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 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.
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.