Islam (part 13)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Date: 2002

The Mosque As A Symbol Of Islamic Civilization

From one end of the Islamic world to the other, Muslim towns and cities
could (and can today) be readily identified by the domes and minarets of the
mosques where the faithful were (and are) called to prayer five times daily.
The following illustrations trace the development of the mosque and the
refinement of mosque architecture - the crowning glory of Islamic material
culture - during the early centuries of Muslim expansion. As you look at these
photos and follow the development of the mosque, consider what the functions
of the mosque aed the evolving style of mosque architecture can tell us about
Muslim beliefs and values and the impact of earlier religions such as Judaism
and Christianity on Islam.

Given the low level of material culture in pre-Islamic Arabia, it is not
surprising that the earliest prayer houses were simple in design and
construction. In fact, these first mosques were laid out along the lines
suggested by Muhammad's own house. They were square enclosures with a shaded
porch on one side, a columned shelter on the other, and an open courtyard in
between. The outer perimeter of the earliest mosques were made of reed mats,
but soon more permanent stone walls surrounded the courtyard and prayer areas.
After Mecca was taken and the Ka'ba became the central shrine of the new
faith, each mosque was oriented to the qibla, or Mecca wall, that always faced
in the direction of the holy city.

In the last years of the prophet, the place where his chair was located
was raised so that the faithful could see and hear him during prayer sessions.
During the time of the first caliphs, the raised area became the place from
which sermons were delivered. From the middle of the 8th century, this space
evolved into a genuine pulpit. Somewhat earlier, the practice of building a
special and often elaborately decorated niche in the qibla had developed.

Over time the construction of the mosque became more elaborate. Very
often the remains of Greek or Roman temples or abandoned Christian churches
formed the core of major mosques, or the ruins of these structures were mined
for stone for mosque construction. In the larger cities, the courtyards of the
great mosques were surrounded by columns and arches, and eventually they were
enclosed by great domes such as that at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The first minarets or towers from which the faithful were called to
prayer were added in the early 8th century and soon became a key feature of
the mosque complex. As mosques grew larger and more architecturally refined,
elaborate decoration in brightly colored ceramic tiles, semiprecious stones,
and gold and silver filigree adorned their sides and domes. Because human and
animal images were forbidden, geometric designs, passages from the Quran in
swirling Arabic, and flower and plant motifs were favored. Nowhere were these
decorations more splendid than in the great mosques of Persia. Thus, in the
early centuries of Islam, these great houses of worship became the focal
points of Islamic cities, key places of community worship and socialization,
and, with the schools that were often attached, vital intellectual and
educational centers of the Islamic world.

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