Mosque in Delhi
Muslim architecture it expressed mostly in the form of mosques as well as in related “madrassahs” (theological schools), “khanqahs” (monasteries), shrines and mausoleum complexes.

Tim Stanley, curator the Middle Eastern collection a the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, told the Times of London, “What you must remember is that a mosque is built as much to honor its creator as to honor the creator of the universe. In its opulence and detail, it resembles a place as much as a church.” The concept behind a mosque is very simple. “All you need in a mosque is the correct orientation — toward Mecca and an open space.”

Mosque is a French word derived from the Arabic word “masjid” , meaning “place of prostration.” Mosques are regarded as places that people gather to pray. According to sura 24:36 they are “houses which God has allowed to be built, that His name may be spoken in them.”

Dr. Carool Kersten of the Kings College London wrote for the BBC: “The mosque is a place to gather for prayers, to study and to celebrate festivals such as Ramadan. It can also be used to house schools and community centres. The simplest mosque would be a prayer room with a wall marked with a “mihrab” – a niche indicating the direction of Mecca, which Muslims should face when praying. A typical mosque also includes a minaret, a dome and a place to wash before prayers. Each feature has its own significance. [Source: Dr. Carool Kersten, Kings College London, BBC |::|]

A mosque is essentially a place to pray. Unlike many churches, mosques generally do not contain human remains, funeral jewelry or images and paintings of religious figures or have graveyards. Some, mostly those used by Shiites and Sufis, contain tombs of martyrs or prominent religious figures. These are sometimes referred to as shrines rather than mosques.

Mosques serve as community centers as well as a religious centers, and are regarded as places for education. The atmosphere inside a mosque is generally relaxed. People hang out and chat with their friends when not praying. Children sometimes play around inside and people often enter to escape the heat. It is generally okay for non-Muslims to enter. Mosques have traditionally been oriented mostly towards men. Women have traditionally been encouraged to pray at home. Many mosques only a relatively small, screened off area that women can use.

Mosque in Ivory Coast
Mosques often lie at the center of a complex of buildings that can include related madrassahs khanqahs. shrines, mausoleum complexes, legal courts, hostels, hospitals, and facilities to help the poor. Turkish mosques were often built as part of larger complexes called “kulliye” that included a madrassah, a soup kitchen (“imaret”), public bath (“hamam”), and public fountain (“cesme” ) with drinking water. The building of mosques has traditionally been financed by donations obtained people and organizations living around the place where the mosque be built or a wealthy benefactor or foundation.

Books: “Mosque “ by David Macaulay (Lorraine Books, Houghtin Mifflin Company. 2003); “The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800" by Sheila S. Blair (Yale University Press) is first rate book. It is insightful. well written and contains lots of good pictures.

Websites and Resources: Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam ;

Islamic Art and Images: Islamic Finder ; Islamology Picture gallery ; Islamic Images ; Islamic Images ; Qur’an Images WikiIslam ; Muslim Women ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Art Wikipedia ; Calligraphy Islamic ; Islamic Art Art History Resources ; Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; British Museum

Early Mosques

After Muhammad arrived in Medina, he said Allah would use his camel to chose the best spot to set to set up his camp and a place to pray. The camel knelt before a small barn. This barn became the world's first mosque. It was likely made of palm logs and mud brick and had fiber roofing. A stone marked the direction of prayer. The pulpit used by Muhammad to preach was fashioned from a tree trunk. Muslims gathered in the courtyard to discuss community matters. All mosque built afterwards were based on this humble structure.

One mosque that set the tone for all mosques that followed was the Dome of the Rock, completed in Jerusalem in A.D. 691. It contained no human figures and instead was decorated with Qur’anic verses written with Arabic calligraphy. The great dome suggested balance and space.

20120509-Dome of the rock.jpg
Dome of the Rock In Jerusalem
Early mosques were influenced by Byzantine architecture and local styles. Many early mosques were reconstituted churches or synagogues. Other mosques were converted Persian halls or rectangular fields surrounded by a ditch or a fence.

The designs of early mosques was relatively simple and they were enlarged by simply knocking down some brick walls and shuffling around the columns.

Initially Islam had no restrictions on visual art. Since images of Moses, Abraham, Noah and Jesus found early churches that were converted into mosques were all prophets in the minds of Muslims no effort was made to tear them down.

Developments in Mosque Architecture

Because wood and stone were not very plentiful in the deserts and steppes in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, where Islam grew up, brick became the desired building material. Building were traditionally designed to beat the heat, with lots of shade and large openings facing the wind. Fountains and pools an even streams were placed in courtyards to provide a cooling effect.

Central mosques and the squares in front of them were often placed in the center of cities and towns in the same way that cathedrals and market square were often situated at the center of European cities. Markets were often set up in the squares in front of mosques. Niiches in front walls of mosques were used by merchants.

Important advances in Muslim architecture included the development of fired bricks in the 10th century, colored tilework in the 12th century, polychrome tile in the 14th century, and the squinch (a kind or bracketing used in making large domes).

Mosque construction provided lot of work for artists, craftsmen and tilemakers. Whereas cathedrals were often built to impress with their size and scale, mosques were often built to impress with their details.

Mosque Features

main parts of a mosque

Mosques are generally built around open courtyards, off of which are one or more “iwan” (prayer halls). The iwan facing Mecca is the main prayer hall, or “mihrab” apse, where the imam leads the faithful in prayer. Often, in the courtyard or in front of a mosque are pools, where the faithful wash before entering the mosque. The main doorway is oriented in the direction of Mecca. Most mosques have a “qibla” (a marking the showed the direction of Mecca).

There are two main styles of mosque architecture: 1) hypostyle, in which the roof is supported on pillars: and 2) domical, where the walls are surrounded by a dome. There are few hypostyle mosques and they tend to be old or very basic. Mosques are focused on their large central prayer room and lack the processional and ceremonial spaces found in cathedrals.

Most mosques feature a single chamber entered through doors topped with cusped arches. Above the chamber is a dome. The idea of a mosque is to create as much space as possible for the uninterrupted communion between worshipers and God. For many Muslims, the dome symbolizes oneness with God. The main dome is usually above the “mihrab” apse. Some mosques feature dozens of domes.

Dr. Carool Kersten of Kings College London wrote for the BBC: “The prayer hall, also known as the "musallah", is a large open space, where everyone sits on the floor. Mosques were designed to house the entire male population of a city or town. Women can attend Friday prayers, but are not required to do so. Women are traditionally segregated from men by tradition rules and pray in a separate space or chamber. [Source: Dr. Carool Kersten, Kings College London, BBC |::|]

“A "mihrab" is a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca. The direction towards Mecca is known as the "qibla". Mecca is the city where the Prophet Muhammad was born and is the site of Islam’s holiest mosque, Masjid al-Haram. Next to the "mihrab" there is a "minbar". This is a pulpit from where an imam or khatib delivers a sermon. |::|

“Ablutions area: Before prayer, Muslims perform ritual washing, or “wudu”, in the ablutions area. Larger mosques have an ablutions fountain in their entryways or courtyards. In smaller mosques the restrooms may be used for ablutions. |::|

Mosque Domes

Domes are central to mosque architecture. Dr. Carool Kersten of Kings College London wrote for he BBC: “The dome, or "qubba", is often placed directly above the main prayer hall as a symbol of both the vaults of heaven and the sky. Early mosques had a small dome taking up part of the roof near the mihrab. As time passed, bigger domes were built, some of which encompassed the entire roof above the prayer hall. [Source: Dr. Carool Kersten, Kings College London, BBC |::|]

For many Muslims, the dome symbolizes oneness with God. The main dome is usually above the mihrab apse. Some mosques feature dozens of domes. They can be decorated both inside and outside with a variety of geometric shapes and other designs. The placement of a round dome on a square hall is a achieved with the help of a squinch or pendentive, sometimes with man-made stalactites for decorations.

Alai Gate and Qutub Minaret
One of the greatest challenges of building a mosque is constructing the circular dome over the square prayer hall. The hemispherical shape of the dome creates hidden forces that try to push the sides outward. Arches and piers are designed not only to support the dome but also reduce the outward stress on the walls. Supports generally have to be built on the outside of the walls to push them in.


Minarets are the tall, slender towers outside a mosque. They typically have a balcony at the top used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer. Some are purely ornamental. In the old days the muezzins climbed the stairs inside the minaret to the calling area. In famous mosques tourists are sometimes are allowed to climb the stairs. The word "minaret" comes from the Arabic "manarah", which means lighthouse.

Minarets are the tallest parts of a mosque. The highest minaret in the world is located at the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Minarets symbolize both the supremacy and the oneness of God. To some Muslims they represent the Arabic letter alif , the first letter in Allah's name. Minarets are typically made of brick, and sometimes covered with tiles. The name of Allah and invocations to God are typically written in Arabic calligraphy at the top.

Most mosques have at least one minaret. Some have only one. Many have four, one on each corner of the mosque ground. None are not supposed to have seven because only the Great Mosque of Mecca is allowed to have that number.

Most mosques have at least one minaret. Some have only one. Many have four, one on each corner of the mosque ground. None are not supposed to have seven because only the Great Mosque of Mecca is allowed to have that number.


“Before the five daily prayers, a Muslim crier, or "muezzin", stands at the top of the minaret and calls the worshippers to prayer, a ritual which is over 1,400 years old.

At one time the muezzin was a man who stood at the top of a minaret and called all the faithful to prayer through cupped hands with a waling, mellifluous chanting of Qur’anic verses. Now the muezzin either sits in the mosque and summons the faithful with a microphone and a crackling set of loudspeakers or he slips a cassette of an imam with a "particularly beautiful voice" into a cassette player.

The muezzin typically calls: " Allah akbar ! Allah akbar ! Allah akbar ! Allah akbar ! — "God is Great! God is Great! God is Great! God is Great — followed by “There is no God but Allah. There is no God but Allah. Muhammad is God's messenger. Muhammad is God's messenger. Come to pray. Come to pray. Come to security. Come to security. Prayer is better than sleep. God is Great. God is Great. The is no God but Allah." Many people stop what they are doing and prostate themselves on the streets towards Mecca. No noise can be transmitted over the system except for the voice of an imam reading the from the Qur’an.

The muezzin has traditionally been built without scaffolding until reaching the height of the balcony — which bulges outward from the rest of the structure. The tower and the stairs are often built together with the builders simply building the structure upwards as they go.

Mosque Interior

Al-Azhar Mosque prayer hall, Cairo
The inside of a mosque is surprisingly empty and generally pretty austere. There are no seats, little furniture and often few decorations. Worshipers tend to sit and pray on the floor facing the mihrab that indicates the qibla (direction) of Mecca. Chairs or benches would only get in the way of the praying, prostrating and standing up.

The floors are often covered in carpets. There are few internal walls. This is because the mosque is designed for single space worship of a given Muslim community. A screen in a mosque provided privacy for important people or women. There is special stand that hold the Qur’an.

The “mihrab “ is a small alcove-like niche, which marks the direction of Mecca and the entry point to paradise. It is often empty, which symbolizes the simple perfection of Allah. Decorations around it on the qibla wall are intended to focus attention on its simplicity. Many mosques are designed so that the maximum number of people can see the mihrab. The arched shape of the mihrab is one of the few permitted Islamic motifs. It is often seen on prayers rugs and decorative wall tiles. Some tiled mihrabs are regarded as among the finest works of Islamic art.

Describing the interior of a great mosque in Cairo, Michael Glover wrote in the Times of London, “There are wonderful hanging lamps and marble revetments, I drag my finger through the thick coating of dust that has settled... We are unaccustomed to buildings that are so open to the blue of the sky. Birds flit in and out of the great inner courtyard, dipping into and out of the ablution fountains that stand at its center.”


Minbar at Sultan Hassan mosque
Near the mihrab is a stepped pulpit called the “minbar” (also minber). This is where the imam or khatib gives his Friday sermon. It is often ornately decorated and the only real structure in a mosque. The preacher usually speaks from a step below the minibar platform because the platform is reserved for the Prophet and Caliphs who occupy a higher position. Below the minibar steps is a small door concealed by a curtain. No one but the imam is supposed to enter this door.

Many minbars are portable pulpits that look like decorative wooden staircases on wheels. They are kept in closets most of the time and are wheeled out for Friday sermons. Some minbars are also exquisite examples of Islamic art, ornately decorated with carved geometric patterns and inlayed with ivory and precious woods.”

Describing a minbar in a great mosque in Cairo, Michael Glover wrote in the Times of London, “We approach the great “minbar”, the wooden pulpit with double doors and steep steps up which the imam ascends to lead Friday prayers. It is adorned with the most exquisite ivory panels: extraordinarily delicate wheels and trapezoidal shapes...The extraordinary thing about a minbar such as this one is that it’s a bit like a flatpack from Ikea in certain respects. It would have been constructed to be use in a mosque such as this one, but you could take it apart and erect it elsewhere.”

Mosque Decoration

In keeping with the Muslim prohibition on representations of animals and people, the tiles, walls and arches were decorated with calligraphy, mosaics, floral designs and geometric shapes. The calligraphy is often either in the stylized kufic script favored the Timurid or the often foliated “thulth” scripts.

Many mosques and Islamic buildings are famous for their colorful tilework. They not only make the building look beautiful they also make them appear lighter. The tiles are se up to reflect the desert sun. Ones that are deep cobalt blue or turquoise (meaning "color of the Turks") are often featured in domes.

The tiles come in variety of styles: stamped, chromatic (one color painted on and then fired), polychromatic (several colors painted on and then fired), and faience (carved onto wet clay and then fired). Other decorative features include carved and painted woodwork. patterned brickwork, colored marble and stucco, and carved “ghanch” (alabaster).

Other Islamic Buildings

Prophet Mohammad Mihrab
Many of the most famous Islamic buildings are madrassahs (madrasahs), Islamic theological schools. They typically are two stores high and have a central courtyard surrounded by cell-like living quarters (“hujras” ) used by students, teachers and traveling scholars.

In pre-Islamic days and the early Islamic period, shrines were built around pilgrimage sites and places of special importance such as the Kaaba, the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Ishmail (the Dome of the Rock) and the tomb of Abraham in Hebron. Later these and the tombs of important Muslim figures became shrines. Mausoleums and shrines are particularly important to Shiites. Most have a prayer room set under a domed cupola. The actual tombs may be located in a central hall or underground in a crypt-like room. Some have accommodation, washrooms and kitchens.

Mosque Life

Muslims don't use a mosque quite the same way Christians use a church. A Sunday Christian sermon is a once a week event that combines prayer, religious ceremony with the sermon itself. Muslims try to pray at the mosque everyday, ideally five times a day, and they believe that Islam is a way of life that they ascribe to 24 hours a day.

The Muslim sabbath (Friday) is not as significant as the Jewish sabbath (Saturday) or the Christian sabbath (Sunday). This is one reason why many Muslims follow a normal Western work week.

Friday noon prayers are the one time when Muslim are expected to gather together and listen to a short sermons. Men kneel or sit cross legged on prayer rugs while the preacher (“ khatib” ) gives a 15- to 30-minute sermon that usually follows a regular form: praises to God, blessings invoked on the Prophet, a story the good deed performed by Muhammad or homily regarding the Muslim community, and an invocation of God’s blessing on the local community or leader. Afterward everyone prays together. Similar services are held on major holidays, particularly the Breaking of the Fast after Ramadan and the Feast of the Sacrifice.

Segregation of Men and Women in Mosques

Women praying
Sometimes women are not allowed to pray in mosques. When they are allowed in they are often relegated to small screened off areas. In some cases they have to enter through a back door and pray on a balcony and are only to able communicate with men through notes that are delivered by their children. Women are not allowed to speak through microphones, it is sometimes said, because their voices are said to be sexually alluring to men. Women that ignore rules about praying in the men’s areas are admonished and scolded and banished from the mosque.

Similar restrictions are the norm when men and women pray outside of mosques in public buildings. Men say their prayers in a spacious room while women are confined to much smaller room with prayers piped in from the men’s room. Many Muslim insist that women should pray at home not in a mosque. In North America, Muslim women are active challenging the segregation rules in mosque and getting the barriers removed.

There is nothing in the Qur’an that states women should be segregated and secluded in mosques. Muhammad told his Companions: “Do not stop the female servants of Allah from attending the mosque of Allah. Muhammad himself prayed with women. When he was informed that some men were choosing positions to pray near attractive women he scold the men not the women. In Muhammad’s time and after his death historical records show that men and women prayed side by side without screens in the Prophet’s mosque. Women participated in debates and asked questions of the Prophet himself.

Segregation is justified by sayings from the hadith such as: “Do not prevent your women from [going to] the mosques, though their houses are best for them.”

Mosque Customs

Mosques and shrines are often not open to non-Muslims. Those that do welcome them expect them to be appropriately dressed: no shorts, short skirts, revealing halter tops or exposed shoulders. Mosques that allow women often require them to at least wear a head scarf. Some require them to cover their entire bodies, except the face, hands and feet, and not wear trousers. Sometimes mosque provide women who don’t have one with a head scarf. Sometimes they have robes for men wearing shorts.

Wudhu (Ablution)
The Muslim faithful are expected to remove their shoes and wash their feet in a sacred basin before they enter the mosque. If no water is available Muslims are supposed to wash themselves with sand. Foreigner visitors s can usually get away with just removing their shoes and are not required to wash their feet. In any case, make sure you feet or socks are clean. Dirty feet in a mosques are regarded as an insult to Islam. In large mosques you remove your shoes and place them on a shelf with a number.

Inside a mosque don't walk in front of someone who is praying, don't touch the Qur’an, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Qur’an on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don't cross your legs in front of an older people and don't step over someone who is sitting down Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is frowned upon.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2019

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