The mosque, also known as Jami or Masjid in Arabic, is a temple or place of worship for Muslims. The term Masjid in Arabic means “place of prostration.”
Aside from being a place for prayer, rest, and reflection, the mosque also serves as an assembly place for Muslim men every Friday, in occasion of the communal prayer. Find out some interesting facts about the history, features, and purpose of mosques!
The Origins of the Mosque
A mosque’s style, layout, and decoration can tell a lot about the region and period of its construction. The first mosques in history were built and designed based on the courtyard of Prophet Muhammad’s house in Medina.
The house of the Prophet, with its courtyard, elongated rooms, and colonnades, was quite typical for a 7th-century house in Arabia. Muhammad’s house was the first mosque or Muslim temple.
Many mosques built in the Middle East used the same style as Muhammad’s for centuries. Through the years, the architecture of mosques has changed significantly. However, it remains an open-roofed area made up of a mihrab and, more often than not, a minaret.
What Is a Mosque?
A mosque is Islam place of worship. The size of the mosque usually mirrors the size of the Muslim communities in the region. The mosque’s interiors and exteriors are all decorated with scriptures and prayers. When visiting a mosque, you’ll also find that the decorations never include human or animal forms as idolatry is illicit in Islam.
Mosques can only have geometric, floral, vegetal, and calligraphic designs, often referring to the promise of Paradise.
All mosques are designed to point towards the qiblah, or the direction of Mecca, the center place of Muslim worship. The status of the city depends on the fact that Prophet Muhammad was born there.
Today, Mecca hosts the most sacred Islamic shrine, the Kaaba. For this reason, notwithstanding the location of the mosque, the mihrab will always indicate the direction of Mecca.
A lot of mosques have separate areas for women and for performing ritual ablutions, and several rows of columns to indicate the places where the believers can line up during the prayer.
The Mosque’s Mihrab
The miḥrāb is a semicircular niche, from which the imām leads the prayer. Of course, also this part of the mosque points to the direction of Mecca. To the right of the mihrab is the minbar, a seat situated at the top of steps that the preacher (khaṭīb) can use as a pulpit. In ancient times, Islamic rulers usually delivered their speeches from the minbar.
Sometimes, the mihrab is also accompanied by a maqsūrah, a box or wooden screen adjacent to the miḥrāb. It used to be a layer of protection, like a shield for the ruler. Ritual prayer is often performed on the mosque’s floor, which for this purpose is covered by mats or carpets.
Features of a Mosque
Mosques have several decorative elements that are typical of Islamic design. Some of these include the cartouche with an inscription that often appears above the mihrab. These inscriptions are often quotations from the Qur’an, including the date of the building’s construction and the patron’s name.
The qibla is the direction Muslims face when praying toward the Kaaba in Mecca. Inside the mosque, the qibla wall always faces Mecca.
The minbar is a raised platform made of carved stone or wood where the prayer leader stands when delivering a sermon on Fridays. The minbar is usually to the right of the mihrab. The simplest minbars appear like small steps, while more elaborate ones may enclose the stairway with doors, ornate panels, and a covered pulpit.
One of the most visually enchanting in the mosque’s architecture is the minaret. Minarets are towers attached to the mosque. They are designed so that the call to prayer by the mosque can be heard throughout the city.
Mosques usually have one or more minarets from where the muezzin — the man who calls for prayer — announces the prayer hour five times a day. Large mosques often have magnificent minarets that can be seen from miles away.
For a long time, the minaret also became the visual symbol of the presence of Islam in a country. There are many styles of minarets that exist today. Some of the most famous include the famous spiral minaret of Samarra and the tall pencil minarets of Turkey.
Not only is the top of the minaret always the highest point of the building, but usually, it surpasses all other buildings in the area in height. The Grand Mosque of Algiers holds the title for the mosque with the tallest minaret in the world. It stands at 265 meters (870 ft).
A mosque needs to be able to host all the male inhabitants of a city or village. To make this possible, most congregational mosques have a sahn, a large prayer hall that is adjacent to the open courtyard.
The courtyard usually contains a fountain where believers perform their ritual ablutions. That is the washing of the hands, feet, and face to purify the body before the prayer.
Many mosques also have the qubba. While this is not a ritual requirement like the mihrab, this element is the symbolic representation of heaven. Because of this, the qubba plays a significant role inside a mosque.
Some mosques have only one qubba while others have multiple. For example, the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia has three domes. The insides of qubba are riddled with intricate patterns that are often geometric and vegetal.
Domes are typical not only of mosques but also of Islamic architecture more in general. Most of them are positioned right above the main prayer hall. Originally they were quite small and occupied only a small portion of the roof.
However, they grew in size throughout the centuries and now they cover the entire ceiling above the prayer hall. In South Asia and Persia, the Mughalsfrom India spread the iconic onion-shaped domes that today we automatically connect to Islam.
Musalla (Prayer Hall)
The prayer hall is known as the musalla. Inside the hall, there are no chairs or furniture, so that the maximum number of believers can line up for prayer. Prayer halls also have Arabic verses from the Quran on their walls. No images of people or animals ever appear in mosques.
Another important decorative feature of the mosque decoration is its hanging lamps. Light has a high symbolic value in Islam. It is not a case that the first and last prayers of the day take place before sunrise and after sunset.
History of Mosque and Its Evolution
– The Hypostyle
The earliest type of mosque, which peaked during the Umayyad dynasty, has the Arab-plan or hypostyle. These mosques had a squared or rectangular shape. The courtyard was enclosed and the prayer hall covered.
They also have flat roofs on top of the prayer halls, which made it possible to add more columns and supports as needed. The Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain, was built according to this style and contains over 850 supporting columns.
– The Ayyubid Style
After the Umayyad, the Egypt-based Ayyubid dynasty forged a new style: a military-inspired mosque architecture. These mosques feature Byzantine-inspired motifs and stacked domes and half-domes.
– The Origin of the Central Dome
The mosques that we know today, with a central dome, were an invention of the Ottomans that dates back to the fifteenth century. In these mosques, a large dome is placed directly over the prayer hall.
Often there were also smaller domes, surrounding the main one. It was also during the Ottoman period that the courtyard was reduced to a waiting room. This style is strongly influenced by Byzantine religious architecture.
– The Iwan Mosque
Another type of style is the Iwan mosque. The most striking characteristic of Iwan Muslim temples are the domed chambers and iwans, vaulted spaces with one side open. Iwans are just in front of the central courtyard that believers use as a prayer hall.
The style represents pre-Islamic Iranian architecture, which is why most mosques in Iran have this style. Interestingly, many of these mosques used to be Zoroastrian fire temples.
– The Styles of Mosques in the World
Cultural differences also altered the architecture of the Mosque in regions such as Africa, India, and China. With little influence from Middle Eastern countries, mosques in these countries have a distinct architectural style.
For example, the Mosque of Djenné, the first Great Mosque built in Africa, has its unique African style. Unlike every other Islamic mosque, it is made entirely from mud.
Worshippers believed it was built from the mud from the Niger River. This type of mud is mixed with straw and rice husks, then fermented for a month till it becomes tough and rain resistant.
As another example of the variety of mosque styles, the mosques of the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa mix Eastern and Western architectural motifs, conjugating the classic hypostyle plan with elements from the Byzantine, Greek, Syrian, and Mamluk traditions.
This is hardly surprising, as the spread of Islam outside Arabia inevitably led to the mix of many cultures and architecture styles. Impressive mosques of unparalleled beauty were built in various cities in Arabia.
Over time, minaret towers also became more and more handsomely ornamented by artisans. Each period in history has its own style when it comes to building and decorating minarets.
In more recent periods, the mosque’s style developed into complex architectural structures. However, they all have one commonality. All of them were a designation of space for prayer and they were all oriented towards Mecca. After all, the mosque is the place where Muslim reaffirm their collective identity by the means of religion.
The Role of The Mosque
The mosque is a the physical place in which Muslim can bring testimony of the Islamic faith in their lives. As such, a mosque is a hotspot not only of religious, but also social and intellectual activities, much like a sort of Muslim church.
Early mosques, in fact, were not built only as prayer halls. On the contrary, the Islamic temple also served as places for charitable institutions such as schools, hospitals, and soup kitchens.
Charitable institutions play an important part in Islamic traditions, as it is customary for a good Muslim to donate a part of their income to indigents, so as to fulfil the third pillar of Islam.
This explains why the names of patrons figure prominently among the calligraphic decorations of a mosque: they donated a mosque to the city of village, thereby empowering believers to fulfil the commandments of Islam.
As you might have noticed, mosques have an ancient history and a great variety of styles. To make sure that you remember all there is to know about mosques, we prepares a few key take-aways:
- A mosque is a gathering place for prayer and worship, but also to reinstate the presence of Muslims in the public sphere.
- The first mosques in history were built and designed based on the courtyard of Prophet Muhammad’s house in Medina.
- Early mosques were not just prayer halls. Many of them also serve as places for charitable institutions such as schools, hospitals, and soup kitchens.
- In the 12th century CE, the main prayer hall of mosques began to include the large dome that we find so typical of Islam. This allowed more space to accommodate hundreds of worshippers.
- All mosques are built specifically to face Mecca, the center place of Muslim worship. Mecca is the native city of the Prophet Muhammad.
- Minarets are towers attached to the mosque. Their design favors the spread of sound, so that the call to prayer can be heard throughout the city.
- Modern mosques today are so different from the style of the ancient ones. Their prayer halls are now larger and the courtyards are often surrounded by stylish arcades.
We hope that this article satisfied your curiosity about mosques!