Al-Shafi’i mosque as the ancient mosque of Jeddah

By Spahic Omer

Al-Shafi’i mosque is the oldest mosque in Jeddah. Hence, it is called “the ancient mosque”. It is also one of the biggest, most important and most beautiful mosques. It is the only genuine example of the hypostyle mosque in the city.

Some believe that its establishment dates as far back as to the reign of Caliph ‘Umar b. al-Khattab, an assertion that ‘Abd al-Quddus al-Ansari seriously questions and rejects. Not only this mosque, but also any other mosque in Jeddah could not have been built by Caliph ‘Umar, because Jeddah as a city rose to prominence only after him when the third Caliph ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan converted it into the port of Makkah.

The mosque is located in Harah al-Mazlum (al-Mazlum quarter) along one of the two main East-West commercial axes, Suq al-Jumu’ah, on which the main southern entrance of the mosque opens. Adjacent to the mosque from the west there are goldsmiths and old silverware makers. From the east, there is textile and clothing market, known historically as the Bedouin market.

The southern side of the mosque with its main entrance

It has been documented that the mosque was originally built by King al-Muzaffar Sulayman of Yemen in 1250. He was from the Ayyub dynasty in Yemen who followed the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence (law), and on this basis the mosque was named as such. Needless to say that by analogy with many other ancient mosques in Islamic civilisation, another smaller and simpler mosque might have existed at the same location before King al-Muzaffar Sulayman. It might yet have carried the same name.

The mosque was then rebuilt completely, except the minaret, in 1539 by an Indian merchant named Khawaja Muhammad Ali, who transported the finest timber and carved wooden columns from Yemen for the purpose. The mosque has just been renovated during the rule of the late Saudi King Abdullah.

The mosque’s ground level is significantly below the street level on account of its ancientry. While everything around it continued to develop and change over ages, the mosque remained faithful to its original conception, design and plan. 

The mosque is built mainly of coral stone (Manqabi) and wood. It consists of a hypostyle hall supported by columns and an inner courtyard paved with white marble slabs. The courtyard is surrounded on four sides by arcades.

On the front qiblah side there is a main prayer hall. It has two rows of wooden columns whose bases are of coral stone as well. The columns form three arcades that run parallel to the qiblah. The third row of columns, which are plastered and most probably made of coral stone too, signifies a separation point between the hall and the courtyard.

The qiblah side with the mihrab and minbar

The columns support the flat wooden roof with the intermediary of semi-circular arches. For extra support and durability, the columns are interconnected on all sides with a network of wooden beams.

The roof over the mihrab bay is slightly raised and is covered with a gable roof. Its raised section is perforated with windows that let additional natural light shine through. There are twelve such windows.

Moreover, above the middle bay of the second arcade, just behind the mihrab bay, a medium-size wooden dome is erected. In volume it corresponds with the raised wooden gable roof over the mihrab bay. It rests upon an octagonal drum that is perforated with sixteen windows, two windows for every side.

The purpose of this dome is similar to the raised gable roof over the mihrab area. It is intended to boost the environmental performance of the mosque, in terms of lighting and ventilation. The location of the dome is such that it occupies the central position in the main prayer hall. Its setting as well as outline were premeditated. They were meant to suggest its centrality.

The inner courtyard is flanked by two arcades, or cloisters, one on each side. There the wooden roof is supported by tall wooden columns, three columns for each arcade, six in total. The roof rests directly on the columns without the intermediary of arches. For additional strength, the columns are connected with each other and with the neighbouring walls by means of wooden beams.

On top of these wooden columns there are flat wooden corbels, or brackets, that provide additional support for the roof. They extend to four directions, creating what resembles crosses. Those devices have four arms of equal length, one of them extending freely outside into the courtyard space. It does not support any roof or superstructure. It looks rather unusual as such.

The devices are completely and elaborately decorated. Their woodcarving is of the highest quality. The same could be neither conceived nor executed locally per se. It represents a foreign influence.

On closer inspection, the intricate and stylish wooden devices, together with the wooden columns they cap, bear a resemblance to the beautifully hand-carved wooden columns that feature similar intricate detailing and which can be found especially in Kerala, India. An example is the wooden columns topped with similar decorative and functional devices that can be found in Thazhathangady Juma Masjid in Kerala, India, near the town of Kottayam. It is one of the oldest mosques in India and is more than 1000 years old.

This evidences the remnants of the Indian influence that al-Shafi’i mosque was displaying ever since Khawaja Muhammad Ali had rebuilt it. Initially, such influence and its media were more abundant and more conspicuous, so much so that formerly much of the mosque might have had “a distinctive Indian character”.

The rear section of the mosque has two full and two partial arcades. Its piers, rather than columns, are plastered and made in all probability of coral stone. Some of its spaces are organised differently and are designated for different functions. For instance, one part of it is assigned for an office. Another part, veiled with drapes, is designated for women to pray, especially in Ramadan. However, during the Friday Jumu’ah prayer, the same space is used by men.

The latter part of this section is slightly raised above the standard level of the mosque. That could be owing to the different mosque functions in that area, or owing to a slope towards that side which the plan and design of the mosque needed to overcome. Still part of this rear segment, there is a residential building. It is part of an endowment that belongs to the mosque.

The mosque is crenelated. Its walls are more than one meter thick. The walls are regularly recessed in order to reduce their weight. Windows are fitted into those often arched recesses that extend almost up to the ceiling. Other windowless recesses function either as multipurpose shelves or are mere ornamental niches. The coral stone walls have intermittent bonding wood courses of teak (gandal as courses, and taklilah as a process). They provide extra strength and vibrancy to the walls.

The mihrab is a semi-circular niche covered with an arched hood. Even though protruding somewhat from the external wall, it still performs a structural function as the rest of recesses. Next to it stands a minbar (pulpit) which, too, is a recess. One goes up to the platform of the minbar climbing a flight of stairs that wind around a column inside the recess. The column at once separates and supports the recess, dividing it into two arched sections. The parapet that encloses the platform is made of wooden balusters. They tone in well with the rest of the mosque’s wooden components.

The hood of the mihrab and the areas above it are richly decorated using combinations of different calligraphic styles, geometric patterns and floral designs. The area and its decorative styles and themes form a convoluted and fragmented arabesque.

It is interesting to note that as a border between the mihrab’s niche and its hood, there is a horizontal band of calligraphy that depicts a hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) where he is reported to have said: “Certainly, people will desist from neglecting performing prayers in congregation, or else I will surely burn their houses” (Sunan Ibn Majah).

Indeed, the inscription is both functional and artistic, but it apparently inclines more to the former than to the latter. There is no other mosque that features this particular hadith either for the purpose of mere decoration or to remind people about the importance of congregational prayers.

Moreover, on top of the mihrab frame, there is a fine-art calligraphic inscription that features the text of the Muslim most fundamental article of faith: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger”.

The text is inscribed firstly naturally frontwards, and then in reverse, forming in this manner an image. The image is rendered in such a way that it represents a mosque with six minarets. Four minarets have three balconies each, and two minarets two balconies each.

This proves one of the Ottoman influences in the mosque, for it was the Ottomans who were known for writing calligraphy inversely as part of their artistic penchant. The depicted mosque with six pencil-shaped minarets could mean only one thing: the Sultan Ahmet mosque, or the Blue mosque, in Istanbul. It may also proudly connote the monumental and imperial mosque architecture of the Ottomans in general.

One of the calligraphic inscriptions above the mihrab reveals some details about the mosque’s history associated with the Ottomans; as does another calligraphic inscription above one of the mosque’s main doorways.

Although many people regard the mihrab frame’s decoration as unique and beautiful, further scrutiny confirms that it appears otherwise. Obviously, the decoration scheme is not original. It does not match the total background and the soothing atmosphere of the mosque. There is a considerable degree of incongruity between the two.

While the mosque is completely natural, serene, plain and spontaneous, with its naturalness and simplicity being its most conspicuous adornment, the decoration in question, on the other hand, seems to be the opposite: uncommon, unforeseen, startling, invading and clearly imposed. It is entirely Ottoman. It was one of the ways of the Ottomans to affect such an important mosque with the tinges of their administrative presence and authority, and of course of their architectural and artistic proclivities.

The interior of the main prayer hall

The mosque has four entrances, plus a small entrance for women at the back. The doors are made of wood. The door of the main entrance on the southern side is massive and includes for decoration purposes some elaborate geometric and floral designs. This entrance is so grand that it stands for an iwan with a formal gateway called pishtaq. Other entrances are much simpler portals. 

Adjoining the mosque on this southern side especially, there always were shops that constituted part of an endowment for the mosque and were part of the mosque’s self-sufficiency drive. However, those shops were removed in the course of the latest Saudi restoration exercise. Today, there are only a handful of shops attached to the mosque towards the western end of the southern side that operate for the same purpose.

The mosque has one minaret at its south-western corner. It is a massive and thick structure displaying proudly coral stone as its building material. It has two balconies, or galleries, with wooden parapets. They are supported by plain muqarnas.

At the bottom, the minaret’s shaft is square. It then turns octagonal up to the cap and the head. The balconies and their muqarnas are also octagonal. After the first balcony, the shaft slightly gets narrower. The second balcony represents the end of the shaft, which is then topped by an elongated cap or head. Unlike the mosque itself, in quite a few different ways the minaret became a standard setter for many future minarets in Jeddah.

The minaret is relatively tall, but not taller than most of the adjacent residential buildings. They are of virtually equal height. That is so because of the friendly and harmonious coexistence between the architectural expressions and functions of houses and mosques in the city.

Furthermore, the issue of privacy and how minarets are not supposed to invite or facilitate the prospect of invading people’s privacy in their houses, played a role. Towards the same end of privacy protection, most minarets had two balconies. Using them, in the main, needed to be flexible and non-invading.

Minarets and how they are used must be an advantage, in lieu of becoming a disadvantage. Let’s recall that at times and under certain circumstances in the history of Islamic civilisation some scholars went so far as to propose that only blind persons should climb minarets and call for prayers. Only that way endangering people’s privacy will not be risked.

Equally extraordinary was calling for and even destroying minarets that posed a “serious danger” for privacy, as the Umayyad Caliph Sulayman b. ‘Abd al-Malik did to one of the four newly introduced minarets to the architecture of the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah.

The mosque’s ablution area and toilets are completely separated from the mosque proper. They are on the northern side. The mosque also caters to the needs of the disabled persons and such as use wheelchairs. Their adequate facilities are provided at one of the northern entrances.

Previously, the mosque had a huge water reservoir. Its construction dated back to King al-Muzaffar Sulayman himself. It was in operation well into the last century.

As part of the latest renovation of the mosque, the main prayer hall and the rear section have been separated by a glass wall. They are now independent enclosures. They are ventilated and cooled by a mechanical air conditioning system.

This, however, does an injustice to the mosque. That is, firstly, because in doing so the mosque is being fragmented and some of its underlining concepts and functions distorted.

Secondly, as an organic hypostyle mosque with a vast central courtyard, a dome, a raised section of the roof, and a complex system of windows and other apertures, the mosque constantly functioned as a perfect mechanism for lighting, cooling and ventilation. It was designed to get the most out of what the natural world has to offer. As an epitome of sustainability, it was to capitalise on the advantages, and repel the disadvantages, of its surrounding ecosystem.

However, by tampering with the mosque’s intrinsic disposition, value and physical configuration, people demonstrated their insensitivity towards the meaning and worth of tradition and traditional ways of doing things. They also showed that they still lack what it takes to forge a peaceful and harmonious relationship between tradition and modernity.

Indeed, overly stereotyping and even stigmatising tradition; failing to shrewdly connect either with tradition or modernity, and failing to see how the two can amalgamate and form a holistic model; having recourse to and imposing sheer mechanisation and artificial solutions on whatever does not fit the modern-day tastes and moulds; etc. – none of these are the steps in the right direction.

(This article is an excerpt from the author’s current research book project titled “The relationship between tradition and modernity in Islamic architecture: the case of Jeddah”) ***

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