The Mosque

December 2020


Christians visitation of mosques

Christians have mixed feelings about visiting mosques how do Muslims feel when Christians visit their premises?

The policy on non-Muslims entering mosques varies depending on the law school the mosque follows. In more conservative countries, most mosques are closed to non-Muslims because they follow the prevailing Hanbali and Maliki schools which hold that non-Muslims should be prohibited from entering mosques. Others refuse on the basis of the argument by analogy which reasons that as non-Muslims are prohibited entering into in the sacred holy precincts of Mecca (Al-Tawbah 9:28) they likewise should not be allowed to enter a mosque.

Other schools of Islamic thought, which represent the majority of the world’s Muslim population, hold that it is permissible for non-Muslims to enter mosques on the basis that it serves the interests of Islam and may result in inviting someone to enter Islam. Various hadiths are put forward to justify the position that Muhammad allowed non-Muslims to enter the mosque in Medina for example the visit of a delegation of Najran Christians (c/f Al-Imran 1-61). The hadith states “When their worship time came, they stood up to perform their worship in the Prophet’s Masjid. The Messenger of Allah said: “Let them (worship)” and they prayed towards east.”

The Muslim view seems to be that Christians are allowed to go into the mosque so they can hear speeches on Muhammad, see people praying and reciting the Quran and thus be drawn to enquire more about Islam. There has to be safeguards, and approval is given on the basis of sufferance, rather than genuine approval. As long as the kuffar remove their shoes as a mark of respect and their women are not dressed in a provocative fashion, then they can enter.

The Mosque the place of unification

Muslims consider the mosque to be a necessary part of their community so that they can lead a life consistent with their faith. Just as the real centre of the Muslim world is the Kaa’ba so the mosque is the centre of the Muslim community. The mosque is not merely a house of worship (masjid – the place of prostration c/f sajda) for from its earliest days it was a place of asylum for the homeless and wayfarer, a place of community action, a place where men mustered together for jihad, and a place of education. Its chief function was the place of daily prayers (salat) and where Muslims gathered to hear the khutbah sermon. There may be a community centre where Islamic family activities, education in the form of madrassas, lectures, meetings and festivities occur. Particularly at times of crises Muslims turn to the mosques for guidance. In a word it was a place focusing on unifying the Muslim community.

No Muslim can be denied the right to enter a mosque and offer prayers therein. A mosque is said to be Allah’s it is thus not the property of any person though it’s management must necessarily be in the hands of someone, the builder of the mosque or any one appointed by him. A mosque when once built cannot be diverted to any other use; once a mosque always a mosque.

These days most mosques have a very specific ideology and ethnic base (as well as mosques there are hundreds of institutions, organisations and networks who have a shared ideology). Attached madrassas can be institutions where anti-western, anti-Christian or anti-Jewish attitudes are fostered from an early age as texts of the Quran/hadith are interpreted.

Women in the mosque

In the west it is not uncommon for strict gender separation to exist within the mosque but this is not required to be sustained outside the mosque. Gender segregation in mosques is being challenged today by Progressive Muslims. The custom of segregation is normally implemented by the means of a screen, a wall, a balcony or placing women behind the men. This is considered to be the behaviour required in the social culture of seventh century Arabia but not of the modern world, The adequate Quran’s guidance is that when in the presence of the opposite sex modest behaviour of both men and women is sufficient.

In Muhammad’s mosque prayers were conducted in the empty courtyard. There appears to have been no barriers or walls separating men and women and this remained the case in the Medinan period. Umar, the second caliph bought the Meccan sanctuary’s surrounding houses, tore them down and surrounded the area with a wall but with in the courtyard there was no barrier of separation between the sexes. The al-Aqsa mosque built 921/923 seems to be the first mosque to have separate sections, including the separation of the sexes.

Aesthetics and etiquette in a mosque

Based on the mosque in Medina a mosque should be a simple structure; it should not be decorated nor have pictures or statues. It should be kept clean.  Its only furniture consists of a pulpit, from where the Imam delivers a sermon on Fridays or addresses people on other important occasions. Mats are provided on which prayers are said; tradition teaches the Muhammad used a mat. There is a need for a place for ablutions. It is now the general practice to take shoes off before entering the mosque as a mark of respect. In the early days of Islam it must be remembered that the floor of the mosque was of gravel and shoes were needed as a protection from heat or cold. If protection from severe heat or severe cold is needed a man may go into the mosque with shoes as long as they are clean.

Many of the details of the conventions of the mosque comes from the Traditions for example: 1) Prayer rows developed from the teaching found in the traditions and they are are said to be like  the rows of the angels (Muslim Book 4, Number 1060); 2) The building of a mosque is an act of great merit with accompanying rewards: “He who built a mosque for Allah, Allah would build a house for him like it in Paradise. (Muslim Book 4, Number 1085, Bukhari 8:32); 3) Prayer in the mosque is highly valued. Abu Huraira reported that a man’s prayer in the congregation is more valuable than his prayer in his house or the market because he has no other intention than to join the Congregational prayer. When he enters the mosque and is busy in prayer the angels continue to invoke blessing on him as long as he is in his place of worship saying: O Allah, show him mercy, and pardon him! (Muslim Book 4, Number 1394); 4) Angels record the people entering the mosque in order of their arrival. ‘When it is Friday, the angels stand at every door of the mosque and record the people in the order of their arrival, and when the Imam sits (on the pulpit for delivering the sermon) they listen to the mention (of Allah). He who comes early is like one who offers a she-camel as a sacrifice, the next like one who offers a cow, the next a ram, the next a hen, the next an egg. (Muslim Book 4, Number 1864)

It is questionable whether the pulpit (minbar) was introduced for preaching for a tradition of Ibn Al-Athir states that the Companions encouraged Muhammad to take a raised position because many Arab delegates were coming to see him. Muhammad used the minbar to make important announcements e.g. the prohibition of wine. He took a portable minbar with him to Syria.

The Friday Sermon (khutbah) and conditions

The four schools (madhabs) state that, according to the Sunnah a sermon is a condition of the Friday prayer in the remembrance of Allah (Al-Jumu’ah 62:9). All the schools are agreed that 1) it should be done after the beginning of the time for Friday prayer. 2) it should be done before the prayer and not after. Other components believed to be important are: a) the intention (niyyah), b) should be spoken out loud, c) it is an exhortation that moves the heart, d) should include a recitation of various parts of the Quran.

The one who delivers the sermon (khatib) should wear his best clothes, greet people with a salam and deliver the khutbah from the minbar. He should keep the khutbah short and should pay attention to the people’s situation and needs.

The Direction of Prayer

A mosque should be built facing towards the Kaa’ba. It was about sixteen or seventeen months after the Hijra that Muhammad changed its direction which was initially towards Jerusalem. Muslims claim that this was the direction of the qiblah of the Israelite prophets. Modern Muslims suggest that the idea underlying the Qiblah was to bring about unity of purpose.

The Muslim community around the mosque

Muslims, when possible have tended to live within the influence of the mosque, some of the more affluent members move out but only as far as the edges. Various Muslim leaders recommended that Muslims should live in physical proximity to each other in order to create a Muslim concentration guaranteeing the survival of a separate and clearly identifiable Muslim community. In the West once they are recognised as a religious community they should seek the same rights as other religious communities. They should then seek to be recognised as ‘a state within a state’ running their own community affairs. They then should seek to influence/dominate the social, political and religious affairs of the nation.

Historical background of the mosque

In Mecca the original Muslim community had no special place of worship. Muhammad used to perform the salat in secret in the narrow alleys of Mecca with his Companions. He also performed the salat alone beside the Ka’abah and inside his own house. Later he encouraged his followers to make a prostration towards the Meccan sanctuary: “Turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred mosque” (Al-Baqarrah 2:144,149). Despite this, Muhammad taught that a sanctuary was not a fundamental necessity for every place was the same to Allah, and the salat could be performed anywhere. For Muhammad the whole world was a masjid. The earlier prophets could only pray in churches and synagogues but for Muhammad “the earth has been made sacred and prue for me, so whenever the time of prayer comes for any one of you he should pray wherever he is” (Muslim Book 4 Number 1057, 1058). 

Prayers therefore, may be said in a non-Muslim house of worship, provided it contains no statues or pictures. Ibn ‘Abbas is said to have prayed in a church that had no statues in it. The salat can be said singly or in a congregation and no consecration of a mosque is necessary. Despite Muhammad’s view that a sanctuary was not essential he remained strongly attached to the traditional sanctuary of the Ka’abah which remained the principal place of worship. It was Muhammad’s goal to purify its idolatrous nature, conquer it from the Quarraish, and make mosques a place where polytheists were banned from its confines: “It is not for such as join gods with Allah, to visit or maintain the mosques of Allah (At-Taubah 9:17).  

The mosque is the cultural centre of Islam. The Prophet’s Mosque at Madina had a kind of boarding-house, called the Suffah attached to it for students where at one time as many as seventy students were accommodated. The Suffah of the Prophet’s Mosque has left its legacy in the form of the madrassas which are considered a necessary adjunct to the mosque to this day. A library was later attached to the more important mosques.

While many affairs relating to the welfare of the community were attended to in the mosques they were all performed with the respect due to the House of Allah. The sanctity of the mosque demanded that voices were not raised in its precincts and spitting was forbidden. Carrying on any kind of trade is strictly prohibited, as is also the reciting of poems, and even sitting in circles indulging in talk at the time of prayer. Malik said, ‘Umar made a courtyard, called the Butaiha’ on one side of the mosque, and said that whoever intends to talk loudly, or recite poems, or raise his voice, he should go to this courtyard.

The mosque should not be used as a thoroughfare. Nothing is to be done in the mosque which may give offence to others; and it is for this reason that the eating of raw onions or garlic when going to the mosques is prohibited. Arrangements were made for cleaning the mosque and the person who did this service was specially honoured by Muhammad.   

The Development of the mosque

After the Hijra Muhammad went to Medina where he received many invitations to be housed. Rather than prefering one over another he insisted that his camel Al-Qaswa should decide. He slackened the beast’s reigns as it made its way until it halted at a large and open courtyard with a few date-trees. It was a neglected spot, on one side was a scanty grove of date-trees, the other was covered with thorny shrubs. It had been used partly as a burial-ground and partly as a place for tying up camels. He bought the land and made arrangements for the construction of the mosque with two adjoining houses one for his wife Sauda, the other for his intended wife Ayesha. It was “built of unburnt bricks and its roof was of palm-boughs resting on columns of the stems of palm-trees.” This simple structure made of rough material was in time re-built in finer materials yet, ‘Uthmān, the third Caliph, still retained its simplicity. 

In time nine little houses were made for his wives. There was nothing sacred about the mosque, believers and unbelievers went about freely, tents and huts were put up and disputes took place. At times it seemed more like the headquarters of an army. Here he had no restrictions and so created a place to perform the salat where he could be undisturbed with his followers. It was from this mosque that Muhammad controlled the religious and political activities of Islam. It behaved in a similar way to the Ka’abah where everyday matters and important issues were discussed and justice administered.

The hadith record the importance of prayer in Muhammad’s mosque : “One prayer in my Mosque is better than one thousand prayers in any other mosque excepting Al-Masjid-AI-Haram (the Ka‘aba)” (Bukhari Volume 2, Book 21, Number 282). There are three masjids which on visiting have the expectation of greater reward: 1) The Sacred Mosque of Mecca (Al Baqarrah 2:217 c/f Al-Maidah 5:2, Al-Anfal 8:34, Al-Hajj 22:25; Muslim Book 4 Number 1056, 1057); 2) the Prophets mosque in Medina; 3) Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem – As-Sakhrah ‘the Rock’ is said to be the site where Muhammad ascended to heaven on his celestial journey.

Apart from the mosque at Kuba’ other mosques existed (An-Nur 24:36, c/f Al-Baqarrah 2:187).  The various tribes around Medina were able to retain their independence as tribes under Islam. The mosques were the natural rallying point for the various tribes while councils and teaching were held there. There was also an opposition mosque built by the Bani Salim (At-Tauba 9:107-108). Gradually new sects developed which had their own mosque such as that of Musailima.

Those places where Muhammad had prayed, or were connected with particular actions became hallowed as mosques. In Mecca, for example the Masjid al-Baghla housed the footprints of Muhammad’s mule in a stone while the Masjid al-Fath recalled the victory over the Meccans. Al-Ghazali says there were thirty such places in Medina associated with Muhammad: the house of Khadijah, Muhammad’s birthplace, the house where his first meeting was held, the place where he used to pray outside of town and where the jinn heard his conversation. Then, also there were places associated with certain of Muhammad’s Companions, mosques associated with biblical and Muslim history and memorial tomb mosques (Muhammad is said to have regularly visited al-Baki in Medina to reverence those whose tombs held the martyrs that fell at Uhud). Finally, there were mosques endowed by individuals: “Whoever builds a mosque for God, even the size of a sand-grouse nest, based on piety, God will build for him a palace in Paradise.” 

Mosque design and Minarets in non-Islamic countries

In some Western countries influential progressive Muslims urge architects and designers to come up with a new authentic model for mosques. These mosques could abandon the distinctive minarets in order to blend in more closely with their surroundings. The matter they say, is purely an issue of architecture. Islam, it is argued, is like a river that takes the colour from the bed over which it flows, the bed being the country in which it is found. Mosques are differently shaped and sized throughout the world, some have minarets, others do not. If the minarets are not used for the call to prayer then the principal reason for their existence no longer exists.

The minaret does not seem to have a simple origin and the earliest primitive mosques had no minaret. Bilal made the call to prayer from the highest house in the vicinity of the mosque in Medina. On the day of the conquest of Mecca Muhammad instructed Bilal to utter the call to prayer from the Ka’abah; while in the early days of Islam the mu’azzins did not utter the summons from an elevated position. It seems likely then, that the minarets were not introduced expressly for the call to prayer. The practice seemed to have developed in the mid 7th or early 8th century particularly under the Ummayad Caliph Al-Walid (705-715). It has been suggested that as the most common word used in ancient literature for minaret was minara its development is associated with the mana’ir on the coasts (and later inland) which were used as watch-towers.

According to Ibn al Fakih, the 10th century Persian historian and geographer the minaret was incorporated into the mosque of the Ummayads because it already belonged to the structure of the church which was later adapted into a mosque. It was at this time that the muazzins used this facility to call believers to prayer. The process was gradual and still in the time of the historian and Quranic exegete Tabari ((839-923) the call to prayer could still be uttered in the street, while the Arabian poet Al-Farazadak (641-732) speaks of muazzins on the city walls. It is possible that the minaret did not have a single origin.

The Mosque as a political centre

Following the example of Muhammad the early Muslim administrators lived close by the mosque. With the non-separation of religion and politics the caliph was appointed leader of the prayers and the mosque sermon in the capital. The significance of the mosque for the state is embodied in the minbar. In the provinces the governor stood in the same relationship as the caliph being appointed over the salat and the sword. Speaking from the minbar was a right which the caliph had designated to him and it was performed in the name of the caliph – the khubah was delivered in the name of the caliph. It was therefore natural that a blessing on the caliph should be made. From the minbar following Muhammad, official proclamations were made such as the death of distinguished governors, the results of battles and in the Fatamid and Abbasid periods edicts about taxation were announced.

When the Muslim generals conquered new territory their first thought was to found a mosque as a centre around which they could gather. In newly-founded cities like Basra, Kufa and al-Fustat the mosque was placed at the centre with the commander-in-chief and the prison situated in front of it. The mosques were planned and built in an exact reproduction of the mosque in Medina. In old established towns which they had conquered, or had surrendered Muslims obtained the site for their mosque by treaty. On the whole they continued with the same practice of building a mosque in the centre of the town.  

The towns which made treaties with Muslims received permission to retain their churches, while the conquered towns lost this privilege. Churches taken over by the Muslims were occasionally used as dwellings, even government offices, but many were transformed into mosques. There seems to have been some hesitation in using churches or synagogues as mosques which led to the saying of the grandson of Hussain, Zaid ibn ‘Ali “Perform thy salat in them; it will not harm thee.”