Respect for the environment
In architecture, utmost respect for the environment must be displayed. The way architecture is conceived, created and used must confirm that there is a peaceful co-existence between people and the environment, and between the realms of natural and built environments. Architecture must be an environment-conscious enterprise, realizing and then inviting and accommodating nature’s advantages, and also realising and then repelling its disadvantages. In other words, architecture must be sustainable.
At the very outset of the mosque-building process, the Prophet (SAW) taught his companions a lesson in sustainable use of the environment. In a place earmarked for building the Prophet’s Mosque were the graves of some pagans, and there were some date palms on it. The Prophet (SAW) ordered that the graves of the pagans be dug up, the unlevelled land be levelled, and the trees be cut down. The cut date palms were not wasted. Rather, they were later reused as an alignment towards the qiblah of the mosque forming a wall (al-Bukhārī, 8: 420).
We have already said that at first, the Prophet (SAW) used to lean against a tree absorbed by building or just a palm-trunk fixed in the ground when delivering his addresses (khuṭbah) in the mosque. However, some time later, a pulpit (minbar) was made for him. On the first occasion when the Prophet (SAW) used the pulpit and abandoned the palm-trunk, the latter yearned and even cried like an infant because it was sad and it missed the Prophet (SAW) knowing that the Prophet (SAW) did not need it anymore. The Prophet (SAW) then descended from the pulpit, came to the trunk and rubbed it with his hands till the tree stopped crying. The trunk (tree) stayed where it was until the mosque was rebuilt and enlarged by the third caliph Uthman ibn ‘Affan when it was either buried somewhere in the mosque proper or was taken away by the Prophet’s companion Ubayy ibn Ka’b. The latter kept the trunk (tree) with him until it was eaten by woodworms (Al-Samhūdī, 1997).
Also, the ground of the mosque was bare at first. However, one night it rained profusely and the ground became too wet to be prostrated on. As a result, some people brought along some pebbles to overcome the problem. After prayer, having seen what some of his companions had done, the Prophet (SAW) said, “This is a very good idea” (Al-Samhūdī, 1997; p. 655). Afterwards, the whole area of the mosque was strewn with pebbles (Al-Samhūdī, 1997).
Strewing the mosque ground with pebbles proved very advantageous as pebbles allowed rainwater to go through to the ground and once absorbed by it no muddy areas could thus be created inside the mosque. During dry spells, on the other hand, the ground without pebbles would have been dusty and the mosque ambiance occasionally unpleasant, as dust could be easily stirred up and fill the air. Since the mosque ground was covered with pebbles, it took a longer time to dry out after rain, or after any ground watering exercise, thus allowing for longer evaporation and cooling of the surface. In the winter, no matter how uncomfortably cold pebbles might have been, yet the condition was by far better than one generated by bare and frequently wet ground. Also, the presence of pebbles was very helpful because generally some of the thermal qualities of many stone types are that they have a high level of resistance and a low level of thermal conductivity.
Since cleanliness – be it the cleanliness of the body, dwelling places, courtyards, streets, markets, rivers and the whole surroundings – constitutes a branch of faith (īmān) in Islam, as declared by the Prophet (SAW) (Muslim, 3: 328), Islamic architecture must be known for typifying and promoting it. The Prophet (SAW) was very much concerned about the cleanliness of the whole of the city-state of Madīnah in general, and about the cleanliness of his mosque in particular. He also said that Allah is clean and loves cleanliness (al-Tirmidhī, 43: 2723). When the Prophet’s Mosque was first put in use in the beginning, some people were not totally cleanliness-conscious; they were most likely those who had freshly entered the fold of the new religion. Among other things, they had the habit of spitting and expectorating phlegm inside the mosque without doing away with it afterwards or covering it up. The Prophet (SAW) disliked the habit very much but the matter needed to be cured gradually and with a great deal of wisdom and goodly counsel. Thus, he advised those who did this that phlegm be scraped off and the place be overlaid with saffron or crocus (za‘farān) or anything else which is pleasant and fragrant. The Prophet (SAW) himself on a couple of occasions scraped off some people’s spit after having seen that it had been left behind. He would likewise shower with praises those who did the same. Towards this end there is a ḥadīth (tradition) wherein the Prophet (SAW) said that whoever does away with a disturbance from a mosque, God will build a house for him in Paradise (Jannah) (Ibn Mājah, 5: 749). In the mosque, there always was plenty of water meant for the cleanliness of the mosque as well as its users (Muslim, 34: 4682).
An Abyssinian (Ethiopian) woman (or man, according to some sources) later took up the chore of looking after the cleanliness of the mosque. So high a regard did the Prophet (SAW) have for her that he told her one day that a double portion of reward would await her. When she died, however, some people treated her as of little consequence and buried her without informing the Prophet (SAW). However, on discovering that she was missing, he asked concerning her. When told what had happened, he replied that they should have informed him. Then, he asked to be shown her grave where he prayed for her (al-Bukhārī, 8: 438).
Islamic architecture with all its aspects must embody the notion of comprehensive excellence because this is what is prescribed for Muslims in all situations and in all of their undertakings. The spirit of excellence and the striving for it must be felt at every stage and in every aspect of the process of creating buildings, from choosing a site and conceptualising and making a design, over a selection of building materials and quality of work, to the final execution of buildings and the activation of their function as environment-friendly, energy-efficient, and catering to the exact needs of their users. Excellence is to be a culture; it is not to be reduced to a mere slogan. Excellence is to be seen, not just heard.
Striving for excellence is what Allah loves and what Islamic cultures and civilization ought to be famous for. Conversely, deliberate mediocrity, or that which stems from routine negligence or indolence, is what Allah loathes and what ought to be alien to genuine Islamic cultures and civilization. Due to both its conceptual and practical connotations, the significance of the concept of comprehensive excellence had to be advocated during the earliest stages of building the Madīnah community. That was exactly what happened. Building his mosque as the first urban element in the course of urbanizing the city of Madīnah, the Prophet (SAW) used that opportunity to educate the Muslims on many issues including that of comprehensive excellence.
It is reported that in course of building the mosque a man from Ḥaḍramawt in the southern Arabian Peninsula was expertly treading clay for the making of the bricks with which the mosque was built. On seeing him, the Prophet (SAW) said, “May Allah have mercy upon him who excels in his profession.” To the man he said, “Keep doing this job for I see that you excel in it.” (Al-Samhūdī, 1997; p. 333)
Another man from al-Yamāmah in the east of the Arabian Peninsula reported that he came to the Prophet (SAW) when the latter was building his mosque with his companions. However, he realised that the Prophet (SAW) did not really like how the people worked. The man said that he then took a shovel to work the clay and the Prophet (SAW) seemed to have liked how he was doing the job. The Prophet (SAW) then said: “Leave al-Ḥanafī (the man’s name) and the clay alone, for I see that he is the most competent among you to handle the clay.” (Al-Samhūdī, 1997; p. 333). In another account, the Prophet (SAW) said, “Bring al-Yamāmī (another name for the man) closer to the clay because he is the most excellent among you in handling it” (Al-Samhūdī, 1997; p. 334). The Prophet (SAW) is also said to have called the man “the proprietor or lord of the clay, ṣāḥib al-tīn” (Al-Samhūdī, 1997; p. 334).
(The section of the Prophet’s mosque today, which was the mosque’s original site during the Prophet’s time.)