Dubai: Have you ever seen such a unique looking structure? With four irregular domes, made out of mud and stone, surrounded by an old wall and forts with watchtowers, stands the unusually shaped Al Bidya Mosque - the oldest mosque in the UAE.
Al Bidya isnt the first mosque to ever be built in the UAE as Islam was adopted by the region over 1,400 years ago, but many of the mosques built earlier were made of weaker material and were probably destroyed, so Al Bidya is currently the oldest standing mosque in the UAE.
Emirati Historian, Rashad Bukhash, who was involved in the 2008 restoration of the small building, argues that it is a unique historical structure in the UAE. "After hundreds of years standing, when we evaluated it in 2008, we realised that it was in pretty good shape. It is wonderful that it remained intact for such a long time," he said to Gulf News.
It is located at the coast of Fujairah in the village of Al Bidya. That's where the mosque gets its name from. While most mosques around the world are characterised by one large circular dome, you will notice that Al Bidya has four.
Each one is a different size and consists of multiple domes that are mounted on top of each other. The domes are not exactly spherical but instead form steps in circular layers that shrink in diameter as they are stacked up.
Who built Al Bidya Mosque?
According to Bukhash, this question remains unanswered. “No one can be sure to this day who built the mosque,” Bukhash said. “ However, legend goes, that the person who built Al Bidya Mosque told the townspeople that he was capable of building a mosque that has four domes and only one pillar. They doubted him, so he took the challenge and achieved what he set out to do.”
When was it built?
Although the mosque's date of construction is uncertain, the Fujairah Archaeology and Heritage Department in collaboration with the University of Sydney concluded that it was believed to be built in 1446 AD.
However, a new date of inception was given to the mosque in 2017, when the Crown Prince of Fujairah, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Hamad Bin Mohammad Al Sharqi, commissioned a study to investigate the mosque further. This study claimed that it has a more probable timeframe of the year 1599. 150 years younger than the initial date given. The Al Bidya Mosque is considered a landmark with unique archaeological importance, as it gives us a glimpse into the lives of people living on this land over 500 to 600 years ago.
Where exactly is the mosque located?
The Al Bidya Mosque is located in the village of Al Bidya in Fujairah. The village is a coastal one, which lies by the Gulf of Oman. Its people rely on fishing and farming for a living. The village gained prominence in the UAE through the mosque, which lies off a highway that was built after the federation was established in 1971. The highway connected the village to the rest of the UAE.
“The east coast of the UAE was a very important destination for travellers back then. When Ibn Batutta was exploring the world in 1140, there was evidence that he visited the towns on the eastern coasts, he wrote about this area of the UAE quite a bit, but he never mentions Dubai, Sharjah or Abu Dhabi.”
Adding to the prominence of the village are other archaeological finds. A 30-metre grave from 2000BC has been found in the village besides other findings from 200BC, the Hellenistic period.
The north-western coast of Oman and the eastern coast of the UAE are also home to 11 castles from the Portuguese period.
According To Bukhash, the forts were built by Portuguese invaders. “They came in 1508 and built two forts near the Al Bidya Mosque.” When asked why they built forts there, Bukash explained with a laugh that the Portuguese built a fort wherever they went. “Historically these are erected whenever someone wants to occupy a place. It is a form of protection,” he said.
What does the mosque look like on the inside?
According to the Fujairah municipality's records, the mosque measures 6.8 metres by 6.8 metres and includes a front yard for worship. Unlike other historical buildings in the UAE, particularly on the west coast, the mosque has been built using material native to the village, including plaster, stone, mud and hay.
Inside the mosque, you will notice its unique architecture. All four domes are supported by one central pillar, which is the main pillar that the construction foundation is based on. The roof is not made of wood and it has no minaret. Although its religious characteristics could be identified by the four domes, what really determines this place as a Muslim house of worship is the presence of a Minbar and Mehrab. Both of which face in the direction of Makkah.
A Mihrab, is where the Imam sits and recites prayers, while the Minbar right next to it, is made up of a few steps, on which the Imam sits to deliver sermons.
The walls of the mosque are decorated with dentate carvings. It also has small windows allowing the light and air to enter. Inside the mosque, you will also find prayer mats, several different Quran books and a light brown carpet to protect the floors.
The mosque is located in a wide rectangular yard surrounded by a wall made of stone, mud and hay. Both Muslims as well as non-Muslims are allowed to enter the mosque and see this Islamic wonder. And it’s definitely worth seeing, as the mosque represents a unique and distinguished type of architecture that has an Ottman influence and was made by man 600 years ago.
The restoration process
In 2008, Fujairah made a request to the Dubai Municipality to take up the project of restoration. We did the restoration in 2008 for the mosque Fujairah government then did. “It took us four to six months to restore it properly. And we had to do the restoration according to international laws, which means to use the same mud, rocks and materials that the mosque is already built with. To be honest, the mosque was not in a very bad condition, so it wasn’t that much of a time-consuming process. We kept the structure is the same, just worked on what was already there.
Dubai Municipality added the Imam’s house as well as the ablution area all built with natural stones from the mountains. “We also added a walkway and made small tweaks to the space, to just make it easier for people to get around.” Today the mosque qualifies as a UNESCO Heritage Site, as it is considered a landmark with unique archaeological importance for its context and location as it is the oldest mosque in the UAE being used to date.
The oldest mosque in the UAE is still being used as a prayer spot for Muslims today.