In Islam, the functions of buildings are to be optimised. Buildings are created to be at the complete service of their users. As a result of this principle, the Prophet’s Mosque eventually evolved into a multifunctional community centre catering to the spiritual, social, educational and political needs of the nascent but dynamic Muslim community.
Function is more important than form. The role of the form is a supportive and complementing one to the functions of buildings. Thus, it is inappropriate for people to become obsessed with the mere forms of buildings and treat them in isolation from the requisites of the functions and purposes of buildings. It was reported that some of the Prophet’s companions from the ranks of the Helpers one day brought a considerable amount of money to the Prophet (SAW), telling him, “How long shall we pray under these palm-leaves (referring to the simple conditions in the Prophet’s Mosque)? Take this, build and adorn the mosque (zayyinhu) (that is to say, improve its physical condition).” The Prophet (SAW) did not reprimand them and their proposal but retorted, “I have no intention to differ from my brother Musa (Moses); an arbour like the arbour of Musa”. The arbour of the prophet Musa is said to have been so low that he could touch the roof if he raised his hand, or when he stood up, his head could touch it, as reported in another account (Al-Samhūdī, 1997).
There is nothing inherently wrong with the form in buildings, especially if the form is justifiable on the strength of the functions and purposes of buildings. If such is not the case, however, then the form becomes inappropriate. Whenever a genuine need called for improving the physical appearance of his mosque, such as in the cases of roofing the mosque, paving a section outside one of the mosque’s entrances, creating a minbar (pulpit) and a dakkah or dukkān (seat, bench), providing lamps, enlarging the mosque, and so on, the Prophet (SAW) was very supportive. He never hesitated for a moment to sanction such initiatives which, in fact, were meant to facilitate the functions of the mosque and to help it realise its objectives. The mosque’s performance depended on such initiatives.
Let us now refer to the circumstances in which the introduction of the minbar (pulpit), the dakkah or dukkān (seat, bench), the roof and the lamps to the mosque’s fabric took place, and how the Prophet (SAW) had reacted to them (Omer, 2005).
The Prophet (SAW) is said to have been delivering his addresses in his mosque leaning against a palm-tree, or a palm-trunk fixed in the ground. However, after the number of Muslims had grown, it became difficult for everyone to see and hear properly the Prophet (SAW). The matter was compounded by the wish of the Prophet (SAW) to have something to sit on in case he got tired of standing while speaking. It was thus suggested to him to allow a pulpit (minbar) to be made and then placed in the mosque to which he, after consulting his nearest companions, consented. The minbar was like a chair consisting of three steps. On the third and the last the Prophet (SAW) used to sit, keeping his feet on the second (al-Bukhārī, 43: 3560).
In view of the Prophet’s Mosque having been the seat of the Prophet’s government, messengers representing external tribes and communities would normally go straight away to the mosque, most of the time finding the Prophet (SAW) therein with his companions, engrossed in a beneficial pursuit. However, the Prophet (SAW) was so similar to others in both apparel and demeanour that strangers would, as a rule, find it quite difficult to recognize him. Thus, they had to ask some of the Prophet’s companions who the Prophet (SAW) actually was. In order to avoid this inconvenience, some companions suggested that a dukkah or dukkān (seat, bench) be made in the mosque on which the Prophet (SAW) would sit in public assemblies flanked by his companions. The proposal was consented to, and a seat of clay slightly raised off the ground was built (al-Nasā’ī, 47: 4905). The pillar which later stood there is called the Pillar of Delegations.
As said earlier, at the very beginning, no section of the Prophet’s Mosque was roofed. However, after sometime, when the people complained about hot weather and to what extent it troubled them in prayers, a roof of palm-leaves supported by palm-trunks as columns on the qiblah side was built. Mud was later added so as to prevent rain dripping onto the ground of the mosque. (Al-Samahudī, 1997) Certainly, rain too, especially during the cold season, contributed to the introduction of a solid roof so that its negative effects could be reduced. A companion, Abū Sa‘īd al-Khuḍrī, once described the initial conditions of the mosque – most probably when it had only a simple roof of the branches of date palms before mud was added to it, and before the mosque ground was strewn with pebbles: “A cloud came and it rained till the roof started leaking, and in those days the roof used to be of the branches of date palms. Iqāmah (signaling the beginning of prayer) was pronounced and I saw the Prophet (SAW) prostrating in water and mud and even I saw the mark of mud on his forehead” (al-Bukhārī, 10: 638).
Originally, the people used to light up the mosque by burning up palm fronds. Only sometime later were lamps introduced. Abū Sa‘īd al-Khuḍrī reported that a companion called Tamīm al-Dārī was the first who lit up the mosque with lamps (Ibn Mājah, 5: 752). The Prophet (SAW) was delighted and his comment was, “You have lit up Islam, may Allah light up both this world and Hereafter for you”. (Al-Kattānī, 1980).
(An imaginary form of Prophet Muhammad’s mosque, after Caliph al-Walid b. Abd al-Malik had rebuilt it in the year 88 AH / 706 AC; from Robert Hillenbrand, “Islamic Architecture”, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994, p. 72)
(The plan of Prophet Muhammad’s mosque after Caliph al-Walid b. Abd al-Malik’s reconstruction; from K.A.C. Creswell, “A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture”, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1989, p. 44)