Islam and the Significance of the Mosque


The hierarchy of mosques


We have seen above that Islam is a religion that inevitably leads to the creation of a virtuous comprehensive culture and civilization which benefits not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims and all the other worldly creatures as well. Islam also creates individuals who through a complex hierarchy of institutions and establishments are organized in a community (ummah) which is well equipped to meet the challenges of its and its members’ earthly mission. This is so because life in its totality is seen as both the field and a form of worship (‘ibadah) in Islam. Every life activity believers effortlessly transform into an act of worship. Every part of the earth where they live, believers, as a result, turn into a vibrant place of worship as well. They turn it into a mosque (masjid). Thus, Islam, believers, worship as a lifestyle, and the notion of the mosque, one originating from the other and each one needing the others for its functioning and continued existence, are inseparable.

The mosque or masjid in its narrowest meaning means a place of prostration (sujud).[1] However, since the word sujud in some of its broadest meanings also implies worship or ‘ibadah, the mosque or masjid thus also implies the place of worship. And because the latter meaning more accurately reflects the quintessence of Islamic worship and the designated private and public places meant exclusively for it, it has become a common knowledge that mosques or masjids are the places of worship. The English word mosque is anglicized from French mosquee which in turn derives from Spanish mezguita. The extraction of the latter from the Arabic masjid is readily apparent.[2]

Wherever Muslim believers live, there must exist a mosque, or mosques, to function as a symbol of their identity and as a ground and a facility for their implementation of scores of fundamental religious, social, cultural and educational obligations. Without mosques, Muslim believers’ lives are greatly impaired. Some of their basic human rights are thus denied. There can be no substitute for the lack of functional mosques. In the long run, the very existence of Muslims without mosques could be on the line. In view of that, Muslim believers never hesitated to invest heavily in building and maintaining mosques at all the levels of the Islamic presence. Investing in mosques meant investing in the future of the Islamic community (ummah). Neglecting mosques meant neglecting the community and, by an extension, Islam. In view of that, too, whenever there was a conflict between Muslims and some of their foes — both in the past and at present — it is not a coincidence that frequently mosques were one of the main targets by the enemy. For example, during the aggression against Bosnia, between March 1992 and November 1995, over 3000 architectural monuments, mainly mosques and other religious edifices, were destroyed or damaged by Serbs. A British historian wrote in 1994, one year before the end of the catastrophe: “All over the country, mosques and minarets have been demolished, including some of the finest examples of 16th-century Ottoman architecture in the western Balkans. These buildings were not caught in the cross-fire of military engagements — in towns such as Bijeljina and Banja Luka, the demolitions had nothing to do with fighting at all — but were blown up with explosives in the night, and bulldozed the following day. The people who planned and ordered these actions like to say that history is on their side. What they show by their deeds is that they are waging a war against the history of their country.”[3]

During the same conflicts between Muslims and their foes, however, mosques always rose to the occasion, inciting, guiding and spearheading the masses to defend their religion, lands, property and honor. Even the weakest and most wavering ones could not resist the charisma and authority of mosques. They, too, eventually were prodded into action earnestly defending their and their people’s interests, dignity and way of life. Mosques were the symbols of firmness and resistance. For example, the case of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, and its holy struggle against the French and British occupations of Egypt is well documented.

Another interesting example is prophet Musa (Moses) and his followers, the Children of Israel, before the exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land. At that time, Musa and his brother Harun (Aaron), also a prophet, were instructed to provide the dwellings for the Children of Israel, making them into places of worship (mosques), as Pharaoh would not, sure thing, allow them to set up public mosques for the purpose. Those dwellings, cum mosques, were to be turned into the centers of spiritual development and the centers, as well as symbols, of resistance to Pharaoh and his tyranny. Allah says in relation to this: “We inspired Moses and his brother with this message: “Provide dwellings for your people in Egypt, make your dwellings into places of worship, and establish regular prayers: and give glad tidings to those who believe.” (Yunus, 87)


Private domestic mosques


Mosques command a strong presence throughout the spectrum of the lives of Muslim believers. To begin with, in their private houses, they designate entire rooms, or large areas, or just bits of space – subject to availability — in order for them to function as domestic mosques and thus aid the house institution to function as a family development center. This has more than a few implications for designing and planning Muslim houses which Muslim planners and designers must always be aware of and try to accommodate.

Private mosques are sometimes called masjids and sometimes musallas. Musalla is derived from the word salah which means prayer. Musalla thus means the place where prayers are regularly performed. In this case, to articulate either masjid or musalla pose no problems at all, as these mosques are private entities and people know best what they have at home and how their domestic spaces earmarked for worship function. There is no room whatsoever for confusion here. People are thus left free to use whichever term they want: masjid or musalla. Private masjids and musallas are part of the house’s carefully guarded privacy. It was nobody else but the Prophet (pbuh) who consented to the idea of his companions earmarking places of worship (‘ibadah) in their private houses. He is said to have graced some of such places by personally praying in them.[4]


Neighborhood mosques


In neighborhoods, which consist of a number of houses, believers establish mosques which are relatively small and whose performances are raised to a much higher level than the level enjoyed by private mosques. While the latter caters to the needs of single families, the former caters to the collective needs generated by a group of families, or a neighborhood. Hence, the character of neighborhood mosques, both in terms of their functionality and their sizes and forms, is intensified and expanded considerably from the character of private mosques.

This type of mosques many people normally call musalla, although they may still refer to it as masjid as well – the matter varies from one place to another. Thus, musalla means a place for regularly performing prayers (salah) and some other basic religious, social, cultural and educational ceremonies and tasks. Musallas are neighborhood development centers. Many people prefer to call these mosques as musallas rather than masjids because their somewhat limited scope must be unmistakably spelled out so that confusion does not arise as to their underlining disposition. Musallas, though small, are still public institutions and can be accessed by anyone. One of the most important ideas that must be clearly disseminated to people, so that they are not misguided, is that Friday Jumu’ah prayers, the most important frequently recurring mass gathering of Muslims, are not performed in musallas.

The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have directed his companions to have this type of mosques built in their quarters, or neighborhoods, in Madinah and in its vicinity, and to cleanse and odorize them on special religious occasions.[5] During the Prophet’s time, there were nine neighborhood mosques in Madinah, besides the Prophet’s principal mosque in the heart of the city. In those mosques, the people prayed based on the adhan (call to prayer) pronounced by Bilal b. Rabah, which sounded from the Prophet’s central mosque.[6] Only in the Prophet’s central mosque, however, the Jumu’ah prayer was performed. One of the first instructions that the Prophet (pbuh) used to give to the visiting Muslim tribes from outside Madinah was to build, liven up and maintain (neighborhood) mosques in their respective communities.


Jami’ mosques


From private houses and through neighborhoods, the significance of the mosque institution grows and then culminates in the principal mosques of cities, towns and even large villages. It is here that the potent message of the mosque, and with it the message of Islam, becomes most apparent. These mosques are normally called jami’s. The term jami’ is derived from the word jama’ which means to gather or assemble. Thus, the word jami’ means a place or a thing that gathers people for intended purposes.

Jami’ signifies mosques with a universal appeal. It targets a multitude of people; in fact, all people. It invites them under its custody reminding them to discharge their duties towards Allah, self, other people and the natural surroundings. Jami’ beckons to people to come under its charge and to draw on the multiple benefits which its multiple and dynamic roles and functions have to offer. Jami’ beckons to people to come and attain salvation in, and with, it. Jami’ is an effective means of da’wah (propagation of the Islamic cause), just as it is an effective field for it.

Due to this, jami’ is always in the center of a city, town or a large village, placed at a most strategic location. Other urban components cluster around jami’, making, as a result, the cores of cities and towns, more often than not, ring-shaped. All the roads in Muslim settlements lead to and from jami’, causing street networks to be accomplished in a quite symmetrical and logical fashion. Jami’ functions as a community development center. It always bustles with life and vigor. It is the most active and productive urban constituent in a city. Jami’ is not just a place for prayers and other plain religious rites and ceremonies. It is a center and mirror of life. It is a center and mirror of Islam as a complete code of life. Everyone from all walks of life is welcome to benefit from what jami’ has to offer. At the same time, everyone is invited to contribute to sustaining the status and function of jami’. This reputation of jami’ mosques causes them to be meticulously planned and finely built, and to be richly decorated, dominating and superseding in terms of art and architecture its immediate built environment surroundings. A very few people frown upon this reality architecture and art-wise, as everyone is acutely aware that the form and outward appearances of jami’ mosques must correspond with their vibrant and sophisticated roles and functions.

Finally, there is a close relationship between the words jami’ and jumu’ah, the latter being the prayer conducted in mass congregations every Friday. In the past, the Friday Jumu’ah prayer could only be conducted in main city and town mosques. Those mosques, as one of the reasons, were thus called jami’ mosques. A very long time (several centuries) was needed for Islamic cities to have more than one jami’, and thus to have more than one Jumu’ah being simultaneously conducted in them.[7] Even today, despite the number of worshipers and the sizes of cities and towns, not in every mosque is the Jumu’ah performed. Such is done only in designated mosques, in order that the projected effects of Jumu’ah prayers and assemblies are optimized. During the Prophet’s time, the Jumu’ah in Madinah was prayed only in his main mosque. The first mosque in which the Jum’ah was performed, aside from the Prophet’s mosque, was the mosque of ‘Abd al-Qays situated at Jawathi, that is a village at al-Bahrayn.[8] The chief reasons that called for having more than one Jumu’ah prayer in more than a city’s central Jami’ mosque were related to the size — if a city grew immense and sprawled, for example — as well as to some natural factors, such as rivers and rough landscape which made access to central Jami’s hard and perhaps hazardous.[9]

However, since the Jumu’ah prayer is performed in many mosques in Muslim cities and towns today, as well as in the past, which has been necessitated by rapid urbanization of ever-increasing Muslim population, not all such mosques are called jami’ mosques. They are called just masjids. But in order to maintain the primary meaning and spirit of jami’ mosques, all cities and towns still have their principal mosques which are often called jami’ mosques. These modern jami’ mosques, by and large, strive to emulate the functions of the jami’ mosques of the past, when cities and towns were much smaller and each city and town had only one jami’ mosque. In terms of their projected roles and functions, however, most of the modern urban mosques where the Jumu’ah is performed, but which are not outright jami’ mosques, could be seen as partly neighborhood mosques and partly jami’ mosques.

Many Muslim scholars of the past had some hard time reconciling between the demands of the Islamic Shari’ah and the demands posed by rapid cultural and socio-economic developments that were sweeping throughout the Muslim vast territories, and which impacted greatly on the volume and fabric of Islamic cities. With regard to the development of the notion of the jami’ mosque, and the notion of the mosque in general, the subject of the Jumu’ah prayer, which in terms of etymology, theory and service is closely related to the phenomenon of the jami’ mosque, is a good example of the intellectual challenges which confronted Muslims scholars through ages, resulting in a rich legacy of diverse ijtihadi (independent thought based on the Shari’ah) opinions. For example, some of the main conditions for conducting the Jumu’ah prayer and for its validity are related to the place and the minimum number of worshippers, which indirectly influences not only the concept of jami’, but also all the other types of the mosque. Regarding the place, the quandaries that occupied the minds of the doctors of the Islamic Shari’ah revolved around these issues: can the Jumu’ah prayer be done in cities alone, or in villages as well; can it be done in just any Muslim residential areas: in cities where there are many separate districts and neighborhoods, and in villages and suburbs; can it be done in permanent settlements and residential areas alone, or in temporary ones as well, etc.? Regarding the minimum number of persons making up a Jumu’ah congregation, Imam Shafi’i held that it is 40, Imam Malik held that it is 12, while Imam Abu Hanifah contended that it is only three persons plus a prayer leader or imam, etc.[10]


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