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FEATURED ARTICLE: The Mosque (part 1 of 2): More than a Place of Prayer

 

Mosque01.jpgThe mosque or the building that Muslims refer to as
the masjid is a familiar sight in most parts of the world.  No matter
what country or era, the mosque is built in it is always renowned for its
unique architecture and noble ambiance.  In addition due to the sweeping nature
of globalization most people know that the mosque is a house of worship; the
place where the Muslim faithful offer prayer.  But the mosque is much more than
that.  From the beginning it always fulfilled many needs and God willing it
will continue to do so until the end of time as we know it.

An orientalist, and strong evangelical Christian, Scottish
colonial administer Sir William Muir (1819 1905CE) was for many years the West’s
leading scholar of Islam despite the fact that he was negative and critical of
Islam.  However in his book, published in 1852, The Life of Mahomet, he described
the role of the mosque in Muslim society quite brilliantly.  From the
description, even from a man such as this, we are able to see that the mosque
was always meant to be more than a place of prayer.

“Though crude in material, and insignificant in
dimensions, the Mosque of Muhammad is glorious in the history of Islam.  Here,
the Prophet and his Companions spent most of their time; here, the daily
service, with its oft-recurring prayers was first publicly established; and
here, the great congregation assembled every Friday, listening with reverence
and awe to messages from Heaven.  Here, the Prophet planned his victories; here
he received embassies from vanquished and contrite tribes; and from hence
issued edicts… “[1]

 In 622 CE, immediately after the migration from Mecca
to Medina, the Muslims built the ‘Prophet’s Mosque’, and the Prophet himself participated
in its construction.   From that moment the mosque became a focal point of any
Islamic city.   It became a place of worship, a meeting place, an educational
institute, a place of social activities and a place of rest.  The mosque became
the centre of ritual, social, political and cultural life.  There is however
one function the mosque does not fulfil – it is forbidden to engage in business
or trading transactions within the mosque confines.

Although business could not be conducted in the mosque,
towns and villages complete with markets and merchants would often be built
around the mosque.  This was due to the mosque being the centre of daily life. 
Prayers were conducted five times a day and the local people would hear the
latest news both through the sermons and groups that gathered in and outside
the mosque. 

Throughout the history of Islam the mosque has played a
major role in the spread of Islam and the education of the Muslims.  Wherever
Islam took hold, mosques were established and basic education began.  Mosques
taught the people (men, women, boys and girls) not only to recite the Quran and
understand Islamic rulings but to read, write and form opinions and debate.  Education
via the mosques follows the tradition established by Prophet Muhammad.  The Prophet’s
Mosque was a school and a hostel for the poor and wayfarers.

“In scarcely any other culture has the literary life
played such a role as in Islam.  Learning (ilm), by which is meant the whole
world of the intellect, engaged the interest of Muslims more than anything… The
life that evolved in the mosques spread outward to put its mark upon influential
circles everywhere.”[2]

In 859CE a university was established in the Qarawiyin
Mosque in the city of Fes Morocco.  It is considered by many to
be the oldest university in the world.  There were three separate libraries
containing books on subjects such as religion, science, intellect, and languages. 
The mosque conducted classes in various subjects including grammar, rhetoric,
logic, mathematics, and astronomy and quite possibly history, geography
and chemistry.[3]

Not only were mosques the perfect location for education,
they also housed the Islamic court system.  Judges and jurists would meet the
daily legal needs of the community as well as delivered legal opinions, and conducted
research.  Due to very little bureaucracy, the court system was efficient and
for the most part plaintiffs and defendants represented themselves.  Legal
interpretation was left up to the judge who would strive to make decisions
based on the Quran and the authentic Sunnah.   Once again Morocco’s
al-Qarawiyin Mosque is a perfect example of a mosque being the centre of life
and learning, so too is Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque that continues to this day to
exert an influence over the daily life of Egyptians.

In many places throughout the rapidly expanding Muslim
world the mosque became the source of water.  Islam requires believers to
perform ritual washing before prayer thus the mosque courtyard has
traditionally contained water fountains.  The decorative effect of water became
central to Islamic architecture thus intricate and decorative pools and fountains
can be found across the Islamic world and Andalusia.  The Sultan Ahmed mosque
in Istanbul Turkey and the Mosque of Cordoba in Spain contain splendid examples
of the decorative effect of water.  Wells and fountains in mosques cleanse the
body and cool the air and in times past supplied water to the local community.

The mosque is the cornerstone of the Muslim community.  They
were rarely used as places solely for prayer but served as community centres.   People
went to the mosque for education both religious and secular, to settle disputes
and visit the library.  They went to the mosque to pray, and to rest in secure
and quiet gardens and buildings.  Mosques were places of rest for the poor and
destitute.  Mosques traditionally distributed food and clothing to the needy.  They
taught countless generations how to read and memorise the Quran and other
Islamic sciences.  The mosque was the meeting place and the source of news in
times of trouble and strife.  In short the mosque was the centre of the Muslim
society.

Do mosques still perform these functions? What is the
role of the mosque in the 21st century?  We will answer these
questions and more in part 2.


Footnotes:

[1] The
life of Mahomet from original sources
2nd abridged one-volume ed.  1878,
624 pp.  London: Smith, Elder, Co.  P177

[2]
J Pedersen: The Arabic Book, Tr.  Geoffrey
French, Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey, 1984.

[3] http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/education-islam-role-mosque

 

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