Many people are curious about what a mosque looks like from the inside or wonder about its unique features and purposes. If you’re one of them, I have the answers to all your questions.
Growing up in a Muslim society and being a Muslim myself, I can explain everything you need to know and give you a little crash course about mosques.
All mosques are different and come in all sorts of architectural designs, layouts, and sizes. Yet, all mosques have some main features in common.
Here are the common features of mosques:
- qubba -a dome roof
- minaret – a tower from which the Muslims are called to prayer
- mihrab a prayer niche indicating the prayer direction to the Kaaba in Mecca
- an ablution area, a prayer hall, and
- sahn – a courtyard ().
These are the most vital and typical aspects from which a mosque can be easily distinguished, but many more details are found in a mosque.
If you’re interested in finding out what those other features are, keep reading and become an insider.
What is a mosque, and why is it important?
A mosque is a place of worship in the Islamic faith and holds great significance in Muslim society. Out of all Islamic institutions, the mosque is the essential place of public expression of religiosity.
The word mosque evolved from the Arabic word “masjid” meaning “place of ritual prostration”.
Mosques are buildings with usually large open spaces specifically designed and built for the worship of Allah (the Arabic word for “God”).
First and foremost, Mosques serve as a place of worship to offer prayers. Muslims can pray wherever they want unless it’s a clean place.
Yet, mosques give Muslims a sense of community and hold great significance in Islam in general.
Mosques have shown great importance ever since the beginning of Islam as they are also gathering places of Islamic society.
If you look back at history, mosques have also served as religious schools, courts of law, and centers of authority for the Muslim community.
Even now, in modern days, mosques have preserved their role as centers of religious education and information.
Other than that, they serve as a place for social welfare, events during the Holy month of Ramadan, and resolving arguments under Islamic teachings.
What are the key features of a mosque?
With 1.9 billion Muslims in the world, mosques come in a great variety of designs. However, there are several key features you can easily point out within each of them.
Domes, minarets, courtyards, and gardens are the external features of a mosque.
The moment you look at a mosque, you may notice one of its most dominant external features, its dome-shaped roof.
The roof is what you call “Qubba” in Arabic. It is located above the prayer hall and fulfills many functions, especially in hot countries.
This dome structure circulates cool air through the mosque preventing sweating and dehydration among the worshippers.
Dome also lowers the humidity level, which can cause people to feel unwell and distract them from praying peacefully.
Furthermore, a dome-shaped roof amplifies the Imam’s voice (religious leader in prayer) during prayers and Islamic lectures. This makes it easy for people sitting in the back to hear whatever is recited or said.
Depending on the mosque’s size, mosques have at least one minaret, also called “Minar” in Arabic.
A minaret is a large tower from which the faithful are called to prayer by a Muezzin (the person who calls to prayer).
This prayer call is known as Adhaan and is held 5 times a day, one for each prayer time.
By the way, the world’s tallest minaret is the minaret of Djamaa el Djazaïr in Algiers, Algeria, which stands at an incredible height of 265 meters (870 ft).
Many mosques feature a courtyard or “Sahn, “ usually adjoined to the prayer hall. These courtyards are in the open air, usually surrounded by an arcade on its sides, and often adorned with fountains.
They act as an additional prayer space as mosques get quite crowded, especially for the Friday prayer or during the Holy month of Ramadan.
Moreover, there is often an additional ablution area besides the one inside the mosque.
Some mosques include beautiful gardens surrounding them.
While gardens beautify the mosque and provide shade during summer, they also transition from the busy worldly life to a calm and peaceful prayer space.
Such beautiful gardens are also meant to remind the gardens of paradise.
The internal features of a mosque are a prayer hall, Qibla wall, Mihrab, prayer rugs, and ablution area.
1. Prayer hall
The prayer hall is a large and open prayer area where Muslims come to offer their prayers, whether 5 times a day, for Friday prayers, or any other congregational prayers.
The hall is a place of prostration where Muslims may join together and pray, recite the Quran, or listen to sermons and lectures given by the Imam.
2. Qibla wall and Mihrab
Qibla wall or prayer wall indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Every Muslim in the world, wherever he lives, prays in this direction during prayer. The Qibla wall can be recognized by the Mihrab.
Every Qibla wall has a niche in it. This niche is called Mihrab and shows the direction of the Kaaba – the prayer direction for Muslims and Islam’s most holiest site.
The Minbar is a pulpit with a staircase from which the Imam (mosque’s religious leader) delivers a sermon or speaks to the congregation.
Such elevated platforms make it easier for the Imam to reach the whole congregation and symbolize authority.
4. Prayer rugs
Islam is a religion that emphasizes purity and cleanliness, which is why prayer rugs are laid throughout the prayer hall.
Rugs offer a protective layer between the worshiper and the ground and protect from anything that is polluting. Rugs also serve as a mindset for the occasion of prayer.
However, it is also quite common for prayer halls to be completely tiled, especially in hot, humid countries.
Natural stones like marble, granite, travertine, and slate are often used in mosque floorings to keep the area cool.
5. Ablution area
Muslims pray 5 times a day with a mandatory ablution before prayer.
For this reason, every mosque has an ablution area where Muslims can come and perform this washing ritual called “Wudhu”.
An ablution area consists of water faucets, seats, and other spaces to ensure the user can comfortably perform Wudhu. This area can be inside or outside of the mosque, or both.
Other typical characteristics of a mosque
Besides a mosque’s main features, there are some other common characteristics you can see in mosques from all around the world. Let’s take a look at them.
1. Arabesque Art
Mosques are an important symbol of Islam and reflect how Muslims view the spiritual realm and the universe in general.
The Prophet Muhammad said: “Allah is beautiful, and he loves beauty.”
This narration gives a strong answer to why mosques are made so beautifully and decorated with arabesque art.
Whether it’s the interior or exterior, you will find all sorts of Islamic art, including interwoven vines, leaves, and flowers, symmetrical, infinite patterns, abstract motifs, ornaments, and beautiful calligraphy.
Another distinct element of mosques is the arch.
Arches play an integral part in Islamic architecture and are evident in entrances and interiors. Arches can be divided into 4 main styles: pointed, horseshoe, ogee, and multifoil.
Muqarnas is a form of ornamented vaulting. It originated from the squinch and is also known as “honeycomb vaulting”.
These beautiful muqarnas are usually found in domes, half-dome entrances, apses, and iwans.
An Iwan is a rectangular-shaped hall that is usually vaulted. It is walled on 3 sides, with the fourth one entirely open.
Iwans are known to be of Iranian origin but were invented much earlier in Mesopotamia.
An Iwan’s main gateway can be distinguished by being dominant in size and decorated with calligraphy, tile work, and geometric designs.
5. Shoe racks
Every mosque has a dedicated space for shoes just inside or outside the entrance.
As I mentioned before, Islam prioritizes purity and cleanliness, which is why shoe racks are placed in the mosque. It is a matter of respect and hygiene to take your shoes off.
In many narrations, the Prophet Muhammad said: “Cleanliness is half faith.”
So if a Muslim or visitor came to the mosque, before entering, he/she would take off their shoes, put them on the shoe rack, and then enter the prayer hall.
This practice keeps the mosque, especially the praying area, clean and spotless from any dirt or mud carried by the shoes.
6. No pictures or figures of humans and animals
Have you ever wondered why there are no figures, statues, or pictures of human beings in a mosque, unlike churches or temples?
This is because Muslims consider God Almighty beyond human understanding and, thus, cannot be portrayed in any kind of form.
Other pictures or statues of e.g. humans or animals are also prohibited as they could be mistakenly worshiped and result in idolatry or “shirk”.
Interesting facts about mosques
- The Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is the world’s largest mosque. This mosque is Islam’s holiest site and surrounds the Kaaba. Al-Haram Mosque covers a massive area of more than 356,000 square meters and has a capacity of up to 4 million worshippers.
- The second most sacred mosque in Islam is the Al Nabawi mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, which was built by the Prophet Muhammad. This mosque is followed by the third holiest site in Islam, the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
- Mosques must be open every day, regularly, and permanently to anyone wishing to pray to Allah.
- Many people don’t know that mosques cannot be owned by anyone as they are a “house of God” and technically belong to Allah. Even if someone would buy land and build a mosque, he would have to renounce ownership. Mosques are managed by a trust called “waqf” (an inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law).
- Nearly every mosque has a drinking water facility and toilets in the ablution area.
- In a mosque, you may notice a lack of furniture. Mosques mainly feature bare rooms with prayer rugs laid out on the floor, in addition to bookshelves with copies of the Quran, Islamic books, and Hadith collections.
- Everyone is of equal status in Islam, especially during congregational prayers. In the eyes of Allah, everyone is equivalent regardless of his race, color, or wealth. So when Muslims pray in congregation, they stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with each other.
- Mosques are incredibly acoustic. The unusual structure of a mosque immensely amplifies and resonates with every sound. This amplification makes it easy for the worshippers to hear the Imam’s lead during prayer, sermons, and lectures.
- Men and women do not pray together in the congregation. Women have separate rooms or spaces behind the men. Such separations are not meant to indicate gender inequality but to avoid any kind of distraction during prayer sessions.
This article is
written by Asma Schleicher and edited by Efe Genit. Asma is a creative writer with German and Pakistani roots. She is an analytical writer with a degree in business administration.
She mostly writes about cultural, travel, and fashion-related topics reflecting her real-life experiences. You can also check Asma’s profile on Upwork.