For an individual who observes a religion, ritual is the most indicative sign of the character, existence, and foundation in that faith. Ritual activities and their attendant buildings, clothes, and other ritual paraphernalia are emblems of each religion and for each member of a religion. Through creating shared symbolic expression, ritual symbols unify the faithful. In Islam, a religion deeply embedded in ritual, the mosque is not only central to Muslim ritual, but clearly identifies the Muslim faith worldwide.
To be Muslim means to be part of a worldwide community, as in the global participation by Muslims in daily prayers and attendance at the mosque. Although the Muslim ritual of praying five times a day (miqat) at daybreak (salat al'asr), noon (salat al-zubr), midafternoon (salat al-asr), sunset (salat al-maghrib), and evening (salat al-'isha') does not have to be done within a single designated building (for Muslims are to pray wherever they are), the mosque has become the central physical element manifesting the presence of Muslims at any given place in the world.
Before prayers can be started, there must be purification of the attendant through ritual washing of the arms up to the elbows, the mouth, nostrils, feet, and ankles three times in succession. Within the mosque there are water tanks, urns, or fountains for this purpose. Muslims are required to remove their shoes upon entering the inner core of the mosque, for it is believed to be sacred ground. As Moses removed his sandals when seeing God at the Burning Bush, Muslims also practice this ritual as a submission and honor paid to God. In the mosque, the floors are laid with carpets or mats end to end, for Muslims are to pray in a clean place, free of defilement. Both men and women are to be moderately dressed. For women, this means that their hair and body are to be covered, exposing only their face and hands. In various countries around the world, Muslim women are allowed to enter the mosques; however, their placement within the mosque may differ. In Egypt, a barrier divides the men from the women. In Canada, there are separate rooms for women to pray in. The reasoning for the separation is so that the women will not distract the men from complete devotion to Allah. Once these rituals are completed, the attendant is purified in body and in spirit and is ready to offer prayer to Allah.
The muezzin, the man who chants the call to prayer from the highest tower in the mosque, can be heard at the beginning of each designated time of prayer. The muezzin calls out to the community of Muslim faithful to worship together. In modern times, the muezzin uses electronic amplifiers, as cities and Muslim populations have grown.
The muezzin enunciates the following:
La ilah illa Allah (There is no God but God) Muhammad rasul Allah (And Muhammad is the messenger of God)
The mosque is the ideal location for congregational prayers. Friday noon prayers, the Sabbath for Muslims, are generally well attended by the faithful who seek to engage with their community in worshipping Allah. The imam, a learned teacher retained by the mosque, leads the service in the mosque for all five daily prayers. The architectural blueprint of the mosque is based on the same design as an Arab home, complete with spacious courtyards. The courtyard is a gathering place before and after prayer services for friends and families to socialize. The mosque has undergone minimal transformations from its original form, imposing a sense of majesty and the spirit of Islam. The minarets that are located at the top of the highest tower on the mosque are the first eye-catching adornment. The star and moon crescent, the universal symbols of Islam, commemorate the moon and single star that guided the Prophet Muhammad on his hijra (night flight) from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E., and marks the date from which the Muslim calendar begins. In addition to sites of worship, mosques have also been used as libraries, schools, gathering places for armies, and as courts of justice. These additional uses of the mosque further emphasize the alliance of Islam with the religious, educational, and political aspects of Muslim life.
Moving to the interior of the mosque, one witnesses the cool, spacious ambiance in which nonrepresentational ornamentation adds a bit of decoration in an otherwise plain decor. There are no graven images or paintings of Muhammad or any of the prophets of Islam, as Muslims believe these to be a form of idolatry. The ceilings and walls are ornate with stunning arabesque motifs, while in some mosques surfaces contain a series of calligraphic verses from the Qur'an; both types of adornment derive their power and Islamic validity from their capacity to reveal the secret that the power and sovereignty of God are everywhere, as are truth and beauty.
Besides the rosettes, calligraphy, and other powerful art, the mosque is meant to be a place of worship or submission to Allah, and must contain nothing that will detract from devotion to Allah. There is no furniture within the inner sanctum of the mosque. There is only the minbar, which is a seat at the top of steps and is used as a pulpit for the imam to speak from. The most important area of the mosque is the mihrab, a small niche in the wall of the mosque. It points in the direction of Mecca and directs the way for Muslims to pray- toward the holy city of Mecca, the center of Muslim life and ritual activity.
Mosques around the world are the loci of religious development. Young children accompany their parents to participate in the daily prayers, as well as religious schools in the mosques. The mosque is also home to the religious interpreters of the Shari'a (law), who determine how to apply ancient knowledge to modern situations.
The mosque unites Muslims, as there is always someone of the Islamic faith praying in a mosque at all times of the day. It also is a place for community development, as after the prayers, Muslims gather for food in the courtyard, reconnect with friends, and talk about daily life.
Visitors may enter most mosques throughout the day; some people stay in the mosque all day. Families are generally encouraged to attend services and worship together, generating a warm and inviting ambiance. This atmosphere further projects the mosque as an emblem of Islam and the Muslim community.