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Mihrab

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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture

Mihrab

Niche, usually concave, in the qibla (Mecca-orientated) wall of a mosque. The mihrab is commonly believed to be a prayer niche that indicates the direction of prayer, but as Muslims pray toward the Ka῾ba in Mecca, which stands beyond the wall in which the mihrab lies, not toward the mihrab itself, its origins must lie elsewhere. Philologists maintain that the Arabic word miḥrāb either derives from the Ethiopic mekuerāb (“naos” or “sanctuary”) or is related etymologically to the Arabic word ḥarba, a lance symbolizing authority in ancient Arabia. The word miḥrāb occurs only five times in the Koran, where it means “chamber” or “fine structure.” In early Arabic secular literature its meanings included the part of a palace in which a ruler sits, a niche for an image, or a colonnaded platform.

Historical sources suggest that the earliest mosques at Fustat (Old Cairo) and Damascus had a feature referred to as a mihrab, but, instead of niches, these appear to have been columned bays that fulfilled functions later associated with the Maqsura, which, as well as being the place from which the imam led prayers, was also used for the conduct of official business and the dispensation of justice. The miḥrāb mujawwaf, the semicircular recessed niche that became ubiquitous in mosque architecture (see Mosque), first appeared in the Prophet's mosque in Medina when it was rebuilt by the caliph al-Walid I (r. 705–15; see Umayyad, §I, B). Scholars have long debated the origins of the form and purpose of the mihrab: some traced it to the Buddhist cult niche, others to the apse of a Christian church, while still others related it to the royal throne recess in an audience hall. At the mosque of Medina it identified the spot where the Prophet had planted his lance (῾anaza) when leading prayers to indicate and define the prayer space (suṭra). Niches—whether empty like the mihrab or filled with a statue—were ubiquitous elements of the Late Antique decorative vocabulary that the renovators of the mosque used elsewhere in the building. The rapid acceptance of the new form throughout the lands of Islam represents a genuine innovation in mosque architecture. Beyond Medina, the semicircular mihrab apparently defined the limits of the prayer space for the imam when he led communal prayer.

As well as its practical function, from the outset the semicircular mihrab may also have had a symbolic meaning, for a rare silver coin minted in AH 75 (695–6 )—ten years before the semicircular mihrab was introduced into the mosque—depicts a beribboned lance within an arch supported by a pair of spiral columns (see fig.). G. C. Miles identified the lance as the Prophet's ῾anaza and compared the coin to a series of Greek imperial coins that depicted images sheltered by ciboria. The earliest Islamic coins minted in Syria had flagrantly imitated Byzantine models; the group to which this particular silver coin belonged adapted and translated earlier models into Islamic terms; later Islamic coins would abandon foreign models for the purely epigraphic content that characterized all Islamic coinage during the following millennium. Although designs such as that depicting a lance in a niche were quickly abandoned, worshippers may have continued to associate the empty semicircular niche in the mosque with the memory and veneration of the Prophet. The multiple mihrab ensembles (e.g. Cairo, Mashhad of Sayyida Ruqayya, 1133) erected under the patronage of the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt (r. 969–1171) have been interpreted as commemorating other members of the Prophet's family. The semicircular mihrab was widely but not universally accepted. In some regions of North Africa, for example, the sect of Ibadi Kharijites preferred a rectangular niche; this became the norm among the peoples of the western Sudan converted to Islam under their aegis.

About a dozen small Umayyad mosques in Syria preserve some architectural indication that a semicircular mihrab once existed in them, but the earliest complete example to survive is believed to be a monolithic marble mihrab in Baghdad. A shallow niche with a shell hood resting on a pair of engaged spiral columns, it was found in the Khassaki Mosque (1659) in east Baghdad, but the material and style suggest that the mihrab was carved in northern Syria in the 8th century before being brought to Baghdad, perhaps for use in the mosque that the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 754–75) constructed there. Another early example is the mihrab in the mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia, datable to the mid-9th century. It consists of a deep niche (h. 4.5 m; w. 2 m; see color pl. 2:XVI, fig. 2) formed by a horseshoe arch resting on two red marble columns with fine Byzantine vine-leaf capitals. The niche is lined with 28 carved white marble panels arranged in four registers separated by bands inscribed with Koranic verses. The hood is formed of curved wooden planks painted with a continuous vine scroll. The band separating the walls of the mihrab from the hood, as well as the outer face of the mihrab arch and the rectangular surface surrounding it, are inlaid with monochrome and polychrome luster tiles arranged in a diaper pattern. The individual elements of the mihrab ensemble were probably imported to Kairouan from the east and assembled on the spot.

The use of the horseshoe arch for the mihrab surround became standard practice in the Islamic West. The mihrab of the Great Mosque of Córdoba (965; see Córdoba, §III, A) is undoubtedly the most sumptuous example. The mihrab surround occupies the entire width of the central bay of the mosque and consists of a broad horseshoe arch supported by small black marble colonnettes set within a rectangular paneled frame. Apart from the spandrels, which are carved stucco, the arch and the rectangular framing panels are decorated with glass mosaics with vegetal and epigraphic motifs. The niche itself is an unusually deep octagonal chamber over 3 m in diameter, covered with a stucco shell dome contained within the thickness of the qibla wall. The seven walls of the mihrab are decorated with blind trilobed arches supported on paired columns, carved stucco panels and inscription bands. Although no other extant mihrab in Spain or western North Africa is as elaborate, the Córdoban example became the model for mihrabs throughout the region: for example, mosques at Tlemcen in Algeria, Tinmal in Morocco and Saragossa in Spain all have a deep, roomlike mihrab within a rectangular surround.

A flat white marble mihrab (1.30×0.83 m) in the cave beneath the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem has long been ascribed to the founder of the building, the Umayyad caliph ῾Abd al-Malik (r. 685–705; see Umayyad, §II, A), but on stylistic and paleographic grounds it is now dated to the late 9th century or early 10th. Moreover, the cave itself is first mentioned as a place of prayer in the early 10th century. Flat—not concave—mihrabs apparently became popular in Egypt under the Tulunid (r. 868–905) and Fatimid dynasties, for a variety of both stationary examples in carved stucco and portable examples in carved wood is known. Some scholars have suggested that portable wooden mihrabs were used to define the suṭra for individual worshippers, while others have suggested that many mihrab-shaped objects of stone and ceramic were actually tombstones (see Stele). Stone mihrabs were also erected on the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem to honor biblical prophets.

The movable wooden mihrab from the mausoleum of Sayyida Ruqayya in Cairo (Cairo, Mus. Islam. A.) is, however, concave. Measuring over 2 m high, it is considered one of the finest examples of late Fatimid wood-carving and joinery and was presented to the shrine by the wife of the caliph al-Amir (r. 1101–30). Its finished back indicates that it was not inserted into a wall, like the earlier wooden mihrab made for the Azhar Mosque in Cairo, but meant to be brought out on special occasions (see also Woodwork, §I, A, 2).

Carved stucco mihrabs enjoyed a spectacular development and popularity when the Saljuq dynasty (r. 1038–1194) ruled in Iran. They typically consist of a series of nested niches, and the most accomplished examples are extremely complex, multi-leveled compositions, often deeply undercut, exhibiting a wide variety of geometric, vegetal and epigraphic motifs. The earliest Iranian stucco mihrabs, such as that in the 10th-century congregational mosque of Na῾in, indicate the close technical relationship with earlier Iraqi stuccowork. The greatest Iranian examples, such as the ones in the Gunbad-i Alaviyyan at Hamadan (12th century), the Masjid-i Haydariyya (?1220) at Qazvin, the shrine of Pir-i Bakran (1303–12) at Linjan near Isfahan (see Architecture, fig. 61), and in the winter prayer-hall (1310) of the Friday Mosque at Isfahan (see Stucco and plasterwork, fig. 2), show that the production of fine stucco mihrabs continued well into the 14th century.

The interest in exploiting the sculptural possibilities that stucco allowed also manifested itself in molded luster tile mihrabs, and tile ensembles, of the late Saljuq period, for the same craftsmen often worked in both media. Two of the most famous examples are the mihrab dated AH 612 (1215) by the master potters Muhammad ibn Abi Tahir (see Abu tahir, §I) and Abu zayd in the shrine at Mashhad and the mihrab dated AH 623 (1226) from the Maydan Mosque in Kashan (Berlin, Mus. Islam. Kst). During the period of Ilkhanid rule (1256–1353), luster mihrabs were made for many major and minor shrines, for example at Najaf in Iraq (in situ) and Natanz in central Iran (London, V&A, 71–1885).

Not all luster tiles depicting niches were intended to be inserted vertically in a wall as mihrabs. Many now identified as mihrabs were made to cover the top of a cenotaph, for example sets of three tiles forming a blind arched panel in Lisbon (Mus. Gulbenkian, 1562) and New York (Met., 09.87). They reflect a tradition of tombstones with mihrab designs that can be documented as early as the first decades of the 9th century at Mosul in Iraq and the later 9th century in Egypt.

Ceramic tile was also cut and assembled to produce multicolored mihrabs of tile mosaic. A mid-14th-century example (New York, Met., 39.20) measures over 3 m high and uses five colors (white, black, light blue, dark blue and ocher), angular and cursive scripts and a wide variety of arabesque and border patterns. The technique became especially popular under the Timurid (r. 1370–1506) and Safavid (r. 1501–1732) dynasties. A cheaper means to the same end promoted the development of cuerda seca tiles in mihrab surrounds made in Anatolia in the early 15th century under the Ottoman dynasty, such as those of the Green Mosque and Tomb in Bursa. Cuerda seca tiles gave way in the 16th century to magnificent underglaze-painted tile ensembles produced at Iznik. These not only lined the mihrab niche itself but also surrounded it with huge displays of tile, which provided a climax to the interior decoration. In the finest examples, such as the mihrabs of the mosques of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha or Rüstem Pasha in Istanbul, the splendor of the multicolored tile surrounds contrasts sharply with the stark plainness of the mihrab or the mihrab hood.

The first mihrabs of the period of sultanate rule in India (1206–1555) were made of stone, intricately carved with geometric, vegetal and epigraphic motifs. They combined ideas current in contemporary Iranian stucco or ceramic examples with local stonecutting practices. Later monuments erected under the Mughal dynasty (r. 1526–1858) use pietra dura inlay techniques in a similar free interpretation of Timurid tile mosaic by local masons.

The wide variety of materials, niche forms and decorative motifs used on mihrabs throughout the lands of Islam can often obscure the persistent scale of all mihrabs since the invention of the form. The difference between the smallest and largest mihrabs is not commensurate with the difference between the smallest and largest mosques; the constant scale indicates that the mihrab was always measured in human terms. Other persistent features include the use of columns on either side of the niche and a shell hood, both features already present in the Khassaki mihrab of the 8th century. One of the most common motifs of mihrab design is a mosque lamp hanging by a chain from the niche hood. The first known example is a mihrab painted on the interior of a tomb (1067–8) at Kharraqan in Iran, and the device later appears on Egyptian tombstones and Iranian luster tiles of the 12th and 13th centuries. It became a cliché on so-called “prayer-rugs.” Although popularly associated with the “Light Verse” of the Koran (24:36), which likens God to a lamp shining in a niche, this verse is rarely, if ever, found decorating mihrabs, probably because the association rests on a misunderstanding of the Koranic text, which states that the lighted wick is in a mishkāt—a reference to a wick-holder, not a niche.

Bibliography

  • Enc. Islam/2
  • G. C. Miles: “Miḥrāb and ῾Anazah: A Study in Islamic Iconography,” Archaeologia Orientalia in Memoriam Ernst Herzfeld (Locust Valley, 1952), pp. 156–71; repr. in Early Islamic Art and Architecture, ed. J. M. Bloom, Formation of the Classical Islamic World, 23 (Aldershot, 2002)
  • R. B. Serjeant: “Miḥrāb,” Bull. SOAS, xxii (1959), pp. 439–53
  • G. Fehévári: “Tombstone or Mihrab? A Speculation,” Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed. R. Ettinghausen (New York, 1972), pp. 241–54
  • O. Grabar: The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven and London, 1973, rev. 1987)
  • E. Baer: “The Mihrab in the Cave of the Dome of the Rock,” Muqarnas, iii (1985), pp. 8–19
  • E. Whelan: “The Origins of the Miḥrāb Mujawwaf: A Reinterpretation,” Int. J. Mid. E. Stud., xviii (1986), pp. 205–23
  • L. A. Popadopoulo: Le Miḥrāb dans l’architecture et la religion musulmanes, Actes du colloque international tenu à Paris en Mai, 1980 (Leiden, 1988)
  • N. N. N. Khoury: “The Mihrab Image: Commemorative Themes in Medieval Islamic Architecture,” Muqarnas, ix (1992), pp. 11–28
  • S. Chmelnizkij: “Der Mihrab von Iskodar,” Archäol. Mitt. Iran, xxvi (1993), pp. 243–8
  • O. Süslü: “Recherches sur un mihrab,” Arab Hist. Rev. Ottoman Stud., xiii–xiv (1996), pp. 135–47
  • N. N. N. Khoury: “The Mihrab: From Text to Form,” Int. J. Mid. E. Stud., xxx/1 (1998), p. 1027
  • N. A. Banerji: “Connections between the Koranic Sura of Light, Sufi Light Mysticism, and the Motif of the ‘Lamp within a Niche’,” Marg, l/3 (1999), pp. 69–81
  • N. A. Banerji: “The Mihrabs in the Adina Mosque: Evidence of the Reuse of Late Pala-Sena Remains,” Marg, l/3 (1999), pp. 82–93
  • S. Pradines: “Le mihrâb swahili: L’Evolution d’une architecture islamique en Afrique subsaharienne,” An. Islam., xxxvii (2003), pp. 355–81
  • L. Treadwell: “‘Mihrab and ῾Anaza’ or ‘Sacrum and Spear’? A Reconsideration of an Early Marwanid Silver Drachm,” Muqarnas, xxii (2005), pp. 1–28
  • H. Philon: “Early Bahmani Mihrabs in Gulbarga, Deccan,” Sifting Sands, Reading Signs: Studies in Honour of Professor Géza Fehérvári, eds. P. L. Baker and B. Brend (London, 2006), pp. 83–93
  • S. S. Blair: “Written, Spoken, Envisioned: The Many Facets of the Qur῾an in Art,” The Qur῾an in Art, ed. F. Suleman (London, 2007)
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