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MOSQUE. [This entry comprises five articles: Historical Development Mosque Architecture

The Mosque in Politics The Mosque in Society The Mosque in Education The first is a historical survey of the origin and development of the mosque as a socioreligious institution; the second is an essay on the genesis and development of mosque architecture. The companion articles consider the mosque as a center of political, social, and educational activity in the modern world.]

Historical Development

The word “mosque” is derived from the Arabic masjid “place for (ritual) prostration.” Jami’ is a designation for the congregational mosque dedicated to Friday communal prayer; in modern times it is used interchangeably with masjid. The term musalld designates informal areas set aside for prayers and open-air spaces used for prayer on the major feast days, outside cities or in town squares.

Mosques have served as the focal points for the religious and social life of the Muslim community throughout its history. Depending on circumstances, as is the case for places of worship in other religions, they may serve both as shrines for contact with the sacred and as meetingplaces for the community.

This combination of functions is evident from the earliest period in Islamic history. From the Qur’dn, we know that the Mecca mosque is God’s “sacred house,” a setting for ritual activity, and a “meeting place for the people” (2.125); It is even declared to be “the first house founded for people” (3.96). The founding of the prophet Muhammad’s house-mosque in Medina (622) was one of the first events connected with the establishment of an autonomous Islamic community. It served as a place of assembly for the conduct of mundane affairs and prayer alike. Later tradition would elevate the status of the Mecca and Medina mosques, together with that in Jerusalem, to cosmological proportions. Thus the Ka`bah marked the spot where the earth was created and was an earthly image of the divine throne in heaven. Muslims are required to face toward it when they pray and to perform hajj rites there if they are able. The Medina mosque became the Prophet’s mausoleum, and hadiths instructed the faithful that this was one of the gardens of paradise; visiting it would win the Prophet’s intercession on judgment day. The Jerusalem al-Aqsa mosque was identified as the site of the Prophet’s miraculous night journey and ascent through the heavens. While it should not be surmised that all mosques have obtained the stature that these three have, they nonetheless have tended to replicate such combinations of sacred and mundane attributes in varying degrees.

The Prophet is reported to have taught, “The earth is a mosque for you, so pray wherever you happen to be when prayer time comes” (Muslim, Sahih, Masajid 1). Although prayer can be performed nearly anywhere, and mosques as prayer places can be built nearly anywhere, the fact is that both most commonly occur in cities, towns, and villages. Indeed, wherever Muslims have settled in large enough numbers, one of their first efforts has been to erect a mosque, often within or among their houses. During the seventh-century conquests of Iraq and North Africa Muslim troops would customarily create a space for the main mosque in the center of their camps, following the example of the Prophet in Medina. These prayer spaces evolved into buildings, as the garrisons evolved into the cities of Basra, Kufa, Fustat, and Kairouan (Qayrawdn). This pattern would later be emulated in the founding of Baghdad (eighth century) and Cairo (tenth century). In the preexisting settlements of conquered peoples, such as Damascus, Jerusalem, Luxor, and Mada’in, Muslims would establish mosques on the sites of temples, churches, and palaces.

Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) observed that there are two kinds of city mosques: grand ones under state control, for Friday prayer and major communal assemblies, and small ones built and operated by different sectors of the civilian population. It was customary in the early period, following pre-Islamic practice and Muhammad’s example in Medina, for the caliph or his appointed governors to build their residence (dar al-imarah) next to the congregational mosque, while the common people would establish mosques in their tribal quarters. With the efflorescence of power and wealth in Islamic empires and kingdoms, as the ruler’s residence and congregational mosque became physically detached, both state and non-state mosques proliferated. Both kinds of centers were usually founded and maintained by private charitable donations and waqf revenues.

For example, Fustat-Cairo started with one congregational mosque in the seventh century and had 13o by the fifteenth, supplemented by hundreds of common mosques, madrasahs, Sufi convents, and mausoleums. Aleppo, Damascus, and Fez experienced comparable mosque growth. The same trend is evident in Iraq and Iran until the interruption of the Mongol invasions. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans (1453), during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II alone 190 new mosques were built and 17 churches were converted.

In the history of Shi`i Islam the significance of mosques and their power have waxed and waned. The Shi’i tomb-mosques of Karbala and Najaf benefited from Buyid (tenth to eleventh centuries) and Safavid (sixteenth to seventeenth centuries) sponsorship. The Isma’ili Fatimid dynasty (tenth to twelfth centuries) established and supported mosques across North Africa to Egypt and the Hejaz. The Safavids did the same in Iran and the gulf coast of Arabia. However, when Shi`i populations have been subjugated by Sunni powers, not only has their mosque-building decreased, but observance of Friday prayers has also been largely curtailed, with the concurrence of Shi` 1 `ulama’, opposed to acknowledging the legitimacy of Sunni authorities.

A mosque exists ostensibly to serve as a place for formal worship in the daily and Friday prayers. Men are supposed to be its chief patrons, but women are permitted also, preferably in the back, segregated by a screen, in a separate chamber, or up in a gallery. According to some jurists, the preferred place for female prayers is at home, because of the distraction or ritual impurity women might otherwise bring. Because of the purity rules applying to prayer, most mosques have a spot set aside for performing ablutions away from the main prayer area. Mosques are also the sites for the delivery of Friday sermons, homilies, and Qur’anic recitation. Sufis have sometimes used mosques for conducting dhikr rites.

Mosques are also the recommended locale for retreats and voluntary vigils, especially during Ramadan. They serve as centers for the collection and distribution of alms (zakdt); congregational mosques once served as the treasuries for the caliphs. The poor and homeless have often found shelter and sustenance there. Many pilgrims visit their local mosques when they depart for and return from the hajj and `umrah (minor pilgrimage). The dead are brought and placed before the mihrab for funerary prayers. The contracting of marriages and business agreements can also occur there.

The mosque also possesses functions with respect to the afterlife. Mosque-builders have been promised a house in paradise by the Prophet. Although hadiths decry the erection of tomb-mosques, by the twelfth century venerating the relics of the Prophet, his family, and other holy men and women at shrines had become an extremely widespread practice for people seeking saintly blessing and intercession. These tomb-mosques became pilgrimage sites; some even doubled as congregational mosques, such as Cairo’s Husayn mosque and Fez’s Mawlay Idris mosque. The growth of Shiism and the spread of Sufi orders played a major role in this development. [See Ziyarah.]

Another function of mosques, closely tied to worship, is that of education. Circles of religious scholars and their students have gathered in the courtyards or porticos to study the Qur’an, hadith literature, law, and grammar, and to hear the exhortations of preachers. Judges have also issued their rulings there, and respected religious authorities customarily have kept appointed hours to dispense advice and wisdom. In good times, mosques have provided employment to many skilled and semiskilled individuals, including imams, Qur’anic reciters, mu’adhdhins (muezzins; those calling people to prayer), and caretakers. In times of crisis, students and common people have gathered in them for mutual support and to gain obtain guidance from religious leaders. Likewise, mosques have served as focal points for opposition to other groups and authorities.

The multiplicity of mosque functions, already evident in the time of the Prophet, reached an apogee in the Ottoman complex known as the kulliye. The majestic Siileymaniye kulliye (sixteenth century) in Istanbul, for example, consists of a monumental congregational mosque, five medreses, two preparatory schools, a hospital and medical school, a Sufi lodge, a hostel or caravanserai, a public bath and fountains, a public kitchen, housing for mosque teachers and caretakers, a wrestling ground, cafes, shops, imperial mausoleums, and a cemetery.

Today many of the characteristics and functions of mosques in Islamic history are still evident in mosques from the Middle East to Africa, Asia, and the Americas; however, two significant changes have been occurring. First, new national regimes in Muslim lands have been incorporating mosques into highly bureaucratic administrative systems to centralize state control, further their nationalist political agendas, and acquire legitimacy. Second, mosque construction in the second half of the twentieth century has been occurring at an unprecedented rate, both in traditional Muslim homelands and among immigrant Muslim communities in Europe and North America. This cannot be attributed only to state involvement; rather, it is a result of the growth of Muslim populations and of their prosperity, enhanced by oil revenues. But it also suggests something more profound-a desire on the part of Muslims to form and maintain their identities, to define a place on which to stand in a tumultuously changing, uncertain global society.


Campo, Juan Eduardo. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S.C., 1991. Contains analyses of the symbolic relations between houses, mosques, and the cosmos, as expressed in the Qur’dn, hadiths, and Egyptian culture.

Berger, Morroe. Islam in Egypt Today: Social and Political Aspects of Popular Religion. Cambridge, 1970. Chapter 2 reports the results of a 1962 Egyptian government mosque census, and describes government efforts to reorganize and redirect mosques to serve government aims.

Fahim, Hussein M. “The Ritual of the Salat al-Jum`a in Old Nubia and Kanuba Today.” In Nubian Ceremonial Life, edited by John G. Kennedy, pp. 19-40. Berkeley, 1978. Anthropological study of changes in communal prayer performance and mosque functions in Egyptian Nubia.

Goodwin, Godfrey. A History of Ottoman Architecture. Baltimore, 1971. Includes detailed descriptions of imperial mosque architecture and its functions.

Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. 2d ed. New Haven, 1987. Chapters 3 and 5 are exceptionally informed essays about the forms and meanings of early Islamic religious architecture in the eighth century.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and Adair T. Lummis. Islamic Values in the United States: A Comparative Study. New York, 1987. Based on a sociological survey of U.S. Muslims. Chapter 2 contains a discussion of American mosque forms, constituencies, and functions.

Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. 3 vols. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. New York, 1958. Consult volume 1:449-450, and volume 2:249-266, for discussions of mosques. Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj al-Qushayri. Sahib Muslim. 4 vols. Translated by ‘Abdul Hamid Siddiqi. Lahore, 1976. Volume i contains the quasi-canonical hadiths pertaining to prayer and mosques.

Pedersen, Johannes, et al. “Masdjid.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 6, pp. 645-707. Leiden, 196o-. Detailed account of the history, functions, and administration of the mosque prior to the modern period. Concludes with sections on mosques in India, Southeast Asia, China, and Africa.

Turner, Harold W. From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship. The Hague, 1979. Insightful comparative study of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic concepts of religious space, despite a reliance on secondary sources for the Islamic data.


Mosque Architecture

There are two words for mosque in Arabic-masjid and jami`. Derived from sujud (prostration), masjid means a building for prayer; jami`. denotes a place of gathering. Any conveniently located mosque, large or small, may be used for daily prayers, but at noon every Friday the community congregates in a jami`. not only to pray but also to hear the prayer-leader deliver a sermon (khutbah) from the steps of the minbar. Emulating the stone platform that the prophet Muhammad ascended to give his sermons, the minbar has been an essential feature of a congregational mosque since the year 750 CE. It stands next to the mihrdb, an ornamental arched niche set into the qiblah wall to indicate the direction of Mecca.

Originally the qiblah was Jerusalem; Mecca became the focal center of Islam in 629. Another eighty years passed before the mihrdb niche made its appearance in mosque architecture. Prior to that innovation, the orientation of prayer was indicated either by a spear standing upright in the sand in an open desert mosque without walls, or by a piece of rock, as in the Prophet’s house in Medina. This house had a spacious courtyard enclosed by unfired brick walls with a row of cells on one side and sheltered areas set against the other two walls; the latter were covered by palm leaves resting on palm trunks. There is general agreement that the architectural organization and construction materials of the earliest congregational mosques, such as those built in Basra and Kufa during the first half of the seventh century, were direct descendants of the house in Medina in which the Prophet lived, led communal prayers, and preached.

Neither of these congregational mosques retained its original architectural characteristics for long. In 665, the governor of Basra, Ziydd ibn Abih, ordered the Basra mosque reconstructed in sun-dried brick with stone columns and a teak roof. When Ziyadh moved to Kufa as governor five years later, he also rebuilt the congregational mosque in that city. The renovated Kufa mosque consisted of a haram (prayer hall) with five rows of stone columns and a sahn (court) surrounded by double rows of riwaqs (porticos). Another early congregational mosque, the `Amr ibn al-‘As at Fustat in Egypt, underwent similar changes when it was enlarged and renovated in 827. Rows of arches on classical columns gathered from Roman ruins replaced its original wooden supports.

The riwaqs constituted a significant development because they converted the nondirectional pillared haram into a multi-aisled hall. Actually, the aisled haram probably emerged a century before in the al-Aqsa Mosque at Jerusalem. Built by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid between 709 and 715, the al-Agsa was severely damaged in the earthquake of 747 and was almost entirely rebuilt and enlarged by al-Mahdi (r. 775-785), with aisles running perpendicular to the qiblah wall.

By contrast, the congregational mosque al-Walid built at Damascus (705-715) had a lofty central hall flanked by gable-roofed wings that were divided into three lateral aisles by two rows of columns. The columns supported riwaq walls pierced by arched openings not unlike the clerestory windows in early basilica churches. (The elegant double-tiered riwaqs in `Abd al-Rahman I’s Great Mosque at Cordoba [785] may well have been inspired by the high arched openings in the Damascus Great Mosque.) Yet another feature of early Christian derivation is mosaic decoration. Panels depicting landscapes cover the mosque’s walls above the marble revetments up to the archsprings on the three sides of the two-story riwaqs surrounding the sahn. They resemble in style and workmanship the mosaic decoration in the sixth-century Church of Saint Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna and were no doubt the work of Byzantine craftsmen.

The Damascus Great Mosque originally had four minarets, one at each corner of the building. Today, only two minarets-one rebuilt in the fourteenth century, the other in the fifteenth-occupy the southeast and southwest corners of the haram. A third minaret, erected in the twelfth century, stands by the main gateway on the north, across from the domed central hall. This arrangement emulates the axial union of the mihrdb and minaret, which made its appearance in the Great Mosque of Qayrawan (Kairouan) in Tunisia.

The Qayrawan Great Mosque was built in 670, but it acquired its present form after modifications in 724 and 836. Its vast prayer hall is sectioned into aisles by sixteen riwaqs that extend toward the qiblah Not only is the center aisle wider and higher than those on either side of it, it is also emphasized by a dome at each endbehind the main entrance, and in front of the mihrdb. These two small domes align with a third over the threelevel, square minaret (which may be the earliest surviving minaret in Islamic architecture) that rises in the middle of the mosque’s front wall, right in the center of the qiblah axis. (For a different example of a square minaret, see figure )

Kairaouine Mosque in Fez - Morocco

Kairaouine Mosque in Fez – Morocco

front of a congregational mosque on its qiblah axis continued during the `Abbasid period. This is well illustrated by the two mosques that the caliph alMutawakkil built in Samarra in Iraq. The Great Mosque of Samarra dates from 852, and the Mosque of Abu Dulaf was probably built during the first few years of the following decade.

The mammoth ziggurat minaret of the Samarra Great Mosque (al-Manarah al-Malwiyah) is the largest minaret ever erected. It rises as a free-standing structure in front of the sanctuary on its center and consists of a tower with an external ramp that spirals to a 5o-meter-high platform over a square base 33 meters on a side. The Malwiyah has survived in good repair; however, of the enormous sanctuary-240 meters long by 156 meters wide-only the outer walls buttressed by semicylindrical bastions are still standing: the interior is empty.

Although the outer walls of the slightly smaller (213 x 135 meters) Abfi Dulaf were destroyed, its piers have not totally disappeared. They show what the Samarra Great Mosque’s interior may have been like before its internal support system collapsed. The Abu Dulaf’s sanctuary arches span slightly more than 3 meters and spring from nearby square piers in the front and back of the court and from rectangular ones on the sides. Originally both the Samarra Great Mosque and Abfi Dulaf were surrounded by walled ziyadahs on all four sides. On the east, west, and south the enclosures were wide, and on the north there was only a narrow strip.

The ziyadahs of the Samarra Great Mosque and Abfi Dulaf are known through documentary and archaeological evidence. That of the Ibn Tfilfin mosque at Fustat has survived intact. Built by the `Abbasid governor of Egypt, Ahmad ibn Tfilfin, during the 870s (it was completed in 879), the Ibn Tfilfin is surrounded on three sides by a ziyadah that functions as a buffer between the town and mosque. The ziyddah serves as additional prayer area when large crowds gather in the mosque on Fridays and special occasions. It also contains within its walls the ablution facilities and minaret; the latter is composed of a cylindrical shaft with a spiral staircase on the outside over a high, square base. As in Samarra, an elevated passageway connects the minaret to the mosque. (See figure 2.)

Doors lining the Ibn Tfilfin’s northeastern wall lead to a spacious, square sahn with double aisles on three sides and a five-aisle-deep haram on the fourth. The riwaqs forming the aisles have rectangular piers marked by engaged columns at the corners. They shoulder painted arches that alternate with small arch-openings pieced into arcade walls over the piers. The soffits of both types of arches are decorated with bands of ornament. There is also a frieze of rosettes in stucco that runs along the top of the riwdq walls just below the flat timber roof. The fenestration system of the mosque’s crenellated walls, comprising a row of pointed arched windows with polyfoil arched niches between them, emulates the rhythmic pattern of the alternating large and small arch openings in the interior.

There is a kinship between the Ibn Tfilfin and the two congregational mosques in Samarra. The same observation cannot be made for the `Abbasid mosques in Iran. As Islam penetrated eastward into Asia, old mosque forms were replaced by new ones, as illustrated by the Masjid-i Tarikh at Damghan (first half of the ninth century). In plan the Masjid-i Tarikh recalls the early mosques in Mesopotamia. Its heavy barrel vaults over stumpy, cylindrical pillars, however, derive from Sassanian architecture.

Another new mosque form appeared in the `Abbasid mosque at Balkh in Afghanistan (ascribed to the ninth century), in which the square haram was divided into

Ibn Tulun Mosque (3)

FIGURE 2. Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo. Ninth century

nine smaller squares-three deep and three wide-and all nine squares were covered by individual domes. The domed superstructure reflected the secular building tradition of Central Asia.

More important was the incorporation of another secular architectural theme-the cross-axial plan-into sacred building. The cross-axial plan was formed by an iwdn, an important element resembling a gateway, in the middle of each side of a covered or open quadrangular hall or court. This plan was used in the eighth century by the Umayyads in al-Qasr on the citadel of Amman in Jordan, and by the `Abbasids a century later in the main reception room of the Jawsaq al-Kharqani at Samarra; the Seljuks used it in the twelfth-century Masjid-i Jumu’ah at Isfahan and Masjid-i Jami` at Zawara.

As illustrated by the Great Mosque of Varamin (1326) and the Masjid-i Shah at Isfahan (1638), the cross-axial plan persisted in Iran during the Il-khanid and Safavid periods (see figure 3). Bibi Khanum Mosque at Samarkand (14o6) and the Jami` Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra (c. 1570) show that the cross-axial plan also played a part in the formation of mosque architecture in Timurid Turkestan and Mughal India.

Actually, the oldest mosque in India was the Quwat al-Islam at Delhi. Begun in 1193 by Qutbuddln Aibak, it consisted of a sanctuary built on the substructure of a

Hindu temple and the Qutb Minar, a freestanding minaret tower named after its founder. Successive stages of Qutb Minar’s round, tall, and tapering shaft were marked by four projecting balconies; the spacious sahn of Quwat al-Islam featured the four accents of the crossaxial plan.

Although it was sometimes used in such buildings as madrasahs and mdristdns, the cross-axial plan was not seen in Artukid and Anatolian Seljuk mosques. As illustrated by the Great Mosques of Diyarbakir, Silvan, and Kiziltepe (Dunaysir), the Artukids created variations on the laterally set theme of the Damascus Great Mosque, but they did not use the cross-axial plan in their mosques. Neither did the plan play a significant role in Anatolian Seljuk sacred architecture. Except in the Great Mosque of Malatya (begun in 1243), the iwdn was not used at all by the Anatolian Seljuks. They preferred instead the apadanah type of columnar mosque exemplified by the Old Mosque (now called the `Ala’ al-Din Mosque) at Konya (begun c. 1155; see figure 4) and the Great Mosque of Afyon (c. 1272). More importantly, they developed the basilica mosque, which consisted of several aisles running in the qiblah direction, with a dome in front of the mihrdb and a small inner court in the middle of the center aisle to serve as the sahn. Two examples of the basilica type are the Great Mosques of Divrigi (1228) and Beysehir (1299). The first is notewor


FIGURE 3. Masjid-i Shah, Isfahan. Seventeenth century













Interior: the peristile prayer hall. Konya

Interior: the peristile prayer hall. Konya

FIGURE 4. `Ala’ al-Din Mosque, Konya. Twelfth century; view of the interior.

thy for its ornate stone portal and decorative vaults, and the second for its wooden columns with intricately covered capitals and its mihrdb dome decorated with glazed tiles. The cross-axial plan did not find a favorable environment in Upper Mesopotamia and Anatolia, but another traditional element-the mihrdb dome-became a significant feature in both regions. Artukids and Anatolian Seljuks emphasized their mosques with domes.

It was the Ottomans, however, who truly exploited the full potential of the dome in the mosque architecture. This development took place in three stages. The first stage was realized in the Great Mosque of Bursa (1399) when all but one of its twenty square bays were covered by domes of equal size (see figure 5). In the second stage, exemplified by the Uc Serefeli Mosque at Edirne (1447), not only was a larger dome placed at the center of the haram, but a sahn surrounded by domed arcades also preceded it. In the final stage, smaller bays around the larger central area of the haram were integrated under half domes on one, two, three, or all four sides.

Among the Ottoman sultans’ mosques dating from the sixteenth century, three are especially worthy of mention: the Sehzade Mehmed and Suleymaniye at Istanbul, and the Selimiye at Edirne. In the Sehzade Mehmed (1548), four half domes shoulder the central dome on four sides, while two minarets anchor the corners where the two squares that define the h cram and the sahn come together. The Suleymaniye (1557), with its upper structure highlighted by a central dome and two half domes before and after it on the qiblah axis, displays an Ottoman interpretation of the Hagia Sophia theme (see figure 6).

Unlike the minarets that mark the corners of the Su-leymaniye’s sahn, in the Selimiye (1575), four high, pencil-point minarets (the highest in Ottoman architecture) rise at the four corners of the haram, which is covered by a large dome. It sits on eight elephantine pillars, bolstered by half domes on the diagonals. Within a quadrangular haram, the Selimiye’s central dome forms an octagonal baldachin. This was in keeping with the Ottoman preoccupation with searching for new mosque forms in the sixteenth century, which produced domical schemes over octagonal and hexagonal bases as well as square ones. The spirit of experimentation did not persist; by the seventeenth century the symmetrical and balanced form of the Sehzade Mehmed was accepted as the most suitable for a large imperial mosque, as shown by the Sultan Ahmed (1616), Yeni Cami (1667), and new Fatih 0’7’71) mosques at Istanbul, as well as the Alabaster Mosque built by Muhammad `All on the citadel of Cairo (1848).

Great Mosque, Bursa

Great Mosque, Bursa


FIGURE 5. Great Mosque, Bursa. Fourteenth century.











FIGURE 6. Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul. Sixteenth century; exterior.

Finally, it should be noted that the congregational mosque at Islamabad has a twentieth-century version of the cross-axial plan. The reinforced concrete folded plates of the haram’s superstructure, with ridges pointing in the four directions, exemplify the happy union of contemporary building technology and a traditional architectural theme.

[See also Architecture.]


Aslanapa, Oktay. Turkish Art and Architecture. London, Brown, Percy. Indian Architecture. Bombay, 1949. Creswell, K. A. C. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. London, 1958.

Ettinghausen, Richard, and Oleg Grabar. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 650-1250. New York, 1967.

Gabriel, Albert. Monuments turcs d’Anatolie. 2 vols. Paris, 1931-1934 Gabriel, Albert. Voyages archiologiques dans la Turquie orientale. Paris, 1940.

Godard, Andre. The Art of Iran. New York, 1971. Goodwin, Godfrey. A History of Ottoman Architecture. London, 1971. Hoag, John D. Islamic Architecture. New York, 1977.

Kuban, Dogan. Muslim Religious Architecture. Leiden, 1974.

Kuran, Aptullah. The Mosque in Early Ottoman Architecture. Chicago and London,1968.

Kuran, Aptullah. Sinan. Washington, D.C., and Istanbul, 1987. Michell, George, ed. Architecture of the Islamic World. New York, 1978.


The Mosque in Politics

In recent decades the mosque has become a vital center of social and political activity wherever Muslims live. It has also become a visible and physical symbol of Islam, at times reduced to a journalistic cliche by the Western media. To understand Muslim society we need to understand the mosque in its midst.

Analysts discussing Christian revivalism in countries like the United States often compare the church to the mosque, but it is misleading to equate the mosque in Muslim society to the church in Christian society. The church, however central to Christian worship, does not have the same political or social influence today among Christians as the mosque has among Muslims. Moreover, the mosque performs many political functions the church does not.

At the outset it is important to point out that the idea of the mosque as a base for Muslim politics is not entirely a new or contemporary one. The mosque has always been at the center of political activity from the earliest days of Islam. The prophet Muhammad helped build the first mosque in Medina next to his own house, and it became a center for discussion and debate. Among the first acts of most pious Muslim rulers was the building of a central mosque; later generations remembered the ruler through the mosque he built. According to folk tradition, whoever builds a mosque creates for himself or herself a place in paradise. Inevitably, those seeking to express their discontent through violent means were able to do so also at the mosque. It is significant that two of the four righteous caliphs of Islam were assassinated in the precincts of the mosque. Given their pious nature, it was not difficult for the assassins to calculate where they would be during prayer time.

Mosques in Non-Muslim and Muslim Societies. Now more than ever the mosque is the hub and symbol of intense political and intellectual activity, whether Muslims are a majority or a minority in the region. In non-Muslim societies, the mosque has become a focus for the debate around Muslim identity.

In India the mosque in Ayodhya, built early in the sixteenth century, became the central symbol of the campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist movement, to achieve power. It was argued that the Hindu deity Rama was born on the very spot on which the mosque was built; it had to be destroyed to build a temple in his honor. Underlying this was the feeling that the mosque had to be destroyed in order to prove Hindu superiority, to avenge Hindu defeats at Muslim hands, and to create Hindu cultural pride. In this milieu, where fact and fantasy fed into the communal passions of millions of people, Muslims became the ready victims of riots and police action (during the ten hours it took the Hindu mobs to demolish the mosque in December 1992, the police-almost entirely Hindustood idly by).

Soon other historical monuments were also being claimed by Hindu extremists. One is the Juma mosque in Delhi, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, a descendant of the emperor who built the Ayodhya mosque, and Anajor center of Muslim political activity in India. Whenever there is a political crisis, the speeches there reflect it. Hindus now claim that the mosque was built on the site of a temple and must be destroyed so that a new temple can be built. The Taj Mahal (which also contains a mosque) is another target for extremists who claim it was once a Hindu palace. The threat is serious enough for the government to have posted armed security forces. Unlike the mosque in Ayodhya, the Taj Mahal is an internationally recognized tourist attraction, and damage to it would attract world attention.

Bosnia offers another example of violence against Muslims that focuses on the mosque. Although Muslims in Bosnia had over recent generations gradually been forced to give up the outward symbols of Islam-Arabic, prayers, and fasting-the first target of the Serbs was the mosque. It is estimated that by 1993 about eight hundred mosques had been destroyed. The standard procedure of the Serb offensive is to surround a village, blow up the mosque, and then plant trees on the site in the hope that the memory of it will be obliterated.

The destruction of a mosque evokes a highly charged and emotional response in Muslims. The notion of shahid (martyr) has even been applied to the mosques that have been destroyed by non-Muslims. When the mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindus, Hindu temples in the neighboring Muslim countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh were attacked almost immediately.

Although mosques are safe from attack in Muslim countries, the mosque has become a focus of opposition to government in these societies and thus a target of official displeasure. The ideas that are generated in the network of mosques easily permeate the bazaar and the suq, the favela and the village. In Egypt and Algeria the main opposition to what is seen as the corruption and incompetence of the government comes from the mosque; the Muslim parties that appeared poised to win the elections in Algeria in 1991 were thwarted by the imposition of martial law. In both Egypt and Algeria the state security apparatus has sometimes invaded mosques to try to crush Muslim opposition, creating a highly volatile situation.

In Egypt it is estimated that there are some forty thousand private mosques that are often the centers for militant antigovernment activities. The government is therefore attempting to incorporate these mosques, recently announcing that it would nationalize five thousand of them. Officials of the Ministry of Religious Endowments now write the sermons for the twenty thousand government-controlled mosques instead of allowing this to be done by local preachers.

Increasingly Muslim governments attempt to control the running of the mosque, the appointment of its officials, and the content of the khutbah or sermon. By doing so they hope to direct the nature of Islamic debate in society. They encourage the preachers to concentrate on innocuous religious topics, to talk of fasting and praying and of respecting elders and those in authority, in sermons that support ideal values and general principles not related directly to the demands of actual contemporary life. This kind of khutbah contrasts with those delivered in mosques not controlled by government, which serve as authentic, populist forums. Some of the most famous mosques in the Muslim world are directly under government control. An example is provided by one of the oldest university mosques in the world, the highly respected al-Azhar in Cairo. By incorporating the al-Azhar into its administrative structure, the government effectively removed its teeth.

Heightened Politicization. The mosque has become more politically relevant in recent decades for several reasons. First, many Muslim governments appear to have lost credibility in the eyes of the public. Few Muslims are prepared to believe the official statements of the government propaganda machine. The mosque, in contrast, provides a free forum for ideas that can challenge the corruption, inefficiency, and nepotism that mark many governments. In the sermon no one is spared who is seen as deviating from Islam-even a king or a military dictator. Under severely repressive regimes too the subtext of the sermon makes clear the message of opposition.

Second, from the 1970s on the central importance of the mosque was underlined by the emergence of enthusiastically Islamic rulers like King Faysal in Saudi Arabia, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and General Zia ulHaq in Pakistan. They made it a point to pray in the mosque, particularly on Fridays. These prayers became national events as they were shown on television. A sense of cultural pride was created, and the publicity encouraged people to go to the mosque themselves.

Third, the globalization taking place in Muslim society allows those in charge of the mosque to develop a global perception, a unified Muslim response to the times. It gives them the strength and courage to take on the establishment. Improvements in communication enable the person delivering the sermon to be wellinformed and to relate local crises to international events. Thus a crisis in one part of the world can quickly be communicated to another and incorporated in sermons.

Finally, the importance given to the mosque over other forums gives the imams a sense of destiny to take up the challenge of leadership. They believe that they not only are on high moral ground, but also wear the legitimate mantle of political authority.

These points apply as well to the situation of Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim societies. At Cambridge University in Britain until a few years ago, for instance, there was no place for Friday prayers. In the 1990s, however, there are three. The main mosque overflows on Friday with as many as two to three hundred people gathering, many spilling into the street. Women covered in their hijab (Islamic dress) are present too, and according to Islamic custom they pray in a separate enclosure. The sermons are highly political and radical in content.

The mosque is also contributing in another significant manner to Islamic politics. There has been a tendency toward the universalization of Islam through the mosque. The sectarian barriers between Shi’is and Sunnis, between Barelwis and Deobandis, may be starting to break down. Very often Muslims of different sectarian backgrounds gather at the central mosque for major occasions, when global issues can be raised and discussed. In the 1980s as such issues were identified and publicized, they reinforced a sense of Muslim identity. They included the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, the Gulf War, and the mass murders of Muslims in Bosnia. Such crises created anger among Muslims, but they also forged a global sense of identity. Through the sermon in the mosque, the imam was able to develop the arguments into a plausible worldview.

The mosque officials were therefore able to act as political leaders and to become spokesmen. For instance, the Bradford Council of Mosques in Great Britain became more or less the official voice for Muslims during the Satanic Verses controversy. Its members regularly appeared in the media explaining why Muslims were responding as they did. It gave the mosque officials a new sense of power and importance. The more westernized or less traditional Muslim leadership was bypassed and made almost irrelevant in the media. [See Rushdie Affair. ]

Importance of Sermons. In order to understand the power of the mosque, it is essential to understand the nature of the sermon. The khutbah is often a highly emotional and topical speech discussing the crises in Bosnia, Palestine, or Kashmir and linking the failure of Muslim governments to solve them to the corrupting influences of the West. The corruption of Western society and the need for Muslims to protect themselves from its evil influences from a large part of the argument.

The khutbah is not necessarily an academic or structured discourse. It ranges from a high idealism that borrows from early Islam to a radical populism that appeals to the young. Unfortunately, few non-Muslim commentators understand this, and so they tend to turn to westernized Muslim journalists for political comment and analysis. They would do better to listen to the sermon in the mosque as the key indicator of social and political Muslim thinking, especially the Friday sermon.

A typical Friday sermon focuses on three areas: mainstream Islamic thinking, with well-known historical events recounted, supported by anecdotes and stories; national problems and crises, especially in the context of local politics; and international crises that link Muslims throughout the world. These help to form a coherent worldview.

Several themes are common in the sermons. One is the eternal and universal struggle between the forces of good and evil. The world is increasingly analyzed as being dominated by the power of the West, especially the United States, which is projected as representing moral and spiritual decadence. Sex, drugs, and violence are what the West offers, and Muslims must resist them with moral confidence. Another theme, also linked to the West, focuses on contemporary problems. It is here that ideas of justice and jihad or holy struggle are explicitly linked. The loss of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinians are prominent, as is the slaughter in Bosnia. It is significant that Bosnia itself has become a major and unlikely stick with which to beat Muslim governments. Even in a society like Saudi Arabia, khutbahs mention Bosnia to point to the ineffectual response of the government in providing tangible support to fellow Muslims, hinting that Muslim governments are submitting to the West in their silence on the issue. Among the nationalist issues that are raised in khutbahs, corrupt rulers, the inequality between rich and poor, and the inefficiency of government are highlighted. The West is shown as supporting incompetent and corrupt Muslim rulers in order to obtain concessions such as oil or military bases.

The main themes emerging in the sermons reflect an apocalyptic mood among many ordinary Muslims, fed by memories of the great days of Islam, its lofty ideals, and the nobility of early Muslims. The analysis is usually simplistic, the colors black and white, and the expression hyperbolic. The audience, often rural and illiterate, tends to respond with passion. Broad and familiar themes tend to comfort people in these times of rapid change. The mosque thus provides a secure, familiar base to Muslims bewildered by change, angry at the perceived injustices of a hostile world, and, seeking solace in an increasingly secular and materialistic age.

[See also Imam; Khutbah.]


Ahmed, Akbar S. Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise. London, 1992. Situates role of mosque in context of larger themes of globalization and politicization of religion.

Antoun, Richard. Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, 1989. Study of the mosque sermon as a political and social institution in one Middle Eastern country.

Gaffney, Patrick D. “Authority and the Mosque in Upper Egypt: The Islamic Preacher as Image and Actor.” In Islam and the Political Economy of Meaning, edited by William R. Roff, pp. 199-225. Berkeley, 1987. Examination of how the mosque and mosque preacher in Egypt exercise influence.


The Mosque in Society

The functions of a mosque may vary in different settings, but its importance as a ritual center remains paramount. Its defining feature resides in its symbolic expressions. Other activities related to education, legal procedures, counseling, conflict resolution, life-cycle celebrations, public communication, political mobilization, entertainment, and the provision of welfare assistance follow from this cultic raison d’etre.

The types of rituals that occur in and around a mosque also vary, reflecting a diversity of doctrinal views and devotional practices. Nonetheless, two standard rituals predominate-the daily prayer and the Friday sermon, which ordinarily form the basis of a mosque’s institutional structure. Other ceremonies (notably the dramatization of Imam Husayn’s martyrdom among ShN congregations) may supplement or even overshadow the basic liturgical acts that most Muslims regard as obligatory.

The variety in the functions that link a mosque to society has its origin in the double image of Islam’s initial place of worship. On the one hand, the prophet Muhammad’s original call to his fellow Arabs to convert from idolatry and heed the Qur’an envisaged the haram or sacred precinct, first in Jerusalem and then at Mecca, as its idealized focus. On the other hand, the mosque the Prophet himself founded and whence he directed the primitive community was the open courtyard beside his house in Medina, which hosted ritual gatherings as well as a broad range of practical operations. Hence two models appear in the Qur’an and the sunnah. One portrays the mosque as a sacrosanct enclosure, a liminal perimeter, while the other depicts it as the exemplary hub of public affairs and the seat of just government.

Iconographically, most mosques combine aspects of both prototypes, but they often emphasize one or the other. The location, architecture, and ornament may exhibit either withdrawal or engagement. Mosques are sometimes set at the periphery of an inhabited area or at some remove where they are approached by a sort of pilgrim’s journey. The rites at such a relatively isolated retreat tend to be personalized, often featuring the vows or petitions of single individuals; however, these solitary supplications may alternate with periodic exuberant assemblies or a colorful annual festival. In the main, there is little attention given to otherwise pronounced social distinctions based on age, sex, status and wealth.

A mosque stressing the activist aspect, by contrast, may be situated at the center of a village, on a major thoroughfare, or in the midst of a neighborhood. In another version, the principal mosque of a capital city usually stands adjacent to the ruler’s palace or in the vicinity of the parliament, where it is the scene of national convocations or mass protests. Here, typically, key elements of a society’s hierarchical structure are manifested by the mosque’s spatial arrangements.

Mosques committed to participation in practical concerns often consist of an unpartitioned space that is informally demarcated to separate concurrent or consecutive activities. Thus the area used for congregational prayer may be taken over, perhaps regularly (as when a mosque doubles as a school), and put to other purposes. A mosque of this sort may also be designed as a composite complex with one portion devoted exclusively to prayer and preaching, while adjoining rooms are provided for classes, meetings, lodging, administration, or other needs. Formal supervision is inevitably greater under these expanded circumstances as, while rituals and other activities tend to follow a strict schedule and to be overseen by a certified and usually salaried leader.

Knowledge as the Source of Authority. According to Islamic tradition, in principle every knowledgeable Muslim who is capable of doing so is qualified to preside at the ritual prayer and to preach; but in any given company, the one who leads the others-the imam-is supposed to be the most learned among them or his delegated deputy. This shared premise also assumes tacitly that women do not lead men in prayer, although a woman may act as the imam where only females are present. It follows therefore that Islam does not recognize a clergy as the term is usually understood in the Christian context. Nevertheless, historically, ritual leadership has persistently been concentrated among certain definite social categories, and preaching has often been restricted by custom or edict to specifically authorized individuals.

Nonetheless, the definition of learning as the prerequisite qualification of authority is not univocal. A fecund ambiguity surrounds this ideal and has permitted two contrasting paradigms to emerge, coexist, and freely overlap. Both schools of thought maintain that `ilm or knowledge is the foundation for authority in Islam, but they diverge significantly over what they understand by the concept and how it may be acquired, transferred, displayed, and enforced.

One view stresses the mastery of canonical texts, preferably by memorization. It sees the validation of such learning in the faithful reproduction and application of their contents, using prescribed rational techniques. The other view regards knowledge primarily as the mystical apprehension of hidden realities gained by divine illumination. Such knowledge is recognized intuitively as the product of infused grace or barakah.

Lately these perspectives connecting the mosque to expertise have been augmented and to some extent challenged by a possible rival in the form of modern scientific learning as manifested in the triumphs of Western technology. The claims flowing from this quarter, however, have largely been deflected from fundamental beliefs even as elements of modernity are selectively grafted onto received notions, often with dynamic impact on reform and revitalization movements. `All Shari`ati (d. 1977) is among the best known contemporary exemplars of this seminal adaptation. His “sociology of Islam”, which had such forceful effect on the leaders of the Islamic revolution in Iran, draws heavily on French leftist themes. It is analogous in the domain of social theory to the cogent synthesis in the field of comparative philosophy of religion produced by Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) a half-century before. [See the biographies of Shari`ati and Iqbal.]

These different ways of knowing underlie two opposing approaches to the establishment of order. They are also objectified in contrasting forms of mosque leadership. First, in the classical frame of reference, a corps of scholars known as the `ulama’, fuqaha’ (jurists), or occasionally talaba (seminary students) have been widely recognized as the appropriate overseers of mosques. Furthermore, their functions in courts and schools as well as mosques historically placed them in a unique intermediate position between ruling elites and indigenous populations in stratified societies. Through their agency as an intermediary class, these scholars made the mosques rare channels of contact across the social and cultural boundaries that separated the upper echelons from the masses.

This intermediary role was most explicitly articulated in the Friday sermon, which bears extraordinary significance because the pulpit belongs by right to the successor of the Prophet. The scholar-orator who was nominated to preach was thus combining the authority of rational learning with his ritual function as the ruler’s mouthpiece. In fact, however, this characterization of the mosque as the meetingplace for all levels of society, mediated by the `ulama’, vastly idealizes the past and is today patently antiquated. At best this pattern was restricted to the grand mosques of great cities where the authoritative pulpit or minbar was installed and where these scholars, who were almost exclusively an urban class, were essentially confined.

The second type of mosque and preacher has flourished especially in villages, within tribal societies, and among the populace in towns and cities, and revolves around views of divine power emanating from holy men or women who act as intercessors before God. These saints are said to bestow their favors, sometimes miraculously, to confer esoteric knowledge, protection, healing, and prosperity on those whom they choose. The veneration of a holy person, usually deceased, variously known as sdlih, shaykh, wall, pir, sayyid, murshid, mura-bit, or agha, often incorporates magical and ecstatic elements. The site of these rituals is often a cupola shrine, lodge, mausoleum, or oratory, which may also serve as a mosque or be combined with a mosque. A chosen devotee or descendant of the saint, or perhaps the chief of a related Sufi order, is usually understood to be the leader in such settings, even when someone else-perhaps one of the `ulama’-formally conducts the rituals. [See Sainthood.]

Mosques associated with saints and their cults frequently play an important part in life-crisis ceremonies within bounded communities, especially for males. Circumcisions, for instance, may occur under a saint’s patronage. Induction into a mystical fraternity and progress through its graded stages may follow later. Marriages and funerals may also be orchestrated in a manner that affords participants the blessings of the interceding saint. In this sense, the mosque is used both to divide groups into social categories as it validates status transformation among individuals, and also to unite them by providing a base for undifferentiated solidarity.

These simultaneous processes are conveyed in a Turkish proverb posed as a riddle: “What can a man do that a woman cannot?” The answer: “Go to the mosque.” [See Rites of Passage.]

Popular and Official Reform. The recent changes that have so vastly reshaped Muslim society through modernization and all that it connotes have also profoundly influenced mosques. Thus, while the complementary paradigms of spiritual and practical emphasis persist, their priorities have been redirected. In general, both the appeal of the saints and respect for the `ulama’, have declined markedly. The effects of Western-style schooling, mass media, improved communications, advanced technologies, universal military conscription, centralizing bureaucracies, political awareness, and exposure to the international marketplace have coalesced to undermine an uncritical confidence in these ancient religious institutions.

Efforts to reform the mosque, and especially to reinvigorate the pulpit, have pressed for change in both radical and moderate degrees, pointing in both conservative and liberalizing directions. Among the most important results of this sometimes contradictory process has been the emergence of a novel dichotomous scheme of classification that recasts and updates the rapport between the mosque and society.

In general, almost all reformers have encouraged the observance of ritual practices in closer conformity with the normative, literal shari`ah codes. This has also meant a shift of attention, on a grand scale, toward interest in the style and content of preaching. In recent decades, often in the wake of anticolonial struggles, the Friday sermon has undergone dramatic revision and resurgence. The stilted rhetorical conventions and ossified language that traditionally constricted the expressive range of this idiom have steadily given way to direct speech, creative innuendo, and local vernaculars. Amateur preachers of all sorts-enthusiasts, pedants, ideologues, and militants-have moved in to fill the vacuum left as mosques abandon obsolete fixtures and the space becomes available for those who seek to reply to the questions arising from the confusion and frustration of an Islamic world that perceives itself to be under siege.

This new classification system defines mosques as falling under either government or private sponsorship. In the case of a government mosque (masjid hukumi), the buildings and staff are all fully supported by the state. The preacher is a professional specialist trained either at a traditional madrasah such as al-Azhar in Cairo, Qarawiyin at Fez, or one of Qom’s many colleges, or at the faculty of Islamic studies of a university, or in an academy whose curriculum prepares students for careers in mosques and related institutions. This official imam (prayer-leader) and khatib (preacher) is assigned to a mosque by the appropriate superior in the Ministry of Religious Affairs or its equivalent, which also details his job responsibilities, monitors his performance, and pays him in the manner of other government functionaries. Like clerks, such professional preachers are seen as interchangeable, and the ladder of promotion ascends first to larger and more prestigious pulpits and then into administration.

A private mosque (masjid ahli), by contrast, lacks government support, either because it was not offered or because it was rejected, and therefore it is not embraced by officialdom. Its autonomy is prized mainly because it permits the mosque’s benefactor, or more normally its congregation, to set its agenda and to select its preacher. Most private mosques are relatively small and socially marginal. Some are used rarely or irregularly, erected spontaneously or for display; however, other private mosques are products of sustained initiative and extensive cooperation. Among the most influential mosques of this sort are those underwritten by a form of voluntary benevolent society known in Arabic as a jam’iyah khayriyah or charitable association.

Many groups of this flexible and pragmatic format have been in the vanguard of collective activism since this popular genre of organization was conceived in Egypt more than a century ago. Coinciding with the elimination of the notoriously corrupt system of religious endowments known as waqf, these voluntary societies arose as an innovative and self-sustaining framework whose success or failure depended almost entirely on the vision, skill, and motivation of the membership. A number of these private mosques attract sizable congregations; their preachers, who may include both `ulama’ and laymen, come into prominence as important social and sometimes political voices. Thus in many places mosques affiliated with such associations have become rallying points for those eager to fashion alternatives to inefficient or inadequate public services. They have also at times fostered opportunities for dissent that some governments have in turn sought to curtail.

Given these qualities, one might suggest that such well-rooted private mosques are moving to recover that intermediary position that today is referred to as civil society, which in modified circumstances approximates the social role that classical theory accorded to the `ulama’ and that popular piety entrusted to the saints. Such mosques appear to accomplish this mission by maintaining an equilibrium that avoids the extremes of both inert pompous ceremonialism and surrender to the self-justifying tactics of pure political competition. If the mosque is to preserve its role as a bridge between high and low, connecting the temporal and eternal realms of experience, it can do so only by providing the space for the reenactment of the sacred rituals and the presentation of the sacred book that recalls a community of believers to its origin and its end.


Ahmed, Akbar S., and David M. Hart, eds. Islam in Tribal Societies: From the Atlas to the Indus. London, 1984. Brings good ethnographic data together with perspectives that go well beyond inherited stereotypes of limited usefulness.

Antoun, Richard. Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, 1989. Indispensable and pioneering source on the study of mosque preachers in the context of changing peasant villages.

Campo, Juan Eduardo. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S.C., 1991. Masterful exposition of the symbolic implications of spatial arrangements and decorations.

El-Zein, Abdul Hamid M. The Sacred Meadows: A Structural Analysis of Religious Symbolism in an East African Town. Evanston, Ill., 1974. Explores local Islamic myths and rituals on the island of Lamu, noting the symbolic linkages between the mosque and social relations.

Gaffney, Patrick D. “The Changing Vores of Islam: The Emergence of Professional Preachers in Contemporary Egypt.” Muslim World 81 (January 1991): 27-47.

Gaffney, Patrick D. The Prophet’s Pulpit. Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt. Berkeley, 1995. Thorough description and analysis, notably of sermons, in their social and cultural context.

Gilsenan, Michael. Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion. Oxford, 1973. Exceptionally perceptive description and analysis of a recently founded and thriving urban Sufi order.

Grabar, Oleg. “The Architecture of the Middle Eastern City from Past to Present: The Case of the Mosque.” In Middle Eastern Cities, edited by Ira Lapidus, pp. 26-46. Berkeley, 1969. Instructive survey of continuities in mosque design from one era to the next. Joseph, Roger. “The Semiotics of the Islamic Mosque.” Arab Studies Quarterly 3 (July 1981): 286-301.

Khuri, Fuad I. “The Ulama: A Comparative Study of Sunni and Shi’a Religious Officials.” Middle Eastern Studies 23 (July 198’7): 291312.

Khuri, Fuad Ishaq. Imams and Emirs: State, Religion, and Sects in Islam. London, 1990. Comprehensive review of Islamic sects in the contemporary Arab world, with copious attention to the training and roles of religious leaders.

Mottahedeh, Roy P. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York, 1985. Brilliant account mixing fictive biography with detailed social history and portraying the build-up to the revolution from the perspectives of a traditional and modern student. O’Brien, Donal Cruise, and Christian Coulon, eds. Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam. Oxford and New York, 1988. Useful survey of the dynamics of religious leadership, concentrating on francophone West Africa.

Reeves, Edward B. The Hidden Government: Ritual, Clientelism, and Legitimation in Northern Egypt. Salt Lake City, 1990. Rich mine of details on the economic and political dimensions of the ritual life surrounding the mosque of Sayyid Ahmad Badawl in Tanta.

Roff, William R., ed. Islam and the Political Economy of Meaning. Berkeley, 1987. Unusually engaging collection of anthropological and recent historical studies exploring the ways that Islamic discourse, including preaching, shapes and is shaped by various aspects of social experience.


The Mosque in Education

In addition to being a place where preaching and worship take place and where the community assembles, the mosque has also been from the beginning a place of instruction in religion and its application in life. The Qur’an speaks of religion as something that can be known and communicated with the help of reason. Muhammad is said to have taught and answered questions in the mosque of Medina, and throughout Islamic history study of religion has been constantly encouraged.

The mosques that came into use after the Arab conquests were the natural places to learn about religion. On an elementary level this implied simply learning by heart verses from the Qur’an and hddiths. Already at an early stage children were encouraged to memorize verses and passages of the Qur’an, as they are still today. This tradition has spread to the kuttdbs (Qur’anic schools) everywhere in the Muslim world, which are found mostly in or beside mosques, even in regions where Arabic is not spoken. Equally, up to the present day selections of famous hadiths are’ memorized and recited on numerous occasions.

On a less elementary level, mosques were also places of religious inquiry, discussion and debate, besides serving as places for communal worship and assembly, private study, and meditation. In other words, the mosque was the place where the religious aspects of things could be investigated and where people could look for religious truth, norms, and rules, and for religious guidance in the broader sense of the word, all centered around the Qur’an.

Out of this kind of service and function of the mosque, it became the custom in early times that those possessing knowledge of religion and recognized as such were free to communicate their knowledge and to teach if they found an audience. This no longer consisted merely of learning by heart but extended to teaching the meaning of Qur’anic verses, hadiths that were not yet locally known, prescriptions as to how one should act in different situations of life, and answers to doctrinal problems related to knowledge of God and revelation. This advanced religious teaching started in the mosques and led eventually to the development of the religious sciences.

Thus from the beginnings of Islam mosques have functioned as centers of religious education, both in the sense of instruction (ta`lim) and in the sense of building a moral personality in the student who becomes an integrated member of the community (tarbiyah). However mechanical and rational certain techniques may have been, this education created a communal sense and transmitted the basic truths by which the community distinguished itself from others. There was a close connection between what was held to be the true religion and the kind of education developed to transmit it. In Sufi circles the learning process and education of the heart took place under the personal leadership of a murshid. The `ulama’ would teach the rational study of scripture and law, which required in the first place a good memory and intelligence. We are concerned here only with this second, formal kind of instruction and education as it was practiced in the mosques.

When Islam became institutionalized as a religion and its main prescriptions and doctrines had been fixed, knowledge of religion became more and more identified with knowledge of the Qur’an and sunnah on one hand, and of the shari `ah (religious law) on the other. Together with some less important disciplines, this became a corpus to be assimilated. To the construct of the religion corresponded a construct of knowledge of this religion, with particular ways of teaching and of studying that were in part indebted to existing educational traditions in the Near East.

The gradual acceptance of a certain corpus of knowledge to be acquired, embodied in texts that had to be read, did not exclude variety. And variety there was: regional cultural centers of religious learning, each with its own local sunnah (tradition), and different schools of fiqh (jurisprudence) and kaldm (scholastic theology). There were majority views and the opinions of dissidents: Shi`is possessing their own chains of authority (isnads) and their own corpus of traditions (akhbdr), their own kind of education, and their own mosques; Zahiris with their literal conception of texts and the study of texts; or Mu’tazilis making extensive use of reason and Aristotelian logic. The Sunni majority, recognizing the established caliphate, needed only to defend itself by asserting that its idea and practice of religion was in line with established tradition (sunnah). But the Shi’i minorities had to justify intellectually their specific ideas and practices as different from those of the majority; they may from the beginning have had a greater interest in good education because they were a minority, though a tolerated one.

It was Fatimid Isma’ilis in late tenth-century Egypt who started to establish institutions for the education of their preachers and missionaries. Partly as a response to this, Sunni authorities from the second half of the eleventh century promoted the establishment of Sunni educational institutions (madrasahs) that assumed to a large extent the educational function of the mosques, at least beyond the primary level. These institutions, which quickly spread through the cultural centers of Islam, presented a coherent outlook on the world, humankind, and religion. At the time, the corpus of texts of authoritative religious knowledge according to the Sunni perspective had been largely fixed, and religious education became more and more restricted to reading, learning, and explaining scripture, tradition, and texts according to authoritative commentaries. Hardly any new knowledge could be added; philosophy in the Sunni institutions was largely reduced to the principles of Aristotelian logic; and the empirical disciplines, to the extent they were permitted, had only an auxiliary function with regard to the normative religious disciplines. Education in matters of religion, in both mosque and madrasah, had become the assimilation of knowledge essentially acquired in the past. Its aim was the simple transmission of religious truth known for a long time, to be inculcated into generation after generation of students. Basically, this orientation of madrasah and mosque education continued until the independence of many Muslim countries around the middle of the twentieth century, when national governments reorganized traditional institutions of Sunni religious education. In some countries, such as Turkey, the reorganization occurred earlier; in others, such as India and Pakistan, where private institutions have continued to exist, it was less thoroughgoing. On the whole, Shi`i religious education paid more attention to philosophy; its institutions enjoyed more political and financial independence. The mosque continues to play an educative role when Muslims migrate to the West.

I shall concentrate here on some major Sunni mosques and the education given there around the turn of the nineteenth century: the Great Mosques in Mecca and Medina, the Azhar Mosque in Cairo, the Zaytfinah in Tunis, and the Qarawiyin in Fez. Other mosques where religion was taught, as in Damascus, Aleppo, Kazan, Bukhara, Lahore, and Delhi, did not differ fundamentally from these. We also leave aside religious education given in madrasahs (Sunni and Shi’i), Sufi khanqahs and zdwiyahs, and private associations founded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and concerned with the study of the Qur’an and Islam generally. The following paragraphs note the features characteristic of the education promulgated in the great Sunni mosques at the time.

Knowledge of classical Arabic was presupposed and further instruction in this language given according to traditional patterns that made such study, in particular of grammar, extremely difficult. Furthermore, a corpus of authoritative texts of the Islamic religious sciences (`ulum al-din), dating from the classical (medieval) period and offering the view of Islam at that time, had to be studied with the help of authoritative commentaries.

The teaching was offered by individual fuqaha’ and `ulama’ (shaykhs) to students who assembled in circles (halaqat) around them according to their own choice. After years of study with a particular shaykh a student could obtain a written statement (ijazah) from him certifying that he had successfully studied certain texts with the teacher and was now allowed to teach these texts in his turn. Students might come from great distances in order to study in this way under highly reputed scholars; most students would come, however, from families living in the town or the surrounding countryside. In the teaching given at a particular mosque there was no coordination between the subjects actually taught, and there were no formal study programs and degrees or diplomas other than the individual (ijazah)

The pedagogy applied was based on the absolute authority of scripture, tradition, and the other texts studied, as well as on the authority of the masters of the past and the teachers of the present; both kinds of authority had to be respected. Such pedagogy required both the mental assimilation of the texts studied by means of memorization (printed texts were not yet available) and the sharpening of intelligence by putting and answering questions in discussions with the teacher.

As a result, a vision of Islam, the world, and humanity was presented that was supposed to be universally valid beyond time and space. At least in mosque education, no knowledge was provided about nature, society, history, or geography, not to speak of Western languages. A kind of self-sufficiency or at least a feeling of superiority prevailed among both teachers and students, proud of not only possessing the absolute religion but also knowing it, which made self-criticism and dialogue with others difficult.

The economic basis of this mosque education consisted principally of the revenues from waqfs (charitable endowments) that had made possible the foundation and upkeep of the mosques, and also of gifts, donations and legacies from people of the wealthier classes. Lodging and feeding of students was often provided in the same way, many students living in houses (riwdq) according to their regions of origin. At the time the mosques were practically independent of political authorities and governments at large, although there were often close personal links between the shaykhs and prominent personalities of public life through commercial and marriage alliances. It was rare for shaykhs to protest against government politics; they rather supported the regime in place, which would be able to offer appointments to gifted students and further the careers of ambitious `ulama’ Although there was a basic solidarity among the `ulama’ as a class, they had no independent religious organization to defend the interests of their profession and themselves; they had to rely on their high social prestige among the population and the private wealth and influence of some members.

The social profile of the students was extremely broad. For many of them, coming from the countryside or the lower classes of the towns, mosque education hardly cost anything and was the only path to upward mobility. For sons of the urban upper classes and of the `ulama’ themselves, this education gave access to important positions in the judiciary, state administration, and of course religious education itself. In a traditional Muslim society mosque and madrasah provided the education needed to fill the existing “intellectual” positions in the overall socioreligious structure.

Several explanations may be advanced for the major changes that occurred in this traditional mosque education between 1850 and 1950 and finally put an end to it. First, the modernist reform movement initiated by

Muhammad `Abduh (1849-1905) in Egypt and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) in India was largely stimulated by educational concerns. Muslim thought had to come to terms with modern knowledge and the problems of the modern world, and Muslim students had to be prepared to face it. It was thought that a reform of Islam on the basis of a new, rational interpretation of its main sources, Qur’an and sunnah, would make this possible. Much more than traditionalist Muslims, the reform movement had a vision of education as an engine to propel Muslim societies from the “backwardness” responsible for the success of foreign domination. The call for the reform of education was readily adopted by students committed to the reform of society and to nationalist movements, social development, and justice. It was also taken up by students who realized that finding a job in the society to come would be more difficult for those who came from the traditional educational system than for graduates of the increasing number of institutions offering a modern education.

New government policies also had their impact on traditional mosque and madrasah education. Muhammad `All in Egypt, Khayr al-Din in Tunisia, and some enlightened sultans in Istanbul not only took the initiative in founding new educational institutions on a higher level; they also tried to limit private waqfs and to exert some control over the traditional educational institutions. Most nationalist movements were highly critical of a kind of education that was in fact a remnant of medieval times. Whereas most foreign colonial administrators were not allowed by their governments to meddle in the internal affairs of the Islamic institutions in the countries they ruled, the succeeding national and generally revolutionary governments could and did interfere with institutions sanctioned by traditional religion, like waqfs mosques, and religious education. This was a natural consequence of the hard fact that, in order to survive, the newly independent countries needed to start planned economic development. To bring about the necessary changes, and for other reasons too, their societies were placed under complete governmental control. Moreover, in their efforts to modernize their countries the new nationalist governments reduced the spheres of influence of the traditional religious authorities, including the realm of education. Thinking along the same line, such governments have actively promoted modern educational institutions (including modern religious education) opposed to the traditional ones. They have also made concerted efforts to make the traditional educational institutions more functional, serving what they define as society’s priorities.

Beyond the forces of Islamic reform and government policies, however, it was the changing economic and social structures of society that brought traditional mosque education to an end. Formerly students could exhibit their ijazahs and find decent jobs in the traditional society of the time. In modern society people after their studies had to show diplomas and compete for a job. Those coming from traditional education often lost the battle because of their poor pragmatic qualifications compared with those of graduates from modern institutions who could show degrees and diplomas. The oncedominant traditional religious views had lost their monopoly in the minds of the people when nationalist and other secular ideologies offered themselves to the younger generation. Whereas the traditional mosque and madrasah education had been of great service to the traditional Muslim societies, rather closed to the outside world, they lost relevance once these societies were broken open not only by the penetration of the colonial powers, foreign capital, and Western ideas, but also by the efforts of new leaders-secular nationalists, military revolutionaries, socialists, and technocrats-not to speak of the many influences Muslim countries have undergone since independence. Traditional mosque education simply stood in the way of these new forces.

As a consequence, with the exception of certain regions of the Indian subcontinent, traditional mosque education at present persists only on the elementary level, that of learning the Qur’an. This may be in the form of the traditional Qur’anic school (kuttab) where children learn parts of the Qur’an and certain hadiths by heart, in addition to learning how to read and write. Or it may be listening to religious preaching or participating in study groups organized by mosques or other associations where adults receive instruction in Qur’an and sunnah, no longer sitting in halaqdt on the floor around the shaykh who leans against a pillar in the hall of the mosque, but now assembled in a room designed for the purpose under the roof of the mosque, provided with a library of printed books instead of the manuscripts found in the older mosques.

Religious education on higher levels has been mostly transferred to more or less modern Islamic university institutions. The Zaytfinah in Tunis finally became an Islamic university; so did Qarawiyin in Fez. In 1961 even the venerable mosque university al-Azhar of Cairo became an Islamic university endowed with a great number of faculties similar to those found at modern universities, distinguished only by having faculties of Islamic law (shari`ah) and theology (`usul al-din), and also a women’s faculty (kulliyat al-bandt). Al-Azhar has in addition an immense network of Islamic education on all levels throughout Egypt. In most Muslim countries, surviving madrasahs have been transformed into higher institutes for Islamic research or faculties of shari`ah attached to universities.

In the course of the twentieth century higher education in Islamic religion in its Sunni version has been shifting from the mosque to the university (whose Arabic names both have the same root, j-m-`, meaning “coming together”). Of course, the mosques still have an important educational function, but not on the level of formal education in the religious sciences of Islam. As a result of the increasing interest in Islamic studies in Muslim countries today, new Islamic universities, higher Islamic institutes, and faculties of Islamic religious studies and shari`ah have been opened in many countries during the past few years. Governments are attentive to how Islam is presented in these institutions, partly to counter interpretations of it that might be politically threatening.

[See also Azhar, al-; Education, articles on Religious Education and Educational Institutions; Madrasah; Zaytunah. ]


Ahmad, Mohammad Akhlaq. Traditional Education among Muslims: A Study of Some Aspects in Modern India. New Delhi, 1985. Important survey of the content, form, and organization of present-day Islamic education in India.

Belambri, A. Bibliographie systematique sur l’education islamique. Paris, 1988. Indispensable for any research on Islamic education. Berque, Jacques. “Ville et universite: Apercu sur l’histoire de l’ecole de Fes.” Revue de l’histoire du droit franqais et etranger 27 (1949): 64-117. Contextualizes the Qarawiyin mosque and its educational system in the social history of Fez.

Dodge, Bayard. Al-Azhar: A Millennium of Muslim Learning. Washington, D.C., 1961. Highly readable account of the history of the al-Azhar mosque and its educational aspects up to the reforms of 1961.

Dohaish, Abdullatif Abdullah. History of Education in the Hijaz up to 1925. Cairo, 1398/1978. Survey of the development of modern education and the history of traditional Islamic education up to the establishment of Sa’ndi rule.

Eccel, A. Chris. Egypt, Islam, and Social Change: Al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation. Berlin, 1984. Fundamental study with rich documentation on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of al-Azhar within the context of modernizing Egyptian society.

Fischer, Michael M. J. Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution.

Cambridge, Mass., 1980. Chapters 2 and 3 offer a description of religious teaching in Qom during the 1970s.

Ja`far, S. M. Education in Muslim India. Peshawar, 1936. Useful survey of traditional and modern education for Muslims in India. Lemke, Wolf-Dieter. Mahmud Saltut (1893-1963) and die Reform der Azhar: Untersuchungen zu Erneuerungsbestrebungen im agyptischislamischen Erziehungssystem. Frankfurt am Main, 198o. Careful study of the impact of modern reform thought, through the person of Shaykh Shaltut, on the reorganization of al-Azhar in 1961. Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago, 1982. Excellent introduction to various trends of thought with regard to educational renewal in Muslim countries during the last two centuries.

Shalabi, Ahmad. History of Muslim Education. Beirut, 1954. Historical study of education in Muslim countries in the medieval period. Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. Mekka in the Latter Part of the Nineteenth Century: Daily Life, Customs, and Learning: The Moslims of the East-Indian-Archipelago. Leiden and London, 1931. Fascinating account of Meccan life in 1884/85 by a Dutch scholar and eyewitness, with a discussion of educational institutions.

Tibawi, A. L. Islamic Education. London, 1972. Basic introduction to Islamic education and changes undergone with the rise of modern nation-states.

Tritton, A. S. Materials on Muslim Education in the Middle Ages. London, 1957. Historical study of education in Muslim countries in the medieval period.

Waardenburg, Jacques.

“Some Institutional Aspects of Muslim Higher Education and Their Relation to Islam.” Numen 12 (1965): 96-138.

Wayne, Keith Martin. “The Reformation and Secularization of Zaytuna University.” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1975. Useful study of transformations in the educational system of al-Zaytunah in Tunis during the nineteenth and twentieth century up to 1975.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/mosque/

  • writerPosted On: August 15, 2014
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