The following guidelines could be deduced from the views of Muslim jurists with regard to the legitimacy of mosque decoration:
1. Mosque decoration is not prohibited (haram). The most that has been said about mosque decoration is that it is an abhorrent act (makruh).
2. Decoration must not interfere with people’s concentration in prayers and in other worship activities. It should be borne in mind, however, that praying while facing some decorative patterns does not invalidate one’s prayer. When the Prophet (pbuh) performed a prayer facing a cloth or a curtain decorated with figured designs, he neither stopped his prayer so that he could pray elsewhere nor did he repeat the prayer afterward. It should be remembered, furthermore, that there are many categories of decoration strategies. They are not all the same. As such, they all must be given their corresponding attention and treatment. Some strategies are more detrimental to one’s concentration in prayers and others less. Judging by the Prophet’s reaction, the decorative patterns he faced in a prayer must have ranked high in terms of detriment to properly experiencing prayers. At any rate, it would be grossly unfair to say on the strength of the above-mentioned tradition and other similar ones in content that the Prophet (pbuh) was against decoration per se. Rather, he was only against such artistic expressions as could hinder one’s attempts to focus in his prayers. As a matter of fact, and by analogy, the Prophet (pbuh) was against not only decoration but also all the worldly pursuits that could impede people’s progression toward the spiritual fulfillment on earth.
3. Decoration must not be extravagant so that wastefulness is committed.
4. Mosques are not to be decorated at the expense of providing some other societal facilities and services.
5. Mosque decoration is never to supersede in importance the primary functions of mosques.
6. Appropriate mosque decoration signifies that the mosque institution, together with the ideals that called for its existence, is honored. It is improper that while people enjoy relatively high life standards and live in comfortable and embellished, many even in outsized and exalted, dwellings, mosques are built austere and unadorned. Many feared that if such becomes a scenario, the persons of fluctuating faith might despise mosques and all the matters related thereto. This, for the most part, was behind the people’s approval for the decoration of mosques. As it was behind the change of mind in those who in the beginning appeared to be against mosque decoration, seeing it as an unwelcome innovation in religion, but later gradually changed their standpoint.
This can be further elucidated by the following. Islam insists that its followers come to general gatherings, including collective prayers, nicely dressed and well-groomed (al-A’raf 31). The Muslims are actually urged to do so whenever they can so that the effects of Allah’s favors upon them could be always seen, as expounded by the Prophet (pbuh) on more than a few occasions. If this is the case with the people who make up the best community evolved for mankind (the best Ummah), the same is then true, perhaps to a greater extent, about the institutions — the chief of which is the Mosque institution — without which no realization of such an illustrious position of the Muslims on earth would otherwise ever be possible. Mosque decoration is seen as an avenue for making the effects of Allah’s favors upon Muslims to be seen, thus thanking Him for everything. Allah the Most High says: “Say who hath forbidden the beautiful (gifts) of Allah which He hath produced for His servants, and the things, clean and pure, (which He hath provided) for sustenance? Say: They are, in the life of this world, for those who believe, (and) purely for them on the Day of Judgment. Thus do We explain the Signs in detail for those who know” (al-A’raf 32).
7. Mosque decoration is acceptable provided it becomes essential to the structure and serviceability of mosques. In other words, not only should the decoration of mosques not become a liability to mosques, but also it should not stand out as just a surplus to the requirements of mosques. Rather, mosque decoration must function as “a constitutive element, not an accident, an adjunct of structure, a help in the additional but not necessary art of beautification.”
8. Mosque decoration is not to breach any of the broad-spectrum Islamic precepts which regulate, directly or indirectly, Islamic ways of life in general, and Islamic aesthetics as well as built environment, in particular. Besides, mosque decoration is to be inspired and guided solely by such precepts and teachings, thus bringing the realm of the mosque institution into total harmony with what transpires in the rest of realms of Islam and its eclectic cultures and civilization.
See: Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Libas, Hadith No. 3541, Kitab al-Salah, Hadith No. 910. Al-Nasa’i, Sunan al-Nasa’i, Kitab al-Zinah, Hadith No. 5128. Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab Iqamah al-Salah wa al-Sunnah fiha, Hadith No. 1085.
Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, Islam and Architecture, in Fine Arts in Islamic Civilization, edited by M.A.J. Beg, (Kuala Lumpur: The University of Malaya Press, 1981), p. 115.