The Mosque Institution before Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)


The status and functions of the ancient al-Masjid al-Aqsa


Due to the long and rich history of the Children of Israel, the history of the al-Masjid al-Aqsa is rich and colorful too. No sooner had the Children of Israel taken the possession of the Holy Land than they started using the mosque as the qiblah direction for their prayers. Since the mosque was yet to be (re)constructed, they made a special tent on its original location to serve the purpose. Before that, i.e., when they stayed in the wilderness in the wake of the exodus from Egypt, they used a tabernacle of acacia wood as their provisional qiblah.[23]

Moreover, Allah is said to have consolidated prophet Dawud’s (David, Solomon’s father) authority in the al-Masjid al-Aqsa (in Jerusalem). The mountains and birds were subjected to his use in it, and the birds are said to have been frequenting it for worship. In it, Allah granted Dawud the son Sulayman, also a prophet, and He taught the latter wisdom therein. Subsequently, Sulayman made it the midpoint of his hitherto unparalleled rule.

Both Dawud (David) and Sulayman (Solomon) were able to leave their centuries-long undeletable mark on the architecture and function of the al-Masjid al-Aqsa. This was so because as regards Dawud, Allah made the iron, by far the most common metal and the most common material in everyday use, including building, soft and handy for him. (Saba’, 10) He needed not to thaw it out by casting it into fire. He could easily use and manipulate the iron with his bare hands as though he was a tailor using textiles.[24] The Qur’an says that Dawud excelled, among other things, in making coats of mail. (Saba’, 11) With reference to Sulayman, he, just like his father and perhaps more, was given control over much of the forces of nature and its resources. In addition, a section of powerful jinns were made to work for him as builders. (Sad, 37) It is widely held that not only Sulayman, but also Dawud took part in the (re)construction of the al-Masjid al-Aqsa. They must have employed, it stands to reason, some of the special favors bestowed by Allah upon them for that particular purpose.

Then, Allah chose Maryam (Marry) and purified her above the women of all nations in the al-Masjid al-Aqsa. Allah gave prophet Zakariyya (Zechariyah) glad tidings of the son Yahya (John), also a prophet, in it. The latter was given wisdom there as well. Finally, prophet ‘Isa (Jesus) spoke from his cradle in, or in the vicinity of, the al-Masjid al-Aqsa.[25]

The Holy Qur’an is explicit that both Maryam and prophet Zakariyya withdrew to their respective chambers (mihrab) adjacent to the al-Masjid al-Aqsa, or inside it, into privacy, from their people and from people in general, for prayer and devotion. It was there that Zakariyya received good news of the son Yahya, after his wife had become barren and he had grown quite decrepit from old age. Allah says: “So Zakariyya came out to his people from his chamber: he told them by signs to celebrate Allah’s praises in the morning and in the evening.” (Maryam, 11) It was in Maryam’s chamber that an angel appeared to her in the shape of a man. She thought it was a man so she adjured him not to invade her privacy. Maryam was then given glad tidings of the birth of her son ‘Isa (Jesus). (Alu ‘Imran, 37; Maryam, 16-21) Because of all this, a companion of the Prophet (pbuh), ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, has termed the al-Masjid al-Aqsa as a mosque built and inhabited by prophets. There is no place as big as a span of a hand therein that a prophet did not pray on it.[26]

Many a prophet, descendants of prophet Ishaq (Isaac), Ibrahim’s son, were buried around the al-Masjid al-Aqsa,[27] especially after the Children of Israel had conquered and settled in Jerusalem. Long before that when the Holy Land and the Children of Israel were too far apart, after prophet Ya’qub (Jacob) had died in Egypt, his son Yusuf (Joseph) asked the king of Egypt for a permission to take his father’s body, upon the latter’s request while he was still alive, to be buried with his family members, including his father prophet Ishaq (Isaac) and grandfather prophet Ibrahim (Abraham).[28] They were all buried in the vicinity of Jerusalem, not far away from the al-Masjid al-Aqsa, although the Holy Land and Jerusalem were yet come under the control of the Children of Israel. Today, in occupied Palestine, there is a city called Hebron, or al-Khalil, the Friend (of Allah), which is prophet Ibrahim’s epithet. It is a city 30 kilometers south of Jerusalem. The city is regarded as holy because it is the traditional burial site of prophet Ibrahim and many of his family members, including prophets Ishaq and Ya’qub, Ibrahim’s son and grandson respectively. Later, prophet Yusuf (Joseph) also directed the Children of Israel when they eventually leave Egypt that they take his coffin along with them and to bury him together with his ancestors in the Holy Land, which they did.[29] His grave, most likely, is in Hebron too.


Some other mosques before Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)


Apart from the two earliest mosques on the earth: al-Masjid al-Haram and al-Masjid al-Aqsa, which at the same time represent, together with Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Madinah, the holiest mosques on the face of the earth, there must have existed many other minor mosques, with or without any significant architectural features, before Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

One of the earliest prophets, Nuh (Noah), is said to have had regular meetings at a specific location and under some specific circumstances with his followers, all of whom were the poorest and meanest among his people. The chiefs of the unbelievers arrogantly asked Nuh to drive them away, so that they could have some privileged sessions with him, but he refused to budge. (Al-Shu’ara’, 114-115; Hud, 29) That location and its circumstances, regardless of what they exactly were and what their architectural qualities in the framework of Nuh’s and his people’s settlement(s) have been, must have acquired the status of a mosque, a place where Allah in so many ways was worshipped at the hands of Nuh and his devotees. The Qur’an tells that one of Nuh’s supplications was: “O my Lord, forgive me, my parents, all who enter my house in Faith, and all believing men and women… “ (Nuh, 28) For many commentators of the Qur’an, the words “my house” in the mentioned Nuh’s supplication denotes “my mosque”.[30]

The Old Testament, on the other hand, goes further and asserts that no sooner had Noah (Nuh) come out from the ark, following the great flood, than he built an altar to the Lord, and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. (Genesis, 8:20)

Prophet Salih is also reported to have had a designated place, with or without any architectural features, which functioned as a mosque. It might well have been just a cave. He used to go there secretly and pray. It was right in his mosque that some criminals from his unbelieving people one day plotted to ambush and then kill Salih if he at night came for his regular prayers.[31] Allah says about this: “And there were in the city nine persons who made mischief in the land and did not act aright. They said: Swear to each other by Allah that we will certainly make a sudden attack on him and his family by night, then we will say to his heir: We did not witness the destruction of his family, and we are most surely truthful. And they planned a plan, and We planned a plan while they perceived not. See, then, how was the end of their plan that We destroyed them and their people, all (of them).” (Al-Naml, 48-51)

As a matter of fact, due to the hierarchy of mosques, every prophet’s residence functioned as a mosque, especially at times when they and their followers had to practice their religious convictions in secret. Indeed, every possible substitute for the conventional mosque, which the prophets, repudiated by a majority of their communities, were compelled to scheme for themselves and in order to organize, teach and guide their followers, enjoyed the status and function of a mosque.

An interesting example in this context is prophet Musa (Moses) and his followers, the Children of Israel. Prior to their exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land, 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)

Even when a whale swallowed prophet Yunus (Jonah), the whale too served as a mosque for him, for prophet Yunus at that time could not worship Allah except in the belly of the whale. While praying inside the whale, Yunus supplicated to Allah: “O my Lord, I have made a place of worship (masjid), i.e., a mosque, a place where nobody before me has ever been.”[32]

Allah says about Yunus’ prayers in the belly of the whale: “But he cried through the depths of darkness: ‘There is no god but You, glory to You, I was indeed wrong!” (Al-Anbiya’, 87) Although besieged by the darkness of the belly of the whale, by the darkness of the sea, and by the darkness of the night, Yunus did not lose his heart. By the power of his prayers and supplications, he managed to break through the depths and degrees of both physical and spiritual darkness and get hold of Allah’s light and favor which Allah’s constant proximity, compassion and clemency symbolized. To do and persist in all this, Yunus is said to have been further encouraged by the sea-sand’s glorification and worshipping of Allah which he could hear at the bottom of the sea.[33] This is yet another illustration of the precept that the whole earth, yet the whole universe, represents a mosque with each and every component thereon ceaselessly worshipping its Creator in ways prescribed to, and perfectly suitable for, it.

And finally, if Yunus had not turned the belly of the whale into his mosque, his stay inside it would have been prolonged till the Day of Judgment: “Had it not been that he (repented and) glorified Allah, he would certainly have remained inside the fish till the Day of Resurrection.” (Al-Saffat, 143-144) Just like prophet Yunus, without a doubt, every person, yet every community, by means of the power of worshipping Allah and the power of the mosque phenomenon, can rise, succeed and dictate his own destiny.

Following in the footsteps of his precursors, even Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during his turbulent mission in Makkah used to avail himself of certain houses and remote open spaces which clandestinely functioned as his and his followers’ meeting places, i.e., makeshift mosques. It was only after they had migrated to Madinah that they started building and using openly and freely mosques.

As a final point, mosques are associated most commonly with prayers (salah) and other forms of individual and collective worship. Thus, after dwelling on the cases of a number of prophets, such as Zakariyya, Yahya, ‘Isa, Ibrahim, Isma’il, Ishaq, Ya’qub, Musa, Harun (Aaron) and Idris (Enoch), the Qur’an in the Maryam chapter concludes its discourse by saying: “But there came after them an evil generation, who neglected prayers and followed sensual desires, so they will meet perdition.” (Maryam, 59) The words “neglected prayers and followed sensual desires” encapsulate the behavior of those people who came after the prophets and then rejected them and their teachings. Some commentators of the Qur’an believe that the mentioned words connote that those mischievous people distorted, obstructed and rendered the mosques inoperative, hence the words “neglected prayers”. They then substituted the mosques with some other vain alternatives which perfectly fitted their novel lifestyles, hence the words “and followed sensual desires”.[34]



[1] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and the Commentary, see the commentary of the verse no. 18 from the al-Tawbah chapter (surah), (Commentary No. 1266).

[2] Al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makkah, ( n.pp., 1980)  vol. 1 p. 3-17. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, (Princeton University Press, 1967), vol. 2 p. 250.

[3] Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1985), vol. 2 p. 52-54.

[4] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Ahadith al-Anbiya’, Hadith No. 3172.

[5] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 249.

[6] Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabiyy, 1967), vol. 4 p. 137-138. Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 1 p. 120. Al-Samahudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 2 p. 484-486.

[7] When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) migrated to Madinah, he rested four days in a place called Quba’ before entering the town of Madinah. There the first mosque was built, the “Mosque of Piety”. Afterwards, the hypocrites of Madinah built an opposition mosque in Quba’, the “Mosque of Mischief”, pretending to advance Islam, but in reality they intended to cause harm to the nascent Muslim society and division among its members. The “Mosque of Mischief” was later destroyed upon Allah’s command.

[8] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Ahadith al-Anbiya’, Hadith No. 3113.

[9] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, vol. 2 p. 33.

[10] Ibn Kathir, Qisas al-Anbiya’, (Madinah Nasr: Dar al-‘Anan, 2000), p. 79.

[11] Ibid., p. 105. Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, vol. 2. p. 33.

[12] Ibn Kathir, Qisas al-Anbiya’, p. 106.

[13] See: Ibn al-Faqih, Kitab al-Buldan, (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1996), p. 74.

[14]Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, vol. 1 p. 120.

[15] Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, vol. 4 p. 345. Al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makkah, vol. 1 p. 19.

[16] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 250.

[17]Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and the Commentary, see the commentary of the verse no. 125 from the al-Baqarah chapter (surah), (Commentary No. 125).

[18] See the Books “Ezekiel” and “Hosea” in the Old Testament.

[19] For more details on the architectural motifs of the Temple, see the Books “1 Kings”, chapters 6 and 7, and “2 Chronicles”, chapters 3 and 4.

[20] Compare: “1 Kings” 5:16 with “2 Chronicles” 2:2, and “1 Kings” 7:15-22 with “2 Chronicles” 3:15-17, and “1 Kings” 7:26 with “2 Chronicles” 4:5.

[21] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and the Commentary, see the commentary of the verse no. 13 from the Saba’ chapter (surah), (Commentary No. 3806).

[22]Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, vol. 3 p. 123.

[23] Ibn Kathir, Qisas al-Anbiya’, (Madinah Nasr: Dar al-‘Anan, 2000), p. 344.

[24] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, vol. 3 p. 122.

[25] Ibn al-Faqih, Kitab al-Buldan, p. 145-146.

[26] Al-Hamwi Yaqut, Mu’jam al-Buldan, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1979), vol. 5 p. 167.

[27] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 249.

[28] Ibn Kathir, Qisas al-Anbiya’, p. 221.

[29] Ibid., p. 222.

[30] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, vol. 3 p. 555.

[31] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 675.

[32] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 191.

[33] Ibid., vol. 2. p. 519.

[34] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 458.

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