The mosque has an important place in Muslims' lives. It is not only a symbol of their identity but also a refuge to protect them from evil. The Muslim community has always been attached to the mosque throughout history in some way or another. Wherever Muslims go, they search for a mosque to offer their prayers; if they fail to find one in the area where they live, they make an effort to build such as institution. This is an in-born tendency of the faithful, which finds expression whenever there is an opportunity.
Mosque's Significance as an Institution
Throughout Muslim history, the mosque has played a central role in the cultural and social life of Muslims as an institution. Although its role has undergone changes from the position it held during the Prophet's time, it still has a great impact on the life of Muslims, even today. The mosque, in certain respects, is different from the places of worship of other communities due, mainly, to its influence on each and every aspect of the Muslim society.
The Mosque was a center of almost all activities of the Muslims in the past. It used to be a place of worship, a center of education, a judicial court, and a government center for making political and administrative decisions. It assumed all these responsibilities for two reasons:
First, because the Prophet himself (peace and blessings be upon him) gave it a pivotal role in his life. This naturally led to his Companions and followers giving it the same recognition. It may be mentioned here that Muslims are commanded to follow the Prophet in every sphere of their lives because he is to them an ideal example of religious and spiritual practice.
Second, the mosque gained a special place due to a distinctive character of the Islamic faith, that is, Islam requires that its followers shape their lives on the principle of obedience to Allah. Furthermore, since worship in Islam is not an isolated act rather an integral part of one's whole life, the entire life of a Muslim must be based on a moral foundation and an ethical and moral standard that must be evident in every aspect of the daily existence of both the community and the individual.
It was, therefore, natural for the mosque as a symbol of morality and piety to become the center of all activities, coloring the social and material life of the community. The decline of that consciousness led eventually to the loss by Islam of its initial power; the power that enabled it to spread Islam from southern Spain to the subcontinent of India in the first century of the Islamic calendar (the 6th century of the Gregorian calendar).
Mosque as Educational Center
One of the most important roles of the mosque is that it serves as a center for educational activities. In fact, it was an educational institution from the beginning. All the Prophets were, in reality, teachers and educators, their foremost duty being to teach people the art of living a balanced, spiritual life; starting from performing ablution to deeper devotional and meditational practices.
In the early centuries of Islam, the mosque was an educational center where all forms of educational activities took place. The Qur'an was taught there and Qur'anic verses explained by the Prophet. The Companions used to memorize and record the sayings of the Prophet within the mosque. In one of the corners of the Prophet's mosque, there was a raised platform (In Arabic: suffah) that served as a central place of student activity for those interested to know about faith, worship, and other matters. It was mostly an informal method of teaching, but later on it was organized into a systemized method.
`Umar ibn Al Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) organized educational activities in the mosque as a state duty. A Muslim historian recorded the mosques as being full of students when `Umar sent teachers throughout the Muslim state in AH 17.
The third and fourth centuries of the Islamic calendar (the 8th and 9th centuries of the Gregorian calendar. presented a picture of glorious academic activities within and around mosques. Mosques then served as educational institutions for a long time; right up to the time when Islamic schools were established separately. However, mosques still retained their central importance as institutions for education. Grand mosques in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Nishapur, remained famous as centers of learning. Their success in spreading knowledge is evident from the following:
A man came to Abu Ad-Dardaa', a Companion of the Prophet in the Mosque of Damascus and said, "Oh Abu Ad-Dardaa', I have come to you from the town of the Messenger for [learning ] a hadith [from you] As I heard that you relate from Allah's Messenger. I have come for no other purpose." Abu- Ad-Dardaa' replied that he had heard Allah's Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) as saying:
"If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise; the angels will lower their wings from pleasure with one who seeks knowledge; and the inhabitants of the heavens and earth, and the fish in the depth of water will ask forgiveness for him.
The superiority of the learned man over the devout man is like that of a full moon in the night over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of Prophets. The Prophet left neither dinar nor dirham; they left knowledge only. Therefore, the person who receives knowledge receives a great trust." (Abu Dawud)
This had?th indicates that the Companion of the Prophet who transmitted it was sitting in the mosque and people were receiving knowledge from him when it was recorded. Hence, the mosque was an educational center.
With the development of schools of jurisprudence and theology, teachers of each school would select a corner of the mosque to lecture students. All types of subjects were taught in the mosque and all academic interests were served; even circles of poetry recital were organized there.
The Muslim educational system was separated from the mosque only when the colonial powers introduced their system of education to the Muslim world.