The Development of the Architecture of the Islamic Mosque
For much of man’s history, there was no distinction, as we would think of it today, between the “secular” world and the spiritual world. When looking at the totality of the human experience, such a distinction is a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of history, all of man’s artistic creations were done in the service of the supernatural, as offerings to the gods or goddesses that ruled their world. This is seen in everything from the earliest paintings and sculptures to the architecture of houses of worship, from Greek Temples to Catholic Churches to Islamic Mosques. As one of the youngest –relatively speaking- of the larger religions, the cultivation of the architecture utilized for Mosques has a singular and unique history.
The culture of the Islamic religion is uniquely woven into the daily lives and routines of devotees; unlike many of the changes seen in religions like Christianity, where religious worship is often confined to a brief period of the week or day, Muslims have no real division between their spiritual and religious life and their secular life. Prayer is a regular occurrence throughout the day, and a host of traditions and ceremonies define much of the daily life and overall structure of the followers of Islam. As such, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Mosque and its role in the lives of Muslims.
Over time, the Mosque has grown from being simply a place to worship to becoming a central part of life as a Muslim. It is not just used for worship, but is a cultural center and meeting place for Muslims, often offering such things as educational programs, charitable works, and even places where travelers could find shelter. From its humble beginnings, the Mosque has grown to be a central part of Islam, and the manner in which the architecture of Mosques has evolved over the centuries is fascinating.
The earliest Muslims had no particular place to gather to worship. The Cave of Hira, where Mohammed received his first revelations from Allah, was visited by some of the early devotees, but it was hardly serviceable as a meeting place for significant groups of worshippers. The earliest Muslims simply gathered wherever they could, meeting privately to conduct services. The belief was that the entire world was a masjid, or place of prayer (Kuban).
Mohammed preached a monotheistic (one-god) philosophy that differed greatly from the majority of his Arab brethren, who worshipped a great number of gods. In this way, Islam had much in common with Judaism and Christianity, both monotheistic religions. Mohammed himself asserted that Islam was the fulfillment of these earlier religions, and that he was the final “prophet” in a lineage that included Moses, Jesus, and other figures from Chrsitian and Hebrew legends. Because of his perceived heresy, Mohammed was driven out of Mecca and into the desert, where he settled a small area known as Medina (“City of the Prophet). Mohammed would eventually amass an army of 10,000 followers and return to conquer Mecca, establishing it as the geographical and spiritual center of Islam (Kleiner).
The very first “official” Mosque was actually in the home of Mohammed, built in Edinaa. It was a square structure with a mostly open roof built around a central courtyard. Entering onto this courtyard was a series of rooms in which lived the wives of Mohammed. There were also other rooms for dining and other gatherings, as well as spaces for impoverished travelers to occasionally spend the night. At the north end of the compound was an enclosed space, covered by a thatched roof of palm fronds, in which services were conducted. From these simple beginnings, some of the world’s grandest and most beautiful places of worship eventually grew (Kuban).
Along with Mohammed’s home, Medina had several other places in which Muslims could gather for prayer. Most were outdoor areas, and a “small wall, or object, called the sutra, would be placed to signify the direction of Mecca” (Kuban). Most of these other areas were multifunctional, used not just for services but for everything from open-air marketplaces to places for executions. Though Mosques have obviously grown in grandeur over the centuries, the earliest basic designs and traditions developed in that period still guide the construction and design of Mosques to this day (Kuban)