What is a mosque?

 “What is a mosque?”  This very simple and straightforward question introduces us to two very different perspectives, which actually shape and constitute the dominant discourse on Islamic built environment in postcolonial South Asia. There is a legal-technical perspective on mosques, which revolves around the architectural attributes, archaeological significance, historical values and/or legal status of mosques. More precisely, this perspective conceptualises mosques as architectural/historical/legal objects, and attempts to map out their placing in the wider secular discourses. In fact, a strict dividing line between the built space of a mosque and associated religious practices is drawn to comprehend the modern, objective, unbiased and rational meanings of such structures. Mosques, consequently, are defined either as religious architecture/Islamic monuments or as legal/juristic person. Although this perspective originates in the writings of Orientalist scholars of Islamic art and history in 19th century, it still influences the debates on conservation of Islamic monuments and the legal-constitutional discourse on Islamic religious places of worship in postcolonial South Asia.

    Jama Masjid Delhi, Source: H A Collection, 2007

There is also a religious-ritualistic perspective, which offers a functional meaning of a mosque. This perspective tries to establish a link between the Islamic religious principles and actual built space of a mosque. The waqf character of a mosque, demarcation of the sacred spaces (eg. separating the innermost part of the mosque from the outer or less sacred parts such a wadukhana or toilet etc.), the general codes of conduct and ritualistic aspects such as performing salat (daily five time prayers) etc. are some of main concern for this kind of writings. This perspective draws its legitimacy from the conventional Islamic religious sources like Hadith (saying of the Prophet), various Tafseer-ul-Quran (explanations/commentaries on the Quran) and fiqh literature (literature on Islamic jurisprudence or Sharia) and produces specified commentaries on waqf (endowment), nizam-e-masjid (system of mosques) and/or adab-e-masjid (etiquettes of mosques). Since Islamic principles are taken as a point of reference in this genre of writings, the mosque is seen as a site where Islamic faith is actually embodied.

The conventional dichotomy between modern/traditional could easily be superimposed here. One might say that the legal-technical perspective is rational-modern while religious ritual perspective is entirely traditional. However, this simple disconnection between modernity and tradition is not at all useful to make sense of the popular and dominant forms by which mosques are represented. One finds that these two perspectives, despite being opposite to each other in various ways, somehow stress upon a fixed and static image of mosque and try to interpret this fixity either in terms of built forms or religiosity.

The debate on conservation of historical monuments, and for that matter, historical mosques, in colonial south Asia, is a good example of the fixed image of mosques produced by the legal-technical perspective. The Indian Archaeological Policy (1915), which set out broad principles of conservation in colonial India, very clearly emphasized that, the purpose of the colonial government was to conserve ‘what has been left’ without interfering in the religious activities associated with a monument. In this case, a mosque or rather the building of a mosque is monumentalised in such a way that any alteration in its recognizable ‘historic’ architecture becomes a kind of destruction of its original/real historical/archaeological significance. This building centric approach became a legal norm in the later period and paved the way for conservation policies adopted in postcolonial India, Pakistan (pre-1971 as well as post 1971) and later in Bangladesh.        

The religious-ritualistic perspective, which actually gives emphasis to customs and rituals, offers another kind of fixity to mosques. The emphasis on ritualistic purity, especially in relation to performing five times salat in mosques, confines mosques into those fixed spaces where Islam as a faith travels without any historical/cultural interruption. Although a hierarchy of mosques, mainly in terms of sanctity is often set out to recognize the sacred status of Masjid-ul-Haram (Mecca), Masjid-ul-Nabavi  (Prophet’s mosque, Medina), Masjid-ul-Aqsa (Jerusalem), mosques are often seen as undifferentiated neutral entities. The cultural and sectarian influence on the internal making of mosques and the relationship between a mosque and those believers who do not practice rituals, are some of the areas, which are often not touched upon in these writings.  

These fixed images of mosques either convert them into those “historical monuments”/architectural objects, which do not have any relationship with Islamic rituals and practices and/or the present of Muslim communities, or transform them into static, timeless, sacred spaces, which do not have any semiotic and/or political function.

It is, in my view, important to go beyond these fixed images of mosques. We must try to excavate the ways in which mosques as marker of identity are constituted and formed in the collective memories of Muslim communities. In other words, mosques as discursive, ever-changing entities could be taken as a vantage point to understand the making and remaking of Islamic/national identities of Muslim communities in south Asia.        

About Author

Hilal Ahmed (ahmed.hilal@gmail.com) ​ is Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing societies, New Delhi. He is the author of Monuments, Memory and Contestation: Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India (Routledge/Forthcoming). Ahmed writes on popular Islam and Muslim politics. He is working on his second book project, Politics of Muslim Political Representation.     
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