Islam / Structures /
House of prayer in Islam. The English word, "mosque", comes from the Egyptian Arabic "masgid", while in common Arabic it is "masjid."
Mosque of Hassan 2. Casablanca, Morocco. Photo: Justin Clements.
Minarets rising over the Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.
Jameh mosque, Esfahan, Iran. Photo: Ivan Mlinaric.
Prophet's mosque with 10 minarets in Madina, Saudi Arabia.
Mosque of el-Hakim, Cairo, Egypt.
Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo, Egypt.
The famous spiral minaret of Samarra, Iraq. It is set apart from the mosque building.
Mosque of Istanbul, Turkey, in distinctive Ottoman style.
Country mosque in typical style of Jerba island, Tunisia.
Main prayer hall of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria.
Interior of Great Mosque, Kairouan, Tunisia.
A mosque is symbolically very important to Muslims, being a humble way for humans to recreate pure divine presence on earth. But mosques are not built according to divine patterns (as is alleged by many other religions) they are simply divinely guided. The main religious texts provide no clear rules as to what a mosque should look like.
Mandatory elements for a mosque include that it should point the direction to Mecca (this direction is called qibla). This indication in most mosques is a mihrab, a niche in the wall. The area in front of the mihrab must be roofed. In the wall of the mihrab there can be no doors. As for the other walls, there can be as many doors as the builders want.
There are 2 types of mosques: the main mosque is called jama'a, and is the one where the Friday prayer is recited. The jama'as are often richly adorned. In English, the term jama'a is rarely used, "Friday Mosque" or "Great Mosque" being the common term.
The other type of mosque is called masjid, and is the local and smaller mosque. While these can be richly adorned, they can seldom be compared to the jama'as.
Masjid is a word meaning 'place for prostration' and they were used by the early Muslims for houses of worship, even at times for other religions. Today the Arabic 'masjid', and the English 'mosque', are used exclusively for the religious houses of Islam. With the significant increase in jama¢as (main mosques) after the 9th century, the term 'masjid' came more and more to be used for small and insignificant mosques.
Mosques form centres in cities, or in neighbourhoods of cities. This function does not always have to be structured, but it can be connected to mentality, so that the establishment of a new mosque often facilitates the emergence of a city centre. This characteristic was typical in older days, but is becoming more and more unusual.
Very few mosques lie in open areas, and very few mosques do not have shops and commercial activities in the streets around it. People's houses are often lying in a second "circle" around the mosque and the shops. Other social functions that have often been connected to mosques, include schools, law courts, hospitals and lodging for travellers. This pattern is based upon the Madina mosque, but is of less importance today, since city planning more and more uses Western models.
History and Development
The original mosque is the one in Mecca. It is built around the area that surrounded the Ka'ba in pre-Islamic times. This mosque, and the Ka'ba, are the holiest shrines of Islam.
The basic model for early mosques, however, was the courtyard of Muhammad's house in Madina, which was constructed in 622 CE. This was organized with a qibla, which at first faced in the direction of Jerusalem. To the left of this qibla, houses for Muhammad's wives, were erected. There were three entrances to the courtyard. An area of the courtyard was roofed, and here prayer was offered. After 1.5 years the direction of the qibla was changed, in order to face Mecca.
This Madina mosque had social, political, and judicial functions, in addition to housing Muhammad's family. The religious functions were mixed with other functions. Rules on how prayers should be offered seem not to have been defined during this first period, much because this was the period during which the Koran was revealed to Muhammad: the rules had not yet been given.
In addition to the early mosques of Mecca and Madina, there are sources indicating other contemporary mosques in other towns.
Mosques soon evolved more complex and uniform shapes. A minbar, the pulpit, from where the Friday prayer is held, was placed next to the mihrab. Within a few years after the death of Muhammad, mosques became such important symbols, that when Muslim conquerors established themselves somewhere, a mosque erected first, and then the military camp was built around it. This building process was inspired by the Madina example. But in the cases where the Muslims conquered principal cities, they constructed the mosque in the place that was the centre of the religion of the conquered people.
As Islam began, tribes and sects often marked their independence or their purity by erecting mosques of their own or by defining a certain part of the mosque as their part. This approach has changed down through history, but the situation today is not as tolerant as it might appear. Muslims of all creeds are in theory free to enter all mosques, but a Muslim of one orientation will in reality find mosques used by Muslims of other orientations inappropriate. A travelling Muslim will try to find a mosque which is used by people belonging to his own creed, usually defined by one's Sunni, Shi'i and Ibadi adherence. Mosques under control of the government or dominated by Islamists are considered inappropriate by many. But as for the jama'as, the largest mosques, these are considered neutral, and are used by Muslims of all creeds.
Conversion from churches
Many mosques of the first centuries, were originally churches. When churches were converted into mosques, this was naturally against the will of the Christians, but this wasn't always a big problem. In many regions, Christianity had lost its position, so the churches were simply turned into mosques over time. Muslims could actually use the churches since they were religious buildings and since Christianity was considered as a kin religion to Islam. This typically meant that both Christianity and Christians were regarded with respect by Muslims. Over time, many Christians gradually converted to Islam, and eventually, the building's use was more appropriate as a mosque than as a church.
Most mosques today are closed to non-Muslims, but this was a regulation that was developed in the first century of Islam. There was an increase in the emphasis on the sanctity of the mosque, more and more elements of the mosque were regarded as sacred, and any mosque was commonly regarded as "bayt allah," the "House of God."
The first 80 years
The design of the mosques developed in a short time from being very simple to becoming complex structures. In the first mosques in Hijaz minimal attention was paid to the form of the mosques. The time during which the mosque assumed the current pattern was only 80 years. The form taken by mosques was often the product of a mix of architectural styles from the conquered territories and of the original pattern of Muhammad's mosque.
Introduction of the minaret
The first minaret (the tower from which the call to prayer is made) was probably erected in 703, in Kairouan, Tunisia, almost 80 years after the Madina mosque. But there are written materials suggesting that minarets were erected as early as 665 CE.
The minaret was absent in the early mosques, and its addition was inspired by religious buildings of other religions. The main influence probably came from the churches of Syria.
The implementation of minarets was both for embellishment of the mosques, and for functionality. High up in the minaret, the muezzin calls to prayer (adhan) could be heard much further away than if it were performed from the roof of the mosque.
Nevertheless, for some time after the introduction of the minaret, the adhan would be performed with the muezzin walking through the streets while calling to prayer.
The addition of adornments to the mosques was hotly debated, and many Muslims opposed this process, thinking of it as a way to jeopardize the purity of Islam, by introducing foreign and Christian elements.
Over time, many rooms were added to the mosque, rooms used by people of different social classes, used to carry out various professional responsibilities, and offered to travellers, sick and old. Devout and ascetics often lived in the mosque, perhaps even in the minaret.
Other elements inside a mosque include:
- Dakka; a platform, from where the muezzin calls to prayer, after he has done this from the minaret.
- Kursi; a desk and a seat, for the Koran and for the reader.
- Reliquaries, where bodies, parts of bodies, or belongings of deceased religious personalities are kept.
- Carpets covering the floor of mosques
- Lights, both candles and lamps, used for illumination, but not ritually
- Incense, used especially in conjunction with festivals
- Water, in the courtyard, both for ablutions, and for drinking
The mosques have often been built by rulers, and the administration of the mosques has been financed by waqfs, endowments bringing in revenues.
These waqfs were normally agricultural land, often administered by the donor, or members of his family, and could in some cases have a location far away from the mosque it financed. There could be more than one waqf for each mosque. Mosques with economic problems, often sought donors.
While mosques officially have been administered by the rulers, direct control has been difficult, largely because of the economic independence (provided by the waqfs), as well as the mosque's status in popular opinion. The primary donor, and his family, was in many cases legally considered the owner of the mosque. In other cases it was the qadi, the judge of Sharia, who acted as the main administrator, nazir, of the mosque. The power of the nazir was considerable, and the position of the nazir have often given place to intense conflicts between individuals and groups.
The factual leader of salat in the mosques, was the ruler, who held the title, imam. Local administrators, had a parallel position, with the title ala salat. The actual main leader of the mosque was the khatib. His role was to perform the salat on Fridays, since the imam could not attend. This salat is called khutba. The khatib could be a qadi, and in larger mosques, several khatibs could be appointed.
Rules for mosque
When entering the mosque, a person should take off his shoes or sandals. Entering the mosque is done with the right foot first, while pronouncing blessings upon Muhammad and his family. Once inside the mosque, two rak'a (part of the salat) are to be performed. A person inside the mosque speaks softly, not loudly, so that he or she does not disturb people praying. For the Friday prayer, nice clothes and perfumes are recommended.
Women are not prevented by either the Koran or the Sunna from entering mosques, but there are regulations as to how a woman in a mosque should behave. Mosques can be segregated, either in time, or in space. But through most of Muslim history, women entering mosques have not been welcomed by men. Mosques have in many cases been closed to women, a tradition either regulated by local rules or by habit. Women have, therefore, resorted to pray in their homes.
While the salat can be performed anywhere, it is considered more meritorious when performed in the mosque, i.e. together with other people. The Sunna states that salat in the mosque is 20 or 25 times more valuable than the one performed in the home.
The Friday prayer or sermon, khutba, is considered to be compulsory for all male Muslims. The regulations for the khutba developed over a long period, approximately 2 centuries.