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An Islamic mosque: Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo (Egypt, 900s AD)

Mosque history – Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo (Egypt, 900s AD)

What is a mosque?

A mosque (MAH-SK) is a kind of building where people who follow the Islamic faith pray to God.

Mosque history

People first built mosques in the 600s AD, when the Arabs conquered Jerusalem and other parts of West Asia. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is one of the earliest mosques. It stands on the place where the Jewish Temple once was.

Kairouan mosque (ca. 800 AD): another Islamic mosque

Another Islamic mosque at Kairouan (ca. 800 AD)


The architecture of an Islamic mosque

The architecture of mosques depends on where you are and when the mosque was built, and there are many different styles. Still, most important medieval mosques had a large open courtyard when you first came in, and then an inner prayer room.

What is a mihrab?

Inside the prayer room was a mihrab, a niche or hole in the wall which showed the direction of Mecca (because all Muslims pray facing the holy city of Mecca, where Mohammed was from). If you were in Baghdad, Mecca is to the west, but if you were in Jerusalem, Mecca’s to the south, and if you were in Kairouan or Cordoba, then Mecca’s to the east.

What’s a minaret?

Most mosques also had a minaret – a tall tower. The muezzin (moo-EZZ-inn) climbed up the steps inside this tower five times every day to sing out the call to prayer. In this way everybody knew when it was time to pray (and also when it was time to go to school and so on). This was very important because there weren’t any clocks yet.

Red and white striped arches and mismatched Roman columns in the Cordoba mosque - Mosque history

Cordoba mosque, Spain

Where did people build mosques?

The great mosque in Cordoba, Spain was also built around this time. The arches are striped like the arches in the Umayyad Dome of the Rock, but now in the red and white colors of the ruler, the Umayyad Caliph Abd ar-Rahman I. When it was built, the Cordoba mosque also had stained glass windows, but they are gone now. By 800 AD, people in Africa had converted to Islam and built the Great Mosque at Kairouan, in Tunisia. And the Arabs built great mosques at their capital, Baghad, in Iraq.

Here’s a short video of men praying in a mosque in India

By 1100 AD, people in India were converting to Islam, and they built mosques there as well – but in a different style. Even further east, people built mosques in Central Asia and in China. After the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople in 1453 AD, the sultans changed the great Christian churches there into mosques as well. The most famous is Hagia Sophia.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the history of mosques and Islamic architecture? Feel free to ask more questions in the comments!

Learn by doing: visit a mosque in your town
More about Islam

Bibliography and further reading about Islamic mosques:

Kairouan mosque
More Islamic Architecture
More about the Islamic Empire home