Description of a mosque


The mosque

The mosque is the most characteristic element of Muslim art, because it best reflects, beyond the differences of style printed by local eras and traditions, the institutions and the mentality of Islam.

Origin of mosques

The term masjid (mosque) comes from an Arabic word meaning "to prostrate" and refers to the place where one venerates God. The Muslim is not obliged, as we know, to go to the mosque to pray. Provided he has performed the ritual ablutions and is moving towards Mecca, he can pray alone and anywhere. But the meeting of the community (umma) is de rigueur Friday at noon. Also in the important cities is a Great Mosque, equipped with a pulpit (minbar), from the top of which the Imam presides at the prayer of the faithful, arranged in long rows stretched in width in front of the wall indicating the direction from Mecca (qibla), and pronounce the sermon (khotba). Originally, the mosque was not only a place of worship, but also a place where Muslims could meet to discuss all the affairs (not only religious, but also political and economic) of the community. All these facts influenced the plan of the mosque, whose archetype was the house of Muhammad himself in Medina.

The Prophet arrived from Mecca after the Hegira in 622. Driven by practical concern rather than aesthetic considerations, he built a series of small rooms for his wives and himself, opening onto a courtyard. 50 meters wide, closed by a raw brick fence, which offered shelter to all, even to non-Muslims. The northern wall was the qibla, which remained oriented towards Jerusalem until the break of Muhammad with the Jews of Medina. It was covered with a roof of palm leaves to protect the faithful from the sun, forming a room with an open facade, which served as both a place of prayer and a courtroom. Installed on a modest wooden seat, ancestor of the minbar, Muhammad exhibited his religious thoughts and dictated to the young community his rules of conduct. This building was demolished in 706 to make room for a mosque, with the exception of the room where Mohammed was buried, which was included in the new building. But it is from this basic plan that inspires all the mosques that we are today able to admire.


The mosque opens onto a courtyard surrounded by porticoes in the middle of which one or more basins collect water for ritual ablutions. On the side of the wall of the qibla which allows the faithful to locate the obligatory orientation towards the holy place of Mecca, is the prayer room, forming a long rectangle with the facade completely opened on the court, and generally deeper than the other three rooms that surround it.

At the base of the wall of the qibla, opens a niche, the mihrâb, which forms the "holy saint" of the mosque. By its location, it represents a symbolic gateway to the sacred path to Mecca. Its rich decoration extends to the part of the wall of the qibla that surrounds it. But this niche remains empty. We know that Islam forbids human representation. According to Papadopoulo, "the mihrâb symbolizes, by suggesting it, the presence of the Prophet himself, and therefore of God through him, he is the mold of this presence".

Sometimes we find several mihrâb for the faithful who, arranged in long lines facing the wall of the qibla, can thus be far from the main niche.

The room is covered with a flat roof resting on arches with columns forming bays. The longitudinal span of the qibla is often wider than the others and underlined by domes at both ends. Likewise, the axis perpendicular to the wall of the qibla, which ends in the mihrab, forms a nave which Papadopoulo calls "the axial vessel". It is distinguished from other bays by its width, its height, its richer decoration. The sanctity of this nave is sometimes emphasized by a cupola situated in front of the mihrab at the intersection of the axial vessel and the span along the qibla, and another dome above the entrance, as if to better describe the the way to the mihrab. "Thus," the same author goes on, "the axial vessel is like the needle of a compass that would be the entire mosque, a mystical compass always pointing to the believer as the pole of Islam."

The minbar, where the imam sits to deliver the sermon, is most often in the center of the mosque, against the wall of the qibla, to the right of the mihrab. Only the djafni mosques (of the Arabic al-jami, "that which gathers") are used to celebrate the common Friday prayer. Over the centuries, the minbar lost its unique meaning as a pulpit to become a real throne, a symbol of both political and religious powers held by community leaders. So he was higher and higher, while the siege Muhammad had in Madinah - and the minbar was inspired by it - was said to contain only two steps supporting a modest seat of wood. Theologians did not fail to worry about this evolution, which they considered a mark of pride on the part of the caliphs. The minbar, most often made of wood, adorned with finely carved panels, saw enriching its decoration. A dome was added above the seat.

In the main mosques, especially in the capitals, a grid or a wooden balustrade delimits the space reserved for the sovereign, near the minbar. This is the maqsûra. In the Great Mosque of Damascus, there are even several maqsûra, which were reserved for brotherhoods or to eminent families. Involving a hierarchy among the faithful, maqsura is contrary to the spirit of primitive Islam. But perhaps it obeys at the time of its appearance to a concern for security: it is true that Umar, the successor of the Prophet, was murdered in the mosque of Medina. In the same way, Amr, the conqueror of Egypt, was attacked in the mosque he had founded at Fustat.

Equivalent of the steeple of the churches, since it responds to the same function, the call to prayer, the minaret overlooks the mosque. It is usually located on the side of the courtyard opposite the prayer room. The house of the Prophet in Medina was not provided, but it is said that Muhammad soon invited one of his companions to go up on the highest roof nearby to invite the faithful to prayer. The muezzin makes three successive calls: an invitation to go to the mosque, an invocation to the Prophet and the announcement of the beginning of the prayer. Very varied shapes (square minarets in Spain and Maghreb, cylindrical, in the Persian model, or composites like that of the mosque of Ibn Tûlûn in Cairo [square at the base, then cylindrical and finally octagonal over the floors]) , the minaret is the most characteristic element of the mosque, the one that can identify the existence of it when one is outside, even when the building, as is often the case, is closely intertwined in the neighborhood that surrounds it. In this sense, the minaret was also a symbol of power in the conquering regions where Islam needed to assert itself.

Decorations, furnishing

The furnishings of the mosque are summary: in addition to the minbar, the large mosques have a desk for the book of the Koran and large armchairs reserved for readers of hadîih. For prayer, the floor is covered with mats or carpets that are oriented towards Mecca. Lamps illuminate the building, and large candles generally surround the mihrab. Most of the light comes from the courtyard on which the rooms are opening. The walls overlooking the exterior of the mosque are almost blind, sometimes pierced with very high trellises.

With exception, mosques do not have figurative decorations. Epigraphy, geometry and the representation of an extremely stylized flora by a subtle play of arabesques are the obligatory vocabulary of Muslim artists, when they choose to adorn this sacred architecture, which can instead remain superbly bare.

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