by Mohamed Elshahed and Priyani Roy Choudhury
Islam has a long history in West Africa that goes back to the tenth century when it gained momentum in the region. Architectural evidence of a vibrant Muslim culture in West Africa remain today such as the 13th century Larabanga Mosque in Ghana and the 12th century mosques and associated buildings such as Madrasas and the university of Timbuktu in Mali. Additionally, there is architectural evidence of more recent evolutions of Islam in the region such as the Afro-Brazilian mosques built in the early twentieth century along the coast of West Africa in Benin and Nigiria by returning descendants of freed slaves (1). However, there is a new layer of architectural evidence of Islam in contemporary West Africa that begs for further research and examination. Along the roads linking the coastal cities with the hinterland of Togo, Benin and Ghana are hundreds of small single-room mosques, sometimes clusters of mosques, built in villages across the vast landscape of West Africa’s hinterlands.
Entangled Histories: The Great Mosque of Porto-Novo, Benin
The Great Mosque of Porto-Novo stands as an extraordinary testimony to the complex layers of Islamic heritage in the regions of West Africa and to the history of the coastal cities along the Bight of Benin. It offers a glimpse into a region embedded in the history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, of shifting identities shaped by a crisscrossed network of people, cultures, religions and colonial powers. Through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these coastal cities served as departure points for ships laden with palm oil and kernels bound for South America, in particular Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, along with their human ‘cargo’. More importantly these cities, spread across Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana, served as ports of return for freed slaves from Brazil towards the end of the nineteenth century. Some suggest that the impetus behind this reverse transportation lay in one of the most significant uprisings that took place in Bahia in 1835 in the month of Ramadan (2). Known as the Malê Revolt (malê was a term used for Muslims in Bahia), this uprising was led by freed slaves many of whom were Muslims of Yoruba and Hausa ethnicities. The revolt was violently suppressed but led to the deportation of a large number of those suspected of involvement back to West Africa, in order to prevent further uprisings. The coastal cities where most of the returnees settled became centers of new trans-continental identities and cultural affiliations broadly termed ‘Afro-Brazilian’. This vibrant amalgam of Luso-American, West African and colonial diversities in speech, clothing, rituals, food, lifestyles and architecture infused the cities of the ‘Slave Coast’ with a character markedly different from the cities of the hinterland. (3)
The Great Mosque of Porto-Novo was built sometime between 1912–35. It was modeled on the Central Mosque of Lagos, and was probably constructed by the same master masons. Made according to a simple cross plan of a chapel, the building comprises of a long central hall aligned towards the qibla wall, with a shallow vaulted roof and two flanking bays. Such is its surface resemblance to the seventeenth and eighteenth century churches of Bahia, that many travelogues erroneously call it a church that was later converted into a mosque. The color palate of bright yellow, brown, green, blue too are reminiscent of the historic architecture of Bahia. The exterior of the qibla wall is an impressively decorated façade, covered with floral, vegetal and scrolled stucco moldings, superposed with intricate tiers of pilasters that support a triangular pediment. A decorative pinnacle mounted with a crescent and star finial crowns the structure. Two square towers, each similarly surmounted by a crescent and star finial, are apposed to each side of the eastern facade. The western façade, decorated with the same dynamic intricacies of pilasters and stucco motifs as its fellow, is divided into two stories crowned by an ornamented high central gable. The upper story of the western section forms a gallery that overlooks the central hall of the mosque. Arched windows and doors with running moldings cover the two main facades, and the sides of the mosque. The flower and leaf motif found on the woodwork as well as in stucco are peculiar to Afro-Brazilian architectures of the region, albeit with variations. Externally, apart from the finials, few bands of simple calligraphy on stucco moldings are the only obvious markers of the building’s Islamic affiliation. It should be mentioned that the construction of the mosque proved to be a source of conflict between its Afro-Brazilian patrons, viewed locally as ‘foreigners’ and the indigenous Yoruba Muslim population who found its architectural program an imposition. The Afro-Brazilian community with their rising social and economic power prevailed. Perhaps it is this mixture of affirmation, defiance and an insistent exhibition of its entangled lineages that makes the Great Mosque of Porto-Novo a truly remarkable monument.
Instant Ruins: Roadside Mosques in Contemporary West Africa
In contrast to the architectural typology of the Great Mosque of Porto-Novo, there are hundreds of new mosques built away from the coast along the roads extending north into Benin, Togo and Ghana. While the Porto-Novo mosque occupies the role of an urban Friday mosque for a large community to congregate, the small rural mosques present a rather peculiar and possibly new form of mosque architecture in the region. The mosques in rural West Africa act as roadside markers, or symbols, rather than functioning as active lived spaces of worship. Upon closer inspection the mosques appear to be part of a new landscape of Islam in the region.
The mosques are built using rudimentary construction methods yet with modern materials such as concrete and concrete blocks. These structures stand in contrast with the surrounding architecture, and many of them appear to be disused or in fact have never been used, thus, instant ruins. Furthermore, the mosques provide clues to understanding the impact of Gulf capital in realizing these implanted structures; part of what Kishwar Rizvi calls the “transnational mosque.” (4) Plaques on the buildings indicate the names of charity organizations, and sometimes governments, of Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. These new mosques, built from the late 1980s to the present, present an intriguing point of entry into understanding landscapes of aid and development in West Africa and how the architectural manifestations of Islam have vastly evolved since the beginning of the twentieth century. The region is dotted with hundreds of other implanted structures built by foreign entities ranging from churches of various denominations to schools, clinics and water wells built by development and charitable organizations. Thus, the mosques fit into a landscape of international presence in a rural West Africa where competing visions for how to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of locals manifest architecturally across the landscape.
This project proposes to map the mosques and place them in their cultural, historical and cultural contexts in addition to investigating the material and formal aspects of this wave of mosque architecture in West Africa, which depart from the deeply rooted history of Islam in the region.
(1) See Carla de Benedetti/Barry Hallen, “Afro-Brazilian Mosques in West Africa,” in Mimar 29: Architecture in Development, Ed. Hasan-Uddin Khan (Singapore: Concept Media Ltd., 1988).
(2) See Elisée Soumonni, “Afro-Brazilian Communities of the Bight of Benin in the Nineteenth Century,” in Trans-Atlantic Dimensions of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora, Eds. Paul E. Lovejoy/David V. Trotman (London: Continuum, 2003).
(3) See Brigitte Kowalski Oshineye, “Migrations, Identities, and Transculturation in the Coastal Cities of Yorubaland in the Second Half of the Second Millennium: An Approach to African History through Architecture,” in Movements, Borders and Identities in Africa, Eds. Toyin Falola/Aribidesi Usman (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009).
(4) See Kishwar Rizvi, The Transnational Mosque: Architecture and Historical Memory in the Contemporary Middle East (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Benedetti, Carla de/Hallen, Barry. “Afro-Brazilian Mosques in West Africa.” Mimar 29: Architecture in Development. Ed. Khan, Hasan-Uddin. Singapore: Concept Media Ltd., 1988. 16–22.
Oshineye, Brigitte Kowalski. “Migrations, Identities, and Transculturation in the Coastal Cities of Yorubaland in the Second Half of the Second Millennium: An Approach to African History through Architecture.” Movements, Borders and Identities in Africa. Ed. Falola, Toyin/Usman, Aribidesi. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009. 126–150.
Rizvi, Kishwar. The Transnational Mosque: Architecture and Historical Memory in the Contemporary Middle East. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
Soumonni, Elisée. “Afro-Brazilian Communities of the Bight of Benin in the Nineteenth Century.” Trans-Atlantic Dimensions of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora. Ed. Lovejoy, Paul E./Trotman, David V. London: Continuum, 2003. 61–71.
Cite this page:
Elshahed, Mohamed/Roy Choudhury, Priyani. “Constructions of Islam in Contemporary West Africa.” From Traditional to Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in West Africa, Benin and Togo. The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Blog. Ed. Baader, Hannah. August 2016 <https://medium.com/from-traditional-to-contemporary-aesthetic/constructions-of-islam-in-contemporary-west-africa-b39c24b5acbd#.2dz0hvg5a>.