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Friday, 18 April 2008

Role of the Mosque in the life of the Muslim Community

Role of the Mosque in the life of the Muslim Community
This is an extract from a booklet of the same name by Dr. Khalid Alavi of Da‘wah Academy, International Islāmic University, ISLĀMABAD. In the UK this report was published by the Institute of Islamic Studies and Dawa Birmingham, June 1990.

• The Mosque in general
The word ‘Mosque’ is an English translation of the Arabic term ‘Masjid,’ which translated literally means ‘a place of prostration.’ Lisān al ‘Arab, one of the most authentic sources of Arabic language, contains various meanings of the term. It is reported that ‘Masjid’ with an ‘a’ has been used for the corners of houses, ‘Mihrāb al-Buyūt.’ According to one lexicographer ‘Masjid’ is the name of a place and a noun. Zajjaj, referring to a tradition of the Prophet defines ‘masjid’ as a place where God is worshipped. Since worship of God has always been the cornerstone of every religion, places of worship occupy an important position in the daily life of a religious community.

There is evidence that any place of worship could be called a Masjid since Bukhārī referred to a Church in Abyssinia as a Masjid and ibn Khaldūn has used the term for any place of worship. John Pederson thinks that this term has been taken from the People of the Book and says: “There is, therefore, no question of this word, especially being a Muslim term. This is in entire agreement with Muhammad’s original attitude to earlier religions, just as Abraham was a Muslim, so David had a Masjid.”

• Rules of Conduct within the Mosque
The Mosque as a place of worship is considered an esteemed and holy place. Though Muslims are permitted to offer their prayers anywhere on earth provided the place is clean, yet the centre proposed for collective consciousness of Muslims was the Mosque. The Prophet emphasised simplicity and cleanliness in the Mosque, thus, there are whole chapters in a╒adīth books outlining rules and manners of maintaining and using the Mosque. A cursory glance over these chapters will convince the reader of the honoured position the Mosque was held in during the Prophet’s time.

• Significance of the Mosque as an institution
The importance of the Mosque is evident when one studies texts of the Qur’ān and Sunnah. It is useful, also, to examine the importance the Mosque had in Muslim society through its long history. Throughout Muslim history the Mosque 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 Muslim society. It’s most obvious roles are as:

1) A place of worship
2) A centre of education
3) A judicial court, and as
4) A government centre for making political and administrative decisions.

The Mosque was the centre of all such activities in the past for two reasons.

Firstly, because the Prophet of Islām himself, gave it a pivotal role in his life. This, naturally, lead to his companions and followers to give it the same recognition. It may be mentioned here that Muslims are commanded to follow the Prophet (S.A.W.S) in every sphere of their lives as to them he is an ideal example of religious and spiritual practice.

Secondly, the Mosque gained a special place due to a distinctive character of the Islāmic faith; Islām requires that its followers shape their lives on the principle of obedience to Allāh and, since worship in Islām, is not an isolated act, rather it is an integral part of one’s whole life; the entire life of a Muslim, must thus, be based on a moral foundation, and an ethical and moral standard which 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 centre of all activities, colouring the social and material life of the community. The decline of that consciousness led eventually to the loss by Islām of its initial power; the power which enabled it to spread Islām from southern Spain to the sub-continent of India in the first century of the Islāmic calendar.

• The Mosque as a Spiritual and Religious Centre
The Mosque as a religious centre, provides an environment for spiritual purification and inner strength. For an individual it provides an opportunity and a means for communication with Allāh, and for the community; a place for collective submission to Allāh. It also provides a place for sharing spiritual experiences and cementing brotherhood among people of the same faith.

As well as being a place to offer individual and congregational prayer it can also be used for performing voluntary prayers at any time of the day or night. The five daily prayers can aptly be described as a regular spiritual festival, while the Friday congregational prayer is akin to a spiritual and social festival. The Qur’ān stresses on collective prayer because of its superior spiritual benefit for the human soul when compared to prayer in isolation.

• The Mosque as an Educational center
The second most important role the Mosque has is that it serves as a centre 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 Islām the Mosque was an educational centre where all forms of educational activities took place. Al-Qur’ān was taught there and Qur’ānic 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 (suffa) which 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 in a systematic way.

• The Mosque as a social and administrative center
“It was inherent in the character of Islām that religion and politics could not be separated. The same individual served as a ruler and chief administrator in both fields, and in the same building. The Mosque was, thus, the centre of harmony for both politics and religion. This relationship found expression in the fact that the Mosque was placed in the centre of a coup.”

The Mosque, being the centre of the Muslim community, was the place where all political, judicial, and social decisions were taken during the time of the Prophet (S.A.W.S). Collections for emergency needs were made there and important matters discussed with the companions and tribal delegations. The Prophet (S.A.W.S) also made appeals for donations for military expeditions within the Mosque. He used to also decide judicial cases in the Mosque e.g. the case of a woman thief from Banū Makhzūm was decided by the Prophet in the Mosque. The Prophet conducted political negotiations and made decisions and contracts in the Mosque. Whenever he wanted to draw attention to a special issue he would call people to the Mosque and deliver a speech explaining the matter in a proper perspective.

• Administration of the Mosque
The Mosque, from the earliest days, was never considered to be anyone’s property. It has always remained God’s property and an endowment to the public. Its management and maintenance has always been held to be the duty of the ruler or the society of the area. Some Mosques used to be maintained by the ruler who also bore it’s expenses from the Bayt al Maal. Some modern Muslim states today, have ministries of Awqāf and religious affairs for their maintenance. These ministries look after Mosques and pay the salaries of staff employed within them. As far as general Mosques are concerned they are maintained by the community through donations and general financial assistance.

Since there is no organised clergy in Islām, each Mosque is an independent administrative unit and the Imām or Khateeb it’s central figure. He leads the five daily prayers and the Friday congregational prayer. Besides, the Imām, can also be a Mu’adhdhin, caretaker, and cleaner, depending on the size of the Mosque. There is usually an administrative committee also, selected from amongst the community to look after affairs of the Mosque and to arrange funds for it. However, it is the Imām who has to play a key role in the Mosque. Some qualities in an Imām have been accepted as a necessary requirement for his appointment e.g:

1) He should be highly learned. Learning here refers to religious knowledge.
2) He should be sturdy and of sound character.
3) He should be socially accepted.

Ibn Mas‘ūd has reported a hadīth of the Prophet regarding Imāmah which provides a basis for required qualities: Abū Masūd reported Allāh’s Messenger as saying: “The one most versed in Allāh’s Book should act as an Imām for the people; but if they are equally versed in reciting it, then one who has the most knowledge regarding the sunnah; if they are equal regarding the Sunnah, then the earliest of them to emigrate; if they emigrated at the same time, then the oldest amongst them. No person should lead another in prayer if the latter has authority over him or to sit at a place of honour in his house without his permission.

• Knowing a Mosque
All the Mosques in the Muslim world are purpose-built. Although Britain does have some beautiful purpose-built Mosques, the majority are house-Mosques. The community, according to its resources in such settings, purchased small terraced houses, dis-used churches or warehouses, and converted them into Mosques. Such purpose-built Mosques can be seen in almost every big city in the UK. A purpose-built Mosque has its own characteristics and offers certain facilities. A very good example of purpose-built Mosques in Britain are the Birmingham Central Mosque, the Regent Park Mosque in London, and the Central Mosque, Glasgow.

A visitor can find the following distinctive features in any purpose-built Mosque. These features do not depend on the size, shape, or style of a Mosque but owe their existence to the tradition and practice of the local Muslim community.

• Distinctive features
(1) The Minaret: A minaret is a tower, often capped with a miniature dome, attached to a Mosque. Although there are Mosques with four minarets, the common practice is to build one or two minarets only. It is a distinctive feature of a Mosque, and one can identify a Mosque by its minaret. Minarets are of different heights, some are two storied and some three or more. Most minarets have a balcony just under the top. In some Mosques the ‘mu’adhdhin’ used to make the call to prayer from the balcony.

(2) The Dome: The round structure on top of a Mosque is called a dome. This form, in particular, indicates that the building might be a Mosque. Though it has become a distinctive feature of a Mosque in certain regions, it is not an essential part of it. There are, nevertheless, Mosques with mausoleums of Muslim saints also. Domes are very useful in hot countries. They keep the inside of the building cool and airy. Perhaps architects thought it useful for transmitting clearer communication to the congregation also because when the ‘Khateeb’ speaks his voice gets amplified through the dome enabling the congregation to hear him clearly. It used to serve, to some extent, as a loudspeaker in this sense.

(3) The Main Prayer Hall: The most important room in a Mosque is its main prayer hall. Since bowing and prostration are essential parts of Muslim worship and prayer, seats are not placed in it. In hot countries mats made from palm leaves are usually used to cover the floor, but in cold countries and in the rich states of the Middle East, it’s halls are fully carpeted. The pattern on the carpet usually has lines running through it to mark the ‘Suff’ or rows in which worshippers stand. Keeping the hall clean and pure is an essential requirement, therefore, entering the prayer hall with shoes on is not permitted.

No picture or statue is allowed in the hall because this goes against the Islāmic concept of God. According to Islām, God does not incarnate and the attribution of any physical shape to Him is a sin. He, alone, is the object of worship. Associating anything with Him is the gravest sin. The Muslim congregation not only shows submission to Allāh but also indicates complete equality among fellow human beings. People belonging to different classes and races stand side by side in a row during prayer. No decoration is made on the walls of the hall. However, there are beautifully written verses from the Qur’ān in some Mosques. In some Mosques there are additional prayer rooms to accommodate more people also. Courtyards of Mosques are used as prayer rooms in hot countries.

(4) The Mihrāb: When entering the prayer hall of a Mosque one faces a wall called the qiblah wall which shows the direction of Makkah. Just in the middle of this wall is an alcove or niche called the ‘Mihrāb’. Originally this referred to a special place in the house for a respectable person to sit in.

Within the Mosque it is the site where the Imām stands to lead the congregational prayer. ‘Mihrābs’ indicate the exact direction for prayer. They are usually decorated beautifully with patterns and calligraphy, however, this is not essential. In some small house-Mosques it may assume the form of a special mark on the wall to indicate direction.

(5) The Minber: The stepped platform to one side of the ‘mihrāb’ is called ‘minber’. This refers to a raised platform used for addressing people. It is similar to the pulpit in a church. The Khateeb stands on one of the steps of the minber to address the congregation on Fridays and on other special occasions.

• Facilities in the Mosque
Facilities provided by Mosques include the following:

(1) Main Prayer Hall: The prayer hall of a Mosque serves as a centre of spiritual activities. The five daily prayers, the Friday congregational prayers and ‘Eid Festival prayers are conducted there. It also accommodates Qur’ānic study circles and special religious meetings. The hall is a peaceful place for individual prayer and supplication also.

(2) Madrasah (Islāmic Evening School): The evening school is an important institution which caters to the younger generation. Muslim children going through the British system of education tend to lose their sense of identity. It is, therefore, essential to provide them with basic information about their own religion and culture. Children at a Mosque evening school learn how to read the Qur’ān, and receive basic information about their religion and culture. Arrangements are also made for Arabic and Urdu language teaching. Religious education is an essential activity of the Mosque in most Muslim countries.

(3) Day Centre for the Elderly: Although the family institution of the Muslim community is strong and caring for others, the Muslim elderly, nevertheless, need special care. Due to language problems and cultural habits such persons face difficulties when placed together with other people. For this reason some Mosques, with the help of the Social Services Department, organize day centres for the elderly. A room with a kitchen is usually also offered to provide services to them. Tea and light refreshments are served daily, while newspapers, magazines, video and television are also available for entertainment. Other special serves are provided on request. This is a special feature of British Mosques. Muslim countries might consider it useful practice.

(4) Library and reading Room: A library and reading room are normally established in Mosques where materials on Islām and Muslim culture are available. Daily newspapers and magazines in Urdu, English, and Arabic are also usually available. Such libraries are developing all the time.

(5) Funeral Facilities: A mortuary is established in some Mosques to provide facilities for keeping dead bodies, and a place for handling and washing the dead. A large hall for funeral prayer adjacent to the mortuary is some times available, otherwise the main prayer hall can be used for this purpose. In Muslim countries special Mosques are built for funeral prayers. These are normally established adjacent to the graveyards.

(6) Social Meetings and Conferences: Some Mosques have a hall other than the main prayer hall which serves as a site for social gatherings and conferences organized by different organizations. Large furnaces for cooking are also provided in some Mosques.

(7) Youth Activities: Some Mosques provide facilities for youth activities, such as indoor games apart from the reading room and library. Youth are encouraged to organize activities there.

The mosque as an institution maintains its partial role. Religious education and spiritual activities like prayer, recitation of the Qur’an and meditation are flourishing. Religious gathering are also taking place, but no social or political activity is related to the Mosque nowadays. In Muslim countries Mosques are mostly used for prayers only. Inspite of all the limitations Mosque has a special place in the lives of the Muslim country.

This is only a summary of the whole report. If you are interested please read the whole report. The full report in PDF can be found here!

Useful reading:

(1) The people at the mosque

(2) London Mosques Projects - Victoria & Albert Museum

(3) List of Mosques in London

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