Decorating the Mihrab and the Qiblah Wall in Mosques

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia


Since decoration must not interfere with people’s concentration in prayers, the decoration carved inside and immediately next to the mihrab (imam’s or prayer leader’s niche) section, in particular, and on the qiblah wall, in general, normally stands above the eye-level. Certainly, this is not a wide-spread custom by chance. The Muslims are strongly advised to fix their sight in prayers on the place of prostration to ensure full concentration. This decree was issued by the Prophet (pbuh) when mosque decoration had a long way to go and when nobody was giving it serious consideration. Thus, in most mosques on the lower section of the qiblah wall, decoration is either completely non-existent or greatly minimized so that its potentially negative impact during prayers is thwarted. The upper section of the qiblah wall is reserved for rich decoration with a rich Islamic artistic vocabulary.

According to some sound traditions, the Prophet (pbuh) used to incline his head during prayers and fix his sight towards the ground. When he prayed inside the Ka'bah, his sight did not leave the place of his prostration until he came out from it. People must refrain from looking up at the sky in their prayers. Nor can their look wander here and there. Closing one’s eyes is also not recommended. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “So when you pray, do not look here and there, for Allah sets His Face towards the face of His slave in his prayer as long as he does not look away.” Looking here and there is “a snatching away which the devil steals from God’s servant during the prayer." The Prophet (pbuh) also said: “Allah does not cease to turn to a slave in his prayer as long as he is not looking around; when he turns his face away, Allah turns away from him.”

It is true that the mihrab area in most mosques receives more attention than most other sections of the mosque. However, it should be observed that the finely contemplative decorative elements, such as intricate geometric patterns and highly stylized and elaborately denaturalized floral elements, rather than the instructive or inadequately denaturalized representative ones in the form of letters or pictures or symbols dominate most aesthetic expressions of mihrabs. While the decorative strategy of the latter can easily upset one’s concentration as soon as one makes contact with it because it is specifically informative and sometimes even instructive, the impact of the former, however, is arguably less unsettling because in order to enliven the value and meaning of either abstract geometric or denaturalized floral elements, one needs more than just a casual look. Nonetheless, a casual look here is not to be necessarily seen as a hindrance.  This is so because a short casual look at an abstract decorative element may generate no more than a sort of vague but soothing and poignant feeling for the soul whose mission is to concentrate in worshipping acts, but at the moment of making contact with an element of abstraction, it may struggle to do so. In this case, the generated feeling, if controlled and rightly focused, can be rather a helpful experience for the success of a worshipping act. One can wonder then, why there should be anything seriously abhorrent in the whole process when it contains more positives than negatives? Actually, in theory, not much could be categorized as wrong. When it comes to practice, though, people were extremely cautious for the reason that there was much at stake, i.e., carrying out worship obligations in the best possible way and in the purest of all conditions.

Thus, it seems reasonable to theorize that since one needs more than just a nonchalant gaze to experiencing the abstract geometric and denaturalized floral elements, people tolerated such elements in mihrabs more than the instructive or poorly denaturalized representative elements. The people’s obvious preference can also be explained on the grounds that geometric abstractions tend to radiate some universal and all-purpose principles and values which can be found underpinning, somehow or other, the core of each and every act of religious worship. It is thus not that hard to make the aura exuded by geometric abstractions, which have been infused with a spiritual substance at the levels of both their conception and execution, harmonious with the spirit and wide-ranging requirements of Islamic worship. If this type of decoration is unable to enhance one’s focus in worship, then, should one really want it, it will not lead one easily away from the same either.

In the same vein, the instructive and poorly denaturalized representative elements in the form of letters or pictures or symbols were less favored in mihrabs because the values and experiences that they tend to emanate are revealing and rather explicit. In such a case, the emphasized specific experiences and values of this type of decoration are not always exactly as those featured in an act of worship that is being performed. Thus, this dichotomy between two different spiritual experiences and moods is likely to sporadically get in the way of one’s spiritual and mental concentration in that particular act of worship. The extent of the potential damage in one’s focus depends on how often and how strongly the said dichotomy presents itself in one’s mind.

As a final point, the above discussion only demonstrates that people appear to be torn between the benefits of authentic decoration and the potential hazards of having the same adorning mihrabs and qiblah walls. They attempt to strike a balance between the two neither to miss out on any of the many advantages of decoration nor to compromise any of the prerequisites of both worship (‘ibadah) and the mosque institution.

However, whether a decoration system will work or otherwise is determined by nobody else except the people themselves. They can decide whether to avail themselves of the benefits of decoration or to expose themselves to the prospective drawbacks the same entails. They can conceive, implement and then make full use of decoration. They can get what they want so they are fully responsible for the net results. However, it seems nowadays that in many mosques the issue whether the qiblah wall and mihrabs should be decorated is not really a big one nor is the impact decoration exerts on people. As the latent advantages of decorating those two sections of the mosque appear not to be adequately explored and are not of a real concern to many people, likewise neither do the latent disadvantages of the same appear to be a threat to many people’s concentration in worship, and, as such, rank high in the hierarchy of their religious interests. This is so because so many worldly items, needed or otherwise, have been introduced to the qiblah wall and mihrab areas that the decoration applied on them is simply outdone by the roles and “performances” of those items. As a result, the people, by and large, stay oblivious to the presence of decoration and its significance and role. They neither benefit from it nor does anyone’s focus in prayers seem to be made vulnerable by it. This is not a good development, though, because generating and appreciating beauty is an intrinsic thing that has many beneficial aspects. People should always delve into the positives of decoration and avail themselves of their benefits. As some disadvantageous facets of decoration are unwelcome, so is having decoration standing idle and disregarded by most people a fairly inappropriate matter. That is against more than a few religious precepts, such as comprehensive excellence, attentiveness, prudence and wisdom.

On the other hand, seldom do those dominant worldly items, which are placed near the qiblah wall and its mihrab, contain any spiritual substance. As a result, their presence where they are might cause more harm than benefit, in the spiritual sense of the expression. It goes without saying, therefore, that the priorities of people should be properly sorted out, such is the target and a segment of a total Islamization process in Muslim societies. Some of the pure worldly items we are referring here to are clocks of various types and sizes and with various auditory qualities, bookshelves with books, calendars often with pictures of mosques or natural landscapes, posters containing prayer times and also pictures of mosques and landscapes, fans, loud speakers, doors, windows, electronic boards flashing prayer times or other “relevant” information, a table or a chair with some objects on them, pasted notices instructing, for example, that books should be returned to bookshelves after use or that hand phones should be switched off, or that lines (sufuf) should be straightened, etc. To this also we can add the presence of praying mats and carpets which are scarcely plain. Quite often, the pictures of mosques, or some of their sections, are found on them, especially the three holiest mosques in Islam: Ka’bah in Makkah, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and the al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

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