Symbolism of the Masjid
By Maulana Achmat Salle,Cape Town. Presently, a residing Imaam in Mitchigan, USA.
There is a mosque whose foundation was laid from the first day on piety. It is more worthy that you stand forth therein for prayer. In it are men who love to be purified and Allah loves those who keep themselves pure (al ayah). In order to build a mosque on taqwa (GOD consciousness) the builders must also be GOD-fearing. In another verse ALLAH (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) mentions how Nabi Ebrahim and Ismail” (alayhis salaam) lay the foundation of HIS House in Makkah. One can hear them making thikr and duah. ‘0 Allah, accept from us, YOU are All Hearing, All-Knowing.
Some say a building is a building, but a building can be either an architectural masterpiece like the Taj Mahal or a monstrosity. When we plan our house there is a reason for every object, every plug, window or door we put in. Every adjustment we make we have a reason for it. Similarly, every part, object or style of a masjid carries its own symbolism. Very often we neglect the principles of traditional mosque architecture. These principles are high-lighted in Lings book on “Symbol and Archetype”.
The architect should be very meticulous in planning the house for ALLAH (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) as HE is the Supreme Architect. It was not un-common for builders to prepare themselves spiritually before working on a rnasjid. The calligraphy, arabesques decorating the dome, mehrab, and other designs are a reflection of the pure souls of the artisans. Some Muslims therefore insisted that the builders and artisans
must be Muslim. Only a Muslim with his excitement, enthusiasm and thought of Divine Pleasure or
Reward can put life into a mosque.
One of the principles is based on the verse of light, ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth …’ T. Burkhart writes, “There is no more perfect symbol of the Divine Unity than light.” For this reason the Muslim artist seeks to transform the very object he is fashioning into a vibration of light. It is to this end that he covers the interior surface of a mosque or a palace – and occasionally the outer ones – with mosaics in ceramic tiles. Inside, the lining is often confined to the lower part of walls, as if to dispel their heaviness. The muqarnas (stalactite) also serve to trap light and diffuse it with the most subtle gradations. The muqarnas has the shape of a honey comb. Many of the quotations below are taken from “Symbol andArchetype”.
“The light -more pronounced in desert regions -unifies the different parts of the building. It also acts as a magnet to draw the soul of man into the unit he sees. The worshipper is the living centre of the masjid. It is a widespread practice in Islam to gaze intently at Qu’ranic inscriptions so as to extract a blessing from them or in other words so that through the windows of sight, the soul may be penetrated by the Divine light of the signs of ALLAH (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) as the verses are called.
The prayer niche (mihrab) or portal niche with a lamp. In times when there
was no electricity or places with no electricity, the lamp shining in the darkness symbolizes the Muslim sending forth rays of virtue into a world darkened by sin and disbelief. The prayer niche is illuminated by the Divine Sun. ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and of the earth. His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass; the glass is as it were a shining planet. It is kindled from a blessed tree, neither of east nor of the west. The oil thereof almost blazes in splendour even though the fire has not touched It. Light upon light (al Qur’an: Nur.v35)
The niche has an inward depth –the inward spiritual depth the believer should strive for and the more one goes inward the brighter it becomes, first the niche, then the glass, then the oil, then the flame itself.
Every flame is new but it seems continuous. Every day the prayers in appearance seem the same but it is essential for the continuation of the flame of Emaan – the more inward, the brighter and the closer to Allah. Nabi Moosa (alayhis salaam) saw ALLAH (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) as a blazing fire on Mt Sinai. Unless we blaze inside with the fire of faith and conviction we cannot recognize HIM. The niche is also the reduced image of the cave. It was in a cave that the first wahyi (revelation) came down. The middle of the Our’an happens to be Surah Kahf (the chapter on the cave). It is the microscopic universe turned inward. The mihrab is normally in the centre of the front wall. At times the following ayah is inscribed:
“When Zakariya (alayhis salaam) entered into the sanctuary where Mariam (alayhis salaam) was, he found
her in the mehrab and she had rizq (sustenance) with her.”
When the Imam enters the mihrab he finds the sustenance of rahma, barakah and fadl. The prayer following the salaat is, “0 Allah You are Peace, from YOU flows Peace and towards YOU Peace returns.
Above many mimbars the kalima (declaration of Faith) is written. It reminds us that there is no refuge, a place to seek protection from ALLAH except in HIM.
In one hadith Qudsi comes La ilaha Illallaah, which is MY fortress and who so ever enters MY fortress is safe from MY punishment. To enter the fortress means to consecrate as to unceasing thikr (rememberance) of the Supreme Name. If the thick walls are to keep out the world from the masjid and create another world then the mihrab is the door to the inner world of the Hereafter..
Thick walls shield against temptations. “Whosoever enters it will be safe.” The mimbar with its flight of stairs emphasizes the flight to Allah. The mosque therefore gives the impression of a flight towards ALLAH (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala).
The top portion of the walls and the roof are all white. White symbolizes purity. The prophet liked to wear white clothing. The whiteness emphasizes the purity that the soul of the believer should possess. The whiteness of the milk he drank on mi’raj extends the idea of nur (divine light). So the believer blends in with his environment. He loses his subjectivity. All the colours of the rainbow are contained in white light. It
has therefore infinite possibilities. The carpets are usually green. Green is the colour of Islam –it is a secondary colour and a mixture of two primary colours, viz, blue and yellow. Symbolically, the blue of the sky and water and the yellow of the sun. Blue is cold and yellow hot. The blending of the two produces a tranquil green representing the earthly vegetation which turns the mosque into a garden of Paradise and in which the soul of the believer grazes. Many mosques had a date palm tree. The date palm in the desert is the sign of an oasis and hence a sign of life. The mosque is also an oasis that throbs with ALLAH’S (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala’s) Oneness and Transcendence.
A traditionally designed mosque in a hot region will be cool inside. The prayer participants escape from the heat of separation to the coolness of oneness with ALLAH (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala).
“When one steps into a mosque one is met by an emptiness. Emptiness is the antidote to the false abundance of the world and is a symbol of the inner void of purity. One cannot fail to be struck by the contrast between the noise and agitation that is left behind and the peace giving motionless silence that is offered by the sanctuary – thanks to the massive thickness of its walls. The walls in their impregnable steadfastness serve as a call to steadfastness of the soul. The wave of coolness conspires with the holy silence and emptiness to give wings to initial renunciation and inviolable detachment.”
It is not allowed to convert the mosque into a bazaar with its noise, discussions, business trading or talk of worldly
affairs. It is not advisable to read newspapers or have pictures of men and animals displayed, as it causes a distraction.
The dome is the head of the mosque as much as the head is the dome of the body. The head is round and the shoulder is rectangular or square. The dome is the Heaven of the mosque. It is in the dome that builders are lavish with their ornamentation. The space or hollowness of reminds us of the celestial infinity -Allah is All Spacious, His Omnipresence can best be shown by emptiness and space.
The dome ends in a point to remind us that our flight must be towards heaven like a bird that takes flight upwards. It is round like all the letters of the Arabic alphabet except the alif. On top of the dome at times one finds the crescent and star. The crescent represents the soul that should open itself to the light – the star can grow in size -even the sun is a star. The one in prayer opens his hands in duah (supplication) in the form of a cup to receive the Grace from above. Believers later shake hands with one another to share this grace. They place their hands on their heart to show their sincerity.
The many pillars in the mosque are vertical, they connect the floor to the roof and by implication earth to heaven. The pillars represent the kalima (the declaration). It is dynamic and active and meant to fight laziness, inattention and dreaming. It is an affirmation of Oneness. “Now in certain mosques like the great mosque of Cordova the scores of pillars show the effectiveness of
repeating the Kalima” Man’s form is also upright and marks him alone and no other creature as mediator between Heaven and Earth. We have created man in the fairest up- rightness (Qur’an 95:4).
The arches have the same symbolism as the dome, that is a combination of circle and square, replicating heaven and earth. The minaret also reasserts tauhid (oneness) in the shape of alif, thus taking its flight into the sky. From the sight of a minaret one can spot the presence of a masjld, which is symbolic of the connection to the call to ALLAH (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) and HIS Oneness.
And Allah knows best. Wallaa hu a’lam.
Maulana Ahmed Salie, Cape Town. Presently, a residing Imaam in Mitchigan, USA.