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The King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah. Photo credit: Christina Dimitrova

Demystifying Sharjah’s iconic King Faisal Mosque

For decades the identity of the architect behind the famous modernist structure was unknown.

It stood for decades as the country’s most iconic mosque. Yet little was known about the history or background of the King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah. Why does it bear the name of a former Saudi monarch and who was its architect?

Mine was a search that lasted months, asking around town led me nowhere. Then on July 2016 I resorted to the network power of social media and put out a request first in English, and then in Arabic asking for information on the architect of the mosque that has overlooked my window from work for 15 years. The first tweet was seen by the King Faisal Foundation which was formed in 1976 by the sons of King Faisal (1906–1975) of Saudi Arabia to further their father’s legacy. According to Justin Vela of The National “King Faisal was known for making important reforms in the kingdom including abolishing slavery and allowing women to attend school before he was assassinated by a relative in 1975.”

I got my hopes up when the King Faisal Foundation twitter account told me they will start looking in their records. However my hope turned to despair when I received the following message “Dear Sultan, we checked in our records, the magnificent King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah is not one of @_KFF_ projects” adding that “it was named after King Faisal bin Saud but the foundation had no contribution in the funding or planning process.” Back to square one.

Twenty four hours later I had a different result. The tweet was seen by a Saudi gentleman who is interested in architecture who then re-tweeted it to his Saudi followers. The request was subsequently seen by a young Saudi pilot called Jasser Al Madi who messaged me the following line “The architect (is) Abdul Rahman Abdul Hafidh Al Junaidi, a Saudi citizen, I am one hundred percent sure.” That was the first time I ever heard of that name. I sent him a direct message. “How can you be so certain?” He replied that he was friends with the architect’s grandson and that is how he knows.

The same day the Facebook message I posted alerted a friend who knew someone at the Government of Sharjah Awqaf General Trust which oversees religious structures. My friend sent me a WhatsApp message with a photo showing the name of the architect. Lo and behold, the architect’s name was indeed Abdul Rahman Abdul Hafidh Al Junaidi “عبدالرحمن عبدالحفيظ الجنيدي" from the Technical Office for Architectural & Engineering Consultancy in Riyadh. Finding the name of the architect was a huge step forward in my quest to document the modern architecture of Sharjah. However the name alone would not suffice without the background information. Who is Al Junaidi exactly?

Aviator Al Madi passed a message to the architect’s son Mohammed with whom I spoke. Mohammed, also an engineer, sent me his father’s CV. According to the document Al Junaidi, also spelt Al Janaidi, was born in Mecca in 1937 or 1938 and moved to Riyadh as an adolescent. He then left to study at the American University of Beirut in 1956. I requested to interview Abdul Rahman Al Junaidi in person and the family was kind enough to invite me over to their house in Riyadh. Every Thursday, I was told, Al Junaidi’s seven sons, his younger brother and their sons gather at his house in Al Sulaimaniya district. As my visit coincided with the weekly family gathering I was able to meet his sons and grandsons who were very helpful with filling in the gaps as Al Junaidi’s advanced age didn’t allow him to speak at length.

Upon visiting I found Al Junaidi to be a soft spoken man whose memory was good but who was happy to let his sons answer on his behalf. After asking him a question I could see him glance towards one of the sons expecting them to answer it. I ask his permission to record the conversation which he and his family granted me. Al Junaidi maintained that his government issued trade license to practice architecture was only the fifth in the entire Kingdom. According to him the four that preceded him were Arab architects from Egypt and the Levant who were allowed to obtain licenses in their names back in the 1960s effectively making him the very first licensed native Saudi architect.

On December 24th 1953 shortly after assuming the throne, King Saud of Saudi Arabia established the Ministry of Education appointing his younger brother then Prince Fahad bin Abdul Aziz as the first Minister of Education. Al Junaidi was granted a scholarship by the new ministry to study architecture which was a “rare specialty” then. “My first choice was to go to study in Cairo but because of the 1956 (Tripartite Aggression) I had to go elsewhere.” Al Junaidi spent just over one year in Beirut which in July 1958 experienced its first crisis leading to an American invasion on July 15 1958.

The Saudi government then informed all its students in Lebanon that they had to relocate elsewhere and Syria was a viable option for the then 20 year old Al Junaidi. “It was the only place I knew nearby that was teaching architecture” says Al Junaidi. His choice was Aleppo College of Engineering, later renamed Aleppo University, which was founded in 1946, the same year the French mandate ended. Al Junaidi credits his professor at Aleppo University Abdul Menem Harabli (1920–1990) as having a major influence on him. Aleppo native Harabli graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Cairo University (then known as Fuad 1st) in 1951 and obtained a PhD in Architecture from University of Rome in 1961 with a brief teaching stint in between. Harabli, considered to be amongst the first Syrians to specialise in and teach architecture, went on to design a number of public buildings, mosques and residential buildings (more about him here). Al Junaidi’s most lasting memory of Aleppo however, after the architecture, was the quality of the food there. He would be invited to Syrian homes for meals and would cook traditional Saudi dishes for his peers.

I look around the family salon as the interview proceeded and I noticed hanging on the wall opposite me a certificate issued by the Al Sadah Al Ashraf Syndicate attesting Al Junaidi to be a descendant from the family tree of Prophet Muhammad, dating back to Husayn ibn Ali. Al Junaidi was proud of this connection, “We are descendents of the Prophet” he said. When I asked him what it meant to him one of his sons interjected and said “It means you must be an example to others.” Another son then said “My father memorised the Quran when he was ten years old.” The son credits his grandfather Abdul Hafidh Al Junaidi who conducted an informal Quranic school in the Great Mosque of Mecca with his father’s education. “In those days most of the educated people came from the Hijaz and many of them studied under my grandfather.” Abdul Rahman Al Junaidi also benefitted from a formal education as he attended the Al Rahmania School which was established in 1911 under the then Sharif of Mecca Hussein bin Ali (1854–1931) and graduated in fourth place in the entire kingdom. Amongst Al Rahmania School’s graduates were King Talal of Jordan and King Ghazi of Iraq along with Dr Mohammed Said Farsi who went on to become mayor of Jeddah in 1972 as well as a major art collector.

My questions then turn to the King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah. I asked him to elaborate on the history of the mosque and how it started. One of his sons tells me that the Saudi Ministry of Finance put out a tender for a mosque that they were going to build in the emirate of Sharjah and that his father submitted a proposal. Al Junaidi then tells me “They were going to a build a mosque that bore the name of King Faisal on a road that also had the same name.” According to one of the sons the location of the mosque was slightly different as there was a plan to build a tower there but Al Junaidi requested the larger current plot and that was met with agreement from the Sharjah authorities. I then ask Al Junaidi to confirm this story and he does. King Faisal Mosque sits on Al Itihad (Union) Park, one of Sharjah’s most beautiful squares adjacent to King Faisal Street and Al Arouba Streets and overlooking the Michael Lyle designed Central Market.

The King Faisal Mosque was until the 2007 opening of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, designed by Syrian Yusef Abdelki of Halcrow Group, the largest in the UAE. The mosque in Sharjah was inaugurated on Friday 23 January 1987 after more than two years of construction in which Al Junaidi flew back and forth from Riyadh working from his Sharjah office nearby. Two minarets sit atop the mosque that measure 70 meters in height while 16,670 people can pray inside the mosque that measures 12,000 square metres in area. According to Al Bayan newspaper the cost of constructing the mosque then was AED 37 million (US$10 million) which in 2017 dollars terms would be more than double. The mosque also served a number of functions. Yasin Kakande from The National writes “(t)he second floor is occupied by the Sharjah Department of Islamic Affairs and Awqaf, including offices and a general library” adding that “(t)he library contains about 7,000 books on Islamic history and thought, and the modern books of Hadith and Sharia, plus scientific, literary and cultural works.”

My questions turn to the design of King Faisal Mosque. I asked about the large courtyard in the centre of the mosque which I was told was part of traditional Islamic design. Then one of the sons who worked with the father stated “Another thing are the pillars. My father always emphasised on the importance of pillars in mosques and criticised ones that did not have pillars inside them.” I turn to Al Junaidi and ask him why is that so and he replied “To make rows.” Muslims are required to stand in rows when praying in mosques and these pillars act as a measure of guidance especially in larger mosques so that people make sure their lines are straight enough. I ask Al Junaidi about simplicity in the mosque and the lack of patterns and designs that are more common in mosques today and he replies “There should not be anything that distracts worshippers from their prayers” he continued “Worshippers go to mosques to perform their duties towards God.”

Amongst the projects that Al Junaidi designed are the Dallah Hospital in Riyadh which opened in 1987 and the headquarters of the Saudi Ports Authority which was founded in 1976. It was however the 1985 constructed Ports Authority building that still stands as a testament to Al Junaidi’s ingenuity. Al Junaidi was confronted with a dual challenge, on one hand the Planning Department told him that the building could not exceed five stories so it does not look taller than a nearby government building and to conform to height restrictions. On the other hand he was being urged by the Ports Authority, the building’s eventual occupiers, to add as many floors and floor-space as possible. Al Junaidi’s solution to this dilemma was both architecturally relevant and intelligent. His solution came from drawing inspiration from the twenty-foot equivalent unit shipping containers that the Ports Authority would oversee. He stacked his architectural “containers” on top of each other almost like a “Jenga tower” (Herzog & de Meuron would attempt a similar idea in Manhattan thirty years later). At first glance the building’s appearance gives the impression that it is indeed a five story building, however Al Junaidi takes advantage of the horizontal gaps between the building’s “containers” to install five or so non-descript additional floors thereby satisfying the client’s need. A member of the family also points out that viewed from certain angles the building resembles an approaching container ship. Eager to learn about the process of his work I ask Al Junaidi if it was a team of his architects who designed the Ports Authority building but he confirms that he himself had done so with the assistance of a team member called Ahmed Al Shami.

Other major projects Al Junaidi worked include the Ministry of Finance building in Riyadh, a military museum and the capital’s Central Hospital. His sons tell me that the dearth of qualified Saudi engineers increased the chances that his father would win government issued tenders to design buildings. One of his engineer sons told me that his father worked diligently on projects around the clock, “I worked with him, sometimes projects would be unrecognisable to me merely a month after my father starts the design process.”

I understood from them that Al Junaidi’s office was active for 40 years and closed down during the reign of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (2005–2015). I ask Al Junaidi what was his most preferred project that he worked on. A smile emerges on his face and he utters the word “al Kalaboosh.” In fact I understood the word but I needed to double check. The Kalaboosh is a word commonly used in the Gulf to denote prison. Most use it as the verb kalbesh to say that a person has been handcuffed. Kalaboosh’s origin lies in the English word calaboose, the French version calabouse and the Spanish calabozo which means “dungeon.” I wanted to make sure I got it right so I look around towards the sons for confirmation and one says “Detention.” “Prison?” I ask. “It’s not a normal prison, it had a different design” the son replied. I understood that there are no photos available of the building and that all one could see are two towers from afar and that it was a political prison. “It’s not right to call it a jail, we prefer to call it a guest house” said one son. Al Junaidi tells me that he was given leeway to choose the location of the building from within a vast area of 6 million square metres and that he chose it to be overlooking a valley. “No one should be able to enter it” Al Junaidi said.

According to his sons the father travelled abroad including to Malta to visit other similar projects as he didn't know much about this type of building which is what led him to eventually open an office on the island. I ask Al Junaidi why he enjoyed working on the “guest house” project so much and he said it was because it was a very large project that contained many different smaller projects within including a clinic, conjugal housing units and other facilities. In fact Al Junaidi ended up buying a farm near the project where he spent a lot of time. I then change the subject and ask about his book collection. Al Junaidi’s brother who worked with him told me about his library that was composed of books on politics and architecture including of prisons and said that he bought many of them when he travelled especially from Cairo’s Ezbekiya book market.

King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah is by no means the only mosque outside Saudi Arabia that bears the monarch’s name. In 1986 Pakistan inaugurated a King Faisal Mosque also funded by the government of Saudi Arabia. According to the King Khalid bin Abdul Aziz Database, King Faisal visited Islamabad in 1966 to attend an Islamic summit when “he found that there was no remarkable mosque” he suggested to the Pakistani hosts to fund the construction of a fitting place of worship. A competition was launched in 1969 and it was won by Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay who at one point served as mayor of Ankara. Construction of the King Faisal Mosque in Islamabad began in 1976 and ended a decade later at a cost of $120 million (more about the mosque here). There are other mosques around the world that bear the name of the same Saudi monarch including one in the Guinean capital Conakry considered to be the largest in West Africa.

During my research about King Faisal Mosque I came across an interview with a Saudi editor who appealed to the King Faisal Foundation to underwrite an “enhancement” of the mosque’s facilities. He also called on the walls to be covered with marble “like other mosques in Sharjah.” The editor requested them to add “beautification features” such as covering its walls with Islamic gypsum decorations as well as enclosing the foyer with embroidered glass. While his call for maintenance and restoration touches is valid any radical alterations would compromise the spirit and integrity of the building. After all, Al Junaidi’s minimanlist design shunned embellishment and lavishness for a particular purpose. He saw such ornamentation as a distraction from the basic function of a mosque, to serve as a place of prayer and reflection. It is therefor essential to understand the rational behind an architect’s plan prior to embarking on any drastic changes to their projects lest they have unintended consequences. For instance, modernist buildings in the UAE that had been cladded with cast stone resulted in a noticeable reduction in natural light.

Thirty years after its construction Sharjah’s King Faisal Mosque remains one of the city’s and the country’s most iconic structures. Al Junaidi’s modernist touches sets it apart not only in Sharjah but also across the UAE. It is as though the more time passes the more timeless it becomes.

Correction: A previous version of this essay mistalkenly attributed the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu to Mr Al Junaidi. However the structure was designed by Zuhair Fayez Partnership. Thanks to Hisham Malaika for spotting the mistake and alerting me.

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