Domus Dei by Ibai Rigby


A large number of mosques have been built in Kosovo since its independence from Serbia in 2008. Some of them substitute old historic mosques that were specifically targeted for destruction by the Serbian army, with the idea of erasing all evidence of the historical presence of Muslim Albanians in the territory. However, most of them have been built from scratch, in what could be understood as a process of reterritorialising the landscapes of Kosovo following Milosevic’s attempt at genocide.

The vast majority of these newly built structures reject modernism stylistically and follow the tradition of the classical Ottoman mosque, featuring large domes and tall minarets, nevertheless built with contemporary building techniques such as reinforced concrete and prefabricated elements. The arguments behind such stylistic decisions are multiple. Modernist architecture arrived with the Yugoslavian state, remembered today for the oppression exerted by the Serbian regime. Recurring to the Ottoman domed mosque with pencil-shaped minarets, on the other hand, establishes a continuity with a more “suitable past” from which a new national narrative can be built. However, the main reason, as it is posited by most clients – that is, community leaders, imams and, mostly, their international sponsors from the Gulf countries – is that they prefer tradition.

Following an orthodox interpretation of the hadiths, the sayings of the Prophet, innovation (bid’ah) could be interpreted as creation in the divine sense, an argument used mostly against changes in religious custom, which could eventually also be applied to religious architecture. Appreciating buildings for their specific formal beauty may also be considered idolatry, an argument that has already been used to destroy monuments such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan or historical structures in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the fact that Islam lacks a central authority like the Vatican leaves decision making to the consensus of the Ulema, the community of scholars, giving a particular preference to “the ancestral precedent” or “the custom of the tribe” (Sunna). All these arguments can be used to justify the perpetuation of tradition when building mosques.

Nevertheless, a brief look into the history of mosques reveals that minarets and domes, the main features of what is considered the “traditional” mosque today, were innovations at some point. In the times of the Prophet, the call to prayer was done from the roof of the mosques and Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet and fourth caliph, ordered a tower torn down, because the muezzin could violate the privacy of the houses surrounding the mosque. Minarets only started to appear consistently from the 12th century, and the many different interpretations of their origins, taking as reference the lighthouse in Alexandria or the victory columns of the Byzantine empire, point towards their importance as a symbol rather than a religious necessity.

The same applies to the dome: while the first mosque employing one is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built after the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik took over the city, it did not become a recurring feature in mosque design until the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453. In both cases, the appropriation of domical architecture was more related to the ambition of the new rulers to be measured against the imperial splendour of the Byzantine empire than anything related to Islam as a religion.

On the other hand, while there are a few imperial domed mosques in Kosovo built during the Ottoman period (now being carefully rebuilt and restored by the Turkish government), traditional village mosques in Kosovo were usually covered with a hip roof.

Considering all these historical facts, we could assert that the so-called “traditional” style of the newly built mosques in Kosovo has, in fact, little to do with tradition. By appropriating the classical style of the longest-ruling and most powerful Muslim empire, the Ottoman empire, the contemporary mosque builders of Kosovo attempt to gain political and ideological support, as well as legitimacy. Their domes and minarets are less about customary religion than about marking a landscape in a way that can only be imagined through religious ideology.

More surveys: