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KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Five Pillars of Islam, Arabic, calligraphy (kufic, thuluth, and muhaqqaq scripts), Mecca, Qur'an, madrasa (religious school), Iran, tilework
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS UNIT
Mihrabs, like this example from Iran, are central architectural features of mosques and many Islamic religious schools all over the world.
A mihrab is a niche in the wall of a mosque or religious school (madrasa) that indicates the direction of Mecca (qibla), which Muslims face when praying. It is the architectural and symbolic focal point of religious buildings.
This mihrab is decorated with inscriptions on a background of cobalt blue, turquoise, golden yellow, white, and dark green tile mosaic. The outermost rectangular band contains cursive verses from the Qur'an (9:14–22) describing God as all-knowing and omnipresent. The frame around the niche is decorated with arabesque designs outlined in blue and interspersed with floral blossoms. An inscription from the hadith (Sayings of the Prophet), written in angular kufic script (see also The Development and Spread of Calligraphic Scripts) along the edge of the pointed arch, describes the Five Pillars of Islam. At the center of the mihrab, directly facing the worshippers, an inscription reads: "The Prophet, may peace be upon him, said, 'the mosque is the abode of the pious.'"
This prayer niche comes from a fourteenth-century religious school (Madrasa Imami) in Isfahan, in present-day Iran. Students would have performed their daily prayers here, but would also have gone to the communal mosque on Fridays. This mihrab shows that lavish ornamentation was encouraged rather than shunned, even in religious settings.
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Sheila Canby: The call to prayer reminds pious Muslims five times a day to make their prayers to God. Imam Shamsi Ali, from the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, recites it for us in his beautiful voice.
Navina Haidar: Can you tell what this huge object is made from? Look at the surface. It's made from tile. Each individual shape was cut and painted separately. Then everything was pieced together absolutely perfectly, like an enormous jigsaw puzzle.
Notice the tall section in the middle that curves inward, with the pointed top. That shape tells us that this is a mihrab. In every mosque, a mihrab shaped like this shows the direction towards Mecca, the holy city for Muslims. In the mosque, people face the mihrab wall when they pray.
This dazzling mihrab was made more than six hundred years ago. Look around the outside edge at that thick border of dark blue, with white and turquoise markings. Those are words in Arabic, from the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an. In Islamic art in general, creating beautiful letters is considered one of the most important forms of art. In a mosque, this lettering would often be combined with elaborate patterns, like they are here.
Within the patterns, do you see some shapes that remind you of stars or intertwining flowers? Imagine all the walls inside a mosque being covered in tile patterns and words. Sometimes they are. It's meant to feel like a vision of the heavens, or heavenly gardens.