The Mosque Institution before Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer

Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia



The universality of the Islamic message


Islam is the truth which Allah has made man’s permanent companion on the earth as soon as he was sent to it, on account of that truth being meant for him. Numerous prophets from different epochs and in different geographical settings were chosen to perform the task of conveying and explaining the truth of Islam to people. The long process commenced with Adam, the first man and prophet on earth, and came to an end with Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the seal of prophets, after the humankind had reached a point where a final, universal, eternal, and all-inclusive divine message was possible. The essence of all the prophet’s teachings was one and the same, as it must always be the case with the truth; only the falsehood and lies live through discrepancies and inconsistencies. Never was there a greater occasion gracing the earth and all of its inhabitants than sending a new prophet and with him a new heavenly message to people, after the light of a previous one had already been either obscured or completely extinguished. This everlasting unity of prophethoods and Islam’s faith, Allah emphasizes time and again in the Qur’an, affirming, for example, that “We did not send before you any messenger but We revealed to him that there is no god but Me, therefore serve Me.” (Al-Anbiya’,  25)


“He has made plain to you of the religion what He enjoined upon Nuh and that which We have revealed to you and that which We enjoined upon Ibrahim and Musa and Isa that keep to obedience and be not divided therein; hard to the unbelievers is that which you call them to. (Al-Shura, 13)

“Surely We have revealed to you as We revealed to Nuh, and the prophets after him, and We revealed to Ibrahim and Ismail and Ishaq and Yaqub and the tribes, and Isa and Ayub and Yunus and Harun and Sulayman and We gave to Dawud. And (We sent) messengers We have mentioned to you before and messengers we have not mentioned to you; and to Musa, Allah addressed His Word, speaking (to him). (We sent) messengers as the givers of good news and as warners, so that people should not have a plea against Allah after the (coming of) messengers; and Allah is Mighty, Wise.” (Al-Nisa’, 163-165)


The universality of the message of the mosque phenomenon


The truth is only one, and so is Allah, its source. The origins, meaning and purpose of life with all of its units, including human beings, furthermore, are also one and the same, reverberating the disposition of the heavenly paradigm from which it emanates. Hence, the mosque institution too, which symbolizes most powerfully the dynamic presence of the truth and its forces, and its relentless confrontation for supremacy with the falsehood and evil and the forces of their own, is as old as the truth itself and its protagonists. In other words, from the down of the human presence on the face of the earth, mosques had to feature prominently thereon. This was so because the truth and its people are always the cause and the mosque phenomenon is an effect. The two are inseparable. So strong is the relationship between them that they are destined to rise and fall together. Truly, if separated from each other, neither the truth with its devotees, nor the mosque can exist or survive on its own.

Once activated and made fully operational, mosques has a potential to be turned into their communities’ guardians, the driving force and the heartbeat behind their progress. Mosques can become unrivaled community development centers. If neglected, however, Muslims will never be able to conjure an equivalent alternative to mosques, as the recent history of the Muslim world especially has shown. Having said this, it stands to reason, there will never be a Muslim community which will not experience a positive change if they change constructively the status and functions of their mosques, i.e., if they constructively change themselves and their relationship with their mosques, their lives’ focal point. Similarly, there will never be a Muslim community which will not experience a detrimental change if they change negatively the status and functions of their mosques, i.e., if they negatively change themselves and their relationship with their mosques. Based on this strong and reciprocal relationship between mosques and Muslims, mosques are the mirrors of their communities’ devotion to Islam and its cause. So, for a person to study a community’s spiritual, cultural and civilizational major accomplishments, it will suffice for him to study the performances of that community’s mosques only. In the same vein, studying a truly purposeful and serviceable mosque will offer without ambiguity an answer to a question “what is Islam?” because the mosque in Islam demonstrates on a practical plane what Islam on a theoretical plane stands for.

Accordingly, bracketing the phenomenon of true believers with the phenomenon of visiting and maintaining mosques, Allah says: “The mosques of Allah shall be visited and maintained (ya’muru) by such as believe in Allah and the Last Day, establish regular prayers, and practice regular charity, and fear none (at all) except Allah. It is they who are expected to be on true guidance.” (Al-Tawbah, 18)

The key word in this verse is ‘amara, ya’muru which, according to Abdullah Yusuf Ali, if applied to the subject of the mosque implies the following: 1) to build or repair; 2) to maintain in fitting dignity; 3) to visit for purposes of devotion; and 4) to fill with light, life and activity.[1]

Allah also says: “In houses (i.e., mosques) which Allah has permitted to be exalted and that His name may be remembered in them; there glorify Him therein in the mornings and the evenings, men whom neither merchandise nor selling diverts from the remembrance of Allah and the keeping up of prayer and the giving of poor-rate; they fear a day in which the hearts and eyes shall turn about.” (Al-Nur, 36, 37)



The first two mosques on the earth: al-Masjid al-Haram and al-Masjid al-Aqsa


On account of the mosque institution being as old as man himself, prophet Adam must have been the one who built the first mosque(s) on earth. It is inconceivable that a community of believers, led and managed by prophet Adam, regardless of its size and quantity, could have lived without a mosque, or mosques, no matter what its shape, dimensions and exact functions were. The earliest community of believers could not collectively practice the truth of Islam at all of its necessary levels in the absence of the idea of the mosque. Such would have been unworkable.

Allah says in the Qur’an: “The first House (of worship) appointed for man was that in Bakka (i.e., Makkah): full of blessing and of guidance for all the worlds.” (Alu ‘Imran, 96)

Many people believe that, by virtue of human nature and the inseparability of man, Allah’s words of guidance and Allah’s houses on earth (mosques), the very first man on earth, prophet Adam, built the first House of worship referred to in the verse, i.e., the al-Masjid al-Haram, or Ka’bah, or Baytullah (the House of Allah). Having descended on earth, Adam is said to have yearned for the exaltation and praises of Allah by angels he had accustomed himself to in the Garden of Eden, and, therefore, he desired to have a house which will resound with prayers, glorification and praises of Allah on the earth too. Allah fulfilled his wish and sent down Angel Jabra’il (Gabriel) to guide and help him in laying the foundations of and building the al-Masjid al-Haram.

Some people even go further and assert that since Allah did not send Adam to the earth until it was fully equipped and set to accommodate him, lest he shall be unable to smoothly and responsibly carry out his duties as a vicegerent (khalifah), one of the necessary requirements which had to be attended to must have been the existence of a House of Allah, as a consequence of which some angels were assigned to build the al-Masjid al-Haram or the Ka’bah.[2]

Others, on the other hand, contend that prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Isma’il, also a prophet, have built the al-Masjid al-Haram. Although there might have existed earlier other houses of worship, albeit with no special historical and socio-cultural significance, yet the al-Masjid al-Haram is reputed to have been the first mosque on the earth appointed to man for the purpose. This conclusion rests on the following Qur’anic verses: “And remember Ibrahim and Isma’il raised the foundations of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord, accept (this service) from us: for You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” (Al-Baqarah, 127)

“Behold! We pointed the site to Ibrahim of the (sacred) House, (saying): “Associate not anything (in worship) with Me; and sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or stand up, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer).” (Al-Hajj, 26)[3]

However, in one hadith (the Prophet’s tradition) a companion Abu Dharr is reported to have said: “I have asked the Prophet (pbuh): “Which mosque was built first on the earth?” The Prophet (pbuh) answered: “The al-Masjid al-Haram.” Then I asked: “And which one thereafter?” He said: “The al-Masjid al-Aqsa.” Then I asked: “What was the interval separating the two?” The Prophet (pbuh) replied: “Forty years.”[4]

It does not come as a surprise that this tradition of the Prophet (pbuh) has been causing considerable confusion among some scholars who held that the al-Masjid al-Aqsa mosque was built by prophet Sulayman (Solomon),[5] who had lived more than a thousand years after prophet Ibrahim, the builder of the al-Masjid al-Haram. On that account, the whole matter needed some efforts for reconciliation. As for those who were of the opinion that the al-Masjid al-Haram was constructed by Adam, they merely concluded that he, or some of his progeny, was instructed forty years after the completion of the al-Masjid al-Haram to proceed to the designated location (later Jerusalem) and build there the al-Masjid al-Aqsa. They construed the verses cited by the other group of scholars in a way that conforms with their understanding of the subject. According to them, neither Ibrahim nor Sulayman constructed for the first time the mosques in question. Rather, they only reconstructed or restored what had been formerly instituted and built but disintegrated and even disappeared altogether during their respective eras. Thus, the referred to verses imply nothing but reconstruction, renewal or restoration; so does every Prophet’s tradition in which Ibrahim and Sulayman have been mentioned in the connection with the building of the al-Masjid al-Haram and al-Masjid al-Aqsa respectively.

As regards those scholars who contended that prophet Ibrahim was the builder of the al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, they concluded that the first construction of the al-Masjid al-Aqsa in what later became to be known as Jerusalem, has been undertaken really forty years subsequent to Ibrahim’s completion of the al-Masjid al-Haram but, in all likelihood, by Ishaq (Isaac), Ibrahim’s another son, or Ya’qub (Jacob), Ishaq’s son and Ibrahim’s grandson, and which was later restored, expanded and reconstructed by prophet Sulayman. Even Sulayman’s father, Dawud (David), also a prophet, might have started the (re)construction which, nevertheless, was intensified and completed by Sulayman. Some people even ended affirming, as a way out, that the above tradition (hadith) of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) does not imply the actual construction of the two mosques. Rather, it connotes just a divine decision on having the two mosques as the foremost ones on the earth, as well as on their respective geographical locations and historical and socio-cultural roles and positions.[6]

In the final analysis, it appears that the al-Masjid al-Haram, most likely, was first built by prophet Adam and not prophet Ibrahim, and that al-Masjid al-Aqsa, most likely, was not first built by prophet Sulayman but by someone during prophet Adam’s time.  To further corroborate the viewpoint that the al-Masjid al-Haram and the al-Masjid al-Aqsa were inaugurated and built long before Ibrahim and Sulayman respectively, we shall add that the Qur’an in this regard says that Ibrahim and his son Isma’il actually “raised (yarfa’u) the foundation of the House”, rather than “laid (assasa or even wada’) the foundation of the House”. The former phrasing basically indicates the physical rebuilding plus the restoration of the status of the al-Masjid al-Haram, while the latter one — the one that is not employed in the verse in question — would mean its establishment and construction, for it is generally used when something is instituted or established for the first time. For example, the word assasa is used in the context of the construction of the “Mosque of Piety” by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), as well as the “Mosque of Mischief” by the hypocrites of Madinah. (Al-Tawbah 107-109)[7] Also, in the verse wherein Allah says that the first mosque appointed for man was that in Makkah, the word used is wada’ in its passive form wudi’, thus clearly indicating the commencement of the existence of the al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah.

Furthermore, in another Qur’anic verse, after Ibrahim, under Allah’s guidance, had brought Isma’il, an infant then, and his mother Hajar to the barren land of Makkah, and after he had found there a dwelling place for them, he left them uttering the following supplication: “O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House, in order, o our Lord, that they may establish regular prayer: so fill the hearts of some among men with love towards them; and feed them with fruits; so that they may give thanks.” (Ibrahim, 37)

The phrase “by Your Sacred House” denotes that the evidence, either physical or conceptual, of the al-Masjid al-Haram had already existed at the time when Ibrahim first arrived in Makkah. The rebuilding of the mosque was executed afterwards by both Ibrahim and Isma’il, after the latter had grown up, during one of Ibrahim’s subsequent visits. The Prophet (pbuh) likewise attested to this when he divulged some more information concerning the matter of Ibrahim’s first visit to the barren land of Makkah. In one of his authentic traditions (hadith), he stated that Ibrahim left Isma’il and Hajar in the immediate vicinity of the al-Masjid al-Haram (wada’ahuma ‘ind al-bayt), and while reciting the aforementioned supplication, he faced it, i.e., he faced the al-Masjid al-Haram, (istaqbala bi wajhihi al-bayt).[8]

Also, in a hadith (tradition), the Prophet (pbuh) has said that two early prophets, Hud and Salih, who lived long before prophet Ibrahim and his son Isma’il, and who lived on the south and north of the Arabian Peninsula respectively, have performed a pilgrimage to the Ka’bah or al-Masjid al-Haram, the ancient house (al-bayt al-‘atiq). The Prophet (pbuh) disclosed this when on the way to Makkah for the pilgrimage himself, he passed through a valley through which, according to him, both Hud and Salih had passed for the same purpose.[9]

According to another tradition of the Prophet (pbuh), even prophet Nuh performed the hajj or pilgrimage to the Ka’bah or al-Masjid al-Haram, treading the same valley as prophets Hud, Salih and Ibrahim did after him. In his famous book entitled Qisas al-Anbiya’ (the Stories of Prophets), Ibn Kathir, a renowned commentator of the Qur’an and a historian, dedicated a section to the matter entitling it “the Account of His (prophet Nuh’s) Hajj (Pilgrimage)”.[10]

When Thamud, the people of prophet Salih, were destroyed by “an excessively severe punishment” (al-Haqqah, 5), a disbelieving man from the same community happened to be in the haram, or the consecrated environs, of the Ka’bah or al-Masjid al-Haram, where everyone is to enjoy safety and protection. He thus temporarily was granted the immunity from the chastisement which was befalling his people in their country. However, as soon as he left the haram of the Ka’bah or al-Masjid al-Haram, he too while still in Makkah was chastised in the same manner as his people. A rock from the sky might have fallen on him killing him instantly on the spot. The name of this man was Abu Rughal Abu Thaqif. On one occasion, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) showed to the people the man’s grave, informing them of what exactly had happened to him and why his grave was where it was.[11]

It is even believed — as reported by Ibn Kathir – that after the destruction of his people, Thamud, prophet Salih moved permanently to the haram of the Ka’bah or al-Masjid al-Haram. He stayed there until his death.[12]

Thus, the foundation, both the physical and spiritual, and a certain form of both the al-Masjid al-Haram and al-Masjid al-Aqsa were established long before prophets Ibrahim and Sulayman, most likely during the lifetime of prophet Adam. Thereafter, the two mosques served as the centers of worship for many succeeding prophets and their peoples. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has said that every prophet who had been gravely ill-treated and eventually expelled by his mischievous people, took refuge in the sanctuary of the al-Masjid al-Haram, worshipping Allah therein until his demise.[13] The Prophet (pbuh) is also reported to have said that many prophets, including Musa (Moses) and Yunus (Jonah), had visited the al-Masjid al-Haram and had circumambulated it as part of their pilgrimage to Makkah.[14]

There are even assertions that during the flood with which Allah destroyed the unbelieving and rebellious sections of mankind, to whom one of the earliest prophets, Nuh (Noah), had been sent as a guide and a warner, Makkah was destroyed as well. Its al-Masjid al-Haram (Ka’bah) was saved and elevated to the seventh heaven where the angels frequented it for worship before it was transported back again to the earth after the flood calamity.[15] In the seventh heaven, the earthly Ka’bah might have been integrated with the heavenly Ka’bah or al-Bayt al-Ma’mur. Nonetheless, these and similar assertions are too conjectural and unfounded that they ought to be viewed with a great deal of reservation and suspicion, in case we do not wish to rebuff them altogether. Ibn Khaldun rightly pointed out in his Muqaddimah: “…Later on, Makkah was destroyed in the flood. There is no sound historical information in this connection on which one can rely.”[16]

However, the first two mosques on the earth, al-Masjid al-Haram and al-Masjid al-Aqsa, have been intermittently throughout history altering their original roles and positions in consequence of the frequent spiritual weakening and corruption in those who had been entrusted to guard them and hold them unadulterated and sacred for all purposes. The al-Masjid al-Haram ended up containing about three hundred and sixty idols which belonged to different tribes and communities that lived scattered all over the Arabian Peninsula. Nonetheless, it remained the center to which all the Arab tribes resorted for trade, poetic contest and worship. It was a sacred territory, and was respected by friend and foe alike. At all seasons, all fighting was forbidden within its limits, and even arms were not allowed to be carried, and no game or other thing was allowed to be killed. Makkah was recognized by Arab custom as inviolable for the pursuit of revenge or violence.[17]

Jerusalem with its al-Masjid al-Aqsa at many occasions forsook its monotheistic (tawhid) paradigm too and even became at one point a harlot city and a city of abomination.[18] This was the case especially after the onus of activating, sustaining and guarding the al-Masjid al-Aqsa had been placed on the shoulders of the Children of Israel following their exodus from Egypt and their eventual admission into the Holy Land. As a consequence, Allah frequently severely punished the Children of Israel using their neighboring enemies for the purpose, for He had covenanted with them that they must sanctify their mosque and under no circumstances should renounce the monotheistic worldview of their forefathers: Ibrahim (Abraham), Ishaq (Isaac) and Ya’qub (Jacob).

The (re)construction of the al-Masjid al-Aqsa by prophet Sulayman (Solomon) is one of the most remarkable moments in the history of the Children of Israel, so much so that the Old Testament furnishes us in details with some of the architectural features of the edifice referred to therein as the Temple of Solomon. The temple proper, of dressed stone, was about 30 meters long, 11 meters wide, and 15 meters high. Apparently, it faced east and had three main rooms disposed axially with the entrance. The anteroom was a rectangular space entered through one of the short sides. Flanking this room were square rooms that led to the small storage rooms that surrounded the Temple on the other three sides. Beyond the anteroom was the main sanctuary, and beyond that a flight of stairs that led to the Holy of Holies, a windowless cube containing the Ark of the Covenant with Tawrat (Torah) inside it. The Temple had a flat wooden roof made from imported cypresses and cedar. Two bronze pillars, one to the south and one to the north, stood in front of the edifice, each with a capital on top. Interwoven chains were made and put on top of the pillars. The inside of the Temple was lined with cedar, and the floor, doorposts and doors were overlaid or inlaid with gold. Every surface was carved with cherubim, palms or flowers.[19]

However, due to the silence of the Holy Qur’an on the subject matter, and the silence of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) — who does not say anything of his own desire, “it is no less than inspiration sent down to him” (Al-Najm, 4) — the mentioned architectural elements of the Temple of Solomon (the al-Masjid al-Aqsa) as documented by the Old Testament need to be viewed with maximum reservation. While some accounts on the subject are fairly ambiguous and, worse still, contradict each other,[20] others, on the other hand, conflict with several fundamental tenets of Islam and as such ought to be rejected outright. However, those accounts which seem to be downright harmless and unobjectionable, they are to be neither accepted nor rejected, as such is the general standard for dealing with the Old and New Testaments. The two Testaments must always be cross-checked against the Last Testament, i.e., the Holy Qur’an.

Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali believes that in the Qur’anic chapter Saba’ some hints as to prophet Sulayman’s construction of the al-Masjid al-Aqsa (the Temple of Solomon) are given. The Qur’an says: “And to Solomon (We made) the wind (obedient): its early morning (stride) was a month’s (journey), and its evening (stride) was a month’s (journey); and We made a font of molten brass to flow for him; and there were Jinns that worked in front of him, by the leave of his Lord, and if any of them turned aside from Our command, We made him taste of the chastisement of the blazing Fire. They worked for him as he desired, (making) arches, images, basons as large as wells, and (cooking) cauldrons fixed (in their places): “Exercise thanks sons of David, but few of My servants are grateful!” (Saba’, 12, 13)

According to Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali — the translator and commentator of the Qur’an — the word “arches” may be applied to any fine, elevated, spacious architectural structure, but in this verse it, most likely, accounts for structural ornaments in the Temple (the Mosque); “images” would be like images of bulls and cherubim therein, as mentioned in 2 Chronicles, 4:3 and 3:14; “basons” were perhaps huge dishes round which many men could sit together and eat (2 Chronicles, 4:22); and the “cooking cauldrons” were fixed in one place, being so large that they could not be moved about.[21] The general view, though, is that the messages of the cited verses are expansive accounting not only for the al-Masjid al-Aqsa but also for other Sulayman’s architectural feats.[22]


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