For historians of architecture and culture alike, the answer is gratifyingly simple. This is the Islamic building par excellence, and as such the key to Islamic architecture. Moreover, the medieval Muslim world, like medieval Europe, was a theocentric society, and the mosque was the natural expression of that society.
To examine its functions in detail therefore affords insights into the workings of medieval Islamic culture. For historians attuned to material culture as well as written evidence it is a primary source of the first order.
There are of course other and still more practical reasons for investigating the history of the mosque. This was the building type that by and large produced the finest structures in Islamic architecture; it was built to last, whereas many secular monuments tended to be richly decorated but of flimsy construction.
As a result, it has survived in larger quantities than any other type of medieval building. Indeed, the early period of Islamic architecture—from about to about A. It was the mosque that embodied the first timid Arab experiments in architecture and it was in the medium of the mosque above all that Muslim builders came to grips with their pre-Islamic architectural heritage.
As a result, this is the building type that most faithfully reflects—like the church in the Christian world—the impact of the many distinct local architectural traditions that together shaped Islamic architecture.
It seems appropriate to attempt a definition: The mosque is the principal religious building of Islam, and paramount among its many functions is communal prayer. In its simplest and most widespread form the medieval mosque comprised a courtyard bordered by arcades adjoining a covered hall.
Yet this definition, for all its deliberate inclusiveness, gives little idea of the nearly endless variety of forms and uses that characterized this most quintessentially Islamic building. Nor does space permit a reasonably detailed inventory of the significant mosque types and their functions.
It is imperative rather to distance oneself from this wealth of detail to better identify the immanent characteristics of the mosque and to appraise its unique role in Islamic culture. Minert of the Masjid-i Ali, Isfahan, Iran Accordingly this essay will focus less on close analysis of individual mosques than on how the genre expressed the perennial concerns of Islamic religious architecture.
These concerns, or underlying principles, governed and are reflected in the choice of component parts of mosque design and their interaction; the functions the mosque was called on to perform; the role of decoration; and finally all that contributes to the visual and aesthetic impact of this building type.
Mosque architecture is at base egalitarian, iconoclastic, inward-looking and above all profoundly religious in its intent.
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The latter aspect deserves particular emphasis because of the much-vaunted identity of the sacred and the secular in medieval Islamic society. This theory, a favorite construction of some trends in modern scholarship, is ideally as true of Islam as of Christianity.
It is, however, only a theory and a glance at common practice is enough to dispose of it.
To this day no one walking from the bustle of a bazaar to the serenity of a mosque can seriously doubt that Islam clearly distinguishes between the dues of Caesar and those of God. The architecture proclaims that very distinction. The believer takes his shoes off to enter a mosque, and that simple, homely action symbolizes the transition from the secular to the spiritual realm, just as the same action performed in a domestic context marks the transition from the public world to the private one.
In just the same way, the physical evidence contradicts another fashionable concept: In mosques provided with a courtyard—and such mosques predominate throughout the Islamic world—a clear visual distinction is drawn between the courtyard with its surrounding arcades and the larger covered space containing the mihrab, or prayer niche, which is always oriented toward Mecca.
Similarly, it is in this area that the principal architectural and liturgical elements of the mosque are concentrated: Finally, it is in the musalla that the most lavish ornament that the building can boast is to be found.
This is not to say that the mosque as a whole is not sacred. Nevertheless it implies that one part—the musalla—was accorded greater visual emphasis and status than the rest of the building. The origins of the mosque are surprisingly straightforward.
Islamic tradition champions the decisive impact of a single building on the evolution of the mosque—the house of the Prophet. Nor is this emphasis misplaced. The briefest acquaintance with Muslim liturgy is enough to explain why the places of worship employed by the other faiths of the time were fundamentally unsuitable for the needs of Islam.
Actually many churches and fire temples, and on occasion even port. It did, however, have its uses; indeed, several motives could account for these conversions. In newly Islam-ized territory the pressing need for a place of worship could not always be met as quickly as might be wished.
The advantages of using an already existing monument—convenience, low cost, suitable location, the saving of time and effort, and the less easily definable proselytizing, propaganda, and symbolic elements—outweighed the initial disadvantage of using an architectural form not designed to serve as a mosque.
Nevertheless, these disadvantages made themselves felt quickly. Christianity offers an instructive parallel case, except that from the beginning it was less flexible than Islam in its attitude toward places of worship.Why study the mosque? For historians of architecture and culture alike, the answer is gratifyingly simple.
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