The English word "mosque" denotes a Muslim house of worship. The word evolved from the Arabic term masjid, which means "place of prostration." During prayer, Muslims briefly kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground as a sign of submission (literally, Islam) to the will of God.
The Origin of the Mosque
The Prophet Muhammad's original house in Medina (in present-day Saudi Arabia) is thought to be the first mosque and probably served as a model for early mosque architecture. It was a mud-brick structure with living quarters on one side of an enclosed rectangular courtyard. Since Muhammad's followers would gather at his home for prayer, the side of the courtyard facing the qibla, or the direction of prayer, included a porch covered by palm branches, which offered shelter from the hot desert sun. Most early mosques, as well as the majority of later mosques in Arab lands, follow this general layout (see fig. 4).
Essential Architectural Elements of a Mosque
The essential architectural elements include:
- The qibla is the direction Muslims face when praying toward the Ka'ba in Mecca. The qibla wall is the wall in a mosque that faces Mecca.
- The mihrab is a niche in the qibla wall indicating the direction of Mecca; because of its importance, it is usually the most ornate part of a mosque, highly decorated and often embellished with inscriptions from the Qur'an (see image 4).
- The minbar is a pulpit in the form of a staircase on which the prayer leader (imam) stands when delivering a sermon after Friday prayer. The pulpit is usually situated to the right of the mihrab and is often made of elaborately carved wood or stone (fig. 3).
- A minaret is a tall tower attached or adjacent to a mosque. It is designed so the call to prayer, issued from mosques five times a day, can be heard loud and clear throughout a town or city. Alternatively, the call may be made from the roof or entrance, and is now often projected with the aid of microphones and speakers. The minaret is also a visual symbol of the presence of Islam. (See the six minarets of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, fig. 6.).
- Most mosque courtyards (sahn) contain a public fountain, where believers can perform ablutions, the ritual washing of the hands, feet, and face required before prayer. In the arid lands of Arabia, water is revered as a gift from God, and fountains also have symbolic meaning, alluding to the four rivers of Paradise mentioned in the Qur'an.
Fig. 3. Minbar in the Great Mosque of Divrigi, Divrigi, Turkey, 1228–29
The Role of the Mosque
Mosques reflect the size and needs of individual Muslim communities, as their members all worship together on Fridays. Historically mosques have been at the center of education and intellectual life.
Inscriptions from the Qur'an adorn the interiors and exteriors of mosques, establishing a strong link between scripture and the place of prayer. Mosque decoration almost never includes human or animal forms, which are seen as potentially idolatrous. Instead, geometric, floral, vegetal, and calligraphic designs adorn mosques, symbolically recalling the promise of Paradise.
Mosques around the World
Mosques throughout the Islamic world use diverse building materials and reflect different regional traditions and styles. Despite variations in size and design, the special place mosques hold in Muslim communities remains universal.
Fig. 4. Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, Cairo, Egypt, 9th century. View of the courtyard
Fig. 5. Shah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran, 17th century. The qibla entrance as seen from inside the courtyard
Fig. 6. Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, 17th century
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Sheila Canby: Listen to a conversation between Deniz Beyazit and Walter Denny, on the context of the mosque and ritual. Five daily prayers are one of the pillars of Islam.
Deniz Beyazit: These five daily prayers are very important for every pious Muslim. You need to clean your body in ritual terms. And so you wash your hands and you wash your feet. You take the water—you sniff, actually, the water, so you clean every part of the body. And once you're clean, you can enter the sacred space of the mosque. Inside the mosque, you will find the mihrab, the niche indicating the direction to Mecca. You also will find the minbar, a pulpit where the leader of the prayer, the imam, stands on top. And of course in the mihrab niche itself you will find the mosque lamp. So you see that all these items are actually concentrated around the prayer, which is, in a way, materialized through these different objects.
Walter Denny: What about the carpets on the floor? What function do they serve in the ritual?
Deniz Beyazit: Of course, the carpets, they are aligned in the mosque in order to reinforce, actually, the orientation to the qibla and the orientation of the whole building. Actually, most of the things we can see here in the galleries—like the lamps, parts of a wooden minbar, Qur'an holder, beautiful Iznik tiles, the carpets—we have to put them back into their original context. So one of these contexts is the mosque.
Walter Denny: So for those of us who are not Muslims, it's important for us to remember, then, that many of these beautiful things have a context that, for a Muslim, has a very deep religious meaning.