I was really lucky to study art history in college, as it put me on the fast track to a rewarding, well-paying career. Sarcasm aside, my favorite part of studying art history was seeing how other religions combine aesthetics with worship. One of the most interesting classes I took was an Islamic Art & Architecture, taught at SFState by Santhi Kavuri-Bauer who recently wrote a book on Islamic art in India. (Buy it here or at your local bookstore that frankly needs your money more.) Here are some interesting facts I learned about mosques, including some specific places.
- The first mosque was constructed next to Muhammad’s home. People would pray facing the qibla wall that originally faced towards Jerusalem and now faces towards Mecca. This mosque served as a community center, a court, and a religious school. In fact, as Islam spread, the mosque was the first building established in a city because it was the center the Islamic life. The second thing built: a Starbucks.
- So you probably know that Islam doesn’t allow for the image of Muhammad to be depicted so you can already guess that the decorations of a mosque are different than Christian churches. But some beautiful decoration in a mosque is the calligraphy. In the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the writing inside includes a passage about Jesus and his mama Mary. Jesus is recognized as a prophet in Islam and his connection to Jerusalem is important. It also includes a message about God not having a son. Some scholars speculate this text was important in the Dome to help converts from Christianity who had learned Christ’s teachings know his importance to Islam but to also point out “Yeah, that whole ‘son of God’ thingy? We don’t really follow that here.” (Check it out online here.)
- The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, was once a Byzantine basilica. Currently, the Hagia Sophia is a museum. (Another cool fact about mosques: Muslims had no problem reusing existing buildings or repurposing materials from destroyed buildings to make their mosques, thereby making them an earth friendly religion!) The juxtaposition of Islamic calligraphy combined with Christian imagery earns the Hagia Sophia a high ranking on places I whine about not having yet seen. (Check it out online here.)
- The minbar would be sort of like the Christian pulpit (but not really). The person leading the sermon will ascend some steps up the minbar but never goes fully to the top because that is reserved for the Prophet Muhammad. One of the most beautiful minbar is from Kutubiyya, a wooden minbar with such intricate carvings that scholars are not 100% sure how they made such small features. (Read about it here.)
- The Mosque/ Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain is so visually stunning that the history of the building gets a tad lost when looking at it. Once again, it was built first as a temple, then converted into a church by the Visigoths then rebuilt by the Umayyads into a mosque. The Roman columns (going environmentally green again) hold up the stone and red arches in a mesmerizing fashion. Not necessarily a place high on my list to visit, but if I am ever in Madrid it would be worth the train ride to see this. (Go here to learn more.)
(A little disclaimer here for any Muslim readers: I mean no disrespect with any misspellings of Muhammad’s name or parts of the mosque. For any non-Muslim readers: I mean no disrespect with any misspellings of Muhammad’s name or parts of a mosque. If you continue reading my posts, I mean no disrespect with my bad grammar and over-punctuation.)