Jamia Mosque dwarfs Nairobi skyscrapers with priceless heritage

Jamia Mosque on Banda Street in Nairobi yesterday. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA

What you need to know:

  • The place of worship still retains its iconic stature more than a century after launch.

According to Muslim tradition the Jama Masjid is the main mosque of a city, town, or village and is usually the place of gathering for Eid and Friday prayers.

Jamia Mosque located between Banda Street and Kigali Road is the “Jama Masjid” of Nairobi and is the largest mosque in the country.

Jamia Mosque was founded in 1902 by Syed Maulana Abdullah Shah of the Sunni sect, but construction did not begin until 1925 due to an edict prohibiting Indians and Arabs from owning land in Nairobi.

Worship took place in a temporary iron sheets structure in the interim period. As Nairobi soon became the established capital of the colony, the congregation outgrew the original structure.

Plans for the new building were modelled after mosques built by two famous Mughal emperors, that of Shah Jehan in Delhi and that of Aurangzeb in Lahore. The municipal council objected that the minarets were too high and they were duly lowered, but it was still to be the tallest landmark of its time in Nairobi.

Work started in 1925 and became a remarkable collective effort, for although it was spearheaded by the Punjabi Muslims, by far the most numerous Muslim group in Nairobi, everyone pitched in.

The committee published a booklet which lists every contributor — their tribe, profession and donation, even if it was a single shilling or (from women) a bangle. One finds not only Sunnis and Shias — the Aga Khan was a major contributor — but also Hindus, Sikhs and Parsees, amongst the contributors.

The mosque was completed in 1933 and remained a beautiful icon until recently when it was overwhelmed by modern skyscrapers.

Built in traditional Arabic Muslim architectural style, walls consist of smooth dressed stone interspersed with marble and ceramic tile cladding, while the roof features three magnificent silver onion domes that gleam in the sun and three exquisitely adorned minarets supported by a series of vaulted arches and moulded round pillars.

The floors are finished in patterned ceramic tiles and marble while windows are glazed in clear and coloured glass held in arched frames. Main doors are of beautifully hand carved timber supported by embellished arched frames. There is an open courtyard situated at the rear of the compound.

An interesting feature is a row of shops, intergral with the main building, which I understand is standard for this type of mosque. The purpose is so that the shops can be rented out to tenants, providing the mosque with a ready source of income for its upkeep. No doubt the shops also provide an added level of security.

It is also noteworthy that the mosque was built adjacent to the busy Bazaar Street (current Biashara Street) reflecting the strong link between Islam and trading.

The mosque has been extended several times over the years to accommodate a growing congregation. There is a library, training centre, a men’s prayer hall on the ground floor and a women’s prayer hall on the first floor. It is the main Islamic centre in Nairobi with a capacity of 8,000 worshippers.

During Friday Prayers, Banda Street is a no-go zone owing to the large number of worshippers in attendance.

Jamia Mosque made history recently when, for the very first time, it hosted nine Christian clergy for Friday prayers on September 18 last year in a bid to strengthen inter-faith harmony that has been harmed by terrorist attacks on Westgate Shopping Mall in 2013 and Garissa University College in April.

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