German and International Research on Oman 1998

The mosques of Manh in Central Oman: investigation of their form and features
by Soumyen Bandyopadhyay [abstract]

It is widely accepted that the house of the Prophet at Medina lent the generic form and organisation which shaped the nature of mosques in peninsular Arabia. This, and another refined precedent, the liwan, a Persian spatial vocabulary, created the early pavilion-like prayer halls of the great early-Islamic mosques of Kufa, Fustat and Basra, and were continued thereafter. King's study of the traditional mosques of Saudi Arabia suggest a further continuation of such precedents in more recent times. Although, undoubtedly, these issues were important considerations in creating mosque organisations in central Oman, certain interesting deviations seem to point towards other directions of influence. The mosque prayer halls in central Oman show a marked solidity in their appearance creating a closed cella-like structure. While the entrance to the mosque complex often pierces the extended (actual or imaginary) qibla wall, the principal access to the prayer hall is often lateral, so that one enters it from the sahn at right angles to the mihrab niche. Minarets of varied shapes and forms (often square and flat, with a platform on roof top) prevalent even in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia for adhan purposes are absent in Oman; they have been replaced by an extremely diminutive small domical structure known as the buma, unique to Oman in terms of its physical form, and possibly, its etymology. The highly decorated mihrab found in some central Omani mosques is yet another feature which makes these traditional mosques unique in Arabia.
The proposed paper and talk intends to speculate on the possible origins of the form of the prayer hall (masjid) and the buma, and to make some observations on the nature of the decorated mihrab. More precisely, the paper would try to answer these questions:
1) Where did such an unique masjid form possibly originate?
2) Could parallels to the lateral relationship of the sahn and the sanctuary be found elsewhere?
3) Is the buma merely a diminutive minaret or is it a result of a more complex evolution?
4) What is the possible background of the decorative mihrab?
The mosques in the deserted settlement of Bilad Manh, within the oasis of the same name, will be analysed and compared to other mosques for this purpose.

It appears that in both the prayer hall and the buma, a pre-Islamic sub-stratum culture had been active. The masjid form, for example, could be traced back to some of the earliest existing mosques in this region and shows some striking similarities between the mosques of central Oman and the smaller mosques in San'a' in Yemen. There, the solidity and low perforation level of the masjid volume, its lateral relationship with the sahn, and on occasions, the transgression of the qibla wall, are all present. The form, in turn, could be seen to be closely related to the hammam or al-makan al-kanin of the Hadhramawtic mosque described by Serjeant. This cella-like form which also dominated the mosques of Dhofar, seems to have emerged from a pre-Islamic building form exemplified in the reconstruction drawing of the temple at Hugga in upper Yemen by Rathjens and von Wissmann. Through a discussion of these and associated morphologies, I hope to establish that the form was probably an important and prevalent one at the dawn of Islam in the entire Southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, stretching from Yemen to the Gulf coast. The proto-Arab Omanis (the bayadir, the ahl al-bilad, the uluj) knew about it as it was associated with the ritual life of their settled existence and formed part of their built environment. When the Arabs following about four centuries of settlement, responded to the call of Islam, they were able to adopt and adapt these sacred structures and spatial organisations to suit the needs of the new religion. Such a pre-Islamic connection can also be found in the locational characteristics of some of these mosques. The buma, on the other hand, seems to have been derived from a more local precedent. It strongly resembles, in form and construction but not in scale, the 3rd millennium BC Hafit- and the beehive-type graves on hill tops of mountains surrounding old settlement areas of central Oman. They were brought into the Arab folklore by calling them Malik bin Fahm tombs, after their legendary forefather of Yemeni origin. The word buma appears to have a close etymological connection with bama, the old Semitic word for a high, elevated sacred space.

Index of Papers presented at the Oman Conference 1998
Oman Conference 1998 - Main Page
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Last updated on 20 May 1998.