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'Mosque' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article on Islamic houses of worship provides background for the Pathways of Faith and Connected Histories themes. The article is reprinted from The Islamic World: Past and Present in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


According to the Qur'an, a mosque is God's “sacred house,” a setting for Muslims to perform rituals, and a “meeting place for the people.” The term mosque derives from the Arab word masjid, meaning a “place for (ritual) prostration.” A jami is a congregational mosque used specifically for Friday prayers. In modern times, the words masjid and jami are used interchangeably. The term musalla designates informal areas and open-air spaces set apart for prayers. Although a mosque primarily serves as a place for formal prayer, throughout the history of Islam, its functions have been practical as well as spiritual.


Muhammad reportedly said: “The earth is a mosque for you, so pray wherever you happen to be when prayer time comes.” Although Islam places few restrictions on the place of prayer, wherever Muslims have settled in large numbers, one of their first tasks has been to erect a mosque. As Islam spread, mosques appeared across the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.

Spread Across the Empire.

Muhammad built the first mosque in the courtyard of his house in Medina in 622. It was one of the events that marked the establishment of the Islamic community. Muslims assembled at this house-mosque for prayer and to discuss business matters. The mosque became Muhammad's burial site.

The mosques of Medina, Mecca, and Jerusalem have special status in Islam. According to the hadith, a visit to the Medina mosque will win Muhammad's intercession on the Day of Judgment. The Kaaba, a shrine located near the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, is said to be the earthly representation of God's throne in heaven. Muslims believe that the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is the site of the Prophet's famous Night Journey.

Muslims built mosques nearly everywhere they settled. During the conquests of Iraq and North Africa in the 600s, advancing Arab armies created prayer spaces in the center of their camps. As military posts developed into cities, such as Basra and Kufa (in Iraq) and Fustat (on the future site of Cairo in Egypt), prayer spaces evolved into buildings. In some captured foreign cities, Muslims converted temples, churches, and palaces into mosques.

In the early period of Islam, the mosques in cities were usually one of two types. Large state buildings were used for Friday prayer and community assemblies. Muslim caliphs and their appointed governors often established their residences close to these mosques. Small mosques were built and operated by various groups within the community. Both state and private mosques depended on donations and waqf endowments for support.

As the Islamic empire grew, the number of mosques increased. For example, Fustat-Cairo had one congregational mosque during the 600s. By the 1400s, it had 130, along with several hundred additional small mosques. Other cities, such as Damascus and Aleppo in Syria and Fez in Morocco, followed a similar pattern. Beginning in the mid-1400s, the Ottomans took over much of the central Islamic world. During the reign of Mehmed II (ruled 1451 – 1481), they built almost 200 new mosques.

Both Shi'is and Sufis have played major roles in the construction of mosques over the tombs of the Prophet, his family, and other holy men and women. These tomb-mosques became pilgrimage sites, and some functioned as congregational mosques as well. During the late 1900s, Muslims built mosques at an unprecedented rate. Several factors contributed to this surge: the Muslim population greatly expanded during this period, Arab oil revenues boosted state and private support for mosques, and Muslims increasingly sought to maintain their identity in an ever-changing global society.

The Blueprint.

The Islamic world is noted for its distinctive architecture, and the mosque is its most impressive example. Early mosque designers modeled their buildings on Muhammad's mosque-house in Medina. Unfired brick walls surrounded the spacious open courtyard, which contained rooms for the Prophet and his wives. The prayer area had a roof supported by columns made of the trunks of palm trees.

Mosque design has undergone many changes since the 600s, and the characteristics of mosques vary. Generally, the building includes a large open area—sometimes covered by a roof—for prayer. Mats or carpets cover the floor. The imam delivers the Friday sermon from the minbar, a platform modeled on the stone structure that the Prophet ascended to give his sermons. The minbar stands next to the mihrab, a semicircular niche set into a wall of the mosque to indicate the direction of Mecca.

Islamic law requires Muslims to perform ritual washing (ablution) before prayer. Mosques contain ziyadahs, walls that hold the facilities for ablution. Outside the mosque stands the minaret, a tower from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day. In addition, mosques include a separate chamber for women, because female worshippers are not permitted to pray in the main area with men.

Mosque walls are decorated with mosaics, verses from the Qur'an, and sometimes, the names of Muhammad and his companions. The buildings do not, however, include pictures, statues, or ritual objects.

Hub of Activity

All Muslims are required to practice the five Pillars of Islam; one pillar is prayer five times each day and community prayer in the mosque on Fridays. The mosque basically exists as a place for Muslims to perform these rituals. Even so, this institution serves a variety of other functions. Today, as in the past, mosques hold great social, political, and educational importance.

Community Connection.

The Qur'an and sunnah provide two models for the connection between the mosque and society. One portrays the mosque as a place reserved for spiritual matters, and the other depicts it as the hub of public affairs. Most mosques combine aspects of both models, to a greater or lesser degree. Some mosques may be situated in relatively isolated areas, while others are located in a capital city or in a busy neighborhood. Builders may design mosques as a composite complex. For example, the Süleymaniye külliye of Istanbul, built in the 1500s, consists of a congregational mosque, two schools, a hospital, a public bath, a public kitchen, fountains, housing, shops, cafes, and a cemetery, among other sections.

Historically, mosques had an established hierarchy. At the top was the imam, an individual who had a thorough knowledge of the sacred Islamic texts. Religious scholars and jurists were also members of the core leadership. They often served as intermediaries between the ruler and the people. Village and tribal mosques sometimes incorporated devotion to holy men or women, usually deceased, who acted as intercessors with God. A chosen disciple or descendant of the saint was usually the unofficial leader in such settings.

Today mosques fall under either government or private sponsorship. In the case of a government mosque, the buildings and staff receive financial support from the state. The Ministry of Religious Affairs or its equivalent hires a professional preacher and monitors his performance. By contrast, a private mosque receives funds from charitable associations. The congregation usually sets the agenda and selects the preacher. Some private mosques attract a sizable following, and their preachers attain social and political prominence.

Although practices vary across the Islamic world, important rituals and ceremonies often take place in the mosque. Muslims commonly place the body of a deceased relative before the mihrab for funerary prayers. Believers frequently visit their mosques before and after the hajj or a minor pilgrimage. Mosques also serve as the centers for the collection and distribution of zakat (charity). Business agreements may be reached in a mosque. During times of crisis, Muslims gather at a mosque for mutual support and guidance.

Expression of Ideas.

Since the days of Muhammad, the mosque has been a center of political activity. Early mosques were gathering places for political discussion and debate. Pious Muslim rulers placed great importance on building a central mosque, usually located near the palace.

In recent years, the mosque has become even more politically relevant for several reasons. Mosques provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and an opportunity to challenge the questionable practices of the authorities. Under oppressive regimes, a preacher may use his sermon to criticize the country's leadership. Since the 1970s, some Muslim rulers have elevated the importance of the mosque. Saudi Arabia's King Faysal and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, attended Friday prayers and publicized these events. In the process, such leaders created a sense of cultural pride and encouraged other Muslims to follow their example. Globalization has enabled imams to relate local issues to international events. In this way, the mosque can shape a unified Muslim response to contemporary political issues.

In many Muslim societies, private mosques are the main focus of opposition to the government, and therefore, subject to increasing control. During the 1990s, for example, the Egyptian government attempted to incorporate many of these institutions into its administrative system. The authorities often pressure the imams of government-controlled mosques to avoid preaching about political topics. In some instances, government officials write the sermons to be delivered at the mosques.

Pursuit of Knowledge.

From the beginning of Islam, the mosque has functioned as a center of religious education. At an early age, children learned to memorize passages from the Qur'an and hadith. At a higher level, mosques enabled Muslims to advance their religious knowledge through inquiry, debate, and discussion. In 978 the Fatimid dynasty established al-Azhar, a mosque-university, and it remains one of the world's oldest institutions of higher learning.

Early mosque education varied across the Islamic world. Communities and regions differed in their approach to the teaching of tradition, laws, and theology. Moreover, certain branches of Islam incorporated their own ideas and practices. Nevertheless, most mosques emphasized a set body of religious knowledge consisting of the Qur'an, sunnah, and shari'ah.

For centuries, mosques provided higher education in scripture and law. Certain features were characteristic of the great Sunni mosques during the early 1800s. Revenues from waqf endowments and donations from wealthy Muslims financed the educational system. Although some students traveled great distances to study with respected religious scholars, most were from nearby towns and villages. Mosques attracted students from a wide range of economic backgrounds. For students from poor, rural families, a mosque education provided an opportunity for upward mobility. Young, affluent Muslims pursued a mosque education as an avenue to important government or religious positions.

Knowledge of classical Arabic was a requirement for mosque studies. Religious scholars lectured from a favorite pillar in the mosque with students gathered at their feet. After a student completed several years of study under a particular teacher, the teacher issued an ijazah (written statement) certifying that the student had successfully mastered certain texts and was qualified to teach them. Mosques did not have required courses, and students did not receive an official degree or diploma other than the ijazah.

Between 1850 and 1950 , mosque education underwent major changes. Reformers of that period encouraged Muslims to pursue modern learning, arguing that a modern education was the key to overcoming European dominance. As Muslim countries achieved independence from colonial rule, their new governments reduced the power of the traditional religious authorities, which extended to education practices. Beyond these forces, however, economic and social changes were the primary causes of the decline of traditional mosque education. As younger Muslims embraced secular, nationalist ideas, this type of education declined in status and value. In recent decades, the modern Islamic university has become the preferred place for higher education in the religious sciences. Mosque education persists at the elementary level and in informal ways, such as adult instruction in the Qur'an and sunnah.

Building Boom.

Muslims who settled in western Europe and North America during the early 1900s expressed little interest in establishing Islamic institutions. Many of them expected to earn enough money to be able to return to their native countries. Even when they decided to remain in the West, they lacked the resources to build mosques. Consequently, many held prayer services in their homes.

By the 1930s, Muslim immigrants sought more formal ways to observe their religious traditions and to affirm their social identity. Mosque construction began slowly, but after 1970 , building activity increased significantly. Several factors caused the dramatic growth in the number of mosques and Islamic centers in Europe and North America. Muslim populations in the West increased. Muslim governments, rich from oil revenues and eager to cultivate Islamic communities abroad, provided the funding for mosque construction. Several European governments even supported the mosque movement, largely out of concern that minority Muslim populations would become angry and frustrated if they did not have a voice in the community.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States had an estimated 1,450 mosques, Islamic centers, and prayer halls. More than 5,000 were located in Europe, and almost one-half of them were in Germany. Mosques in the West vary in style. Muslims in the United States often convert former churches or other buildings into mosques.

For Muslims living in the West, mosques serve many of the same social, political, and educational functions that they did at home. In addition, they forge a sense of solidarity among the members of the minority Muslim population. Many turn to the mosque as a haven from discrimination and a place to receive moral support. At the mosque, Muslims affirm their shared values and reinforce their Islamic identity.


"Mosque." In The Islamic World: Past and Present edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #245: 'Mosque' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", July 17, 2024


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