Skip to content

Architecture is the Second Conquest by Islam of West Africa – Dr. Glen Segell

January 1, 2018


Architecture is the Second Conquest by Islam of West Africa

By Glen Segell[1]

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 6 (2018), Number 1 (January 2018) 

Each to his own! Organizations of religion tend to need houses of worship for the believers, and to host the offices of the religion on Earth. Here the spread of Islam into West Africa and its conquest of the hearts and minds of the population and their houses of worship persist. The first conquest ongoing for centuries is the conversion of individuals to the beliefs and practices of Islam, the second more recent is the erosion of traditional architecture even that of historical mosque style and construction.

The two conquests are interlinked for if the external view of Islam is Universal and conforms to a singularity then it grants greater centralized control of the individual. In destroying local architecture the local history, culture, and dissent can be eroded as can any variations to the centralized dictates of the religion, beliefs and practices.

Historically the House of Islam in West Africa was dominated by local architecture and building material because Islam was introduced by merchants and traders and not war.[2] Since the 20th Century, this changed due to an imposition akin to a conquest for Middle East style mosques. This conquest initiated by Saudi Arabian religious leaders aimed at eradicating anything local in the practice of the beliefs.

Those regions of the world that had Islam introduced by war tend to have a style of building; wholly imported from the Arabian Peninsula. From the onset of the arrival of Islam the mosques of North Africa to India were characterised by a minaret, a dome, arches and were decorated with mosaics or stucco. Where it was not practical to construct anew there were adaptations. Certain mosques of Spain are converted Catholic churches. Their transformation into mosques and the constructions of ruler’s palaces in the center of new or existing cities, represent colonial urbanism at work.[3]

In contrast, the historical architecture of mosques in West Africa shows that they were determined more by local skills and approaches. Less influential were the Arabs who migrated out of the Arabian Peninsula into Africa due to trade and who introduced Islam gradually. Most West African mosques were simple roofless enclosures serving the function of places for communal prayer. Nevertheless, because of the local influence and domination the style and materials of historical West African mosques varied according to the ethnic group and the local environment. [4]

The style known as “Soudanese” perhaps the most famed found from the River Senegal to the Niger bend as well as Ghana and the Ivory Coast, is bound by common building material: clay. They have a flat roof supported by pillars and the floor is usually covered with sand on top of which mats are laid. Illumination is achieved by holes pierced in the ceiling, interiors are undecorated and their elegant simplicity attests to the lack of distraction between the worshipper and his creator. Their fortress-like exteriors are reminiscent of the defensive architecture of West Africa known as tata.[5]

This style differs from Mali influenced by the local Mande, Dyula and Wangara who were Islamised. The style of their mosques is characterised by their urban dwellings using conical forms particularly found on monumental entrances of courtyard houses and decorated with pilasters and elements in relief alternating with voids.[6]

In the Futa Toro in north-eastern Senegal dwellings are generally preceded by a wooden veranda or mud porch typical of housing in the area. This structure is echoed in the sacred enclosure around Futa mosques consisting of a projecting straw roof supported by posts whose function is to accommodate the overflow of worshippers and protect them from the sun.[7]

In the central and coastal area of Senegal, the influence of European colonialism and Christian missionaries left its mark on mosque building and building methods. A repercussion of this mixes Christian baroque styles with Islamic motifs. The mosque in Dakar is equipped with a front porch defined by arcades with pointed arches. The paired square towers flanking the triangular pediment of the façade recall church architecture.[8]

In the 20th Century, new construction materials including the introduction of cement and the processes of globalisation initiated the onset of the second conquest by Islam. Economic migration furthered as local West African mosques were rebuilt in cement by the returnees or by the money they send home. The nadir came with the imposition from Saudi Arabian religious leaders for conformity. The inevitable result is that the original architecture and style is entirely transformed to conform to the minaret and dome standard encountered elsewhere in the Muslim world. The local knowledge of mosque building and hence individualism is thus eroded.[9]

The use of square minaret towers, domes and other decorative devices such as crenellations, arcades and stained glass are now commonplace in West Africa. Their style is Middle Eastern gleaning inspiration from further afield such as the Gulf States and Medina in Saudi Arabia than African.

This architectural conquest is not restricted to West Africa and has become a global phenomenon demonstrating the second Islamic conquest over the variety of local traditions and techniques that have mirrored, for centuries, different expressions of Islamic culture. The aim is to enact greater centralized control of the individual. In destroying local architecture the local history, culture, and dissent can be eroded as can any variations to the centralized dictates of the religion, beliefs and practices.



[1] Dr. Glen Segell, Research Fellow, Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa

[2] Prussin, Labelle. Hatumere: Islamic design in West Africa. University of California Press. 1986.

[3] Curl, James Stevens. A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Oxford University Press. 2006.

[4] Prussin, Labelle. “The Architecture of Islam in West Africa”. African Arts. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center. 1 (2).

[5] Schutyser, S.; Dethier, J.; Gruner, D. Banco, Adobe Mosques of the Inner Niger Delta. 5 Continents Editions. 2003.

[6] Launay, R., Beyond the Stream: Islam & Society in a West African Town. Berkeley. 1992.

[7] Bourdier, Jean-Paul. The Rural Mosques of Futa Toro. African Arts. African Arts. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center. 26 (3).           

[8] Cellar, Sheldon. Senegal: An African Nation Between Islam and the West (2 ed.). Westview Press. 1995.

[9] Engy, Farrag. Architecture of mosques and Islamic centers in Non-Muslim context. Alexandria Engineering Journal. 56 (4).

Leave a Comment

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

%d bloggers like this: