Citation for Mosque

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Campo, Juan Eduardo , Aptullah Kuran, Akbar S. Ahmed, Richard Bonney, Patrick D. Gaffney, Jacques Waardenburg and Akel Ismail Kahera. "Mosque." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jan 22, 2022. <>.


Campo, Juan Eduardo , Aptullah Kuran, Akbar S. Ahmed, Richard Bonney, Patrick D. Gaffney, Jacques Waardenburg and Akel Ismail Kahera. "Mosque." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Jan 22, 2022).


[This entry contains five subentries:

Historical Development

The word “mosque” is derived ultimately from the Arabic masjid, “place for (ritual) prostration.” Jāmiʿ is a designation for the congregational mosque dedicated to Friday communal prayer; in modern times it is used interchangeably with masjid. The term musallā designates informal areas set aside for prayers and open-air spaces used for prayer on the major feast days, outside cities or in town squares.


Mosques have served as the focal points for the religious and social life of the Muslim community throughout its history. Depending on circumstances, as is the case for places of worship in other religions, they may serve both as shrines for contact with the sacred and as meeting places for the community.

This combination of functions is evident from the earliest period in Islamic history. From the Qurʿān, we know that the Mecca mosque is God's “sacred house,” a setting for ritual activity, and a “meeting place for the people” (2:125); it is even declared to be “the first house founded for people” (3:96). The founding of the prophet Muḥammad's house-mosque in Medina (622) was one of the first events connected with the establishment of an autonomous Islamic community. It served as a place of assembly for the conduct of mundane affairs and prayer alike. Later tradition would elevate the status of the Mecca and Medina mosques, together with that in Jerusalem, to cosmological proportions. Thus the Kaʿbah marked the spot where the earth was created and was an earthly image of the divine throne in heaven. Muslims are required to face toward it when they pray and to perform ḥajj rites there if they are able. The Medina mosque became the Prophet's mausoleum, and ḥadīths instructed the faithful that this was one of the gardens of paradise; visiting it would win the Prophet's intercession on judgment day. The Jerusalem al-Aqṣā mosque was identified as the site of the Prophet's miraculous Night Journey and ascent through the heavens. Although it should not be concluded that all mosques have obtained the stature that these three have, they have nonetheless tended to replicate such combinations of sacred and mundane attributes in varying degrees.


The Prophet is reported to have taught, “The earth is a mosque for you, so pray wherever you happen to be when prayer time comes” (Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, Masājid1). Although prayer can be performed nearly anywhere, and mosques as prayer places can be built nearly anywhere, the fact is that both most commonly occur in cities, towns, and villages. Indeed, wherever Muslims have settled in large enough numbers, one of their first efforts has been to erect a mosque, often within or among their houses. During the seventh-century conquests of Iraq and North Africa, Muslim troops would customarily create a space for the main mosque in the center of their camps, following the example of the Prophet in Medina. These prayer spaces evolved into buildings, as the garrisons evolved into the cities of Basra, Kufa, Fustat, and Qayrawān. This pattern would later be emulated in the founding of Baghdad (eighth century) and Cairo (tenth century). In the preexisting settlements of conquered peoples, such as Damascus, Jerusalem, Luxor, and Madāʿin, Muslims would establish mosques on the sites of temples, churches, and palaces.

Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) observed that there are two kinds of city mosques: grand ones under state control, for Friday prayer and major communal assemblies, and small ones built and operated by the civilian population. It was customary in the early period, following pre-Islamic practice and Muḥammad's example in Medina, for the caliph or his appointed governors to build their residence (dār al-imārah) next to the congregational mosque, while the common people would establish mosques in their tribal quarters. With the efflorescence of power and wealth in Islamic empires and kingdoms, as the ruler's residence and congregational mosque became physically detached, both state and non-state mosques proliferated. Both kinds of centers were usually founded and maintained by private charitable donations and waqf revenues.

For example, Fustat-Cairo started with one congregational mosque in the seventh century and had 130 by the fifteenth, supplemented by hundreds of common mosques, madrasahs, Ṣūfī convents, and mausoleums. Aleppo, Damascus, and Fez experienced comparable mosque growth. The same trend is evident in Iraq and Iran until the interruption of the Mongol invasions. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans (1453), during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II alone 190 new mosques were built and seventeen churches were converted.

In the history of Shīʿī Islam the significance of mosques, and their power, have waxed and waned. The Shīʿī tomb-mosques of Karbala and Najaf benefited from Būyid (tenth to eleventh centuries) and Ṣafavid (sixteenth to seventeenth centuries) sponsorship. The Ismāʿīlī Fāṭimid dynasty (tenth to twelfth centuries) established and supported mosques across North Africa to Egypt and the Hejaz. The Ṣafavids did the same in Iran and the gulf coast of Arabia. However, when Shīʿī populations have been subjugated by Sunnī powers, not only has their mosque-building decreased, but observance of Friday prayers has also been largely curtailed, with the concurrence of Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ opposed to acknowledging the legitimacy of Sunnī authorities.


A mosque exists ostensibly to serve as a place for formal worship in the daily and Friday prayers. Men are supposed to be its chief patrons, but women are permitted also, preferably in the back, segregated by a screen, in a separate chamber, or up in a gallery. According to some jurists, the preferred place for female prayers is at home, because of the distraction or ritual impurity women might otherwise bring. Because of the purity rules applying to prayer, most mosques have a spot set aside for performing ablutions away from the main prayer area. Mosques are also the sites for the delivery of Friday sermons, homilies, and Qurʿānic recitation. Ṣūfīs have sometimes used mosques for conducting dhikr rites.

Mosques are also the recommended locale for retreats and voluntary vigils, especially during Ramaḍan. They serve as centers for the collection and distribution of alms (zakāt); congregational mosques once served as the treasuries for the caliphs. The poor and homeless have often found shelter and sustenance there. Many pilgrims visit their local mosques when they depart on and return from the ḥajj and ʿumrah (minor pilgrimage). The dead are brought and placed before the miḥrāb for funerary prayers. The contracting of marriages and business agreements can also occur there.

The mosque also possesses functions with respect to the afterlife. Mosque-builders have been promised a house in paradise by the Prophet. Although ḥadīths decry the erection of tomb-mosques, by the twelfth century the veneration of relics of the Prophet, his family, and other holy men and women at shrines had become a widespread practice for people seeking saintly blessing and intercession. These tomb-mosques became pilgrimage sites; some even doubled as congregational mosques, such as Cairo's Ḥusayn mosque and Fez's Mawlay Idrīs mosque. The growth of Shiism and the spread of Ṣūfī orders played a major role in this development. ZIYāRAH is included in end-refs.

Another function of mosques, closely tied to worship, is that of education. Circles of religious scholars and their students have gathered in the courtyards or porticos to study the Qurʿān, ḥadīth literature, law, and grammar, and to hear the exhortations of preachers. Judges have also issued their rulings there, and respected religious authorities customarily have kept appointed hours to dispense advice and wisdom. In good times, mosques have provided employment to many skilled and semiskilled individuals, including imams, Qurʿānic reciters, muʿadhdhins (muezzins; those calling people to prayer), and caretakers. In times of crisis, students and common people have gathered in them for mutual support and to obtain guidance from religious leaders. Likewise, mosques have served as focal points for opposition to other groups and authorities.

The multiplicity of mosque functions, already evident in the time of the Prophet, reached an apogee in the Ottoman complex known as the külliye. The majestic Süleymaniye külliye (sixteenth century) in Istanbul, for example, consists of a monumental congregational mosque, five medreses, two preparatory schools, a hospital and medical school, a Ṣūfī lodge, a hostel or caravansary, a public bath and fountains, a public kitchen, housing for mosque teachers and caretakers, a wrestling ground, cafés, shops, imperial mausoleums, and a cemetery.

Modern Mosques.

Today many of the characteristics and functions of mosques in Islamic history are still evident in mosques from the Middle East to Africa, Asia, and the Americas; however, two significant changes have been occurring. First, new national regimes in Muslim lands have been incorporating mosques into highly bureaucratic administrative systems to centralize state control, further their nationalist political agendas, and acquire legitimacy. Second, mosque construction in the second half of the twentieth century has been occurring at an unprecedented rate, both in traditional Muslim homelands and among immigrant Muslim communities in Europe and North America. This cannot be attributed only to state involvement; rather, it is a result of the growth of Muslim populations and of their prosperity, enhanced by oil revenues. But it also suggests something more profound—a desire on the part of Muslims to form and maintain their identities, to define a place on which to stand in a tumultuously changing, uncertain global society.



  • Berger, Morroe. Islam in Egypt Today: Social and Political Aspects of Popular Religion. Cambridge, U.K., 1970. Chapter 2 reports the results of a 1962 Egyptian government mosque census, and describes government efforts to reorganize and redirect mosques to serve government aims.
  • Campo, Juan Eduardo. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S.C., 1991. Contains analyses of the symbolic relations between houses, mosques, and the cosmos, as expressed in the Qurʿān, ḥadīths, and Egyptian culture.
  • Fahim, Hussein M.“The Ritual of the Ṣalāt al-Jumʿa in Old Nubia and Kanuba Today.” In Nubian Ceremonial Life, edited by John G. Kennedy, pp. 19–40. Berkeley, Calif., 1978. Anthropological study of changes in communal prayer performance and mosque functions in Egyptian Nubia.
  • Flood, Finbarr Barry. The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture. Leiden, Netherlands, 2001.
  • Goodwin, Godfrey. A History of Ottoman Architecture. Baltimore, 1971. Includes detailed descriptions of imperial mosque architecture and its functions.
  • Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. 2d ed.New Haven, Conn., 1987. Chapters 3 and 5 are exceptionally informed essays about the forms and meanings of early Islamic religious architecture in the eighth century.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and Adair T. Lummis. Islamic Values in the United States: A Comparative Study. New York, 1987. Based on a sociological survey of U.S. Muslims. Chapter 2 contains a discussion of American mosque forms, constituencies, and functions.
  • Holod, Renata, Hasan-Uddin Khan, and Kimberly Mims. The Contemporary Mosque: Architects, Clients, and Designs Since the 1950s. New York, 1997.
  • Ibn Khaldūn. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. 3 vols.Translated by Franz Rosenthal. New York, 1958. Consult volume 1, pp. 449–450, and volume 2, pp. 249–266, for discussions of mosques.
  • Kahera, Akel Ismail. Deconstructing the American Mosque: Space, Gender, and Aesthetics. Austin, Tex., 2002.
  • Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim. 4 vols.Translated by ʿAbdul Hamid Siddiqi. Lahore, 1976. Volume 1 contains the quasi-canonical ḥadīths pertaining to prayer and mosques.
  • Pedersen, Johannes, et al. “Masdjid.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., vol. 6, pp. 645–707. Leiden, 1960–. Detailed account of the history, functions, and administration of the mosque prior to the modern period. Concludes with sections on mosques in India, Southeast Asia, China, and Africa.
  • Turner, Harold W.From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship. The Hague, 1979. Insightful comparative study of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic concepts of religious space, despite a reliance on secondary sources for the Islamic data.

Juan Eduardo Campo

Mosque Architecture

There are two words for mosque in Arabic—masjid and jāmiʿ. Related to sujūd (prostration), masjid means a building for prayer; jāmiʿ denotes a place of gathering. Any conveniently located mosque, large or small, may be used for daily prayers, but at noon every Friday the community congregates in a jāmiʿ not only to pray but also to hear the prayer-leader deliver a sermon (khuṭbah) from the steps of the minbar. Emulating the stone platform that the prophet Muḥammad ascended to give his sermons, the minbar has been an essential feature of a congregational mosque since the year 750 C.E. It stands next to the miḥrāb, an ornamental arched niche set into the qiblah wall to indicate the direction of Mecca.

Originally the qiblah was Jerusalem; Mecca became the focal center of Islam in 629. Another eighty years passed before the miḥrāb niche made its appearance in mosque architecture. Prior to that innovation, the orientation of prayer was indicated either by a spear standing upright in the sand in an open desert mosque without walls, or by a piece of rock, as in the Prophet's house in Medina. This house had a spacious courtyard enclosed by unfired brick walls with a row of cells on one side and sheltered areas set against the other two walls; the latter were covered by palm leaves resting on palm trunks. There is general agreement that the architectural organization and construction materials of the earliest congregational mosques, such as those built in Basra and Kufa during the first half of the seventh century, were direct descendants of the house in Medina in which the Prophet lived, led communal prayers, and preached.

Neither of these congregational mosques retained its original architectural characteristics for long. In 665, the governor of Basra, Ziyād ibn Abīh, ordered the Basra mosque reconstructed in sun-dried brick with stone columns and a teak roof. When Ziyād moved to Kufa as governor five years later, he also rebuilt the congregational mosque in that city. The renovated Kufa mosque consisted of a ḥaram (prayer hall) with five rows of stone columns and a ṣaḥn (courtyard) surrounded by double rows of riwāqs (porticos). Another early congregational mosque, the ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ at Fustat in Egypt, underwent similar changes when it was enlarged and renovated in 827. Rows of arches on classical columns gathered from Roman ruins replaced its original wooden supports.

The riwāqs constituted a significant development because they converted the nondirectional pillared ḥaram into a multi-aisled hall. Actually, the aisled ḥaram probably emerged a century before in the al-Aqsā Mosque at Jerusalem. Built by the Umayyad caliph al-Walīd between 709 and 715, the al-Aqṣā was severely damaged in the earthquake of 747 and was almost entirely rebuilt and enlarged by al-Mahdī (r. 775–785), with aisles running perpendicular to the qiblah wall.

By contrast, the congregational mosque al-Walīd built at Damascus (705–715) had a lofty central hall flanked by gable-roofed wings that were divided into three lateral aisles by two rows of columns. The columns supported riwāq walls pierced by arched openings not unlike the clerestory windows in early basilica churches. (The elegant double-tiered riwāqs in ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I's Great Mosque at Córdoba [785] may well have been inspired by the high arched openings in the Damascus Great Mosque.) Yet another feature of early Christian derivation is mosaic decoration. Panels depicting landscapes cover the mosque's walls above the marble revetments up to the archsprings on the three sides of the two-story riwāqs surrounding the ṣaḥn. They resemble in style and workmanship the mosaic decoration in the sixth-century Church of Saint Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna and were no doubt the work of Byzantine craftsmen.

The Damascus Great Mosque originally had four minarets, one at each corner of the building. Today, only two minarets—one rebuilt in the fourteenth century, the other in the fifteenth—occupy the southeast and southwest corners of the ḥaram. A third minaret, erected in the twelfth century, stands by the main gateway on the north, across from the domed central hall. This arrangement emulates the axial union of the miḥrāb and minaret, which made its appearance in the Great Mosque of Qayrawān (Kairouan) in Tunisia.

The Qayrawān Great Mosque was built in 670, but it acquired its present form after modifications in 724 and 836. Its vast prayer hall is sectioned into aisles by sixteen riwāqs that extend toward the qiblah. Not only is the center aisle wider and higher than those on either side of it, it is also emphasized by a dome at each end—behind the main entrance, and in front of the miḥrāb. These two small domes align with a third over the three-level, square minaret (which may be the earliest surviving minaret in Islamic architecture) that rises in the middle of the mosque's front wall, right in the center of the qiblah axis.

The tradition of a monumental minaret standing in front of a congregational mosque on its qiblah axis continued during the ʿAbbāsid period. This is well illustrated by the two mosques that the caliph al-Mutawakkil built in Samarra in Iraq. The Great Mosque of Samarra dates from 852, and the Mosque of Abū Dulaf was probably built during the first few years of the following decade.

The mammoth ziggurat minaret of the Samarra Great Mosque (al-Manārah al-Malwīyah) is the largest minaret ever erected. It rises as a free-standing structure in front of the sanctuary on its center and consists of a tower with an external ramp that spirals to a 50-meter-high platform over a square base 33 meters on a side. The Malwīyah has survived in good repair; however, of the enormous sanctuary—240 meters long by 156 meters wide—only the outer walls buttressed by semicylindrical bastions are still standing: the interior is empty.

Although the outer walls of the slightly smaller (213 × 135 meters) Abū Dulaf were destroyed, its piers have not totally disappeared. They show what the Samarra Great Mosque's interior may have been like before its internal support system collapsed. The Abū Dulaf's sanctuary arches span slightly more than 3 meters and spring from nearby square piers in the front and back of the court and from rectangular ones on the sides. Originally both the Samarra Great Mosque and Abū Dulaf were surrounded by walled ziyādahs (extensions) on all four sides. On the east, west, and south the enclosures were wide, and on the north there was only a narrow strip.

The ziyādahs of the Samarra Great Mosque and Abū Dulaf are known through documentary and archaeological evidence. That of the Ibn Ṭūlūn mosque at Fustat has survived intact. Built by the ʿAbbāsid governor of Egypt, Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn, during the 870s (it was completed in 879), the Ibn Ṭūlūn is surrounded on three sides by a ziyādah that functions as a buffer between town and mosque. The ziyādah serves as additional prayer area when large crowds gather in the mosque on Fridays and special occasions. It also contains within its walls the ablution facilities and minaret; the latter is composed of a cylindrical shaft with a spiral staircase on the outside over a high, square base. As in Samarra, an elevated passageway connects the minaret to the mosque.

Doors lining the Ibn Ṭūlūn's northeastern wall lead to a spacious, square ṣaḥn with double aisles on three sides and a five-aisle-deep ḥaram on the fourth. The riwāqs forming the aisles have rectangular piers marked by engaged columns at the corners. They shoulder painted arches that alternate with small arch-openings pieced into arcade walls over the piers. The soffits of both types of arches are decorated with bands of ornament. There is also a frieze of rosettes in stucco that runs along the top of the riwāq walls just below the flat timber roof. The fenestration system of the mosque's crenellated walls, comprising a row of pointed arched windows with polyfoil arched niches between them, emulates the rhythmic pattern of the alternating large and small arch openings in the interior.

There is a kinship between the Ibn Ṭūlūn and the two congregational mosques in Samarra. The same observation cannot be made for the ʿAbbāsid mosques in Iran. As Islam penetrated eastward into Asia, old mosque forms were replaced by new ones, as illustrated by the Masjid-i Tārīkh at Dāmghān (first half of the ninth century). In plan the Masjid-i Tārīkh recalls the early mosques in Mesopotamia. Its heavy barrel vaults over stumpy, cylindrical pillars, however, derive from Sassanian architecture.

Another new mosque form appeared in the ʿAbbāsid mosque at Balkh in Afghanistan (ascribed to the ninth century), in which the square ḥaram was divided into nine smaller squares—three deep and three wide—and all nine squares were covered by individual domes. The domed superstructure reflected the secular building tradition of Central Asia.

More important was the incorporation of another secular architectural theme—the cross-axial plan—into sacred building. The cross-axial plan was formed by an īwān, an important element resembling a gateway, in the middle of each side of a covered or open quadrangular hall or court. This plan was used in the eighth century by the Umayyads in al-Qaṣr on the citadel of Amman in Jordan, and by the ʿAbbāsids a century later in the main reception room of the Jawsaq al-Kharqānī at Samarra; the Seljuks used it in the twelfth-century Masjid-i Jumuʿah at Isfahan and Masjid-i Jāmiʿ at Zawara.

As illustrated by the Great Mosque of Varamin (1326) and the Masjid-i Shāh at Isfahan (1638), the cross-axial plan persisted in Iran during Ilkhanid and Ṣafavid periods. Bībī Khānum Mosque at Samarkand (1406) and the Jāmiʿ Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra (c.1570) show that the cross-axial plan also played a part in the formation of mosque architecture in Timurid Turkestan and Mughal India.

The oldest mosque in India was the Qūwat al-Islām at Delhi. Begun in 1193 by Quṭbuddīn Aybak, it consisted of a sanctuary built on the substructure of a Hindu temple and the Quṭb Minār, a freestanding minaret tower named after its founder. Successive stages of Quṭb Minār's round, tall, and tapering shaft were marked by four projecting balconies; the spacious ṣaḥn of Qūwat al-Islām featured the four accents of the cross-axial plan.

Although it was sometimes used in such buildings as madrasahs and māristāns (healing centers), the cross-axial plan was not seen in Artukid and Anatolian Seljuk mosques. As illustrated by the Great Mosques of Diyarbakır, Silvan, and Kızıltepe (Dunaysir), the Artukids created variations on the laterally set theme of the Damascus Great Mosque, but they did not use the cross-axial plan in their mosques. Neither did the plan play a significant role in Anatolian Seljuk sacred architecture. Except in the Great Mosque of Malatya (begun in 1243), the īwān was not used at all by the Anatolian Seljuks. They preferred instead the apadana type of columnar mosque exemplified by the Old Mosque (now called the ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn Mosque) at Konya (begun c.1155) and the Great Mosque of Afyon (c.1272). More importantly, they developed the basilica mosque, which consisted of several aisles running in the qiblah direction, with a dome in front of the miḥrāb and a small inner court in the middle of the center aisle to serve as the ṣaḥn. Two examples of the basilica type are the Great Mosques of Divriği (1228) and Beyşehir (1299). The first is noteworthy for its ornate stone portal and decorative vaults, and the second for its wooden columns with intricately covered capitals and its miḥrāb dome decorated with glazed tiles. The cross-axial plan did not find a favorable environment in Upper Mesopotamia and Anatolia, but another traditional element—the miḥrāb dome—became a significant feature in both regions. Artukids and Anatolian Seljuks emphasized their mosques with domes.

It was the Ottomans, however, who truly exploited the full potential of the dome in the mosque architecture. This development took place in three stages. The first stage was realized in the Great Mosque of Bursa (1399) when all but one of its twenty square bays were covered by domes of equal size. In the second stage, exemplified by the Üç Şerefeli Mosque at Edirne (1447), not only was a larger dome placed at the center of the ḥaram, but a ṣaḥn surrounded by domed arcades also preceded it. In the final stage, smaller bays around the larger central area of the ḥaram were integrated under half domes on one, two, three, or all four sides.

Among the Ottoman sultans’ mosques dating from the sixteenth century, three are especially worthy of mention: the Şehzade Mehmed and Süleymaniye at Istanbul, and the Selimiye at Edirne. In the Şehzade Mehmed (1548), four half domes shoulder the central dome on four sides, while two minarets anchor the corners where the two squares that define the ḥaram and the ṣaḥn come together. The Süleymaniye (1557), with its upper structure highlighted by a central dome and two half domes before and after it on the qiblah axis, displays an Ottoman interpretation of the Hagia Sophia theme.

Unlike the minarets that mark the corners of the Süleymaniye's ṣaḥn, in the Selimiye (1575), four high, pencil-point minarets (the highest in Ottoman architecture) rise at the four corners of the ḥaram, which is covered by a large dome. It sits on eight elephantine pillars, bolstered by half domes on the diagonals. Within a quadrangular ḥaram, the Selimiye's central dome forms an octagonal baldachin. This was in keeping with the Ottoman preoccupation with searching for new mosque forms in the sixteenth century, which produced domical schemes over octagonal and hexagonal bases as well as square ones. The spirit of experimentation did not persist; by the seventeenth century the symmetrical and balanced form of the Şehzade Mehmed was accepted as the most suitable for a large imperial mosque, as shown by the Sultan Ahmed (1616), Yeni Cami (1667), and new Fatih (1771) mosques at Istanbul, as well as the Alabaster Mosque built by Muḥammad ʿAlī on the citadel of Cairo (1848).

Finally, it should be noted that the congregational mosque at Islamabad has a twentieth-century version of the cross-axial plan. The reinforced concrete folded plates of the ḥaram's superstructure, with ridges pointing in the four directions, exemplify the happy union of contemporary building technology and a traditional architectural theme.



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Aptullah Kuran

The Mosque in Politics

The mosque—often with a madrasah associated with it—is the vital center of Muslim religious, social, and political life. It is the place of prayer and the center of the Muslim community, especially in rural areas, and the associated madrasah is the place where the young faithful learn how to pray and recite the Arabic of the Qurʿān and, in some cases, receive a broader education. Historically, a distinction was made between the congregational mosque (jāmiʿ) and the prayer hall (masjid). It was in the former that the sermon or oration (khuṭbah) was proclaimed on Fridays and where oaths of loyalty were sworn. Over time, the distinction between the two types has been eroded, though in Muslim-majority countries, when the central government seeks to develop a new mosque project, it is the jāmiʿ that is controlled, while masjid projects are left to local initiatives.

The mosque tends to perform a variety of functions no longer exercised by many of the Christian churches in the modern world, the exception being some of the larger evangelical churches in the United States. Just as Christianity has separate churches for the main historical split in the faith—between Roman Catholicism and the post-Reformation denominations in the west, and Orthodoxy in the east—so Islam has separate mosques for Sunnī and Shīʿī adherents. The profusion of post-Reformation denominations in Christianity is matched in Islam by different traditions—Wahhābī, Deobandī, and Barelwī, for example—that each maintain separate mosques.

The comparison with the Christian church breaks down in two respects. Firstly, in the mainstream Christian churches women participate in equal numbers as men, sitting within the main area of worship. In the case of the mosque, there is almost invariably a clearly defined physical space for female worshippers, who are expected to be less numerous than men: the ratio of space allocated to women and men may range from 1:4 to 1:20, and in some cases women are not provided with space at all. (Increasingly in the West, however, women are demanding equal access to the mosque and participation in its management. Mohammad Akram Nadwi has also shown that in the earlier history of Islam, female scholars both played a leading role in mosques and led services. At the beginning of the eighth century c.e. Fātima bint Ibrāhīm ibn Jowhar, a teacher of al-Bukhārī, taught in the Mosque of the Prophet.) The second contrast with the main Christian denominations is that each mosque is self-governing, with its own mosque committee appointing the imam and an absence of overarching hierarchy. Commentators are therefore correct in stating that there is no governing ecclesiastical structure in Islam—though some mosques are clearly much more historic and important than others, such as the al-Azhar mosque and associated university in Old Cairo. Al-Azhar is run by a supreme council, headed by a Grand Imam known as the Shaykh al-Azhar (currently Muḥammad Sayyid Ṭanṭāwī); but, though influential, even he is one figure among others in the Islamic world.

The Mosque and Politics in the Middle Ages.

It is thought that the first regular communal prayers under Islam were held in the courtyard of the Prophet's mud brick house in Medina in 623 CE This became the place of prayer, the location for social activities, and the center of political debate for the fledgling Muslim community. The Prophet used to address the congregation, at first leaning on a pillar, which was eventually replaced by a wooden pulpit (minbar). In the Qurʿān, though the word masjid is used many times, it is applied to only three specific buildings: Masjid al-Ḥaram (the area around the Kaʿbah in Mecca), Masjid al-Aqsa (the temple area in Jerusalem), and Qubāʿ (9:108), the oasis site where the Prophet first rested before entering Medina, a mosque that he later rebuilt in 629 CE

The building of large places of worship was associated with the assertion of political control: orders from the government were delivered from the pulpit at Friday prayers, while the governor's residence was often built adjacent to a large mosque structure, starting with the mosque built at Kufa in 670 CE The Great Mosque at Damascus—the oldest extant mosque in the Islamic world—was constructed on the orders of Caliph al-Walīd I (705–715) and was said to have cost seven years’ land tax (kharāj) of the empire. An inscription at the Mosque of Ibn Tūlūn (876–879), governor of Egypt and founder of the Tūlūn id dynasty, quoted the Qurʿān (24:36–38) as justification, the emir having built the mosque for the glory of religion in perpetuity “using the revenues from a pure and legitimate source that God has granted him ….” The Mamlūk dynasty of Egypt (1250–1517) seems to have introduced the concept of a linked mosque–madrasah–mausoleum, with the mausoleum of the deceased ruler an increasingly dominant feature—as exemplified in the mausoleum of Sultan Ḥasan (1356–1359).

In the West, the successive enlargements of the Great Mosque at Córdoba by Caliph al-Ḥakam II after 961 and others is linked to the unprecedented division of the caliphate between the ʿAbbāsids, the Fāṭimids after 910, and the Umayyads in Andalus in 929. The Córdoba mosque's mythical identity derives from earlier Syrian Umayyad history. ʿAbd al-Raḥman I's establishment of the Ummayad emirate of Córdoba after victory in battle in 756 was compared in significance to the battle of Ṣiffīn between Muʿāwiyah and ʿAlī in 657. Ṣiffīn was the battle in which Muʿāwiyah's troops raised copies of the Qurʿān on their spears, demanding justice for Caliph ʿUthmān's murder. At the time of his murder, ʿUthmān was reading four leaves of the Qurʿān (from his collection of sheets of the Qurʿān, or muṣḥaf), and those blood-stained sheets were kept in the treasury at Córdoba and were vital physical objects consecrated to the Ummayad cause. The Ummayads saw themselves as guides to the Muslim community because ʿUthmān had collected the Qurʿān.

Like its prototype, the Prophet's mosque at Medina, the Córdoba mosque was conceived as being constructed after a period of exile and hijrah. Caliph al-Ḥakam's expansion of the mosque was modeled on Caliph al-Walīd I's rebuilding of the Mosque of the Prophet (707–9) at Medina. In the words of Nuna N. N. Khoury, Córdoba “is a mosque of conquest and renewal that abrogates what came before it, and one that proclaims the ascendancy of a new world order and the establishment of God's caliphate on earth” (p. 88). The “venerable” and “eternal” construction facilitated by God's aid amounted to more than the physical structure of the mosque and implied the restoration of caliphate, which was needed for the unification of a Muslim community torn apart by the schisms instigated by rival caliphs from the ʿAbbāsid and Fāṭimid dynasties.

In the West, the Ottoman dynasty under Selim I (known as Yavuz, or “the Grim”) achieved unification by overthrowing the Mamlūk dynasty in 1517, though the full expression of the Ottoman achievement was manifested in the supreme architectural achievements of Koca Sinan, chief royal architect (1538–1588) under Sulaymān I and his successors. The Süleymaniye complex fulfilled the function of an imperial mosque at which Sulaymān and his large retinue prayed each Friday after a procession through the city of Istanbul. The complex was built on the third hill of Istanbul and dominates the city. The Süleymaniye's foundation inscription, prepared by Ebüssuʿûd Mehmet Efendi, emphasizes the sultan's divine right to rule as revealed in the Qurʿān and his role as a protector of orthodox (Sunnī) Islam and of the sharīʿah against heterodoxy. Sulaymān's role as a just ruler who codified and promulgated Ottoman laws is also portrayed, thus balancing his spiritual and worldly authority.

The complex took eight years to complete and was built as a memorial to Sulaymān's conquests at Belgrade, Malta, and Rhodes, the booty from which was diverted toward the cost of the project. Muṣṭafā ʿAlī'sCounsel for Sultans, written for Murād III in 1581, noted that “divine laws do not permit the building of charitable establishments with the means of the public treasury”; mosques and madrasahs had to be paid for with booty from a “victorious campaign,” if the sultan chose to spend this on “pious deeds rather than on his personal pleasures.” The Selimiye in Erdine (1568–1574) was built with the spoils of Selim II's Cyprus campaign, but no royal mosque was built by Murād III because he had won no important victories. Ahmed I chose to build the last great Ottoman complex (the Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque) between 1609 and 1617 in an attempt to recapture past glories, but he incurred the censure of the ʿulamāʿ in so doing because there were no new spoils of conquest to defray the costs.

It is not possible here to consider in detail the architectural patronage of the Ṣafavid rulers of Iran and the Mughals in India, whose glorious achievements are justly world-renowned. Our focus instead is on the differing political images that the Ottoman, Ṣafavid, and Mughal rulers sought to instill in the populations they ruled. Gülru Necipoğlu suggests that the Ottoman rulers sought “official impersonality,” while in contrast the Ṣafavid rulers pursued “festive informality”; while the Ottoman sultan stressed his role as a servant in the service of Sunnī Islam, loyalty to the Ṣafavid shah resembled a master–disciple (pīr–murīd) spiritual relationship transferred into the political sphere. Between these two extremes was the Mughal ruler, whose divine aura was represented in official portraits by a halo, which endowed the just ruler with the virtues needed to govern successfully, including the paternal love for his subjects, trust in God, prayer, and devotion. The concept of a divinely illumined kingship developed under Akbar found special resonance among the Mughal ruler's Hindu subjects but was later abolished by the strictly orthodox ruler Awrangzīb, who regarded it as an un-Islamic practice akin to idol worship.

Royal and State Foundations of Mosques in the Contemporary Era.

Just as in the past, pious rulers in the contemporary era have founded mosques to continue a tradition of royal patronage. King Hasan II of Morocco founded one of the largest mosques in the world at Casablanca, which was completed in 1993 at a cost, it is thought, of $400 million. Newly independent Muslim states emerging from colonial rule developed the idea of a state mosque in place of the mosque of the ruler in earlier Islamic history. These buildings were intended to be massive complexes catering to substantial numbers of worshippers in the covered area and for many more in the open areas, and unlike community mosques, they were conceived as highly visible, isolated monuments: a state mosque, such as the Istiqlāl Mosque at Jakarta, Indonesia, in the world's most populous Muslim nation, makes a statement both of nationhood and political will. President Sukarno drove the first pile of the mosque into the ground in 1961, and after 1969 the project was funded by the ministry of finance and bank of Indonesia. The National Mosque (Masjid Negara) at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, built between 1960 and 1965, includes a women's prayer hall and was designed as a powerful symbol of national identity in a federal union of thirteen states, each of which may choose to build its own state mosque, such as the Negeri Sembilan state mosque (1967) and the state mosques of Selangor (1988) and Sarawak (1990). The Islamic political ideology of regional Malay-sian leaders has influenced the design of these state mosques.

The fabulous wealth generated by oil dollars for the Gulf states, and especially Saudi Arabia, has led since the 1980s to the world-wide spread of Saudi-financed mosque building and madrasah foundations. Ain al-Yaqeen, a Saudi newspaper, reported on March 1, 2002, that Saudi funds may have contributed to building as many as 1,500 mosques, almost 2,000 schools, and 210 Islamic centers (“the cost of King Fahd's efforts in this field has been astronomical …”). The King Fayṣal Masjid in Islamabad, designed by the Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay, financed in 1976 by the Saudis and completed ten years later at a cost of $40 million in historic values, remains one of the largest mosques in the world. Not only is it the dominant building in the landscape of Islamabad, but it is also symbolic of Saudi influence in the financing of mosques and madrasahs in Pakistan: between 1988 and 2002 the number of madrasahs increased from 2,801 to 9,880. The largest increase was in those run by the Deobandī sect (which rose from 1,779 to 7,000 in the period), many of which are thought to have been financed by the Saudis.

One of the consequences of Saudi finance is that Wahhābī anti-Ṣūfī ideology follows in its wake. Just as, in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhābī influence has altered the historic landmarks of Mecca and Medina, so in Bosnia and Croatia, under the guise of “reconstruction aid,” monuments such as the Gazi Husrevbeg Mosque (Begova Dzamija) in Sarajevo, which had survived shelling by the Serb military, have been desecrated in the Saudi-sponsored restoration. The Saudi patronage of mosques has also spread to the U.S.: the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, Los Angeles, entirely financed by private donations from Prince ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn Fahd at a cost of $2.16 million, was inaugurated in 1998.

Building and Destroying Mosques in Muslim-Minority Societies.

In non-Muslim societies, the mosque has become a focus for the debate around Muslim identity. In some western European countries, notably Denmark, the process of planning and building a new mosque, or converting an old building for the purposes of a mosque, has become very difficult and politically controversial. In other European countries, the picture is more varied: in some parts of Germany, mosques and mosque-building plans are highly contentious (as in former east Berlin, Cologne, and Munich), but elsewhere (for instance in the Kreuzberg district of former west Berlin and in Duisburg, north of Cologne) attitudes within the municipalities and their planning authorities are more relaxed. While it is easier to obtain planning consents for new mosques in most parts of the United Kingdom than elsewhere in Europe, certain schemes have become particularly controversial: this is the case with the proposal of the ultra-conservative Tablīghī Jamāʿat to build a “mega-mosque” for twelve thousand worshippers in the London borough of New-ham, close to the site of the 2012 Olympic games. The campaign group SIOE (Stop Islamization of Europe) is vociferous in its opposition to the large mosque planned for Marseille, among others, and in its call for a “stop to mosque building in Europe.”

In India the mosque in Ayodhya, built early in the sixteenth century, became the central symbol of the campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist movement, to achieve power. It was argued that the Hindu deity Rama was born on the very spot on which the mosque was built; it had to be destroyed to build a temple in his honor. In this milieu, where fact and fantasy fed into the communal passions of millions of people, Muslims became the ready victims of riots and police action (during the ten hours it took the Hindu mobs to demolish the mosque in December 1992, the police—almost entirely Hindu—stood idly by).

Soon other historical monuments were also being claimed by Hindu extremists. One is the Juma mosque in Delhi, built by the Mughal emperor Shāh Jahān, a descendant of the emperor who built the Ayodhya mosque, and a major center of Muslim political activity in India. Right-wing Hindus now claim that the mosque was built on the site of a temple and must be destroyed so that a new temple can be built. Even the Taj Mahal (which also contains a mosque) is a potential target for extremists who claim it was once a Hindu palace.

The International Religious Freedom report for 2002 on Bosnia-Herzegovina notes that 618 mosques were destroyed in Republika Srpska territory during the 1992–1995 war. The Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina (ICBH) claims that before the war there were approximately 1,700 mosques and masjids in Bosnia and Herzegovina, of which approximately 650 were completely destroyed, while another 530 were damaged. A partial survey of the destruction in nineteen municipalities documented 277 mosques, all of which had been damaged, and only 22 of which were “lightly damaged.” Of the total, 119 were heavily damaged, while 136 were almost or entirely destroyed. In the village of Carakovo (Prijedor), Serb forces reportedly gathered eighteen Muslim villagers in front of the mosque and killed them, wrapped the imam in a prayer carpet and burned him to death, then burned down the mosque and blew up the minaret. The destruction of mosques and of other Islamic religious monuments appears to have been widespread and systematic and in many cases is reported to have taken place just before, or in some cases just after, a mass exodus of the local Muslim population, so as to ensure the permanence of the population movement. “It is as though they have torn our heart out. They wanted us to understand we had no place here.” Most of the mosque destruction happened in the first year or year-and-a-half of the war, at the same time as the forcible expulsion of the minority population. In addition, more than two hundred mosques—a third of the total—were destroyed or damaged during the Kosovo conflict in 1998–1999.

Heightened Politicization: The Issue of Control in Muslim-Majority Countries.

Mosques of the majority community are safe from attack in Muslim-majority countries, but those of the minority may not be so fortunate. Sectarian rivalries have led to attacks on mosques both in Pakistan and Iraq, and if intra-Muslim conflict intensifies—as commentators such as Vali Nasr suggest—then further outbursts of such violence may be expected. The compilation of data from media reports suggests that between 1989 and 2004 there were 1,837 incidents of sectarian violence in Pakistan, resulting in 1,668 deaths and 3,997 injuries. Most of these incidents took the form of attacks on mosques, because it is through affiliation in worship that the sectarian “other” is most readily identified. There is cause for alarm in figures for 2007, which saw the highest number of incidents since 1989: 341 incidents, 441 deaths, and 630 injuries. The Pakistan case highlights the urgency of “ecumenical” understandings between Sunnīs and Shīʿah, as exemplified in the three major declarations issued in Amman, Mecca, and Doha in 2005–2007. There are also regular attacks on mosques of the Aḥmadīyah sect in Pakistan (the mosque at Sayyedwala was destroyed in August 2001) and Bangladesh (the mosque at Bhadughar was razed in October 2004).

Nor has the mosque been exempt from attack in the Islamic world in another sense, that is, from subversion within and then the forcible restoration of control by the government from outside. The clearest illustration is provided by the radicalization of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad by a group led by ʿAbdul Rashīd and ʿAbdul ʿAzīz Ghāzī. The Lal Masjid was besieged by the army for three months before a violent denouement in July 2007 left over a hundred people dead: the radicals had succeeded in stockpiling large quantities of arms and ammunition prior to the siege, thus ensuring a bloody outcome and considerable damage to the mosque and seminary infrastructure. The government claimed that the radicals were linked to al-Qaʿida and the Taliban.

In large cities within the Islamic world, the number of mosques can be truly bewildering and can pose administrative problems for government, even down to the cacophony of conflicting calls to worship. Recent estimates suggest that the number of mosques in Tehran is about 2,300, while there are 2,560 in Istanbul and an estimated 4,000 in Cairo, where in May 2006 there was an attempt to regularize the calls to prayer into a single unified call at the correct times.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the mosque has increasingly become a focus of opposition to government in many Muslim-majority societies and thus a target of official displeasure. In Egypt and Algeria the main opposition to what is seen as the corruption and incompetence of the government comes from the mosque; the Muslim parties that appeared poised to win the elections in Algeria in 1991 were thwarted by the imposition of martial law. In both Egypt and Algeria the state security apparatus has sometimes invaded mosques to try to crush Muslim opposition, creating a highly volatile situation.

Increasingly Muslim governments attempt to control the running of the mosque, the appointment of its officials, and the content of the sermon. Some of the most famous mosques in the Muslim world, such as al-Azhar in Cairo and those in Saudi Arabia, are directly under government control. In Egypt, officials of the Ministry of Religious Endowments now write the sermons for the twenty thousand government-controlled mosques instead of allowing this to be done by local preachers. State control is also the norm in Algeria and Morocco.

For those mosques outside direct government control, the preachers are encouraged to concentrate on innocuous religious topics in sermons that support ideal values and general principles not related directly to the demands of contemporary life. A typical Friday sermon focuses on three areas: mainstream Islamic thinking, with well-known historical events recounted, supported by anecdotes and stories; national problems and crises, especially in the context of local politics; and international crises that link Muslims throughout the world. As the faithful became better educated, there are inevitably demands for more knowledgeable imams, whose Friday sermons are at once firmly grounded in the core Islamic values yet are able to debate the issues of the contemporary world on the basis of knowledge rather than prejudice. The place of sharīʿah law in society, and whether sharīʿah is or is not immutable, is another serious issue on which an educated congregation is likely to be increasingly restive. Though in principle Sunnī Muslims should be able to worship in Sunnī mosques wherever they are, and likewise Shīʿī Muslims in Shīʿī mosques, some sects, such as the otherwise liberal Ismāʿīlīs, refuse entry to their jamāʿat khānas for Muslims who do not belong to their denomination.

Accusations of Extremism in Certain Mosques in the West after 9/11.

The mosque provides a conservative, secure, familiar base to Muslims bewildered by change, angry at the perceived injustices of a hostile world, and seeking solace in an increasingly secular and materialistic age. Against this mainstream there are divergent minority tendencies. The first is in the form of pressure for a better-educated discourse in the sermon, more knowledgeable about the majority community in the West and more closely related to the real position in which the Muslim communities find themselves: that they are, for example, simultaneously Muslim and British and of Pakistani extraction. There are signs that the younger generation is increasingly impatient with a mosque leadership that is solely male and often dates from the first phase of migration to the West. Younger worshippers understandably want to hear the sermon in their own language rather than Urdu or the language of origin (the proliferation of mosques in the U.K. and certain other European countries is explicable for linguistic reasons as often as for sectarian affiliation, though both factors are important). There are demands for greater inter-generational participation in mosque activities and for a greater sensitivity toward the position of women, both in terms of the governance of the mosque and in the place of worship. This process of “indigenization” of British, French, and other European Muslims is an entirely positive trend.

A second minority, and in this case entirely divergent and negative, tendency has been toward greater politicization within the mosque—not just in terms of the sermon, but in the place of the mosque within the community. One of the most extreme examples of this was the radical preaching and pro-jihādī activity of Abū Hamza al-Masri at the Finsbury Park Mosque (now renamed the North London Central Mosque, Finsbury Park, and under mainstream Muslim management). The “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged twentieth 9/11 hijacker, were among the terrorists who attended the mosque. Abu Hamza's statements were regarded by many as so extreme that he appeared almost a buffoon, but police investigations have revealed the extent of his influence in the global jihād movement in the late 1990s and first part of the new century. Abu Hamza was convicted in February 2006 of eleven of the fifteen charges he faced in the U.K. In addition to being jailed for soliciting murder, he was also found guilty of inciting racial hatred, possessing “threatening, abusive or insulting recordings,” and having in his possession a document useful to terrorists. In February 2008, the British Home Secretary announced that Abu Hamza would be extradited to the U.S. to face further terrorism charges. Activities of extremists such as Abu Hamza have helped to give London the unwarranted description of “Londonistan” in anti-Muslim extreme right-wing rhetoric.

Other mosques within the U.K. have been accused of allowing “hate literature” to be distributed within their premises, although there have been criticisms of inaccuracy and exaggeration in the report of the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank, authored by Denis MacEoin and entitled The Hijacking of British Islam (2007). Similar assertions were made in the U.S. in Freedom House's publication Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques (2005). The Mosques and Imams Advisory Council set out draft core standards for Britain's more than 1,350 mosques and Islamic centers (there are about two thousand places of worship if prayer halls are included) at the end of October 2007 in what amounted to a voluntary code of practice that sought to standardize rules on governance and leadership in an attempt to drive out extremism.

The Immense Variety of Mosques in the Islamic World.

The immense variety of mosque architecture in the Islamic world, which speaks of the different role the mosque occupies in political and social life, is rarely appreciated by non-Muslims. A brief glance at some of the recipients of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture over the years provides evidence, for example, of community involvement in the task of mosque upkeep in Africa, where traditional mosques may be mud-built. In some cases, the award has gone to mosque rebuilding schemes in places of conflict, such as the al-Aqsā Mosque, Al-Ḥarām al-Sharīf, Jerusalem, and the Great Omari Mosque in Sidon, Lebanon: in the last case, the reconstruction of the mosque was called “a beacon in a tortured land and a sign of hope for the rebuilding of war-torn nations.”

It is in the commitment to modernity that contemporary mosque building makes its most important political statement. Of the Great Mosque and Redevelopment of the Old City Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the jury commented that “… the mosque, set within public areas, takes its traditional place as a centre of worship integrated into the urban fabric, rather than standing clear as an independent monument” and that its “underlying design methodologies may affect for the better the design of future mosques.” Of the Mosque of the Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkey, it was said that “this new centre for worship is an important step in the development of a suitable architectural vocabulary for the design of contemporary mosques.”

There has as yet been no award for mosque architecture in western Europe, with the sole exception of the Islamic Center and Mosque in Rome, Italy. Is this, one might surmise, because the emerging sense of British, French, and German Islam has not yet achieved sufficient political and social maturity for a conscious fusion of styles between the traditions of Islam and the architecture of Europe? Many mosques seem to be little more than replicas of buildings in other parts of the Islamic world and of styles many centuries old, rather than being classically Islamic in form, yet rethought and transformed to serve contemporary purposes.



  • Antoun, Richard T.Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, N.J., 1989. Study of the mosque sermon as a political and social institution in one Middle Eastern country.
  • “Award Cycles of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture: Awards 1980–2004.” On the Aga Khan Development Network Web site.
  • Balić, Smail. “Destruction of the Bosnian Architectural Heritage: An Interim Report.”Journal of Islamic Studies5, no. 2 (1994): 268–273. Estimates the number of mosques destroyed or “grievously damaged” in Bosnia in January 1993 as “nearly one thousand.” See Riedlmayer for a more limited but more detailed postwar survey.
  • Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House. Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques. Washington, D.C., 2005. Available at
  • Frishman, Martin, and Hasan-Uddin Khan, eds.The Mosque: History, Architectural Development, and Regional Development. London, 1994. Reprint, 2002. An introduction and at once much more than this. Contains some very illuminating insights.
  • Goodwin, Godfrey. A History of Ottoman Architecture. London, 1971. Chapters 6 and 7 (“Sinan: The Rise to Greatness” and “Sinan: The Master”) are of particular interest.
  • Holod, Renata, and Hasan-Uddin Khan. The Mosque and the Modern World: Architects, Patrons, and Designs since the 1950s. With the assistance of Kimberly Mims. London, 1997. Profound study of the interaction of the mosque and its patrons, including the state as client and commissions by local government bodies. Its value is enhanced by the experience gained by the two authors in being associated with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
  • Khoury, Nuha N. N.“The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Córdoba in the Tenth Century.” In Muqarnas XIII: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World, edited by Gülru Necipoğlu, pp. 80–98. Leiden, Netherlands, 1996. Fascinating survey of the iconography and inscriptions at Córdoba.
  • MacEoin, Denis. The Hijacking of British Islam: How Extremist Literature is Subverting Mosques in the UK. London, 2007. Tendentious report from the Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank, though there is some substance to the general accusation that extremist literature is in circulation. Available at
  • The Middle East Media Research Institute. “Saudi Government Paper: ‘Billions Spent by Saudi Royal Family to Spread Islam to Every Corner of the Earth.’ ”MEMRI Special Dispatch Series, no. 360, March 27, 2002. Available at Summarizes information from the Saudi government's English weekly Ain al-Yaqeen (March 1, 2002).
  • Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body [MINAB]. Draft MINAB Standards Based Assessment through Self Regulation of Members: The Way Forward for the MINAB. October 2007. Available at Self-regulation proposals for mosques in the U.K.
  • Nadwi, Mohammad Akram. Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam. Oxford: Interface Publications, 2007.
  • Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future. New York, 2007.
  • Necipoğlu, Gülru. “Framing the Gaze in Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Palaces.”Ars Orientalis23 (1993): 303–342.
  • Necipoğlu-Kafadar, Gülru. “The Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul: An Interpretation.”Muqarnas3 (1985), 92–117.
  • Riedlmayer, András J.“Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992–1996: A Post-War Survey of Selected Municipalities.”Cambridge, Mass., 2002. Available at and
  • “Sectarian Violence in Pakistan.” Statistics on sectarian violence in Pakistan, compiled from media reports and posted on the Web site of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
  • Sells, Michael A.“Erasing Culture: Wahhabism, Buddhism, Balkan Mosques: ‘Wahhabism is an Extreme Minority in Islam.’ ”The Turkish Times, January 15, 2002. Available at

Akbar S. Ahmed Updated by Richard Bonney

The Mosque in Society

The functions of a mosque vary in different settings, but its importance as a ritual center defines it as a distinct institution. Although traditional features of architecture and décor, including the mihrab (prayer niche), the minbar (pulpit), and the minaret, have come to be associated with a mosque, the only essential element consists of a suitable empty space allowing for the regular performance of private and common prayer. Other possible activities related to education, legal procedures, counseling, conflict resolution, life-cycle celebrations, public communication, political mobilization, entertainment, lodging, and the provision of welfare assistance, follow from this cultic raison d ’être.

This combination of ceremonial and practical usages centered in or around a mosque reflects a long and diverse history. Although the daily prayer, which Muslims are strongly encouraged to perform collectively, typically constitutes the paramount social event that a mosque serves, the presence or absence of other functions depend on a vast array of varied conditions. The size of a mosque, for instance, evoked in the distinction between a musallah, a small, simple, informal sanctuary and a jāmiʿ, typically a large, ornate, official, even monumental complex, signals one set of contrasts embraced by this term.

In the classical period, the weekly Friday noon prayer, which all free adult Muslim males were morally obliged to attend, was restricted to the jāmiʿ. A formal sermon, preached on these occasions in the name of the ruler, gave additional social as well as political significance to these gatherings. Today, however, Friday sermons are delivered in all manner of mosques, although custom, convenience, and, in many nations, legal regulations and government subsidies continue to reproduce certain traditional distinctions that differentiate the status of mosques. Likewise, doctrinal orientation and devotional practices also influence the type and the range of social involvement characteristic of mosques. For instance, among the Shīʿī congregations, other ceremonies, especially the dramatization of the Battle of Karbala featuring the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, known as taʿzīyah, may occupy a prominent place. The popular celebration of the birthday of the Prophet or of some other revered Muslim holy figure, known as a mawlid, also may be a central event in a given mosque 's religious calendar, bringing with it extensive related social activities.

The great variety of functions, sacred and profane, that can characterize a mosque derives from the fact that two sources, one from Mecca and the other from Medina, have provided Muslims with inspiration for subsequent developments. On the one hand, Prophet Muhammad 's original call to his fellow Arabs to convert from idolatry and heed the Qurʿān envisaged the haram or a divinely sanctioned holy precinct, first in Jerusalem, then at Mecca, as the idealized focus for pious observance. On the other hand, the rudimentary mosque the Prophet founded on the open courtyard beside his house in Medina, which soon became a busy hub serving the daily affairs of his followers, illustrates a center where ritual assemblies and a broad range of practical operations took place at a single location. Hence, in the Qurʿān and sunnah, a double image of a mosque can be recognized, one a sacrosanct enclosure, removed from mundane distraction, and the other a site of convergence for public affairs and a seat of government.

In terms of their iconography and of their operations, most mosques combine aspects of both prototypes, but many may, at least at times, emphasize one or the other. Factors such as location, available facilities, resources, and staffing may also affect the degree of involvement in ceremonial displays as opposed to social engagement. For example, certain mosques, stressing ritual, often found at the periphery of an inhabited area, although sometimes also in established population centers, are not primarily noted as normal places for prayer. Instead, they acquire the character of votive shrines that draw devotees, indeed, pilgrims, from far and near. The ritual activities characteristic of such sites typically exhibit a popular character, which orthodox elites and modernist reformers may regard with disapproval, but that clearly have their appeal, especially the relatively marginalized including the rural, tribal, and less educated groups. Here expressions of piety tend to be more personalized and colorful, often featuring the vows or petitions of individuals, even when such supplications occur amid the exuberant setting of festivals attended by large numbers. In the main, on such occasions, the otherwise standard social distinctions of age, status, sex, and wealth are sharply reduced.

A mosque that stresses the activist aspect, by contrast, is typically situated in the midst of an urban neighborhood, at the center of a village, or on a major thoroughfare. From this venue, it might offer specialized services apart from regular worship, such as education, moral guidance, and spiritual development, although a recent trend among many socially committed mosque communities has been to include other needs such as medical care, loans, humanitarian relief, and transportation. Another version of this engaged institution harkens back to an era when the principal mosque of a capital city stood adjacent to a sovereign 's palace. In these official events, which today might be broadcast on radio and television, key elements of a society 's hierarchical structure are typically manifested in the ranking of relationships represented at the assembly for prayer. Also, a grand mosque or jāmiʿ, especially in a major city, may function as the preferred site for patriotic convocations or for mass protests. Thus, al-Aqsā Mosque, in Jerusalem, for instance, has often been the stage for demonstrations.

Many mosques committed to participation in practical affairs consist largely of an enclosed space that is unpartitioned, but which can be informally demarcated into concurrent or consecutive areas for separate activities. Thus, the space normally used for congregational prayer may be taken over, perhaps regularly (as when a mosque doubles as a school), and put to other uses. Originally, many of the Muslim world 's classic centers of learning, including al-Azhar in Cairo and al-Zaytūnah in Tunis, took the form of mosques. Later developments, however, saw the emergence of differentiated facilities, with an area devoted exclusively to prayer and preaching with adjoining rooms that provide space for classes, meetings, administration, and perhaps the lodging of students and teachers. Thus, for example, the recently completed Islamic Cultural Center in Rome consists of a large and elegant Prayer Hall, reputedly the largest mosque in Europe, set slightly apart from an even more extensive complex serving related purposes.

The need for formal supervision and management inevitably increases under these expanded conditions. Whereas in many cases, small local mosques may operate with little or no professional staff, depending instead on volunteers or on irregular itinerant leadership, larger, more active mosques, especially those providing specialized services, that tend to employ large numbers to meet particular needs, require the supervision of certified and salaried officials.

Knowledge as the Source of Authority.

According to Islamic tradition every knowledgeable Muslim who is capable of doing so is, in principle, qualified to preside at the ritual prayer; but in any given company, the one who leads the others—the imam—is supposed to be the most learned among them or his designated deputy. Another shared premise is that women do not lead men in prayer, although a woman may act as the imam when only females are present. It follows, therefore, that Islam does not formally recognize a clergy as the term is usually understood in the Christian context. Nevertheless, historically, ritual leadership has persistently been concentrated in certain definite social categories that entail a privileged status based on various degrees of learning. Likewise, preaching the Friday sermon has traditionally been restricted to men who by custom or by edict were authorized to fulfill this office. Today, in many Islamic states, to serve as a khatib (mosque-preacher) requires what amounts to a license, officially issued by the appropriate ministry.

Nonetheless, the definition of knowledge as the prerequisite for authority is hardly unanimous. A fecund ambiguity has long surrounded this ideal, giving rise to contrasting paradigms that coexist and overlap. More-over, in the modern world, a third viewpoint has emerged which, in the minds of its advocates, surpasses the other two. All three schools of thought maintain that ʿilm (knowledge) is the foundation of authority in Islam, but they diverge significantly over what they understand by the concept. Nor do they agree on how to recognize the acquisition of knowledge, its transference, display, verification, and enforcement.

One view stresses the mastery of canonical texts, specifically, the Qurʿān and the sunnah, preferably by memorization, as the basis of learning. The validation of such knowledge is seen in the faithful reproduction and application of their content, following traditional methods of interpretation. The second view regards knowledge primarily as the mystical apprehension of hidden realities gained by divine illumination. It may be gained variously, by study, for example, or by inheritance, by intuitive grasp, or by heavenly intervention, as in a dream. Knowledge in this sense is usually recognized as the product of infused spiritual power or barakah, which produces social force, seen in both subtle and dramatic instances.

Lately, these two perspectives connecting the mosque to expertise have been augmented and challenged by a possible rival in the form of knowledge manifested as the product of modern scientific learning. Such knowledge derives its prestige from the triumphs of technology and from the alleged superior insights of contemporary social, economic, or political theory. Often such claims combine a simplified and selective grasp of modernity with aspirations for radical reform and rapid religious renewal. ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (d. 1977) is among the best known contemporary exemplars of this seminal adaptation. His “sociology of Islam,” which had such forceful effect on the leading thinkers of the Islamic revolution in Iran, draws heavily on French leftist themes of the 1960s. It is analogous in the domain of social theory to the cogent synthesis of contemporary Western philosophy and Islam arguing for a sweeping revitalization, which was advanced by Muḥammad Iqbal (d. 1938) who died a half-century earlier. In the same current, Tāriq Ramadān has sought to formulate a new vision of Islam adapted harmoniously to the prevailing social realities of the West.

These diverse ways of knowing also underlie correspondingly different approaches to the assertion of power and the maintenance of social order, giving rise to contrasting forms of mosque leadership and organization. First, in the classical frame of reference, the corps of scholars known as the ʿulamāʿ (scholars), fuqahāʿ (jurists), or occasionally talabah (students), were acknowledged as the appropriate officials to oversee mosques. Historically, in the typically stratified societies once characteristic of the Islamic world and still lingering, these mosque-centered duties, in addition to functions related to law, education, and administration, placed these learned men in an important intermediary position between ruling elites and indigenous populations. Through their agency, grand mosques frequently served as bases for patronage and as channels for communication cutting across the social and cultural boundary lines that otherwise separated upper echelons from the masses.

This intermediary role is also explicit in the Friday sermon, which retains a special significance because the right to preach from the mosque pulpit belongs, according to the tradition, exclusively to the Prophet, his legitimate successors, and those whom they delegate. The scholar-orator delivering this weekly sermon is understood, therefore, to be combining the authority of learning with the implied approbation of the ruler. In fact, however, such a characterization of a mosque as a common meeting place for all levels of society, mediated by the ʿulamāʿ, vastly idealizes the past and can be misleading as a description of general practice today. Nevertheless, many mosques continue to welcome a broad range of worshipers in societies where such face-to-face mixing occurs nowhere else.

A second type of leadership and organization tends to flourish at mosques that serve the needs of smaller village communities, tribal groups, and urban residents who hold on to traditional patterns of popular piety, linked to the tradition of Sūfī fraternities. In these settings, divine power tends to revolve around saints, that is, holy men or women, living or dead, who are understood to act as intercessors before God. These sacred persons are believed able to bestow their favors, including protection, healing, or prosperity, sometimes miraculously, on whomever they choose. The veneration of such figures, variously known as a salīh, shaykh, walī, pir, sayyid, murābit, murābit, or āghā, frequently at their tombs, often incorporates magical and ecstatic elements. The typical site of these devotions may exhibit distinctive features, such as a cupola shrine, which may also serve as a mosque or be combined with a mosque.

Mosques generally play an important part in life-cycle ceremonies, especially for males, especially those associated with saints ’ cults. Circumcisions, for instance, may occur under a saint 's patronage. Induction into a mystical fraternity and progress through its graded stages may follow later. When mosques double as schools, advances in learning may also be marked as transitions in social status. Marriages and funerals may also be orchestrated in ways that seek blessings for participants by direct association with mosque venues, although this is not required in most Islamic communities. Lately, in some places, mosques have served as bases for ideological indoctrination, including the voicing of sectarian animosity and providing justification for militant activities. Also, in situations of armed conflict, the symbolic value of mosques can appear in high relief as they may become places of refuge, strategic outposts, or the objects of hostile assault.

Popular and Official Reform.

The sweeping changes that have so vastly reshaped the Muslim world through the processes of modernization and globalization, have also profoundly influenced mosques. Thus while the complementary paradigms of spiritual and practical orientation persist, their priorities have often shifted. In general, both the traditional appeal of saints and a pronounced respect for the ʿulamāʿ have declined markedly. The effects of modern schooling, mass media, improved communications, advanced technologies, universal military conscription, centralizing bureaucracies, political awareness, and the penetration of international market forces have coalesced to dilute or to undermine much of the social importance of mosques.

Efforts to reform the mosque, especially to reinvigorate the pulpit, have pressed for change in both radical and moderate degrees, sponsored by both progressive and conservative movements. Among the most important results of this contestation has been the emergence of a novel dichotomous system of classification that recasts and updates the rapport between the mosque and society.

In general, most reformers have encouraged a return to an observance of Islamic ritual which they claim dispenses with innovations and conforms to the strict sharīʿah norms. But disagreements continue over how to adapt these ancient principles and practices concretely in today 's circumstances. One important effort, visible in many quarters, has sought to revitalize mosques through a more effective use of the Friday sermon. As a consequence, in recent decades, often spurred by liberation struggles or other national campaigns, attention to the Friday sermon has undergone a dramatic resurgence. The stilted rhetorical conventions and ossified language that had traditionally restricted the expressive range of this idiom have steadily given way to direct speech, creative innuendo, and editorial slant, increasingly spoken in the local vernacular rather than in classical Arabic. Amateur preachers of all sorts—enthusiasts, pedants, politicians, raconteurs, entertainers, ideologues, and polemicists—have moved in to rival the traditional ʿulamāʿ or to fill the vacuum, as mosques, in many places, have gained a new relevance. Likewise, new sources of religious discourse spread through other media, including the internet, finds a hearing and seeks an application through local mosques.

A striking illustration of this process appears in the explosion of mosque construction in Islamic lands and in the West. By some official figures, for example, the number of mosques in Egypt increased from sixteen thousand in 1954 to sixty thousand in 1986. Similarly, a recent comprehensive survey of the U.S. counts 1,209 mosques, 87 percent founded since 1970. Europe shows parallel developments, such as the decision of the Greek parliament, before the hosting of the 2004 Olympics, to allow a mosque to be build in Athens, for the first time since the early nineteenth century when Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Turks.

The Administration of Mosques.

Currently, in most parts of the Islamic world, mosques tend to fall into one of two broad categories, under government or under private sponsorship. In the case of a government mosque (masjid hukūmī), the buildings and staff are supported by state funds. Typically, the official prayer-leader (imam) who is also most likely the preacher (khatib), has received formal academic training in the Islamic sciences and has been assigned to his post by the Ministry of Religious Affairs or its equivalent. His job responsibilities and pay scale are listed and his performance is monitored in the manner of other government functionaries. Like clerks or specialists working under other ministries, such professional preachers are seen as interchangeable and a stylized career ladder ascends to larger and more prestigious postings.

A private mosque (masjid ahlī), by contrast, generally lacks government financial support. In some cases, this occurs because the mosque is small, remote, infrequently attended, or seen as inconsequential. But other private mosques value their independence and choose to reject the embrace of the official religious bureaucracy even when it is offered. This autonomy is prized mainly because it permits the mosque 's benefactor, or more normally its congregation, to set their own agenda and to select their own leaders, including a preacher. Among the most influential mosques of this variety are many which are affiliated with regional, national, or international voluntary associations, some large, some small, of a sort known in Arabic as a jamʿīyah khayrīyah, (charitable society), which often have missionary objectives.

The prototype for such associations emerged over a century ago, with variations in British India, inspired, for instance, by the Deoband movement, in Egypt, prompted by Salafī initiatives, and elsewhere. They arose largely in response to the effective elimination, under various reform agenda, of the system of religious endowments, known as waqf, that had traditionally provided the financial support for mosques. Today, a number of these private mosques attract sizable congregations and control extensive resources. Their preachers, who may include certified ʿulamāʿ as well as lay professionals can come into prominence as important social and sometimes political voices. In some cases, such private mosques, which are open to all who wish to pray there, have become rallying points for those seeking alternatives to the existing order. Some of these institutions have also served as the focal points for popular expression of dissent which some governments have, in turn, sought to curtail.

Given these developments, one might suggest that such private mosques appear to be recovering that intermediary position between the state and the individual, which today is often referred to as civil society. This is a function that approximates the social role that classical theory accorded to the ʿulamāʿ and popular piety entrusted to the saints and their representatives. Such mosques appear to accomplish this mission by maintaining a balance that avoids the extremes of a detached, inert ceremonialism on the one hand, and a tactical self-serving political competitiveness on the other. If the mosque is to function as a bridge between heaven and earth, between the high and the low, connecting the temporal and the eternal realms of experience, it can only do so by providing space for the enactment of sacred duties that recall a community of believers to its origin and its end.

See also Iqbal, MUHAMMAD; Ramadan; RITES OF PASSAGE; SAINTHOOD; and Sharīʿatī, ʿAlī]


  • Aghaie, Kamran Scot. The Martyrs of Karbala: Shiʿi Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran. Seattle, 2004. Detailed interpretation of the social and political significance of dramatizations of Imam Husayn 's martyrdom and the sermons that accompany them.
  • Antoun, Richard T.Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, N.J., 1989. Indispensable and pioneering source on the study of mosque preachers in the context of changing village societies.
  • Bagby, Ihsan, Paul Perl, and Bryan Froehle. The Mosque in America: A National Portrait. Washington D.C., 2001. A detailed report on the history, development, and demography of mosques and related institutions in America.
  • Gaffney, Patrick D.The Prophet 's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt. Berkeley, Calif., 1994. Thorough description and analysis of mosque preachers, particularly through sermons, in their social, cultural, and political context.
  • Gilsenan, Michael. Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion. Oxford, 1971. Insightful study of a recently founded and thriving urban Sūfī order.
  • Mahmutćehajić, Rusmir. The Mosque: The Heart of Submission. New York, 2006. Concise exploration of the spiritual significance of sacred space and its implications in a multicultural society.
  • Portoghesi, Paolo, Vittorio Gigliotti, and Sami Mousawi. La Moschea di Roma/The Mosque in Rome. Palermo, 1993. A bilingual exposition of Europe 's largest mosque, with an emphasis on its historical rationale and extraordinary architecture.
  • Ramadan, Tariq. Les Musulmans d ’Occident et l ’Avenir de l ’Islam. Arles, 2002. An essay on the faithful adaptation of Islamic social values and institutions to the realities of contemporary Western society.
  • Wardak, Ali. “The Mosque and Social Control in Edinburgh 's Muslim Community”Culture and Religion3 (2002): 201–219. An enlightening case study on the influence of mosque-based activities upon immigrant Muslim youth in a major European city.
  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton, N.J., 2002. Close review and assessment of recent ideological and institutional transformations of Islamic authority with an emphasis on South Asia.

Patrick D. Gaffney

The Mosque in Education

In addition to being a place where preaching and worship take place and where the community assembles, the mosque has been from the beginning a place of instruction in religion and its application in life. The Qurʿān speaks of religion as something that can be known and communicated with the help of reason. Muḥammad is said to have taught and answered questions in the mosque of Medina, and throughout Islamic history study of religion has been constantly encouraged.

Beginnings of Religious Education in Mosques.

The mosques that came into use after the Arab conquests were the natural places to learn about religion. On an elementary level this implied simply learning by heart verses from the Qurʿān and ḥādīths. Already at an early stage children were encouraged to memorize verses and passages of the Qurʿān, as they are still today. This tradition has spread to the kuttābs (Qurʿānic schools) everywhere in the Muslim world, which are found mostly in or beside mosques, even in regions where Arabic is not spoken. Likewise, up to the early twenty-first century, selections of famous ḥadīths are memorized and recited on numerous occasions.

On a less elementary level, mosques were also places of religious inquiry, discussion, and debate, and served as places for communal worship and assembly, private study, and meditation. In other words, the mosque was the place where the religious aspects of things could be investigated and where people could look for religious truth, norms, and rules and for religious guidance in the broader sense, all centered on the Qurʿān.

Out of this kind of service and function of the mosque, it became the custom in early times that those possessing knowledge of religion and recognized as such were free to communicate their knowledge and to teach if they found an audience. This no longer consisted merely of learning by heart but extended to teaching the meaning of Qurʿānic verses, ḥadīths that were not yet locally known, prescriptions as to how one should act in various life situations, and answers to doctrinal problems related to knowledge of God and revelation. This advanced religious teaching started in the mosques and led eventually to the development of the religious sciences.

Thus from the beginnings of Islam, mosques have functioned as centers of religious education, both in instruction (taʿlīm) and in building a moral personality in the student, who then becomes an integrated member of the community (tarbīyah). However mechanical and rational certain techniques may have been, this education created a communal sense and transmitted the basic truths by which the community distinguished itself from others. There was a close connection between what was held to be the true religion and the kind of education developed to transmit it. In Ṣūfī circles the learning process and education of the heart took place under the personal leadership of a murshid. The ʿulamāʿ would teach the rational study of scripture and law, which required in the first place a good memory and intelligence.

When Islam became institutionalized as a religion and its main prescriptions and doctrines had been fixed, knowledge of religion became more and more identified with knowledge of the Qurʿān and sunnah on one hand, and of the sharīʿah (religious law) on the other. Together with some less important disciplines, this became a corpus to be assimilated. To the construct of the religion corresponded a construct of knowledge of the religion, with particular ways of teaching and studying that were in part indebted to existing educational traditions in the Near East.

The gradual acceptance of a certain corpus of knowledge to be acquired, embodied in texts that had to be read, did not exclude variety. And variety there was: regional cultural centers of religious learning, each with its own local sunnah (tradition), and different schools of fiqh (jurisprudence) and kalām (scholastic theology). There were majority views and the opinions of dissidents: Shīʿīs possessing their own chains of authority (isnāds) and their own corpus of traditions (akhbār), their own kind of education, and their own mosques; Ẓāhirīs with their literal conception of texts and the study of texts; or Muʿtazilīs making extensive use of reason and Aristotelian logic. The Sunnī majority, recognizing the established caliphate, needed only to defend itself by asserting that its idea and practice of religion were in line with established tradition (sunnah). But the Shīʿī minorities had to justify intellectually their specific ideas and practices as different from those of the majority; they may have had from the beginning a greater interest in good education because they were a minority, though a tolerated one.

It was Fāṭimid Ismāʿīlīs in late-tenth-century Egypt who started to establish institutions for the education of their preachers and missionaries. Partly as a response to this, Sunnī authorities from the second half of the eleventh century promoted the establishment of Sunnī educational institutions (madrasahs) that assumed to a large extent the educational function of the mosques, at least beyond the primary level. These institutions, which quickly spread through the cultural centers of Islam, presented a coherent outlook on the world, humankind, and religion. At the time, the corpus of texts of authoritative religious knowledge according to the Sunnī perspective had been largely fixed, and religious education became more and more restricted to reading, learning, and explaining scripture, tradition, and texts according to authoritative commentaries. Hardly any new knowledge could be added, philosophy in the Sunnī institutions was largely reduced to the principles of Aristotelian logic, and the empirical disciplines, to the extent they were permitted, had only an auxiliary function with regard to the normative religious disciplines. Education in matters of religion, in both mosque and madrasah, had become the assimilation of knowledge essentially acquired in the past. Its aim was the simple transmission of religious truth known for a long time, to be inculcated into generation after generation of students.

Basically, this orientation of madrasah and mosque education continued until the independence of many Muslim countries around the middle of the twentieth century, when national governments reorganized traditional institutions of Sunnī religious education. In some countries, such as Turkey, the reorganization occurred earlier; in others, such as India and Pakistan, where private institutions have continued to exist, it was less thoroughgoing. On the whole, Shīʿī religious education paid more attention to philosophy; its institutions enjoyed more political and financial independence. The mosque continued to play an educational role when Muslims migrated to the West.

Education in Major Sunnī Mosques at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century.

This section will concentrate on some major Sunnī mosques and the education given there around the turn of the nineteenth century: the Great Mosques in Mecca and Medina, the Azhar Mosque in Cairo, the Zaytūnah in Tunis, and the Qarawīyīn in Fez. Other mosques where religion was taught, as in Damascus, Aleppo, Kazan, Bukhara, Lahore, and Delhi, did not differ fundamentally from these. Religious education also occurred in madrasahs (Sunnī and Shīʿī), Ṣūfī khānqāhs and zāwiyahs, and private associations founded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and concerned with the study of the Qurʿān and Islam generally; such institutions are outside the scope of this article.

The curriculum at these Sunnī mosques presupposed knowledge of classical Arabic, and further instruction in the language was given according to traditional patterns that made such study, in particular that of grammar, extremely difficult. Furthermore, a corpus of authoritative texts of the Islamic religious sciences (ʿulūm al-dīn), dating from the classical (medieval) period and offering that era 's view of Islam, had to be studied with the help of authoritative commentaries.

The teaching was offered by individual fuqahāʿ and ʿulamāʿ (shaykhs) to students who assembled in circles (ḥalaqāt) around them according to their own choice. After years of study with a particular shaykh a student could obtain a written statement (ijāzah) from him certifying that he had successfully studied certain texts with the teacher and was now allowed to teach these texts in his turn. Students might come from great distances in order to study in this way under highly reputed scholars; most students would come, however, from families living in the town or the surrounding countryside. In the teaching given at a particular mosque there was no coordination between the subjects actually taught, and there were no formal study programs, degrees, or diplomas other than the individual ijāzah.

The pedagogy applied was based on the absolute authority of scripture, tradition, and the other texts studied, as well as on the authority of the masters of the past and the teachers of the present; both kinds of authority had to be respected. Such pedagogy required both the mental assimilation of the texts studied by means of memorization (printed texts were not yet available) and the sharpening of intelligence by asking and answering questions in discussions with the teacher.

As a result, a vision of Islam, the world, and humanity was presented that was supposed to be universally valid beyond time and space. At least in mosque education, no knowledge was provided about nature, society, history, or geography, not to speak of Western languages. A kind of self-sufficiency or at least a feeling of superiority prevailed among both teachers and students, who were proud of not only possessing the absolute religion but also knowing it, which made self-criticism and dialogue with others difficult.

The economic basis of this mosque education consisted principally of the revenues from waqfs (charitable endowments) that had made possible the foundation and upkeep of the mosques, and also of gifts, donations, and legacies from wealthy people. Room and board for students was often provided in the same way, many students living in houses (riwāq) according to their regions of origin. At the time, the mosques were practically independent of political authorities and governments at large, although there were often close personal links between the shaykhs and prominent personalities of public life through commercial and marriage alliances. It was rare for shaykhs to protest against government politics; they rather supported the regime in place, which would be able to offer appointments to gifted students and further the careers of ambitious ʿulamāʿ. Although there was a basic solidarity among the ʿulamāʿ as a class, they had no independent religious organization to defend the interests of their profession and themselves; they had to rely instead on their social prestige among the population and the private wealth and influence of some members.

The social profile of the students was extremely broad. For many of them, coming from the countryside or the lower classes of the towns, mosque education cost hardly anything and was the only path to upward mobility. For sons of the urban upper classes and of the ʿulamāʿ themselves, this education gave access to important positions in the judiciary, state administration, and religious education itself. In a traditional Muslim society, mosque and madrasah provided the education needed to fill the existing “intellectual” positions in the overall socioreligious structure.

Educational Reform and the Waning of Mosque Education.

Several explanations may be advanced for the major changes that occurred in traditional mosque education between 1850 and 1950 and finally put an end to it. First, the modernist reform movement initiated by Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) in Egypt and Sayyid Aḥmad Khan (1817–1898) in India was stimulated largely by educational concerns. Muslim thought had to come to terms with modern knowledge and the problems of the modern world, and Muslim students had to be prepared to face it. It was thought that a reform of Islam on the basis of a new, rational interpretation of its main sources, Qurʿān and sunnah, would make this possible. Much more than traditionalist Muslims, the reform movement had a vision of education as an engine to propel Muslim societies out of the “backwardness” responsible for foreign domination. The call for the reform of education was readily adopted by students committed to the reform of society and to nationalist movements, social development, and justice. It was also taken up by students who realized that finding a job in the society to come would be more difficult for those who came from the traditional educational system than for graduates of the increasing number of institutions offering a modern education.

New government policies also had their impact on traditional mosque and madrasah education. Muḥammad ʿAlī Pasha in Egypt, Khayr al-Dīn in Tunisia, and some enlightened sultans in Istanbul not only took the initiative in founding new educational institutions on a higher level; they also tried to limit private waqfs and to exert some control over the traditional educational institutions. Most nationalist movements were highly critical of a kind of education that was a remnant of medieval times. Whereas most foreign colonial administrators were not allowed by their governments to meddle in the internal affairs of the Islamic institutions in the countries they ruled, the succeeding national and generally revolutionary governments could and did interfere with institutions sanctioned by traditional religion, like waqfs, mosques, and religious education. This was a natural consequence of the hard fact that, in order to survive, the newly independent countries needed to start planned economic development. To bring about the necessary changes, and for other reasons too, their societies were placed under complete governmental control. Moreover, in their efforts to modernize their countries the new nationalist governments reduced the spheres of influence of the traditional religious authorities, including those in education. Thinking along the same lines, such governments actively promoted modern educational institutions (including modern religious education) as opposed to the traditional ones. They also attempted to make the traditional educational institutions more functional, serving what they defined as society 's priorities.

Beyond the forces of Islamic reform and government policies, however, it was the changing economic and social structures of society that brought traditional mosque education to an end. Formerly, students could exhibit their ijāzahs and find decent jobs in the traditional society of the time. In modern society, graduates had to show diplomas and compete for jobs. Those coming from traditional education often lost the battle because of their poor pragmatic qualifications compared with those of graduates from modern institutions who could show degrees and diplomas. The once-dominant traditional religious views had lost their monopoly in the minds of the people, as nationalist and other secular ideologies offered themselves to the younger generation. Whereas the traditional mosque and madrasah education had been of great service to traditional Muslim societies, which were rather closed to the outside world, they lost relevance once these societies were broken open not only by the penetration of the colonial powers, foreign capital, and Western ideas, but also by the efforts of new leaders—secular nationalists, military revolutionaries, socialists, and technocrats—and the many influences Muslim countries have undergone since independence. Traditional mosque education stood in the way of these new forces.

As a consequence, with the exception of certain regions of the Indian Subcontinent, traditional mosque education at the beginning of the twenty-first century persists only on the elementary level, that of learning the Qurʿān. This may be in the form of the traditional Qurʿānic school (kuttāb) where children learn parts of the Qurʿān and certain ḥadīths by heart, in addition to learning how to read and write. Or it may be by listening to religious preaching or participating in study groups organized by mosques or other associations where adults receive instruction in Qurʿān and sunnah, no longer sitting in ḥalaqāt on the floor around the shaykh who leans against a pillar in the hall of the mosque, but now assembled in a room designed for the purpose under the roof of the mosque, provided with a library of printed books instead of the manuscripts found in the older mosques.

Religious education at higher levels has been mostly transferred to more or less modern Islamic universities. The Zaytūnah in Tunis finally became an Islamic university as did Qarawīyīn in Fez. In 1961 even the venerable mosque university al-Azhar of Cairo became an Islamic university endowed with a great number of faculties similar to those found at modern universities, distinguished only by having faculties of Islamic law (sharīʿah) and theology (uṣūl al-dīn), and also a women's faculty (kullīyat al-banāt). Al-Azhar also has an immense network of Islamic education on all levels throughout Egypt. In most Muslim countries, surviving madrasahs have been transformed into higher institutes for Islamic research or faculties of sharīʿah attached to universities.

In the course of the twentieth century, higher education in Islamic religion in its Sunnī version began to shift from the mosque to the university—the Arabic names of both institutions have the same root, j-m-ʿ, meaning “coming together.” Of course, the mosques still have an important educational function, but not on the level of formal education in the religious sciences of Islam. As a result of the increasing interest in Islamic studies in Muslim countries today, new Islamic universities, higher Islamic institutes, and faculties of Islamic religious studies and sharīʿah have been opened in many countries. Governments are attentive to how Islam is presented in these institutions, partly to counter interpretations of it that might be politically threatening.

Mosque Education and the Rise of Independent Muslim Schools.

Since the 1990s the publication of research on the subject of Muslim education suggests an evolving dialogue between the function and form of the mosque, especially in Europe and America. Newly constructed mosques allocate most of their resources to a prayer hall, especially for Friday prayer, and ancillary spaces for social gathering, such as classrooms for informal education. This type of plan is not limited to one function, enabling the congregants to define the use of their space in ways that extend beyond the primacy of worship. The mosque and madrasah at Dar al-Islam in Abiquiu, New Mexico, built circa 1980; the Islamic Institute of Roxbury, Massachusetts, substantially completed in 2007; and the plan for the Muslim Center of Miami, Florida, all illustrate this point. In these cases, a major part of the plan is set aside for educational use, which allows the building to fulfill a dual function.

The burgeoning scholarly debate about space and gender as they relate to the mosque is beyond the scope of the present article, but it is important to note the following example to draw attention briefly to the education of women. In China at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the mosque (qingzhen nusi; abbreviated as nusi) is retained as a space for the education of women. Hui Muslim women (Huijiaotu), have taken charge of religious practice and are mentored by a female teacher and religious leader (nu ahong). The nu ahong presides over a nusi, where instruction is given in religious praxis and spiritual meanings, and where women pray collectively.

In Europe and America since the 1990s the growing demand for Islamic education has given rise to independent Muslim schools. According to a 2008 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Mormons and Muslims are the groups with the largest families; more than one in five Mormon adults and 15 percent of Muslim adults in the U.S. have three or more children living at home.” The tremendous pressure to educate adolescents has spurred a growing interest in Muslim private school education. To establish a school the community must tackle a host of problems: securing funding, finding adequate classroom space and land on which to build, hiring qualified teachers, and establishing an educational program that meets the standards of pedagogy. The community must maintain psychological balance between “traditional” forms of education (dogma, worship, prayer, fasting, etc.) to safeguard Islamic practice on the one hand, and the legal curricular requirements of public education on the other. The failure of many public schools has added to the complexity of the problem, especially in urban areas where a significant number of Muslims reside.

The Sister Clara Muhammad schools, established in the 1970s to address these needs, provide full-time academic and Islamic teaching; at their inception, they served mostly African-Americans, but their pool of students has expanded to include immigrants as well. In New York City, two Sister Clara Muhammad schools have been operating since the early 1970s. Like these schools, which were named after the wife of the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, many Muslim schools are given the names of well-known figures in Muslim history, such al-Ghazālī, Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), and Averroës (Ibn Rushd). The Lycée Averroës in Lille, France, was granted permission to operate France 's first private institute of Islamic studies in 2003 by the city 's education authorities. Other schools adopt Arabic names that evoke goals and aspirations, such as truth (ḥaqq), piety (taqwā) and guidance (hudān).

According to the Council of Islamic Schools in North America, there are currently two hundred full-time schools, although the numbers may be much higher. In the United Kingdom, the government provides substantial funding for numerous schools of Christian, Jewish, or other faiths. State financing to Islamic schools that teach the core subjects of the national curriculum, however, is marginal compared to that provided to Christian and Jewish schools. In 2008 only seven Islamic schools in the U.K. received public financing, compared with thirty-six Jewish schools and about seven thousand Christian schools. Like most American Islamic schools, the bulk of the 140 Islamic schools in Britain charge tuition; at Leicester, for instance, tuition is $2,700 a year.

The obligation to educate second-generation immigrants remains paramount for Muslims who settle in the West, because this demographic is seen as the most vulnerable; it is feared that ignorance could easily result in a disastrous imbalance between faith and practice.

Recognizing the need to safeguard the tenets of faith and especially to monitor how these tenets affect behavior, communities have adopted a number of strategies. First, some have established weekend (mostly Sunday) and after-school programs with informal classes offered at the mosque. The curriculum in this instance is mostly related to memorizing the Qurʿān and the fundamentals of worship. We may include in this type of activity home schooling as well. Second, full-time Islamic high schools or secondary schools, accredited or not, provide a junior-level curriculum offering all the courses of a typical public school in addition to Islamic courses. Some of these programs also aim to prepare students for college. Finally, there are Islamic boarding schools, although these are not common.

Within these three types of programs the common objective is to educate young people to prepare them for life, to instill a sense of religious identity, to create a balanced personality with a firm commitment to the faith and its practice, and to help the student constructively acquire the skills that will allow him or her to contribute to society. In the junior and high schools the syllabus may follow an accredited system, as mandated by the state or official governing board, to ensure that all students conform to set standards and that teachers follow an approved curriculum. Independently run Muslim schools thus seek to meet standards and prepare students for higher education and professional fields of study.

Within the framework of mosque education the Muslim school plays a role that the mosque is unable to fulfill; that is, it takes up the civic obligation to contribute directly to the development of the student, whether through extracurricular activities or other means. It must not be forgotten that the object of Muslim education is to safeguard the principles that govern faith, practice, and belief, shaping the student 's sensibilities and giving rise to a “Muslim persona.”

A myriad of economic, social, and political factors have contributed to the rise of independently run Muslim schools. In Saudi Arabia, the Manarat Jeddah International Schools, for both girls and boys, provides private Islamic education for Arabic- as well as English-speaking students, many of whom are children of ex-patriate workers in the country. In general, full-time Muslim schools fulfill the need for a comprehensive education, because the perception is that Muslim schools embrace religious values and that their teachers deliver knowledge more accurately that a state- or government-run school. This perception persists despite the fact that Islamic education has been affected by the availability of qualified teachers and the cost of providing adequate remuneration, the cost of education, and the availability of space.

For some time, the Muslim Educational Trust in the U.K. and the Council on Islamic Education (CIE) have been actively engaged in a discourse on Muslim education. The former has published texts for schools in the U.K., as well as their “Syllabus and Guidelines for Islamic Teaching.” The CIE has led the campaign to provide assistance to American publishers of social-studies textbooks used in public schools. As a consultant, CIE has provided much-needed historical and educational materials for teachers of social studies and has also published a number of documents and curricular units for Muslim educators.



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Jacques Waardenburg

Updated by Akel Ismail Kahera

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