Islam’s spiritual homes in Sana’a
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Mosques are the spiritual homes of Islam, often adorned and decorated with an Arabian world aesthetic, and sometimes offering contrasting experiences.
A visit to two landmark mosques in the Yemeni capital city Sana’a shows how differently locals engage with these places of worship.
The Saleh Mosque, named after the country’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a luxurious carpeted space. Most residents in Sana’a would be able to see this mosque with its towering minarets and bright lights at night. It bears testimony to the beauty that exists in Yemen.
The Saleh Mosque is guarded by security men at its complex gates and as one enters the mosque’s doors. Fortunately they are friendly and allow one to enter with a camera. At the time of Thur salaah – the midday prayer – men had gathered inside the mosque. A small congregation of worshippers filled only three short rows in this huge mosque. The prayer was also televised on Yemeni TV.
A walk around the mosque after the prayer offered a close-up view of its details. The carpets have intricate patterns, chandeliers decorate the ceiling like floating flowers above and wall paintings in Arabic add vibrant color. The traditional qamariyah – the stained glass window that is distinctly Yemeni – also add a special touch. Its architecture is grand but not overwhelming.
The atmosphere is one of marvel though. Muslims go to mosque to worship Allah, the Islamic name for God. But beyond being used for Islamic prayer, this mosque exudes a sense of being a museum. One local joked that the mosque was built as a tourist attraction.
It has meanwhile also been baffling to understand why half of Sana’a sits without electricity daily while the lights of this mosque are never dimmed. That must eat half the city’s available power supply.
After a leisurely midday at the Saleh Mosque, the Grand Mosque in the historical Old City of Sana’a awaits with all its back-in-the-day nuances. From the moment one enters through the doors of this mosque, one is filled with the sounds of the holy Qur’an being recited. What this mosque lacks in terms of grandeur, compared to the Saleh Mosque, it certainly makes up for in spirit.
One reason for this contrast is that the Grand Mosque is situated in a breathing community while the Saleh Mosque is situated awkwardly on a highway. The latter seems a mosque for special occasions while the Old City’s Grand Mosque has firmly secured a place in the hearts of worshippers. It is obvious that most of the old men who recite the Qur’an inside this mosque do it on a daily basis. They seem very comfortable in the mosque. It seems like they are home.
The Grand Mosque takes one to a long gone era with its crafted wooden ceiling panels and bricks that bear the markings of its origins hundreds of years ago. This mosque is currently under renovation but remains in use daily. Its courtyard hosts a range of interesting Old City characters.
It was time for Asr salaah – the afternoon prayer – but there was no water to make wudu, or ablution, required before prostrating before Allah. It seemed a pity that this mosque had a sense of neglect, compared to the Saleh Mosque, as it is very much part of the Old City’s history and societal life. It is a living heritage site that deserves more care. Perhaps some of the cash spent on the Saleh Mosque’s electricity bill could have been spent on building proper ablution facilities, especially for visitors from distant lands.
In just a few hours, these two mosques offered insightful journeys into Yemeni architecture, heritage, culture and spirituality.