Some Lessons From Prophet Muhammad (SAW) In Architecture: The Prophet’s Mosque In Madinah


Indigenous versus foreign influences


The Prophet’s Mosque very much epitomised the nature of the Islamic message and the nature of Islamic civilisation that was bound to stem from the former. The mosque promoted the notions of Islam’s finality and universality, as well as the notions of universality and the unity-in-diversity of Islamic civilisation. The mosque was built not only as a communal place of worship but also in order to satisfy the growing needs of the Muslim community which the mosque was endorsing, facilitating their progress and further promoting their authenticity and worth. In other words, the mosque symbolised the message and struggle of Islam. Moreover, it symbolised both the absolute and constant dimensions of Islamic civilisation, as well as the relative and transient ones.

Through its perception, philosophy, purpose and function, the mosque characterized the substance of Islam which is permanent and not subject to change, because it is based on permanent, essential human nature and its needs, as well as on the permanent nature of the whole of existence and its needs. However, when it comes to inventing systems, regulations, views and attitudes so that people’s worldly life is duly comprehended and regulated in accordance with both the absolute substance of Islam and people’s different eras, regions and needs, it is there that the solutions and perceptions become transitory and fluctuate as they signify what people deduced from the fundamental principles and permanent values of life as their best practical solutions and answers.

As a result, the function of the mosque institution always remains the same, whereas its form changes, varies and evolves in response to the various cultures, geographies and climates, and to the changes and developments in people’s socio-economic conditions. The form of the mosque institution is the physical locus of its functions. Hence, changes in the form are inevitable for mosques to function properly. Certainly, this principle applies not only to the mosque but also to all the other aspects of the Islamic built environment. Since the changes in the Islamic built environment are unavoidable and necessary, innovations in the same field, it stands to reason, must be regarded as highly recommended and even obligatory in that the functions of buildings depend on the appropriateness and effectiveness of their forms.

Having said this, the Prophet (SAW) did not hesitate to add anything to the form of his mosque which could enhance its projected roles and stature. At the same time, however, he turned down those suggestions and prospects that could possibly get in the way of maximising the performance of the mosque as the community development centre, in both the spiritual and worldly sense of the term. While doing the former, that is, amplifying the mosque’s facilities so that its performance is enhanced, the Prophet (SAW) was open not only to the indigenous resources, expertise and influences but also to the foreign ones, including those from non-Islamic locales. We have already referred to the prominent roles played by two persons in the course of building the mosque: one from Ḥaḍramawt in the southern Arabian Peninsula, and the other from al-Yamāmah in the eastern Arabian Peninsula, and how much the Prophet (SAW) was delighted by their expertise.

When oil lamps were introduced to the mosque for the sake of illuminating it at night, it should be pointed out that the lamps were brought by a companion called Tamīm al-Darī from Syria, which was a Christian land. The Prophet (SAW) was so happy that he made a prayer for the man, and he named his servant who had set up the lamps in the mosque “Sirāj”, which means “Light” (Al-Kattānī, 1980).

Also, when the minbar or pulpit was introduced to the mosque’s fabric for communication purposes, it should be mentioned that the person responsible for making the minbar was, in all likelihood, again Tamim al-Dari. While conversing with the Prophet (SAW) about the issue, the companion clearly told the Prophet (SAW) that he would make the minbar as he had seen people in Syria making it. What inspired Tamim al-Dari to come up with the idea of the minbar and its design could well have been the pulpit of a Syrian church. Yet, such was not a problem due to the universal appeal of Islam and its civilisation, as well as due to Islam’s open-minded outlook on other people’s cultures and civilisations, with the sole condition that the foreign elements and influences should not collide with the worldview and law of Islam (Sharī‘ah), both outwardly and inwardly.

To this end, certainly, is the declaration of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that the people of stature and influence, or simply, the best ones (khiyārukum), during the time of ignorance (jāhiliyyah), i.e. prior to the advent of Islam and prior to people’s acceptance of it, will remain the best with the best stature and influence after accepting Islam, provided they understood and adhered to it (Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, 6: 9905). In other words, people’s achievements, engagements, positions and ranks prior to Islam will not undergo dramatic changes afterwards, as long as they do not entail elements that are at odds with the spirit and message of Islam, and as long as they make the objectives of Islam their own objectives and the objectives of their aspirations. Moreover, such people’s accomplishments, authority and social standings will be very much needed for the sake of championing and advancing the cause of Islam against its many challenges.

Without doubt, because of this nature of Islam and its attitude towards the cultural and civilisational bequests of the world, custom (‘ādāt) and customary usage (‘urf) are regarded as a source of the rulings of the Islamic law (Sharī‘ah) where there are no explicit texts from either the Qur’ān or the Prophet’s sunnah (tradition) specifying the rulings. It is also a requirement in making custom (‘ādāt) and customary usage (‘urf) a source of Sharī‘ah rulings that there are no contradictions between them and the contents of the Qur’ān and sunnah. About the meaning of custom and customary usage, Abū Zahrah (1970) said, “Custom is a matter on which a community of people agree in the course of their daily life, and common usage is an action which is repeatedly performed by individuals and communities. When a community makes a habit of doing something, it becomes its common usage. So the custom and common usage of a community share the same underlying idea even if what is understood by them differs slightly.”

And about the reasons why ‘ādāt and ‘urf are deemed the appropriate sources of Sharī‘ah, in absence of explicit texts from the Qur’ān and sunnah and when there are no conflicts between the ‘ādāt and ‘urf and the latter, Abū Zahrah (1970) said, “Many judgments are based on ‘urf because in many cases it coincides with public interest… Another reason is that custom necessarily entails people's familiarity with a matter, and so any judgment based on it will receive general acceptance whereas divergence from it will be liable to cause distress, which is disliked in the judgment of Islam because Allah Almighty has not imposed any hardship on people in His dīn. Allah Almighty prescribes what normal people deem proper and are accustomed to, not what they dislike and hate. So when a custom is not a vice and is respected by people, honouring it will strengthen the bond which draws people together because it is connected to their traditions and social transactions whereas opposition to it will destroy that cohesion and bring about disunity.”

So strong is this source of Islamic Sharī‘ah that according to many Muslim jurists, most notably the Mālikites, it makes the general specific and qualifies the unqualified. As for the extent to which the three leading schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh): the Mālikī, Ḥanafī and Shāfi‘ī schools, accept ‘ādāt and ‘urf as a source of Islamic Sharī‘ah, Abū Zahrah (1970) said, “Mālikī fiqh, like Ḥanafī fiqh, makes use of custom and considers it a legal principle in respect of matters about which there is no definitive text. In fact it has an even deeper respect for custom than the Ḥanafi school since, as we have seen, public interest and general benefit are the foundation of Mālikī fiqh in coming to decisions and there is no doubt that respect for a custom which contains no harm is one of the types of benefit. It is not valid for any faqīh to leave it: indeed, it is obligatory to adopt it. We find that the Mālikīs abandon analogy when custom opposes it. Custom makes the general specific and qualifies the unqualified, as far as the Mālikīs are concerned. It appears that the Shāfi‘ites also takes custom into consideration when there is no text. If text dominates in its judgment because people are subject to and do it by way of familiarity and habit. Nothing can prevent them from adopting it except a prohibiting text. Where there is no prohibiting text, then it must be adopted. We find that Ibn Ḥajar stated that custom is acted on it when there is nothing in the custom contrary to a text.”

As a conclusion to this section on the validity, yet inevitability, of integration between indigenous and foreign influences in Islamic architecture, we shall quote Umar Faruq Abdullah (2006) who in his paper on Islam and cultural imperative elaborated on the Prophet’s attitude and the attitude of his companions towards the multifaceted cultural and civilisational legacies of the world which they were set to inherit and whose threads they would weave into a newly-emerging all-inclusive and total Islamic culture and civilisation, “The Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world's cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places. The Prophet and his Companions did not look upon human culture in terms of black and white, nor did they drastically divide human societies into spheres of absolute good and absolute evil. Islam did not impose itself – neither among Arabs or non-Arabs – as an alien, culturally predatory worldview. Rather, the Prophetic message was, from the outset, based on the distinction between what was good, beneficial, and authentically human in other cultures, while seeking to alter only what was clearly detrimental. Prophetic law did not burn and obliterate what was distinctive about other peoples but sought instead to prune, nurture, and nourish, creating a positive Islamic synthesis.”

Much of what became the Prophet's sunnah (Prophetic model) was made up of acceptable pre-Islamic Arab cultural norms, and the principle of tolerating and accommodating such practices among Arabs and non-Arabs alike may be termed a supreme, overriding Prophetic sunnah. In this vein, the noted early jurist, Abū Yūsuf, understood the recognition of good, local cultural norms as falling under the rubric of the sunnah. The 15th century Granadan jurisprudent Ibn al-Mawaq articulated a similar outlook and stressed, for example, that it was not the purpose of Prophetic dress codes to impinge upon the cultural integrity of non-Arab Muslims, who were at liberty to develop or maintain their own distinctive dress within the broad parameters of the sacred law.

The Qur’ān enjoined the Prophet Muhammad to adhere to people's sound customs and usages and take them as a fundamental reference in legislation: “Accept (from people) what comes naturally [for them]. Command what is customarily [good]. And turn away from the ignorant (without responding in kind)” (7:199). Ibn ‘Aṭṭiyyah, a renowned early Andalusian jurist and Qur’ānic commentator, asserted that the verse not only upheld the sanctity of indigenous culture but granted sweeping validity to everything the human heart regards as sound and beneficial, as long as it is not clearly repudiated in the revealed law. For classical Islamic jurists in general, the verse was often cited as proof for the affirmation of sound cultural usage, and it was noted that what people generally deem as proper tends to be compatible with their nature and environment, serving essential needs and valid aspirations.”

At any rate, as a final remark, whatever can enrich culture, enhance civilisation and bolster the wellbeing of people, barring any conflict with any of the Islamic principles and values as the precondition, Islam with its cultures and civilisation warmly welcomes to its fold. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his companions were the best models to follow in this regard. In virtually all fields of their daily existence they did not hesitate to apply this Islamic principle, such as the fields of architecture, medicine, clothing, foodstuff, business, entertainment and art of war.


(The eastern side of the Prophet’s mosque, where most, if not all, of the Prophet’s houses were located. The houses abutted the mosque opening onto its courtyard. The green dome indicates the location of the house of A’ishah, one of the Prophet’s wives, wherein the Prophet (pbuh) had died and was subsequently buried.)
(The eastern side of the Prophet’s mosque, where most, if not all, of the Prophet’s houses were located. The houses abutted the mosque opening onto its courtyard. The green dome indicates the location of the house of A’ishah, one of the Prophet’s wives, wherein the Prophet (pbuh) had died and was subsequently buried.)

(The eastern side of the Prophet’s mosque, where most, if not all, of the Prophet’s houses were located. The houses abutted the mosque opening onto its courtyard. The green dome indicates the location of the house of A’ishah, one of the Prophet’s wives, wherein the Prophet (pbuh) had died and was subsequently buried.)


(The Prophet’s mosque today seen from the southern (qiblah) side)
(The Prophet’s mosque today seen from the southern (qiblah) side)

(The Prophet’s mosque today seen from the southern (qiblah) side)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *