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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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What is a mosque?

The word mosque comes from the Arabic word masjid (place for ritual prostration). The Prophet Muhammad's mosque in Medina, the first Muslim place of worship, functioned as a gathering place for worship, meditation, and learning. Unlike churches or synagogues with their rows of benches or pews, the mosque's main prayer area is a large open space, the expansive floors adorned with oriental carpets. An important feature of the prayer area is the mihrab, an ornamental arched niche set into the wall, which indicates the direction of Mecca (which Muslims always face when praying). Next to the mihrab is the minbar, a raised wooden platform (similar to a pulpit) modeled after the one that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to give his sermons to the community. The prayer leader delivers his sermon from the steps of the minbar. Because of the need for cleansing prior to prayer, most mosques have a spot set aside for performing ablutions away from the main prayer area.

The mosque, as the sacred space for individual and congregational worship, has social and intellectual significance for Muslims. Mosques have served as places for prayer, meditation, and learning as well as focal points for the religious and the social life of the Muslim community throughout its history. A mosque's atmosphere is one of tranquility and reflection but also of relaxation. When visiting a mosque, one is as likely to see people chatting quietly or napping on the carpets as praying and reading the Quran.

Historically, wherever Muslims have settled in sufficient numbers, one of their first efforts has been to erect a mosque. In twenty-first-century America, where Islam will soon be the second-largest religion, mosque construction has increased exponentially. Over 2,100 mosques and/or Islamic centers, large and small, located throughout the United States in small towns and villages as well as in major cities, are currently serving a diverse American Muslim community. Many of these mosques incorporate and reflect the diversity of Muslims in America. The membership of others, however, is drawn along ethnic or racial lines. The same phenomenon has been seen in other faiths. For example, years ago one could find two Catholic churches with separate schools, one Irish and one Italian- or French-speaking, across the street from each other. In some places more mosques than might be needed to serve the Muslim population have been created to accommodate such differences. In some cities and towns one can identify separate Arab, South Asian, Turkish, and African American mosques.

Mosques have served a multiplicity of functions all over the world. Beyond their use for individual worship and Friday congregational prayer, they are often the site of Quranic recitations and retreats, especially during Ramadan. They are used as centers for the collection and distribution of zakat (charitable contributions). Many pilgrims visit their local mosques when they depart for and return from the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and umrah (minor pilgrimage). The dead are placed before the mihrab for funerary prayers. Mosques are sometimes the nucleus of an Islamic center housing activities for a multigenerational, multiethnic Islamic community. (See next question.) Marriages and business agreements are often contracted in the mosque, and education takes place in various forms. In times of crisis, worshippers gather for mutual support and to receive guidance from religious leaders.

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