Elements of Mosque Architecture
The word "mosque" often brings to mind not this simple prayer space, but the ornately decorated monuments built by powerful Islamic rulers.
28 Nov 19 · 8 mins read
Elements of Mosque Architecture
The word “mosque” derives from the Arabic word “masjid” (same word used in Persian, Urdu and Turkish) which means “a place of prostration”, referring to the salat, the daily ritual prayer where Muslims kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground as a sign of submission to Allah (God). “Islam” literally means “submission”.
At its most basic sense, “mosque” can refer to any house or open area of prayer in Islam, which at the barest minimum, as described by Renata Holod in Mosques: Splendors of Islam (Rizzoli International Publications, 2017), requires only three things for worship: an area with clear boundaries, a mat or carpet for ground cover, and orientation towards the holy city of Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (p. 14). However, the word “mosque” often brings to mind not this simple prayer space, but the ornately decorated monuments built by powerful Islamic rulers.
In this article we will look at the evolution of mosque design and the essential elements of mosque architecture. This article is based on two chapters from Mosques: Splendors of Islam (Rizzoli International Publications, 2017) edited by Jai Imbrey: “Approaching the Mosque: Beginnings and Evolution” by Renata Holod and “Elements of the Mosque: Form and Adornment” by Fatima Quraishi and Matthew Saba. We also linked other resources throughout this post.
We will discuss mosque architecture in general, but will have a special focus on mosques in Iran. If you’re interested in Iran, you might want to read some of our other articles:
- Questions About Iran
- Tehran Through Time
- Safavids in Persia
- Beauty and Artistry in Iran: Persian Garden and Persian Mosaics
- History of Persian Carpets
- Persepolis in Iran, a famous place on any escorted small group tour
- Travelling in Iran – the history and monuments of ancient Persia
- Thirty must see places when visiting Iran
Evolution of Mosque Architecture
Muslims pray five times a day every day, with jum’ah or Friday noon prayer, as the most important prayer of the week. Most of the other prayers can take place anywhere (provided the aforementioned requirements for the prayer space is fulfilled), but the Friday prayer is held in the main mosque of a city, called the masjid jāmi (“Friday mosque”), where Muslims pray in congregation. According to Islamic scholar Rose S. Aslan, Muslim men are required to attend the community prayer as long as they are not travelling, while attendance is optional for women. (Whether women can even attend the Friday prayers in the mosque vary widely: they can’t in India, while they attend in large numbers in Iran. In North America, women even lead their own Friday prayer services.)
According to Fatima Quraishi and Matthew Saba, “While communal prayer is a fundamental tenet of Muslim worship, no religious texts specify the space and form of the house of worship” (Splendors, 2017, p. 22), which explains the wide range of mosque architecture and design.
It is believed that the first mosques were based on the House of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia, which simply featured an enclosed courtyard connected to a colonnaded hall. It contained elements–the qiblah wall and minbar–that served as antecedents of similar elements in later mosques. We will discuss these elements in greater detail later on.
One of the earliest surviving mosques is the Great Mosque of Kufa in what is now Iraq, built in the 7th century upon the order of the second caliph (who was once one of Muhammad’s chief advisers) Umar I. Caliph Umar also decreed that all masjid jāmi should be constructed like the mosque in Kufa, which had both an open and shaded space (Holod, 2017, p. 14).
In the 11th to 12th century, the Friday Mosque (Masjed-e Jāmé) of Isfahan, Iran which served as a prototype for later mosque designs throughout Central Asia, featured the four-iwan style, an elaboration on the Prophet’s early “courtyard mosque” design. An iwan is a vaulted portal or gate opening onto a courtyard. Iran’s 16th century Imam Mosque (also known as Shah Mosque or the Royal Mosque), considered an architectural masterpiece and a treasure of Islamic architecture, was built using this same design. (Consequently, in Isfahan, the Imam Mosque replaced the Friday Mosque as the site of the weekly Friday prayer service.)
Quraishi and Saba share two notable alternatives to the courtyard mosque layout:
- nine-bay mosque plan – featuring a square room with four columns arranged to divide the room into nine bays
- T-plan – featuring a central domed space leading into rooms on three sides, creating an inverted T shape when viewed from above; the T-plan is less common and more commonly found in the Anatolian region of Turkey
Mosques are often not standalone buildings, and are combined with other community structures, such as hospitals and madrasas (Islamic religious schools). In Lahore, Pakistan, mosques even house shops facing the road that provide income to support the upkeep of the mosque.
Mosque Architectural Elements
Domes and minarets serve as visual markers of a mosque, but they also mark sacred spaces (Quraishi and Saba, 2017, p. 25). The dome is often placed over the mosque’s central praying aisle, and the minaret is a tall tower adjacent to the mosque where the call to prayer (adhan) is announced five times a day, its high location allowing the call to prayer to be heard loud and clear throughout the town or city. The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, also in Isfahan, Iran, famously has no minaret as this mosque was built for the private use of the Shah and his family.
Iranian mosques also feature tile mosaic patterns as external (as well as internal) decoration. As we’ve written before, tiles were used for two primary reasons: to weatherproof clay bricks which would otherwise erode in the extreme conditions of the desert, and to ornament buildings.
Tile decoration has been used in Iran for millennia. The earliest examples of mosaic patterns come from the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, when artisans used coloured stones to create geometric patterns on temple columns at Ubaid. Tile decoration evolved from simple stones to actual fired and glazed brick during the Achaemenid Empire, as can be seen in the palace at Susa and the buildings in Persepolis. During the Islamic period of Iran, tiles were used to decorate mosques, leading to breathtaking and mesmerising wall and ceiling designs. Turquoise became a popular colour for glazed tiles starting in the 10th century.
Artisans began using the Moraq tiles (mosaic style) technique at the end of the Ilkhanid period (13th century), in which tile panels were created by cutting tiles of various colours based on a pattern, piecing the tiles together using liquid plaster as glue, and applying the whole hardened panel on the wall.
Mosques are also decorated with calligraphic inscriptions of passages from the Qur’an and aphorisms attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (p. 36). As most mosques are built by powerful rulers and patrons, mosques also often include statements regarding the date of the building’s dedication, the architect, and the name of the patron.
Water is also an important aspect of external mosque design, connected to the cleansing ritual of wudu, which prescribes that the Muslim faithful must wash parts of the body–often the hands, mouth, head, and feet–in preparation for prayer and before handling the Qur’an. You will often find fountains or pools outside a mosque, though some are placed purely for decorative or symbolic purposes, as the actual ablutions are done somewhere else in the mosque.
We’ve mentioned the qibla wall and minbar earlier. Qibla is the orientation towards Mecca, and the qibla wall is the wall in a mosque that faces Mecca. It is also the wall that holds the mihrab, a semicircular niche often gilded or ornately decorated that further helps orient worshippers in the correct direction to face when praying. The mihrab, according to Quraishi and Saba, may have also “served to mark the place where the Prophet had stood before the congregation” (p. 28).
The minbar is a raised platform, perhaps comparable to the Christian pulpit, located to the right of the mihrab and where the imam stands to lead the prayer and give his sermon. This internal element was added in 628 so the Prophet can be seen above the crowd.
In some mosques, especially royal mosques, there is a demarcated area closest to the mihrab called the maqsura, which is reserved for rulers and their retinue. In India, sultans even have their own enclosed space called the muluk khana (king’s chamber), which “privileged royalty but also provided a secure environment” when the royals are out in public (p. 30).
Lamps, delicately decorated and sometimes also inscribed with passages from the Qur’an and the name of its patron, are also commonly seen inside mosques, as well as treasured copies of the Qur’an (p. 30).
As the Muslim prayer requires repeated standing and prostration, mosques do not have elaborate furnishings (such as pews in a Christian church) and privilege the open space.
Travel to Iran with Odyssey Traveller
This article is written as a backgrounder for a tour of Iran. Our escorted small group tours are perfect for mature travellers with an active mind, seeking to learn about one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
Discover the fascinating history and culture Iran has to offer on our Iran Culture and History small group Iranian tour. This 17-day Iran travel tour focuses on the west of Iran, taking in key destinations. On this amazing travel experience, we will learn about the history of Iran, take in the breathtaking landscapes, and sample authentic Persian cuisine.
Our trip to Iran begins and ends in Tehran, the modern capital of this ancient civilisation. We then travel to nine destinations within the country, taking in many of Iran’s world heritage sites. An important stop is Isfahan, once a major city on the Silk Road and the location of the grand mosques we mentioned in this article.
We will view the lavish Golestan Palace, home of the Qajars and originally built in the Safavid era, which exhibits the wealth and extravagance of the Persian monarchy. Another UNESCO-listed site is Pasargadae, where Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, is entombed. We will also visit Persepolis, founded by Darius I in 518 BCE. Persepolis, the capital built by the Achaemenid kings, is located about 60 kilometres northeast of Shiraz. It was built on an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace. The importance and quality of the monumental ruins make it a unique archaeological site.
If you want to learn more about mosque architecture beyond Iran, join our 29-day fully escorted small group Silk Road tours which take you on a journey across the Eurasian steppe, tracing the ancient trade routes collectively known as the Silk Road.
Odyssey Traveller’s Ancient Turkey escorted small group history tour visits some of the most spectacular, varied, and historically important sites in the ancient world. We begin and end in the “city of Islam”, Istanbul, where east meets the west on the Bosporus.
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