The significance of the Prophet’s Mosque in Madīnah
When Prophet Muhammad (SAW) arrived in Madīnah from Makkah (hijrah), the first task relating to the built environment that he embarked on fulfilling was building the city’s central mosque (also called the Prophet’s Mosque). When completed, the form of the mosque was extremely simple. It consisted of an enclosure with walls made of mud bricks and an arcade on the qiblah side (towards Makkah) made of palm-trunks used as columns to support a roof of palm-leaves and mud. There were initially three entrances which pierced the eastern, western and southern walls. The northern wall was the qiblah side facing the al-Masjid al-Aqṣā – which was the first qiblah for about one year and a few months. However, as the qiblah was changed to face south towards Makkah, the southern entrance was subsequently bricked up and a wall on the northern side was pierced. Before the qiblah change there was, in all likelihood, no roofed area in the mosque, but after the change an arcade on the southern side facing Makkah was created. There was no decoration of any kind within or without the mosque.
The following is a standard description of the Prophet’s Mosque as given by most scholars: “In the construction method a stone foundation was laid to a depth of three cubits (about 1.50 meters). On top of that adobe, walls 75 cm. wide were built. The mosque was shaded by erecting palm trunks and wooden cross beams covered with palm leaves and stalks. On the qiblah direction, there were three porticoes, each portico had six pillars. On the rear part of the mosque, there was a shade, where the homeless Muhājirīn took refuge. The height of the roof of the mosque was equal to the height of a man, i.e. about 3.5 cubits (about 1.75 meters)” (Hamid, 1996; p. 226).
(The imaginary initial simple form of Prophet Muhammad’s mosque; from Oleg Grabar, “Art and Culture in the Islamic World”, in: Islam, Art and Architecture, edited by Markus Hattstein & Peter Delius, Cologne: Konemann, 2000, p. 41)
It must be mentioned, however, that the notion of the mosque (masjid) was not instituted, nor were the mosques built, until the envisaged roles and position of the mosque institution in the forthcoming broad-spectrum development of the Muslim community were implanted into the hearts and minds of its custodians and users. The whole of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah, prior to the migration to Madīnah where the first self-governing Muslim community was established, is to be seen in this light. That is to say, the Makkah period is to be seen as the laying of a foundation, as well as the setting up of a conceptual framework, for the Madīnah period where the first physical manifestations of Islamic culture and civilisation came to pass. Hence, Allah (SWT) describes the Qubā’ Mosque (the mosque which the Prophet [SAW] had built in a suburb of Madīnah on the way from Makkah) and its patrons in the following words: “…There is a mosque whose foundation was laid from the first day on piety; it is more worthy of thy standing forth (for prayer) therein. In it are men who love to be purified; and Allah loveth those who make themselves pure” (9:108).
Notwithstanding its unpretentious and rudimentary structure, the Prophet’s Mosque from the very first day served as a real community centre quickly evolving into a multifunctional complex. It was meant not only for performing prayers at formally appointed times but also for many other religious, social, political and administrative functions. The main roles performed by the mosque were as a centre for congregational worship practices, a learning centre, the seat of the Prophet’s government, a welfare and charity centre, a detention and rehabilitation centre, a place for medical treatment and nursing, and a place for some leisure activities (Omer, 2005).
The Prophet’s Mosque was the nerve-centre of the wide spectrum of the activities and aspirations of the fast-emerging Muslim Ummah. The impact of the mosque complex on the development of Madīnah was such that the core of the city eventually grew to be almost ring-shaped, centreing around the complex. Thus, the standard was set for every future Muslim city in terms of the role of its principal mosque(s), as well as its position vis-à-vis the rest of the city spatial components.
So eventful and bustling with life was the Prophet’s Mosque that after several years of existence it started to show signs that it could no longer comfortably accommodate the ever-growing number of worshippers, especially on Fridays. It therefore had to be enlarged, which the Prophet (SAW) did following the conquest of Khaybar in the 7th year after the Hijrah. At first the mosque measured about 35 m by 35 m. After the enlargement, it measured about 50 m by 50 m.
At the outset, the Prophet’s Mosque was very simple because its initial roles were simple, and the mosque’s roles were simple because the Muslim community in Madīnah was in its infancy. In architecture, the three elements – the people’s needs, the function and form – are inseparable, and in the same order they call for each other. However, as the people’s engagements and so their requirements increased, the functions of the mosque multiplied in turn, calling for some noteworthy improvements in the mosque’s original austere form. Thus, during the Prophet’s time, his mosque evolved from a simple roofless and plain enclosure to a complex institution that featured, among other factors, a roofed section, a pavement outside one of its entrances, a minbar (pulpit) and a dakkah or dukkān (seat, bench) for communication purposes, lamps as a means for lighting up the mosque, several compartments that facilitated the various social functions of the mosque, and a person or persons whose job was to keep the mosque clean.
As the Prophet’s Mosque was the centre of gravity in the wide-ranging affairs of the ever expanding Muslim community in Madīnah, its strength and stature epitomised the strength and stature of Islam and the Muslims. The mosque seemed to be accommodative of every beneficial activity concerning worship (‘ibādah), education, politics, economy, security and social relations, which enabled the nascent and ambitious society to make some civilisational headway. The Prophet’s Mosque was the microcosm of the Muslim society in Madīnah and its struggle. Thus, it would be appropriate to say that talking about the Prophet’s Mosque during the time of the Prophet (SAW) is to talk about the people who instituted and then made the most of it. In the same vein, to talk about the stages which the mosque institution went through during the Madīnah period of the Prophet’s mission is to talk about the stages which the Muslim community, and with it the Muslim mentality and spirituality, went through.
While exemplifying the strength and eminence of Islam and Muslims, the evolution of the Prophet’s Mosque also exemplified in no less remarkable terms the Prophet’s contributions to the evolution of the identity of Islamic architecture. In fact, the origins of all the major principles of Islamic architecture can be traced back to the Prophet (SAW) and his experiences while advancing the position of his mosque in Madīnah from a simple unroofed enclosure to a multifunctional community development centre. Such principles, which are generally the principles of Islamic architecture, can be summarized as being: 1) Function–form relationship, 2) Respect for the environment, 3) Cleanliness, 4) Comprehensive excellence, 5) Promoting just social interactions, 6) “lā ḍarar wa-lā ḍirār” (There is no inflicting or returning of harm), 7) Indigenous versus foreign influences.