The Origin of the Mosque

The Arabic word for mosque “masjid” means “place of prostration (in prayer)” For Muhammad the Grand Mosque always remained the Holy House in Mecca (Sura 2:144). Opponents of Islam were excluded from visiting the Grand Mosque (Sura 9:17-18 in the 9th year after the Hijra)

Initially, Muslims performed the “salat”, mandatory prayer five times a day, in private homes or in the open air until Muhammad arrived in Medina. Here the first mosque was established. According to tradition Muhammad rode into Medina on a camel. The camel, of its own accord, came to a halt on a particular plot of land. Thereupon Muhammad bought the piece of land and built his house on it. The house included a place of prayer; the first mosque.

                The Arabic culture had no outstanding architecture. Even the idolatrous shrine in Mecca in the 7th century was an unattractive structure, made simply of wood and stone. Islam adopted elements of artistry for mosque building from the peoples it conquered. However, the simple floor plan with an open courtyard and the roofed prayer hall, that go back to Muhammad’s house in Medina, has never changed since that time. That is why we find no other furniture besides a small cupboard for the Koran and other books. Later details and decoration were added, one special innovation being the minaret. In his day, Muhammad had the call to prayer resound from the high roof of a house. Many churches, synagogues and temples in conquered territories were converted into mosques, i.e. the pictures were painted over and a wall facing Mecca was used as the prayer direction. There are various kinds of mosque including open mosques, mosques with domes, mosques housing tombs (controversial in the Hadith) with their worship of relics, and Persian mosque–medrese complexes. The most famous mosques besides the Holy Site in Mecca are the mosque in Medina, the Great Mosque in Damascus and finally the “Al-Masdschid al-aksa” (constructed A.D. 691; Sura 17:1) on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem


Utilization of a Mosque

Many hadiths reveal that not everything done in mosques was exactly ‘holy’. Today general rules of appropriate conduct apply. They include restraint from shouting and the requirement that male Muslims wear perfume for Friday worship. Further, women must wear a headscarf and pray where they cannot be seen by men. In addition, dead bodies are not to be laid out in the mosque but in front of the mosque. In Islam there is no separation of religion and politics, so the mosque has also always been used as a social and political centre, in which business is conducted and court proceedings take place. Theologically it has been used as the place to recite the Koran, as a school of learning, a scientific institute and a library. It has also functioned as a hospital, as accommodation for journeying and homeless Muslims, and as a place to relax and converse. City tradesmen and craftsmen sit in shops in the central bazaar, which are for the most part attached to the main mosque.


Parts of a Mosque

The Arabic word “manara”, from which our word “minaret” is derived, originally meant the watch tower at the coast, from which messages were transmitted as light signals.

Mihrab (or qibla) is the prayer niche in a wall indicating the direction of Mecca. This wall is the most important in the mosque and has always been richly decorated. Since the year 709 A.D. it has been accentuated by the prayer niche. It is not regarded as holy.

To the right of the prayer niche is the “minbar”; the elevated pulpit used for the Friday sermon (khutbah). The sermon (5 to 10 minutes in length) is delivered standing, just as Muhammad had done, from one of the lowest steps of the short staircase. Only Muhammad used to preach from the highest step. Initially it had only three steps. The congregation sits on the floor. Swearing a false oath on or beside the “minbar” means certain punishment in hell.

 “Kursi” is a desk and seat for the Koran reader (kari). From here he addresses the congregation during the week or on religious holidays for up to 30 minutes. On Fridays the address is given before Friday prayers. The desk is placed next to the “dakka” when one is available.

“Dakka”, a wooden or stone podium, is in alignment with the prayer niche. From this podium the set prayer movements are synchronised and repeated for the worshippers who are praying further back in the courtyard. Large mosques, for the most part, also have an area reserved for women next to the dakka. Generally though, women are not encouraged to go to the mosque.

Lamps and chandeliers are important parts of the mosque. Especially during Ramadan the mosque is festively lit up outside as well. Before entering the mosque shoes are removed and put on the shelves provided so that all uncleanness is kept outside. Rugs or carpets with small units mark where the worshippers should stand. For Friday prayers they have to form themselves almost militarily in straight rows. Songs of praise to God are not sung in mosque worship services. A prayer time in the mosque is worth 20 to 25 times as much as prayer times at home.

“Maqsura”, an enclosure for rulers close to the prayer niche, was separated from the common people by a screen.

Midaa”, washing facilities for ablutions are necessary because without ritual cleanliness the prayer will not be acceptable to God.

Koran suras, the names of ‘the four rightly guided caliphs’ and Muhammad’s name can be found as inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy in the dome or on the walls of the mosque. Figurative depictions are forbidden for Muslims.

On Friday in the early afternoon a sermon, the so called “khutba”, is preached from the “minbar” by the “hodscha”. It consists of a speech praising Allah and Muhammad. The prayer leader of the “salat”, the “imam” employed by the mosque, stands in front of the prayer niche during the prayers. A mosque with regular Friday prayer is called a “jama” (Turk. “cami”).


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