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Mosque: History and Tradition


The mosque is a built facility with certain unique characteristics for Muslim prayer, as well as an institution dedicated to maintaining community life. As a building its primary and minimal role is to accommodate a congregation that performs its ritual prayers in formation while oriented toward Kaʿbah in Mecca. As an institution it marks the sociocultural existence of a Muslim community, acting both as its center and its emblem.


The original Arabic word for mosque is masjid (plural, masājid ), meaning a place of sujūd, the highly symbolic act of prostration (before God) during alāt (ritual prayer), when the whole body reaches its lowest position and the forehead is placed on the earth in a prescribed manner. Since alāt is universally performed in Arabic, its constituent stages, including sujūd, and its place, masjid, have maintained their Arabic form in Persian, Urdu, Turkish and other dialects of the Muslim world. The anglicized word mosque is widely used, and its transformation from masjid can be traced through the Egyptian masqid, Italian moscheta or moschea, Spanish mezquita, and French mousquaie or mosquee. The etymological source for masjid can be traced back to the Aramaic verbal root s-g-d and the word msgd used for Nabatean and Abyssinian sacred places.

The Two Sanctuaries of Sacred History

The Qurʾān presented itself as a continuation and completion of earlier monotheistic revelations through Abrahamic messengers, including Moses and Jesus. The people holding on to those revelations were called ahl al-kitāb (People of the Book), and they asserted that they were in posession of revealed books that preceded the Qurʾān. These messengers were introduced as followers of the path of submission (s-l-m, the root word for Islam) to the same One God to whom Muammad was inviting everyone (Qurʾān 3:66). It is little wonder then that Kaʿbah in Mecca, whose construction is directly associated with Abraham and his son Ishmael, is identified in verses in the Qurʾān, as bayt (house), and the precinct around it as al-Masjid al-aram (the sanctified mosque). Beyond the historical existence of the word masjid before Islam, these verses suggest Muammad's mission to restore the sanctity of Masjid al-aram and reestablish the centrality of Abrahamic Kaʿbah as bayt Allāh (the house of God) for all the People of the Book, including Muslims (Qurʾān 2:125128, 3:9697, 5:97).

Masjid al-aksa (the remotest mosque) is mentioned in the Qurʾān (7:1): " Praise be to Him who made His servant (Muammad) journey in the night from al-Masjid al-aram to al-Masjid al-aqsa which We have surrounded with blessings to show him of our signs." This verse was revealed during the last year in Mecca before hijrah (migration) to Medina. There have been disagreements among historians and Qurʾanic scholars as to the exact identity and location of this "remotest mosque." It is possible to conclude, however, that the term masjid here has been used for a place that existed at the time of this revelation but was not built by Muammad or his followers, as they were still in Mecca. If it refers to the destination of Miʿrāj (ascension) as a heavenly precinct of the throne of God, then it can only be imagined in a metaphoric sense and not as an earthly mosque. If it refers to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, then it could only be referring to the memory and continued sanctity of the site associated with the devotions of the prophets Elijah, Abraham, David, and Solomon and not the actual physical presence of the Temple of the Lord (2 Chr. 3:1), which had been detroyed in 586 bce and then again in 70 ce. The Masjid al-aqsa verse revealed around 621 ce, and Muammad's elaborations of his miraculous journey to the Temple Mount and then ascension to heaven (Miʿrāj), brought Jerusalem and its sanctuary (Hebrew, Har Hebayit ; Arabic, Haram esh-Sharif) into Muslim consciousness as a remote though unseen place of prostrations (masjid ) of earlier prophets. Jerusalem, the city of David and Solomon, thus became analogous to Mecca, the city honored as the "first house" of God built by Abraham and Ismael (Qurʾān 3:9697). The two arams (sanctuaries) of Mecca and Jerusalem had thus defined for Muammad and his followers the goal of an Abrahamic axis and a shared religious geography of the monotheism. In this context the sequential adoption of Jerusalem and then Mecca for the qiblah (prayer orientations) from Medina makes more sense than the oft-implied political strategy in Muammad's choice and then rejection of Jerusalem in favor of "his" ancestral Mecca. In fact, early Islam's ecumenical attitude toward ahl al-kitāb of Syria is demonstrated through the rebuilding of the Temple Mount and accommodating policies of Jewish and Christian prayer during the first century after the conquest in 638 ce, especially when compared with the pre-Islamic treatment by their Byzantine and Roman predecessors.

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina

In Mecca, Muammad and his followers became progressively disenfranchised by the ones whose pagan and tribal traditions were challenged by Islam. Muslims who called for return to the One God of Abraham could not pray without harassment in the Masjid al-aram around the sanctuary of Kaʿbah, whose very existence was credited to monotheism (Qurʾān 2:214, 5:3, 8:34, 22:25). They prayed alone or in small numbers in residences. The Prophet sometimes led a group prayer at the houses of Muammad's wife Khadījah and his friend Abū Bakr, but they never had what could justifiably be called a mosque.

Having failed to dissuade Muammad from his mission for over a decade, the Meccans planned his assassination. He decided to migrate to a welcoming settlement called Yathrib (later Medina), some three hundred miles north. The year was 620 ce, and the event is called hijrah (migration), which marks the beginning of the new Muslim lunar calendar. There are different traditions about what has come to be known as the first mosque in Medina, masjid al-Kuba. One tradition suggests that it was used as a place of prayer by those who anticipated Muammad's arrival and that he stayed there for some days. Another tradition suggests that the Prophet founded this mosque himself, and even after he established the main mosque in Medina, he made a practice of praying there every Saturday. The Qurʾanic reference to this mosque as the one "whose foundation was laid from the first day on piety (taqwa )," especially when it is presented in contrast with masjid al-dhirar (mischief), later constructed to create infidelity and division in the community, makes it a reference point in ethical intentions rather than the physical fact of a mosque (Qurʾān 9:107110). Having arrived in Medina, Muammad purchased, rather than accepted as a gift, a piece of land for the mosque from the two orphans who owned it. With the help of his companions he built a modest four-sided enclosure of stone foundations and sun-dried mud bricks. On the outside of the eastern boundary he placed his private chambers (hujurāt, Qurʾān 49:4), whose curtained doors opened into the mosque courtyard. On the north toward Jerusalem, and later on the south side as the qiblah shifted to Mecca, he built shaded porticos (riwāq ) of palm tree trunks and dried palm leaves and clay. There was no mirāb (niche) in the north or the south wall yet. Muammad's presence as leader of the communityand his staff, which he leaned on while delivering sermonsestablished the qiblah orientation. There was no minaret, as the call to prayer was either from the courtyard or from a nearby roof. There was no formal mimbar (stepped pulpit), though he did use makeshift platforms to raise himself to be seen while speaking to large gatherings. In spite of an apparent lack of formality in religious practices, political protocol, communal gatherings, and architectural furnishings in this austere compound, the adīth literature and the corresponding verses of the Qurʾān suggest much intensity in this mosque as the formative principles of sharī ʿah, the structure of Islamic life, were being formed. There Muammad taught the Qurʾān as revealed to him, elaborated upon the commandments, led the ritual prayers, received delegations, settled disputes, planned campaigns, assigned tasks, and socialized with his family and community. This place became the crucible for genetic codes that are at the core of continuity in basic religious practices and institutions, especially the mosque, all across the Muslim world.

Beyond the Prophet's Mosque

The historical distance between Muammad's death (632 ce) and the formalization of both his adīth (sayings) and sīra (life) literature, especially considering the internal strifes and partisanships during that period, can justifiably stir some doubts about the accuracy of some narrations about the happenings in the Masjid al-Nabi. It is noteworthy, however, that the patterns, if not the exact details, associated with that mosque have become widely accepted as the reference for the purest forms of Islam as intended by God and lived out by his messenger. It is this memory of Muammad, constructed with direct reference to his mosque and his city, that is fundamental to the codification of Islamic practices. And if the leader, the state, and the city as Islamic polity is absent, the mosque becomes its primary home and essential ecology. It is little wonder then that any Muslim community idealizes its mosque as a place where there is an imām (leader) worthy of the Qurʾanic knowledge, where adīth is rehearsed, where jamaʿat (congregation) is established, and where a communal life is modeled on Muammad's example and the legacy of his companions. The development of mosque in history can thus be presented briefly as a mostly positive but sometimes negative interpretation of one or more of the traditions of the Prophet's mosque.

DĀr al-ImĀra and Masjid al-JamĪʿ

During Muammad's time the intimacy between the leader and his community was maintained by his unique status and was facilitated by the physical adjacency of his residence and the mosque. When the new settlements of al-Basra and al-Kufa in Iraq and al-Fustat in Egypt were established, the Muslim governors, who represented the Khalīfa in Medina, maintained the pattern of the Prophet's mosque as both the religious and administrative center. However, factors like local histories of conquered lands, sheer increase of numbers, tribal tensions within the army, ethnic diversity among new converts, and increasing fear of assasinations led to the development of the more secure dār al-Imāra (residence of the commander) with a prison and dīwān (treasury) that formed one complex in the heart of the new city. In Syria, where the existing structures of Damascus were adapted as the capital of the dynastic caliphate of Umayyads, the existing Roman and Byzantine church was transformed into the Umayyad Mosque and the adjacent palace converted to the dār al-Imāra with a secure connection for the ruler-commander-caliph to enter the mosque from his qiblah wall side, avoiding having to walk through the congregation and risking assassination attempts. Maqsūra, the secure enclosure, was introduced for the ruler to speak from. While the symbolic unity of the place of communal prayer and the place of governance was maintained through sermons and edicts in the name of the ruler, the two started to develop clearer and harder boundaries and ultimately started to become different buildings.

Impractical distances between the original center of the city with its great mosque and the ruler's palace (as in the newly founded Abbasid city of Baghdad) and the expanded periphery of Muslim settlements, as well as a dramatic increase in population, led to the evolution of a religious geography of primary and secondary centers. Primary were the mosques in which the community formed the obligatory Friday congregation (Qurʾān 62: 911) and took the name masjid al-jamaʿah (also masjid al-jumʿah or masjid al-jamiʿ, "place of assembly"). Later they were called al-jamīʿ or simply jamīʿ, meaning the place where the Friday khubah (sermon) is delivered. Secondary centers were small mosques (masājid ) where the immediate neighborhood could conveniently offer the daily prayers.

Seats of Learning and Academies for Training

Because it was in the capital city, the central masjid often had the patronage of the ruler or that of a high-ranking minister of the court, and it usually expanded into a complex with colleges, libraries, hostels, kitchens, and infirmaries. Among many similiar cases, the example of Jamia al-Azhar, founded in Cairo by the Fāimids (970 ce), illustrates such an interpretation of the legacy of the Prophet's mosque as a seat of learning. It is instructive to note that Jamia in this sense implies a gathering of faculties (kulliye ), much like a modern university. However, as various sects and schools of law hardened in their respective interpretations of Islam, the mosques started to get identified as such. The character of their associated institution transformed from a university-like environment to that of madrasah, where the aim was less to nurture an inquiring and critical scholar and more to train an evangelical protagonist of a particular madhab (sect) and fiqh (jurisprudence). Many governments in Muslim history supported such mosque-madrasah institutions to prepare individuals trained in particular Muslim schools of thought.

For Remembrance of God

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Prophet and his mosque is rooted in the Verses of Light (Qurʾān 24:3637). The first verse, through a rich yet imaginable parable, introduces the likeness of God's light as an unearthly, dreamlike "lamp in a niche." The second verse states that this light resides in the "houses which God has permitted to be elevated to honored status; for the celebration in them of His name and His glorification in the mornings and the evenings, again and again." In the verses that follow one can see the distinctions created between those who remember in these mosques and those who are distracted or even deny the necessity of this rememberance. Beyond having provided sustained inspiration for the ambience of interior mosque space from the qiblah wall to the mirāb, the light in the mirāb, the lights in the prayer hall, the niches for keeping the Qurʾān, and the designs of the prayer rugs (sijjādah ), the Verse of Light is one of the most frequently calligraphed in the mosques. This attitude toward the mosque as a place where a totally noncorporeal omnipresent God could "reside" through individual and collective rememberance of believing humans is corroborated by many other verses (Qurʾān 2:114, 9:1718, 72:18), which has led to the pervasive belief among Muslims that every mosque is the "house of God." The understandable desire to build a "house" for God, especially with the adīth promise that for anyone who builds a mosque on this earth God will build an equivalent house in paradise, led to many mosques commemorating his blessings. Kings, conquerors, princes, and successful businesspeople commissioned such projects with revenue-generating endowments (awqāf) to maintain the building and charitable services like kitchens and the staff who kept such a complex alive. Often such projects encompassed a mausoleum-graveyard of the patron's family, with the idea that the grace of the mosque and charity will help deliverance of their souls on the Day of Judgment. It is important to note that whereas the state mosque continued the Prophet's legacy as the governing leader of the community, the devotional mosque preserved those aspects of Islam's spiritual legacy that had started to become victims of political contingencies. Thus the Prophet's mosque, while maintaining some fundamental ritual and formal structure, had to metamorphose into specialized categories.

Mosques, Prophets, and Saints

There is a fine line between a locationespecially the burial place of a prophet, an imām, a saint, or a martyrremaining a place of commemoration or becoming a focus for worship parallel with the worship of God. Muslim history has walked a fine and careful line between the veneration of sites that preserve the sacred memories of a great religious personality or even a qiblah -oriented congregation in a mosque with an unshared intention to pray to no one except God. With reference to the Qurʾanic story of the ashāb al-kahf (companions of the cave) (Qurʾān 18:222), it is important to note that the prevailing party of believers erected a masjid over the place to memorialize them while making sure that it was the mosque that was used for prayers to God, rather than the "cave," which could have become the object of idolatory. Likewise, while the Prophet's mausoleum continues to assert his historical presence in his own mosque, the activities of the mosque are totally aimed at the continuation of his mission to establish and maintain a God-conscious, God-directed community based on the Abrahamic monotheistic axis. It is also in this sense that all mosques of the world, whatever particular national, cultural, or historical motivations they have been built upon, maintain the continuity of Muammad's Abrahamic mission.

See Also

aram and Hawtah; Madrasah; alāt; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Muslim Worship.


The classic study is Johannes Pedersen's article "Masdjid," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 19131936). A basic study of the monument is Jean Sauvaget's La mosquée omeyyade de Médine (Paris, 1947); and a brief survey is Lucien Golvin's La mosquée (Algiers, 1960). See also K. A. C. Creswell's Early Muslim Architecture, 2d ed., vol. 1 (Oxford, 1969); Oleg Grabar's "Islamic Religious Art: The Mosque," in The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven, Conn., 1973), and "The Architecture of the Middle Eastern City from Past to Present: The Case of the Mosque," in Middle Eastern Cities, edited by Ira M. Lapidus (Berkeley, Calif., 1979); Doğan Kuban's Muslim Religious Architecture, pts. 12 (Leiden, 19741985); J. S. Thomine's "La mosquée et la madrasa," Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 13 (1970): 97115; James Dickie's "Allah and Eternity: Mosques, Madrasahs, and Tombs," in Architecture of the Islamic World, edited by George Michell (London, 1978); Rashid Ahmad's Mosque: Its Importance in the Life of a Muslim (London, 1982); Robert Hillenbrand's Islamic Architecture (New York, 1994); Martin Frishman and Hasan-Uddin Khan, eds., The Mosque (London, 1994); and Renata Holod and Hasan-Uddin Khan, The Mosque and the Modern World (London, 1997).

Syed Gulzar Haider (2005)

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