Haji Sania Mosque

Authors: Emine Bala, Mohammed Abdulghani, Ali Bala, Suraya Mohammed Ahmed

Foundation and History

Haji Sania Mosque was built in 1981 by Haji Abdullah Hamamchi, who was from Erbil.  It was named after his beloved wife, Sania. He owned three more mosques in the city: Haji Abdullah Hamamchi in the Tayrawa district, Aladdin Sujadi near Mega Mall in the Shorsh district, and Haji Bahjat in Shorsh. There are very few written resources about the history of this mosque. Some authors included a limited account in their articles about the madrasa education at the mosque. The building looks quite new from the outside, but it is actually one of the oldest mosques in the city. Many preachers have been educated at this mosque and certified by the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. Some of them now work in other mosques as preachers, while others are studying for their master’s degrees. There are four houses that belong to the mosque where its employees and the preacher live. A key historical event occurred in a war before the 1990s, when a bomb hit those houses and killed a family of seven. Scenes of a short movie about a little boy’s life were shot inside the mosque. The film is about a relationship between a peshmerga and the imam under the Ba’ath regime during the 1980s. The director was looking for an old mosque and he chose this one for its architecture.

Front view of the mosque. © Suraya Mohammed.

The present imam of the mosque is Mala Yusuf Abdulla Rasul, who was born in 1970 and studied in a madrasa.[1] He earned his bachelor’s degree in theology in Baghdad, and took his master’s and doctoral degrees in theology and law in Khartoum, Sudan. His master’s thesis was about illegal drugs and his doctoral thesis dealt with the link between traffic rules and Islam. Between 2001 and 2012 he led the madrasa program at the mosque; every year he taught six students, usually graduates of a theology high school or primary school. They used to stay in the mosque’s dormitory for one year and study Nahu Sarf (Arabic grammar), tafsir (interpretation of the Quran), and fiqh (the theory or philosophy of Islamic law). Mala Yusuf had to become a soldier at a young age because of the Iran-Iraq war. Ever since he was a child, he was interested in religion and Islam, and used to take religion education for preachers in training at another mosque. He was qualified as a preacher in 1997, and gave his first sermon in this mosque in 1998. Normally, the preacher leads the prayers, but when he was away to study for his master’s and doctoral studies, Mala Yusuf assigned substitutes. He appointed a man from Sudan, who had come to learn about the culture and do volunteer work; he ended up working in the mosque for three years. Another man came from Egypt, and worked in the mosque for one month. There used to be a couple of prayer callers and Quran reciters, but due to governmental issues, now every mosque can only have one of each. There are six cleaners at the mosque, and they work in turns, with each cleaner coming once or twice a week. They get paid by the government, and it is a fair amount. 

[1] This article is based on an interview with Mala Yusuf Abdulla Rasul, March 14, 2019.

Location and Building

Haji Sania Mosque is located on the main road in the Erbil district of Hakmwa, which is between the streets called 60 Meters and 40 Meters. Mostly old Erbil families live in this neighbourhood. Almost all of the residents know each other, and they generally frown on people from other districts entering the neighbourhood. There are a few residents who originally came from other districts but they are well-known to the locals, which means they are not treated as outsiders. The mosque is on Hakmwa Street, and it is very old, although it does not look like a traditional mosque. It is painted in light green and has two minarets with no domes. In the front yard, a big door marks the entrance to the male section. Some 912 meters long and 640 meters wide, the mosque has been reconstructed a couple of times. Initially, it did not have a roof, one was constructed in 2005. A female section was added in 2008 on the second floor, as suggested by the long-standing preacher. There is a place for ablution as well. Although it has been rebuilt, the preacher said that they still might demolish the whole mosque and raise a new one in its place. The mosque can accommodate 950 people – of which 100 are female – and sometimes people sit outside for Friday prayers. Beside the mosque door, there is a grocery market. The person who used to work in the market was a prayer caller of the mosque, and after he passed away his son took his place. The mosque has many books and there is a big library in the preacher’s office that he made all by himself. Many students and locals ask the preacher which books to read for certain topics. The mosque does not have any gardens.

There is a big funeral hall measuring 30 by 50 meters which can take up to around 250 people. The relatives and friends of the deceased accept condolences in this hall, usually for two days. The hall is lined with sofas where visitors can sit and pray for the soul of the departed. Additionally, there is a special area within the mosque where the deceased is washed and prepared for burial.

Prayer and Worship

At Haji Sania Mosque, almost 250 people total attend daily prayers. Like at the other mosques, few congregants take part in morning prayers (normally around 25). Around 50 to 60 people attend the prayers at other times. People usually start entering the mosque 30 minutes before the prayer. Some go early to occupy the front row (because they believe it is more blessed) and recite the Quran, while others socialize with their friends. At Haji Sania Mosque, the Quran is recited by the muazzin some 40 minutes before the sermon, followed by the last call to gather and perform the Friday prayer. Approximately 600 people attend. During Ramadan, the mosque fills up completely and some people have to pray outside. Usually the mosque can take up to 850 people in the male section; in addition, there is room for about another 60 people outside. Of the congregants, 15% are seniors, 80% are mature adults and 5% are children. The female section can hold up to 100 people, 75% of whom are seniors and 25% are younger adults. During Ramadan, more females attend the prayers in the mosque, especially tarawih prayer and tahajjud; their attendance could reach up to 130. Around 60 females attend the Friday prayers, but fewer on regular days.

When Ramadan is over, a feast is held on the first day of Eid, when people also go to morning prayer. This prayer is a way of celebrating the end of the fast. After the prayer, all men in the mosque line up to shake hands and congratulate each other for Eid. Usually, some kids at the door hand out sweets to people coming out of the mosque.

Life-cycle Events

The mosques are not only a place to pray and worship, but also to meet social needs, be it for funerals, weddings or counselling. At Haji Sania Mosque, around three funerals are held every month. In funeral ceremonies, visitors come to the funeral hall to express their condolences and pray for the soul of the deceased. The people silently enter the funeral hall to sit on the sofas and listen to Quran recitation. They usually stay 10 to 15 minutes and read Fatiha, the first surah of the Quran for the soul of the departed. People usually do not shake hands, but greet each other at a distance. Water is served. Only males participate in funerals at this mosque, as females usually stay at home and accept visitors there.

A Mawlud ceremony is held in this mosque one day before weddings. Six to seven wedding ceremonies take place every month. Only males attend this Mawlud ceremony and they listen to qasidas – hymns that praise the prophet – and speeches about married life. Sweets and soft drinks are served.  The preacher said there used to be more ceremonies, around 10 monthly, but that the number has recently gone down.     

A special Mawlud is held on the day of the prophet Mohammad’s birthday. Muslims celebrate this day in mosques by serving sweets, reciting the Quran and talking about the prophet’s life. There are two more events called Hijra, and Isra and Miʿraj. In Islam, Israʾand Miʿraj is the prophet Muhammad’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. As alluded to in the Quran (17:1), the journey was made by a servant of God, in a single night, from the “sacred place of worship” (al-masjid al-ḥarām) to the “further place of worship” (al-masjid al-aqṣā). This event is slowly disappearing from the mosques in Erbil, but Haji Sania Mosque still celebrates it.

Community and Group Activities

There have been group classes at Haji Sania Mosque since 1987. Some of the students later became preachers or teachers of religious lessons. They teach the Quran and some basic Islamic principles. The courses are open to both genders, and the schedule changes according to the teachers’ availability. At this mosque, there are not any other official activities, but sometimes the preacher, Mala Yusuf, visits the sick to pray for them to get better. He helps ill people with spiritual needs by reciting some ayats from the Quran, as this is believed to have healing effects. The preacher also meets with individuals purely in need of spiritual help. He helps them with family issues such as marital problems. The preacher believes that Kurds have all the knowledge they need thanks to smartphones, TV and social media, as access to information is easier than ever before. However, he adds that what the people lack nowadays is spiritual advice, and that they need spiritual sermons more than anything else. The preacher also mentions that he does not talk about topics that he knows nothing about, as he does not want to make claims that are not supported by real evidence. Many preachers in Erbil make unsubstantiated claims, and causing some of their followers to lose faith in them. Mala Yusuf relates current political issues to ancient times, and tells how these problems were solved.

He usually tells stories from the prophet’s lifetime and from the Quran. Based on interviews with many congregants, people who listen to his sermons feel refreshed, satisfied and at peace. Some people who have moved away from the neighborhood say they still go to the same mosque because of this preacher.

For the repair and maintenance of the mosque, sometimes the preacher makes an announcement after the sermons asking people to donate financially. He does that for the poor as well, not mentioning any names but saying that some people are in need of money for surgery, for example. At the mosque, the younger people help the elders and give them the front-line seats out of respect.

Some congregants work voluntarily in the mosque. For instance, when there is a funeral, these volunteers wash the deceased. This goes back to the Islamic belief that whatever you do for the sake of Allah is considered a good deed.

Public Relations

The imam arranges some social activities, such as meals or sports involving the male congregants. The mosque does not have a website, social media accounts or newsletters.

Mala Yusuf, the current imam, in the mosque library. © Suraya Mohammed.