The Mosque in Islam

The Mosque is the house of prayer in the Islamic faith. A mosque is symbolically very important to Muslims and is a humble way for man to recreate pure divine presence on earth. But mosques are not built according to what is believed to be divine patterns even if they are divinely guided, nor after very clear rules except on some few points. It shall have a clear indication of the direction of Mecca, the Qibla (kible). The indication is in most mosques a mihrab, a niche in the wall. A mosque shall have a roofed area in front of the mihrab and doors can be placed in the walls where the mihrab is not.

Masjid (Mescit) is a word meaning "place for prostration" and were used by the early Muslims for houses of worship, even for other religions. Today the Arabic "Masjid" and the English "Mosque" are used exclusively for religious houses in Islam.

History and Development

Mecca MosqueThe first mosque is the one in Mecca, meaning the area that surrounded the Ka'ba, the most holy shrine. But the model of early mosques was the courtyard of Muhammed's house in Madina, which was constructed in 622 AD. This was organized with a Qibla, first facing in the direction of Jerusalem. To the left of this Qibla, houses for Muhammed's wives were erected. There were three entrances to the courtyard. An area of the courtyard was roofed and here prayer was performed. After 1,5 years the Qibla was changed so that it faced Mecca.

This Madina mosque had social, political, and judicial functions as well as housing Muhammad's family. The religious functions were mixed with other functions. Rules on prayers seem to have not been shaped at the first period, since the prescriptions of the Koran came gradually in these years. Apart from the mosques of Mecca and Madina, one finds some few indications that there were other mosques in the time of Muhammad.

Mosques soon grew into becoming more complex and uniform in their shape. A minbar, the pulpit from where the Friday prayer is held, was placed next to the mihrab. Within few years after the death of Muhammad mosques became such important symbols that when Muslim conquerors established themselves somewhere a mosque was put up first and then the military camp was built around it. This was inspired by the Madina example, but in some principal cities Muslims constructed their mosque in the place that was the center of other religions.

Blue Mosque in IstanbulIn the beginning of Islam, tribes and sects in Islam often marked their independence or their purity by putting up mosques of their own or by defining a certain part of the mosque as their part. Muslims of all creeds are in theory free to enter all mosques, but in reality some mosques are considered inappropriate and a traveling Muslim will try to find a mosque which is used by people belonging to his own creed (Sunnis, Shi'is, and Kharijis are the main division points). But most major mosques, the so called Jami (Cami), are seen upon as neutral and are used by all creeds.

Many mosques of the first centuries were originally churches. Many of these conversions were against the will of the Christians. In many regions Christianity lost its position and churches turned into mosques over time, simply through Muslims using the churches as the religious buildings.

Most mosques today in the Arab territories are closed to non-Muslims, but this was a regulation that was developed through the first century of Islam. There was an increase in the emphasis on the sanctity of the mosque, more and more elements of the mosque was regarded as sacred and any mosque was commonly regarded as "House of God". In Turkey any mosque is open to visitors, non-Muslims can visit them as well.

The design of the mosques developed from very simple to complex structures in short time. In the first mosques erected in Hijaz, orientation was more important than of form. The development of the mosque as it is known now lasted for a period of 80 years. The shape of mosques came in many cases from a mixture of the architecture of conquered territories and of the original patterns.

Selimiye Mosque in EdirneThe addition of minarets, the towers from where the callings are made, and absent in the early mosques, was inspired by religious buildings of other religions. The implementation of minarets were both for embellishment of the mosques and for the functionality of the mosques, as calling for prayer (Ezan) from ground level did not carry more than a few blocks. But for some time after the introduction of the minarets the ezan was still performed with the muezzin walking the streets while inviting for prayer. The first minaret came probably in 703 in Kariouan, Tunisia, almost 100 years after the Madina mosque. But there are written materials suggesting that minarets were erected as early as 665 AD.

The addition of adornments to the mosques was strongly discussed and many Muslims opposed this process and thought of it as a way of jeopardizing what was Muslim, and they disliked letting Christian elements in. This reaction was not farfetched as many architects of early mosques were in fact Christians. Over time many rooms were added to the mosque, rooms used by people of different social classes, people performing their professions in the mosque, travelers, sick and old. Devout and ascetics lived often in the mosque. Other elements inside a mosque are:

  • Dakka, a platform from where the muezzin calls for prayer after he has done this from the minaret.
  • Kursi, a desk and a seat for the Koran and for the reader.
  • Reliquaries, where bodies, parts of bodies, or belongings of religious personalities are kept.
  • Carpets covering the floor of mosques.
  • Lights, both candles and lamps, used for illumination but not ritually.
  • Incense, especially during the festivals.
  • Water in the courtyard, both for ablutions and for drinking.


In the old times or even today in some Arab countries the mosques have often been built by rulers and the administration of the mosques have been financed by Waqfs (Vakif), endowments bringing in revenues. These Waqfs were normally agricultural land, often administered by the donator or members of his family, and could in some cases have a location far away from the mosque it financed. There could be more than one Waqf to each mosque. Mosques with economical problems did often seek for new donators.

While mosques officially have been under the rulers, direct control was difficult because of the economical independence (through Waqfs) as well as the mosque's strength among people. The main donator, and his family were in many cases legally considered the owner of the mosque. In other cases it was the Qadi (kadi), the judge of Sharia, who acted as the main administrator (Nazir) of the mosque. The power of the Nazir was considerable and his position have often given room for intense conflicts between individuals and groups.

The factual leader of Alat in the mosques was the ruler who held the title imam. Local rulers had a parallel position under the title Ala Salat. The position of Khatib is a result of the imam being unable to perform the Salat of Fridays, the Khutba. The Khatib could be a Qadi, and in larger mosques several Khatibs could be appointed.

Today in Turkey most of the new mosques are built by the people living in the neighborhood (with donations), or in case of necessity, religious and charity organizations can build them as well.

Rules for Mosques

Interior of Bursa Ulucami MosqueMosques are centers of cities or of neighborhoods in cities. This function does not always have to be structured but can be connected to mentality, and the construction of a new mosque makes a center emerge. Very few mosques lie in open areas and does not have shops and commercial activities in the streets around it. People's houses are often lying in a second "circle" outside the mosque and the shops. Other social functions have often been connected to mosques, schools, law courts, hospitals, and lodging for travelers. This pattern is based upon the Madina mosque, but is of less importance today as city planning now often use Western models.

When entering the mosque a person shall take off his shoes or sandals. Entering the mosque shall be done with the right foot first, while one utters blessings to Muhammad and his family. Once inside the mosque, two Rak'as shall be performed. A person inside the mosque shall talk softly, not loudly, so that he or she does not disturb people praying. For the Friday prayer nice and clean dress and perfumes are recommended.

Women entering mosques are not prevented through neither the Koran nor the Sunna, but there are regulations on how she shall behave in a mosque. Mosques can be segregated either in time or in space. But in some Muslim countries women entering mosques have not been welcomed and mosques can be closed to women, either by local rules or by habit. In Turkey women can easily go into any mosque.

While the Salat can be performed anywhere, it is considered more meritorious when performed in the mosque and together with other people. The Sunna states that Salat in the mosque is 20 or 25 times more valuable than the one performed in the home.

The Friday prayer or sermon, Khutba (hutbe), is considered to be compulsory for all male Muslims, but the regulations on Khatib and for the Friday mosques (Jami or Cami) are developed over a long period, approximately two centuries. With the strong increase in Jami's from the 9th century, the term "Masjid" was more and more used for small and insignificant mosques. For a period in early Islam, sermons were delivered every day by a Qass, who recited and explained. But the institution of Qass never became widespread and soon disintegrated, and did only continue in Sufism.