Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Hub of the Islamic Community

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Hub of the Islamic Community

Article excerpt

Hub of the Islamic community

ANY religious building, when a believer sets foot in it, becomes the "centre of the universe". The mosques that have been built over the past thirteen centuries in countries as far apart as Spain and India are a magnificent illustration of this.

Mosques are places of worship and also, to some degree, centres of cultural activity. A wide range of subjects are taught in them, from the Arabic language and the Islamic religion to law, geography, medicine and astronomy. Their links with authority, with powerful and devout public figures, set them at the hub of a network of social institutions, such as hospitals, hospices, almshouses, colleges and schools.

But their location in the heart of the city, surrounded by the bazaar and its multitude of craftsmen, the starting or culminating point of the vast urban spiral, bears witness to their immediate, essential and universal role, which is to beat in time with the pulse of Islamic communities in countries all over the world.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Mosques are dedicated to prayer, the most important of the five obligations which constitute the "Five Pillars of Islam". Individual prayer culminates in the gesture by which Muslims prostrate themselves and touch the floor with their foreheads. The word "Muslim", which means "one who submits to God", takes its significance from this act of submission. Wherever believers may be, they perform that act five times a day.

Collective prayer in a place of worship, with at least forty people present, strengthens the links between the community, the umma, which is bound together not by ties of blood like a tribe, but by faith. The great mosque in which these prayers take place is known as the jami, from the word jum'a (gathering), which also designates the day for those prayers, Friday--ium el jum'a--the day of gathering.

The prayer of the Prophet

In 622 AD, on his arrival in Medina, the Prophet had the first mosque built so that his community of the faithful could assemble without being disturbed. A space was cleared to form a kind of courtyard. Walls made of sun-baked bricks were erected on stone foundations, with three openings framed by stone uprights. At the beginning, the Prophet and the faithful turned towards Jerusalem to pray and hence, for some time, the direction of prayer, the gibla, continued to be perpendicular to the north wall of the building. Two rows of palm-tree trunks supported a roof made of clay and palm-leaves to provide shade.

This sanctuary made of earth and palm trees, of areas of shade and sunlight, was meant to express the immateriality of a building dedicated to prayer. Many oratories of this type were constructed at places where the conquering armies halted. At the outset, they were completely bare of decoration.

In cities that had been conquered, mosques were sometimes housed in earlier shrines or were built on the sites of traditional places of worship. Simple geometrical shapes, such as rectangles or squares, were used. Gradually, however, a variety of factors relating to the liturgy, the climate or local traditions came to influence the design and construction of mosques. In aesthetic terms, a significant step was taken in the eighth century, with the emergence of the architecture of the caliphate, an imperial style enhanced by contact with earlier civilizations.

After breaking with the Jews of Medina, Muhammad turned the gibla away from Jerusalem to face Mecca, so that it became perpendicular to the south wall.

Spiritual and temporal

The Prophet's apartments, and notably the rooms of his wives, gave onto the courtyard of the mosque, which soon became a communal area used for a variety of purposes such as tending the wounded, resting, discussion and even guarding prisoners. At this headquarters of the new community, Muhammad led the prayers and preached sermons, urging obedience to the one and only God and the precepts of social order. …

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