Mohit Dubey: Of Mosques and Mysticism

In the Islamic tradition, architectural form and the performative dimension of prayer are symbolically woven into spirituality. This interconnectedness has its roots in the story of the Prophet himself, who built the first mosque (Mosque Kuba) in Medina after staying there for six months as a guest of Ali. In the exegesis titled Zaad al-Ma’aad, Ibn al-Qayyim tells of the founding of this mosque: “The Muslims said takbeer, rejoicing at his arrival, and they went out to meet him… He continued until he stopped in Quba’, among Banu ‘Amr ibn ‘Awf, and he stayed among them for fourteen days, and founded the mosque of Quba’, which is the first mosque to be established after the beginning of his Prophethood.” [1] In various hadith, the Prophet is quoted describing the spiritual benefits of praying in this mosque, even so far as claiming “Prayer in the mosque of Quba’ is like ‘Umrah” [2], which sparked the idea that proper prayer in the mosque can even be likened to an internal pilgrimage. When Mohammad returned to Mecca in 630 C.E., one of his first radical changes to the city was the transformation of the Kaaba, which was formally used for pagan idol-worship, into the Masjid al-Haram (“the sacred mosque”). Furthermore, he made this mosque the center of the Islamic universe, requiring all Muslims (hajj) to make a pilgrimage to its sacred space, making Mecca the direction of prayer. This centrality of the Masjid al-Haram also implies that lines drawn from all mosques cross at the exact same point, which is symbolic of the universality of the Islamic faith and spirituality which can be practiced at any point on the globe.

 

Secondly, the architecture of the mosque itself reflects inner dimensions of Islamic belief. Most mosques, including the Cleveland Islamic Center, are composed of three main layers: a large dome supported by an octagonal room with eight windows in between. These three sections are symbolic of the divine, angelic, and human realms of Islam. The divine realm is depicted by the dome, with contains one central pole symbolizing the one and only God to be worshipped. This layer is also usually adorned in either turquoise or gold, such that, when viewed from above, Muslim cities are speckled with little blue dots of masjid. The angelic realm, symbolized by the eight windows, connects the divine dome with the octagonal human realm. The eight windows are reminiscent of the hadith describing “eight gates to paradise”: charity, patience, gratitude, mercy, fasting (symbolic for self-control), trustworthiness, struggle in the way of god, and a final gate reserved for “The Righteous” (prophets and saints). This metaphor also reflects a deeper dimension of Islamic spirituality, often attributed to Ibn Arabi, due to the fact that, there are only seven doors to hellfire, implying that God’s mercy outweighs God’s wrath. Finally, the ground floor of the mosques, which is to be furnished very simply and absent of pictures, represents the human realm. The simplicity of this layer, which is usually solely adorned with a simple calligraphy from the Qu’ran, is symbolic of the spiritual value of poverty (faqr), which leads to detachment from the mundane and the humble feeling of reliance upon God alone. In this sense, the intentional spatial layout of the mosque immediately evokes a spiritual effect and understanding upon those who enter.

 

Lastly, the performances of rituals within the space of the mosque are deeply representational of the Islamic spirituality. First off, the spiritual importance of purity is emblemized in the requirement of three degrees of purity while praying in the mosque: physical purity, purity of intention, and economic purity. Physically, before entering the main space of a mosque, one is required to wash one’s face, hands, and legs in order to symbolically leave the mundane world behind and turn one’s focus to God. This also helps keep the mosque clean, in its own state of constant physical purity. Purity of intention (niya) brings to light that Islam is not merely exoteric, but also requires one to check their inner state before placing themselves before God. In this sense, one who comes to the mosque and prays, solely for his own social or worldly gain, is doing themselves and God an injustice, as they are not in a state of pure intention. Thirdly, economic purity requires that mosques be built with funds and upon land that are secured properly and fairly. Furthermore, it emphasizes that the mosque is not a place of commerce or political propaganda, but a place of togetherness and worship, and should not be used as a means of gaining social or economic influence (as it has been used in certain modern contexts). Finally, the structure and recitation of prayers within the space of the mosque is wholly rooted in the spirituality of Islam. Within the opening lines, “Allah is the Greatest! Praise and glory be to You, O Allah. Blessed be Your Name, exalted be Your majesty and Glory. There is no god but You,” [3] there is immediately an emphasis on gratitude for God (which was mentioned earlier as a gate to paradise), seeking guidance from God (bringing out selflessness and humility) and the need for protection due to the possibility of wrongdoing. These spiritual values are confirmed throughout the prayer, which, on holy Fridays, consists of one sermon addressing social issues (outer world) and one addressing issues of piety (inner world). Every prayer, however, closes with three salams (“peace be upon you”): peace be upon the prophets, peace be upon us and peace be upon them. These three salams represent the consciousness of past, present and future Muslims and seeks to retain and center upon the core spiritual value of peace in God to end the prayer.

 

  1. Al-Wahhāb, Muḥammad Ibn ʻAbd, and Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawzīyah, Muḥammad Ibn Abī Bakr. Mukhtaṣar Zād Al-maʻād Lil-Imām Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawzīyah. Bayrūt: Al-Maktab Al-Islāmī, 1391.
  2. “The First Mosque Built by the Prophet (peace and Blessings of Allaah Be upon Him) – Islamqa.info.” The First Mosque Built by the Prophet (peace and Blessings of Allaah Be upon Him) – Islamqa.info. Accessed April 12, 2016. https://islamqa.info/en/70467.
  3. Handout from Jafar Mahallati