d’Ivoire); and Larabanga (northern Ghana). These religious edifices are a particular style of rectangular clay building, hypo-style in plan, and uniquely idiomatic in their exterior character. Formal modifications occur in the features of the mosque as it travels from north to south, from Timbuktu to the Cote d’Ivoire and northern Ghana; these modifications pertain to size scale, structure, construction details, and variations in the plan.

Compacted earth construction is used consistently with lateral timber members to reinforce the exterior walls. Protruding timber members also act as scaffolding. The exterior walls are also strengthened by buttressing or with vertical ribs. The ribs also give the appearance of decorative crenellations, termite mounds, or ancestral pillars of varying size as they terminate at the parapet. Wider ribs on the exterior facade and in the center of the qibla-wall correspond to minarets. The flat roofs are reinforced with wooden joists; this is where the muadhhin stands to summon the faithful to prayer (adhan). The courtyard (sahn) is quite small or virtually nonexistent in Sub-Sahara mosques.

The Mande distinguish three functional types of mosques: (1) the seritongo used by individuals or small groups of Muslims for daily prayers, simply an area of ground marked off by stones; (2) the misijidi (masjid), missiri, or buru serves several households for their daily prayers or for Friday prayers; (3) the jamiu, juma, or missiri-jamiu used for Friday prayers, which serves the large community.

The Fulani Mosque at Dingueraye Amid the fervor of the nineteenth-century jihad movement in the Futa Jalon, Guinea, a unique idiom and expression of mosque architecture was born. The Fulani mosque at Dingueraye is linked to Al Hajj Umar’s (Umar ibn Uthman al-Futi al-Turi al Kidiwi, 17941864) stay at Dingueraye from 1849 to 1853 and served one of the principal functions of a ribat, a place from which the abode of Islam (dar-al-Islam) might expand.

The Fulani mosque at Dingueraye was the first instance in which the nomadic tent and the organization of nomadic space lent themselves with the greatest of ease to a new mode of spatial orientation. Two modes of spatial orientation are evident: The first is an ambulatory space that surrounds a cube building, the actual mosque. The outer layer of the spatial enclosure is very much like the Fulani sedentary hut enclosed by a palisade wall, which demarcates an edge. In the nomadic tradition this circular space is quite evident. According to local custom at Digueraye this outer layer is changed every seven years, at which time an elaborate ceremony is held for the occasion.

The second layer of space is the cube itself, which has heavy earthen walls and an earthen ceiling supported by rows of columns. A central post supports the exterior roof structure from within the cube, like a great big tree it radiates to its outer roof. But the central post, the perimeter columns, and the thatched roof dome are structurally separate from the earthen cube within.

The mosque at Mamou and Dabola, Guinea, also has central posts that support the roof of the cube. Its inner cube has singular openings in the perimeter wall very much like the openings in Umar’s sketch. The position of the central post at Dingueraye and Mamou also approximates to the central element in Umar’s diagram. These spatial patterns, the elements they employ, and the image they convey can be described simply as cultural metaphors. They are also concrete renditions of Fulani spatial concepts.

The Hausa Mosque at Zaria

The mosque at Zaria was built at the end of a period of puritanical fever (jihad) and reform, and during a period of religious formation wherein the Sokoto caliphate united the Hausa states under the leadership of Uthman ibn Fodio. In the post-jihad period the ascetic scholars mainly favored the building of mosques.

None of the earlier works of Babban Gwani, a great master builder, match the architectural vitality and structural vocabulary of the vault in the Zaria mosque. However, it is very unlikely that the Babban Gwani actually invented the Hausa vault, but there is no doubt that he made the greatest and boldest use of the vault. It is very likely that Katsina, being at the forefront of Hausa custom and civilization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had developed the vault principles in reinforced earth technology. However, there are hardly any extant pre-jihad structures to support this hypothesis.

Professor Labelle Prussin argues that the vault is actually a synthesis of the Fulani tent armature, which was developed using Hausa skills in earth construction. The Hausa vault and dome are based on a completely different structural principle from the North African, Roman-derived stone domes. On the other hand, the Hausa domes incorporate, in nascent form, the same structural principles that govern reinforced concrete design. The bent armature in tension takes the horizontal thrust normally resisted by buttresses and tension rods and interacts with the compressive quality of earth. It was the development of this technology that permitted the transplantation of the symbolic imagery of Islam and in turn created a unique Fulani-derived architecture.

The increase in earth arch construction was particularly innovative in the post-jihad mosque at Zaria and the palaces of the period. The earth-reinforced pillars and the reinforced Hausa vaults are no commonplace construction. Very few pre-jihad buildings exhibit the structural solutions to an architectural problem of earth construction over such large spans. A more obvious solution can be found in the hypo-style mosques of Bauchi, or the Shehu mosque, Sokoto. Instead, given the program to provide a liturgical space, Babban Gwani in his organizing principle of geometry and structure derived a much more sophisticated and less formal plan than the hypo-style hall.

In determining the ceiling-type for a given building, the importance of the building, followed by the status of the patron, is brought together with the skill of the master mason. In context, a radical departure seems to have occurred from the simple trabeated type of construction which we find in the Shehu’s mosque, the Kazuare mosque, and the Bauchi mosque, all built roughly in the same period (1820s) and the much later Zaria mosque (1836). The post and beam structure used to support short spans is quite commonly used in the earlier mosques, that is, Bauchi, and Shehu. They share a tradition with the Mande mosques of Mali and northern Ghana.

Akel Ismail Kahera

Further Reading

David, N. “The Fulani Compound and the Archaeologist.” World Archaeology. 3, no. 2 (October 1971): 111-131.

Denyer, S. African Traditional Architecture. New York: Heineman, 1978.


Engestrom, T. “Origin of Pre-Islamic Architecture in West Africa.” Ethnos. 24 (1959): 64-69.

Gardi, R. Indigenous African Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973.

Leary, A. H. “A Decorated Palace in Kano.” AARP. (December 1977): 11-17.

Moughtin, J. C. Hausa Architecture. London: Ethnographica, 1985.

Moughtin, J. C., and A. J. Leary. “Hausa Mud Mosque.” Architectural Review. 137/818 (February 1965): 155-158.

Prussin, L. “The Architecture of Islam in West Africa.” African Arts. 1, no. 2 (1968).

-. “Fulani-Hausa Architecture: Genesis of a Style.”

African Arts. 10, no. 1 (October 1976): 8-19; 97-98.

-. Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa. Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1986.

-. “Islamic Architecture in West Africa: The Foulbe and

Manding Models.” VIA. 5 (1982): 52-69; 106-107.

Saad, H. T. “Between Myth and Reality: The Aesthetics of Traditional Architecture in Hausaland.” Ph. D. diss., University of Michigan, 1981.