Mosque: Architectural Aspects


The mosque (from the Arabic masjid, meaning "place of prostrations") has been the place of congregational prayerfor Muslims since the formation of Islam in 622 CE. It takes on numerous regional styles and varies greatly in size from that of the congregational Friday mosque, called in Arabic masjid al-jamīʿ, in Persian and Urdu (masjid al-jumʿah), or in Turkish (ulu çami), to a simple oratory (masjid), to an outdoor space for large assemblies (musalla) for special times such as Eid festivals.

Formal ritual prayer (ṣalāt)—a sequence of standing, kneeling, and prostration—is one of the "pillars" of Islam. Muslims often pray alone, but the ummah, the community of believers, is basic to the mosque. Since Islam does not distinguish between the spiritual and the secular, the mosque is a center for both. It is the emblematic building of Islam.

For a Muslim the building of a mosque is a pious act. The prophet Muḥammad said, "whoever builds for Allāh a mosque, seeking by it Allāh's grace, Allāh will build for him a house in paradise" (related by al-Bukhārī and Muslim). Most mosquesare endowed through the creation of a pious trust or waqf established by the mosque's builder. In most Muslim countries the state has by now taken over many of the trusts, usually with a ministry of awqāf to manage the properties.

All mosques are places of worship, but they are not sacred or consecrated spaces. In the Qurʾān the word masjid, although used many times, is applied only to three specific buildings (usually considered sacred), the most holy place being the Kaʿbah in Mecca and its surrounding mosque, al-Masjid al-ḥaram. It is, according to the Qurʾān, "the very first house of prayer established for humanity.… The place where Abraham stood.…" (Qurʾān III: 95–97). The other places are the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem with the Al-Aqsa Mosque (built originally in 715, in its present form around 1350) and the Mosque of Quba in Medina built by the Prophet himself.

The mosque also often incorporates a variety of other functions. Most common is a madrasah, or religious school, and small library, a soup kitchen to feed the poor, and a medical facility. Often there may be a public drinking fountain or well. Sometimes there is a shrine to a saint or ruler, but the dead are usually buried elsewhere. Graveyards adjacent to mosques do occur, notably in Eastern Europe. In urban areas shops often form the periphery of the mosque and subsidize the expenses of the facility.


Architectural elements of the mosque are not prescribed except for the requirement that worshipers pray facing Mecca, the spiritual center of the Islamic world, and that the surface they pray on be clean. Worshipers pray in straight rows, generally making the prayer space wide and shallow. Islam has two main sects, the Sunnī (around 90 percent of Muslims worldwide) and the Shīʿah, but their mosques are generally architecturally indistinguishable. The most apparent differences lie in the choice of Qurʾanic verses that are displayed in the building.

The direction of Mecca in the prayer hall or space itself is denoted by a qiblah wall and niche (miḥrāb). The qiblahmay be simply marked by a line on the sand or can be part of a building. The miḥrāb is usually outlined and embellished with calligraphy from Qurʾanic passages. The imām, who leads the prayers, stands by the miḥrāb in front of the congregation.

A pool, fountain, or simply running water for ritual cleansing (ablutions) before praying is usually provided, as are prayer mats to maintain the cleanliness of the floor surface and define individual areas. Worshipers often bring their own rugs to the mosque. Indeed, the prayer hall of the mosque can be regarded as a modular space based on the dimensions of a prayer mat.

The minaret or minar (from minara, or lighthouse) is usually a tower from which the muezzin (muʾadhdhān), a specially delegated person, gives the call to prayer (adhān). Traditionally the human voice has carried the adhān, but in contemporary times the voice is amplified by loudspeakers to rise above the general cacophony of the city. The minaret also acts as a visual marker for the mosque.

Other physical elements commonly used are the entrance portal marking the transition into the mosque from the outside world, the circular dome, an abstraction of the heavens, and the courtyard (sahn), also used as an overflow prayer space. In a large mosque, there is often a dikka, or raised platform, on which one person or a small group of worshipers transmit the imām's postures to those unable to see or hear the imām himself.

Inside the mosque adjacent to the miḥrāb is the mimbar, or pulpit, from which the sermon is delivered after the Friday prayers. It consists of a movable platform with steps, usually made of elaborately carved wood.

Islamic civilization has made significant contributions to architecture. One is the use of two- and three-dimensional geometry at all scales, which not only organizes space but also imparts symbolic meanings. The three-dimensionalmuqarnas, the so-called stalactite form, is unique to Islam. This device is usually used as a transitional element between two surfaces (for example, at a corner) and acts to "dematerialize" space. Calligraphy, the word of God expressed in written form, is another important contribution. Such texts on buildings—epigraphy—signal the presence of Islam and add beauty and complexity to surfaces. Gardens have always been important reminders to Muslims to be stewards of the earth. They follow geometric principles of design and scientific and engineering principles dealing with sustainability and nature, for example, in the recycling of water. Water features are present in almost all gardens, seen as places of pleasure and individual contemplation, but gardens do not occur frequently in mosques.


Each region of the Islamic world combines these elements to express a local architecture in which vernacular and historic traditions are distinguished. Architecturally, the mosque may be divided into five main types corresponding to historical and regional manifestations.

The first type, the hypostyle mosque, originated in the Arabian Peninsula. It also occurs elsewhere, with varied form and construction materials. The mosque consists of a rectangular hypostyle, or many-columned covered hall, usually in wood and earth block or brick, with a flat roof. It is perhaps the most ancient construction method. One enters first into an enclosed courtyard with its ablutions facility, then into the hall from the side opposite the qiblah wall. A single square minaret with an internal staircase rises above the building. The hypostyle mosque was the most dominant form from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries and has not significantly altered over the ages. Its model was the Mosque of the Prophet—the Masjid an-Nabi—which as far as we can tell started off as the Prophet's house in Medina, a simple courtyard with rooms on two sides. In 707 CE the caliph al-Walid replaced it with a new building with minarets added as visual markers or to carry the adhān. Because of its symbolic importance, it has expanded over the centuries to accommodate the multitudes that pray in it, until today the early mosque is unrecognizable.

The Umayyad Great Mosque (715) in Damascus encompasses the former Church of St. John, itself built on the site of a Roman temple. The Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain (786–990), has elegant double-horseshoe arches, into which a cathedral was inserted in the sixteenth century. Other prominent examples of hypostyle mosques include the Mosque of Ibn Tulun (879) in Cairo, and the Kutubiyya (twelfth century) in Marrakech, Morocco.

A different hypostyle earth building tradition is found in Northern Africa, especially in Sudan, and was transmitted by Muslim Arab traders across the African continent to the western sub-Saharan region. Commonly referred to as the Hausa-Fulani tradition, it combines the use of the hypostyle hall with buttressed walls and towers to produce a vernacular common to both monumental and rural buildings. Mosques incorporate older African symbols, such as ancestor pillar fertility symbols and tops covered in ostrich eggs for strength. Construction methods use reinforcing stick scaffolding that remains embedded in the structure. It is a living tradition, which makes these mosques difficult to date. The present building of the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali was built in 1909, although the mosque is much older. A recent earth mosque in Yaama (1962–1982), Niger, uses the same architectural language and appears to be timeless.

There are two interesting exceptions in Africa. In East Africa, where Islam was brought from India and Oman and rooted itself in the coastal area, there is Indian-inspired mosque architecture. The second is the Afro-Brazilian mosque, so named for West African slaves in Brazil who worked as church builders. In the late nineteenth century they returned to Niger and surrounding countries, where they produced mosques that are clearly Portuguese Catholic baroque. Local people regard them as traditionally Islamic.

The next type is the mosque with four iwans, which occurs mainly in Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, developed from the indigenous Iranian building used for houses, madrasahs, and caravansaries. In Iran the traditional vault-and-dome building was used to develop iwans, or vaulted open porches, encompassed by a giant portal (pishtaq) arranged around a central courtyard. Off one iwan is the prayer hall. The local tile-making techniques transferred from China produced blue-and-white ceramics to cover the important entrance portals and the miḥrāb. Epigraphy attained artistic heights.

The iwan mosque coalesced during the Seljuk dynasty (1038–1194) and penetrated Egypt under the rule of Salah ad-Din (Saladin) and his Ayyūbid dynasty (1171–1250). Under the patronage of Mamlūk sultans (1250–1517) elaborate mosque complexes marked the power and wealth of the rulers. The Tilakari Mosque-Madrasah (1660) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, is a fine example of this style, but the pinnacle of perfection is the Masjid-i Shah (1637) in Isfahan, Iran. This type remained in the architecture of the region and was also transmitted to Central Asia and India, where it was transformed.

The third type is the Indian mosque, fully developed by the Imperial Moguls (1526–1828). It is characterized by a wide rectangular prayer hall covered with triple domes, a courtyard with a pool of water surrounded by colonnades, and a monumental entrance. Building material in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent was mainly brick, and construction techniques and decorative schemes combined the Persian and Hindu traditions. Mosques varied in scale from the small Moti (Pearl) Masjid of 1662 in the Delhi Red Fort to the magnificent large Badshahi Mosque (1674) in Lahore.

The Ottomans (1281–1922) in Anatolia developed in the sixteenth century the fourth type, the central domed mosque, that has become the dominant model for contemporary architecture. It is characterized by a large central domed space without columns. It places pencil-thin minarets at the building's corners. The origins of this form lie in the Byzantine centralized basilica plan of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (then Constantinople). It was taken to unprecedented heights by the great architect Sinan in the Sulemaniye Complex (1557) in Edirne, and in the picturesque Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque (early seventeenth century) of Istanbul, designed by his disciple Mehemet Agha. Both the courtyard and prayer hall are square in plan, with the courtyard open to the sky and surrounded by domed porches.

The same typology occurs again in Indonesia and Malaysia, where there is essentially a unified central space but in a very different style and in wood construction. Islam spread via the sea routes to Southeast Asia in the eighteenth century. The buildings in this region retained their own traditional forms based on the Javanese pavilion with its central two- to five-tiered pyramidal roof. The structure of the main hall is supported by four columns (saka-guru), with the roof covered with either wood shingles or clay tiles. The ablutions space is usually housed in a separate pavilion. The minaret, when present, is a freestanding structure, made usually of brick. The complex is often surrounded by a compound wall. Mosques throughout the archipelago adhere to this model, with variations such as elevation onto stilts. A good example is the Masjid Agung (1474) in Demak, Central Java, the oldest extant mosque in the region. Until the nineteenth century Javanese mosques were often not oriented toward Mecca but retained the culturally auspicious east-west axis: this, however, has changed. Minarets too, perhaps to be more normative, are now commonplace. (However, some of the coastal towns reveal clearly their Indian antecedents.)

The last type is the Chinese pavilion mosque, developed using architecture associated with Chinese culture. (The exception is the western Xinjiang region, where wood and brick building traditions of Central Asia prevail.) The first Muslims appeared in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907) and soon began building with indigenous Chinese architecture. The Chinese mosque employs the traditional pitched roof form with upturned ends, a timber structure, and a rectangular columnar prayer hall. As in Southeast Asia, the complex consists of independent structures, eachhousing a different function. Even the gateway and the minaret are separate structures. The minaret is a square to octagonal several-tiered pagoda. The mosque form is essentially indistinguishable from other public buildings. The surrounding high wall encloses Chinese gardens, where the transition between one area and another is marked by traditional Chinese moon gates. The most famous example of this type is the Great Mosque of Xian (eighth century, in present form from 1392). It has a minaret-pagoda, a series of pavilions and gardens, and a qiblah wall with a very ornate miḥrāb made of wood. Another example is the Niu Jie (Ox Street) Mosque (1362) in Beijing. Islam adapted the techniques and meaning of local architecture while bringing in new elements.


The contemporary mosque often expresses the identity of its users—especially true where Muslims are in the minority. There are three streams of design—the vernacular, historic, and modern.

A fine mud-brick mosque was designed in the vernacular mode by Hassan Fathy at New Gourna (1948) near Luxor in Egypt as an alternative to the pan-Islamic modern architecture.

Perhaps the greatest recent historicist mosque is the Hassan II Mosque (1993) in Casablanca, Morocco. It is the largest contemporary mosque in the world, built on the edge of the city on reclaimed land. The location was inspired by the verse from the Qurʾān that states: "the throne of God lies on the water" (Qurʾān XI: 7). It uses forms of twelfth-century Moroccan architecture, scaled up several times, in a very ornate structure. Its 650-foot-tall minaret has a laser beam projecting twenty miles in the direction of Mecca. The prayer hall can accommodate 25,000 worshipers. The structure's center acts as a courtyard when the roof slides open. There are some rather fantastic features, such as a swimming pool and the most elaborate ablutions facility anywhere. The craftsmanship of the whole complex reflects some extraordinary features. It is a modern building in the guise of tradition.

Contemporary mosques that proclaim modernity together with Islam can be found worldwide. The Shah Faisal Mosque (1970–1986) in Islamabad, Pakistan, was conceived as a national mosque to reflect the then progressive modern state. The Sherefuddin Mosque (1980) in Visoko, Bosnia, is uncompromisingly modern, and the Manhattan Islamic Center Mosque (1991) in New York skillfully abstracts the Ottoman mosque.

The way in which architecture reflects society is observed in the spaces designated for women's prayer. Usually 10 to 15 percent of the prayer area is demarcated for women, in a balcony or to the sides, separated from the men. One mosque that places women in a central location is in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Perhaps this was due to the fact that women were on the mosque building committee—itself a rare occurrence—and that the community is formed of a liberal university population. In their debate over the physical position for women, some one hundred letters were written to imāms all over the world to get their opinions. There was no consensus and the community had to make its own decision.

Women in many countries attend mosque for prayer but also for educational and social functions. In Europe and the United States, women and children are increasingly frequenting mosques, where the use of the complex is changing. This may affect the design of mosques, which have usually been centers for men.

Mosque design is undergoing a "globalizing" influence in terms of using elements thought to be normative. Indeed, a dome on a mosque built in 2000 in Shanghai, China, is used only as a sign. It has no relationship whatsoever to the building's structure or interior spaces—it merely sits atop the flat roof. In Indonesia, ready-made tin domes sold along the sides of roads are replacing the indigenous pyramidal roof. It is the dome and the minaret that have become the desirable symbols for the mosque, leading to the neglect of regional architectural traditions. Largely because of the current influence of the Arab Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, such elements become the expression of an Islam that tries to be universal.

The architecture of the mosque is not just about design and place making. Its importance lies also in the collective meanings it transmits over time. To understand mosques is to understand the architecture of the region and place, and even more significantly, the culture to which it belongs. The mosque reflects the pluralism of Islam while remaining unchanged in its ritualistic aspects. Modernity and internationalism with their own tenets have created new mosque styles, but in the main mosques today continue to emulate either vernacular or historicist models in order to give them legitimacy and instant recognition in the eyes of a global ummah- community.


Brend, Barbara. Islamic Art. Cambridge, Mass., 1991. A good overall introduction to the field.

Davidson, Cynthia, ed. Architecture beyond Architecture. London, 1995.

Frishman, Martin, and Hasan-Uddin Khan, eds. The Mosque: History, Architectural Development and Regional Diversity. London and New York, 1994. An important collection of essays by prominent scholars arranged in part thematically and in part by coverage of mosques by region.

Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven, Conn., 1973. An analytical study by a prominent scholar and historian of art, with an essay on the mosque.

Holod, Renata, and Hasan-Uddin Khan. The Contemporary Mosque: Architects, Clients, and Designs Since the 1950s. New York, 1997. Coverage of new mosques worldwide divided by who commissioned the project.

Michell, George, ed. Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning. London and New York, 1978. A collection of essays on various building types, with a useful appendix cataloging key monuments.


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