Mosque: elements and a definition

There are two Muslim houses of worship: the jami’ and the masjid, both commonly called mosque in English. The masjid is a district mosque used for daily prayer by individuals or small groups, but not for the Friday congregational worship. A masjid has a mihrab but does not have a minbar (pulpit). The jami' is the congregational mosque, larger than a masjid, and it is provided with a minbar.

The first mosque was the house of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. This was a rectangular (53m by 56 m) enclosure containing rooms for the Prophet and his wives. This building became the model for mosque architecture: an open or covered courtyard with a prayer area against the qibla wall, the direction to Mecca. The roofs of the prayer area (musalla) were supported by columns made of wood (palm trunks in the Medina Mosque) or later stone columns.

Elements of a mosque are the minbar, or pulpit, which was used by Muhammad to give sermons. The mihrab, or prayer niche, was first introduced by the
Umayyad caliph al-Walid in the eighth century. Ablutions fountains were introduced in the Abbasid period. The maqsura was introduced to provide privacy and protection to the ruler.

The mihrab is where the Imam stands and leads the congregation in prayer. It is often an ornamented object, often an arched niche. It has become the central feature mosques, and it is oriented towards Mecca.

The minaret is a tall slender tower from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. It is thought to have evolved from the pre-Islamic signal tower (manara is the Arabic word for lighthouse), or from church towers.

Domes were introduced by the Seljuks, a Turkish dynasty, in the 11th century and are now a characteristic feature of Islamic architecture and mosque architecture. To place a hemispherical structure over a square or polygonal base, Islamic architects developed tiers of superimposed arches, which eventually developed into the muqarnas vault, a honeycomb-like three dimensional decorative niche. This also was first seen in the Islamic world in the 11th century AD.