The term masjid refers to the customary place for performing the obligatory ritual prayer (salat) in the Muslim tradition. The Arabic verbal root s-j-d from which the noun derives, denotes the action of bowing down or prostration. Its close cognates in other Semitic languages, meaning a place of worship, predate Islam and allude to sacred venues belonging to other religions.
The Qur˒an contains over twenty references to masjid, in singular and plural, offering ample evidence for the importance of this space in the life of Muslims from the time of the Prophet, although its form and its significance have undergone extensive elaboration as the Islamic civilization took shape and expanded. Thus a variety of related institutions have emerged that are embraced by this same term, normally rendered as mosque in English.
In the Qur˒an, the word most frequently refers to the sanctuary at Mecca, al-masjid al-haram, indicating its uniqueness and centrality while several passages refer to the practices prescribed for it as a site of cult and pilgrimage (e.g., 2:196, 9:28, 48:27).
The first masjid built by Muhammad consisted of the enclosed empty courtyard of his house at Medina. Not only did his followers gather there for collective prayer and preaching, but for many other activities. As the effective seat of government, it served as the center of civil and military administration while also providing space for instruction, social gatherings, and hospitality to strangers. During the Prophet's lifetime the establishment of other masjids for local use appears to have been infrequent as believers were encouraged to regard everyplace as available for the conduct of prayer, although later, masjids began to arise quickly, starting with those locales where it was remembered the Prophet had prayed.
With the spread of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula, new masjids arose, especially in the principal cities such as Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and Cairo, which sought to reproduce the model of Medina. Thus the seat of government and the space for collective prayer were closely conjoined. This architectural fusion of religious and secular functions, in conformity with Islamic teachings, was also represented in the nature of leadership. In time, however, the caliphs and their governors in the provinces ceased to preside at public prayer and to preach themselves, relegating these tasks to pious scholars instead, although these two realms of authority remained linked in Islamic theories of rule.
Hence, the preaching of the sermon (khutba) at the Friday noon prayer—which was initially restricted to one large central masjid in the major cities (a masjid of the type that came to be known as a jami˓, or Friday Mosque)—always entailed the installation of a minbar, a raised platform or pulpit, which symbolically associated the preacher as the spokesman of the legitimate ruler. Later historical transformations, with profound effects on political organization and social structure, redefined this relationship such that today a gathering for the weekly congregational prayer and sermon may occur in almost any masjid. Nevertheless, the classical ideal envisaging a unity of sacred and civil order not only continues to inspire many Muslims, but it is formalized as law in most lands with a majority Muslim population.
In addition to the paradigm of Medina, a second key influence affecting the development of masjids derives from the example of the sanctuary at Mecca. This affiliation appears symbolically in the directional orientation of a masjid, namely the qibla, and in the placement of the empty niche or mihrab, which believers face when praying. But it also resonates in numerous ornamental motifs, such as Qur˒anic calligraphy and in certain expressive patterns of devotion, including localized pilgrimage practices, that emphasize rituals of reverent recollection or dhikr, colorful festivals honoring saints, and a variety of spiritual exercises associated with Sufi teachings.
The construction styles and, to some degree, the uses of masjids have been adapted creatively over the centuries to conditions prevailing in the many settings where Islam was implanted and flourished. In the earlier period, many churches, synagogues, and temples that were converted into masjids contributed significant influences to aspects of subsequent masjid design, helping give rise to highly distinct indigenous idioms exhibited in the size, the shapes, and the lines of minarets, domes, facades, arcades, floor plans, portals, and the internal furnishings characteristic of such particular styles identified, for instance, as Arab, Andalusian, Persian, Mongol, Mamluk, or Ottoman. More recently, a variety of notable contemporary masjids have been erected, not only in the old Islamic heartlands and its periphery, but in Europe and America, often achieving a distinctive synthesis of modern and authentic form.
The rich history of Islamic intellectual life is also deeply rooted in masjids, which often served as schools in addition to their social, political, and religious functions. Frequently under the tutelage of a teacher also fulfilling the role of the local imam or designated prayer leader, masjids not only provided training for children, with a curriculum concentrated on the memorization of the Qur˒an and the acquisition of basic literacy skills, but less formally these same institutions provided advanced instruction, legal counsel, and spiritual guidance to members of the community at large.
A related development inseparable from masjids involves their pivotal place in the establishment and the flourishing of the great medieval centers of learning throughout the Islamic world. This capacity to provide and to maintain fruitful settings for scholarship and inquiry owed much to the privileges traditionally accorded to masjids, which included various juridical protections of resources derived from donations, patronage, or endowments. Although modern schools in the Muslim world, including most universities, follow Western curricular models, masjids retain their distinctive impact in the formation of religious professionals and others seeking to deepen their knowledge of the tradition.
In today's world, most masjids have substantially reduced or shed the wide range of practical involvements that once integrated them on multiple levels into the whole fabric of society. Centralized bureaucracies under state authority have generally taken over the tasks of education, social welfare, the administration of justice, or the maintenance of order, designating specialized institutions and personnel as responsible for providing these services. In most cases, masjids have likewise tended to restrict their work to a more explicitly defined set of religious activities. This trend has been especially evident in traditional Islamic lands, where their construction and supervision is typically funded and managed by a government ministry that appoints those who hold positions in masjids and oversees their operations.
However, this widespread movement toward the incorporation of masjids into national regulatory systems has been accompanied by an array of elite and popular responses featuring the establishment of privately funded masjids, some locally sponsored, others affiliated with larger regional groupings or transnational organizations that may share resources and provide important forms of assistance not readily otherwise available. Many such independent masjids, evincing various ideological orientations and seeking to recover the active autonomy of masjids belonging to a prior era, have come to play a dynamic part in efforts to forge new bases of public participation, promote social improvement, religious renewal, and political reform.
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Patrick D. Gaffney