What Makes a Mosque? Part One

The Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarkand

Glazed tiles, soaring minarets and a central dome don’t make a mosque, any more than a steeple makes a church.

In the early days of Islam, when Muslims numbered in the dozens, Mohammed’s followers prayed together in the open courtyard outside his house in Medina. Once the numbers of the faithful grew a little larger, the Prophet stood on a portable set of steps so he could be seen and heard when he preached. Mohammed’s brother-in-law issued the call to prayer from the flat roof of the house: no minaret needed.

Over the centuries, elements of the little house in Medina developed into a set of architectural components that most Muslims, in most places, at most times, agreed made a mosque. A large open space where the community could gather for the Friday prayer. A qibla wall that pointed out the direction of Mecca, usually marked with a decorated niche (mihrab). A source of water for the ritual ablutions that every Muslim must perform before the five daily prayers. Even that portable set of steps lived on in the elaborate stairs that in many mosques lead up to the pulpit (minbar) from which the community’s religious leader preaches after the Friday prayer. Minaret optional.

There may be a consensus about what a mosque must include, but there has never been a consensus about what a mosque looks like. Muslims around the world have used local materials and local ideas about sacred spaces to create a wide variety of building forms. Mosques have been modeled on Byzantine churches, Hindu temples, and the little brown church in the dell. They’ve included hospitals, libraries, fountains, schools, soup kitchens, and the medieval equivalent of a truck stop. They’ve been built from marble, bamboo, clapboard, and mud. The one thing all of them have in common is the qibla wall shows worshippers which way to turn toward Mecca.

In the next few posts, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorite mosques and the people who built them. You may be surprised.

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