What is a mosque?

The Arabic word for mosque is masjid, which means “place of prostration.”[1] These places of worship are not necessary for prayer but are highly suggested as areas to come together for certain services. Mosques also direct Muslim worshipers to face the Kaba in Mecca, the most sacred site in Islam.[2]

Important Vocabulary

  • adhan: call to prayer
  • imam: leader of Friday prayer
  • Kaba: located in Mecca, it is a “powerful symbol of the divine presence;” the House of God[3]
  • khatib: the preacher
  • khutba: sermon
  • minbar: the pulpit from which the Friday sermon is delivered
  • mihrab: prayer niche that indicates the qibla
  • minaret: tower from which the call to prayer is made
  • muezzin: the call to prayer
  • qibla: the direction in which Muslims are to pray, oriented towards the Kaba
  • wudu: ritual cleansing required before prayer

A Brief History of the Mosque

What is considered to be the first mosque, called the Quba Mosque, was built by Muhammad in 622, after his emigration to Medina.[4] The second mosque, called Al-Masjid al-Nabawī or the Prophet’s mosque, was built at the home of the Prophet, and became the final resting place of the Prophet.[5] During this time, the qibla was oriented towards Jerusalem, the masjid al-aqsa, meaning “distant sanctuary,” due to the Abrahamic ties there.[6] In 624, while giving a sermon in Masjid al-Qiblatain (or Mosque of the Two Qiblas) Muhammad is said to have received a revelation from Allah, instructing him to change the direction of the qibla to the Kaba in Mecca.[7] In 630, when Muhammad returned to Mecca and reclaimed the Kaba for Islam, this became the most holy site, and it is where Masjid al-Haram was constructed.[8]

Sacred Mosques of Islam

Masjid al aqsa[9]

The Farthest Mosque (al-Masjid al-Aqsa § Bayt al-Muqaddas) in Jerusalem

The Farthest Mosque (al-Masjid al-Aqsa § Bayt al-Muqaddas) in Jerusalem

This mosque is located in Jerusalem, and it is on the third holiest site for Islam: Temple Mount. It is referred to as the distant sanctuary, and was the first location of the Qibla until 624. It is unknown when the first mosque was actually built at this location, but the first report was in 680. The first mosque known for sure to be at this location was built b y the caliph Umar in 710. This mosque has been destroyed by non-Muslims and rebuilt by various caliphs and Muslims five times at the very least. Directly north of the mosque is the Dome of the Rock.

Dome of the rock[10] 

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock as seen from David's Tower - The Citadel of David

The Dome of the Rock

Also located at Temple Mount, directly next to Masjid al-Aqsa, this is actually a shrine, rather than a mosque. However, it is an extremely sacred location, because it is built over a sacred stone – it is believed that Muhammad ascended into heaven at this location. It is also the oldest Islamic monument. Even before it was a venerated location for Islam, it was sacred to Judaism because they believe it to be the location where Abraham planned to sacrifice Isaac.

Masjid al-Haram[11] 

The Greatest Mosque Al-Masjid Al-Haram  , Mecca | أول بيت وضع للناس


Known as “The Holy Mosque,” this mosque is located at Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is the most holy of all sites, and it is the location of the Kaba, where Muslims visit for the hajj. The mosque was established in the 7th century. It has suffered damage and been rebuilt quite a few times. This is one mosque that will not allow non-Muslims.

Masjid al-Nabawi[12]

Masjid-al-Nabawi at dusk

The second holiest mosque is located in Medina, Saudi Arabia. This is The Prophet’s Mosque because not only is it built on the location of the first mosque and Muhammad’s house, but it also contains Muhammad’s tomb. Specifically  the tomb is located in the Green Dome of the Prophet, as well as the tombs of important individuals, Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattab. The original mosque was torn down in the year 707 by Ummayad Caliph al-Walid, and was expanded further over the years. Currently, it can accomdate more than half a million worshippers. Individuals who participate in the hajj often visit this mosque as well.

Jummah: Weekly Service

Muslims regard Friday as the holy day of the week, and this is the day that mosques hold jummah services. This is held in the early afternoon, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. This is a requirement for men, and is highly suggested for women. The service includes the afternoon prayer as well as a sermon from an Imam. The sermon discusses anything ranging from ways to strengthen relationships with peers as well as God, and to encourage the community to do good things and follow in the tradition of Muhammad.[13]

The Architecture of a Mosque:

The architecture of a mosque is influenced by the local traditions of the time and place where it was constructed. As a result, of different cultural traditions, the style of mosques may differ. However, because the function of all mosques in the Islamic faith is to be a place of prayer, certain architectural qualities are present in all mosques throughout over the world.[1]

The Arabic word courtyard is sahn and it is architectural necessity in every mosque.[2] The large prayer halls within the mosque are connected to the courtyard, that are normally outside. The courtyard is used for both ritual and relaxation amongst Muslims. “Within the courtyard one often finds a fountain, its waters both a welcome respite in hot lands, and important for the ablutions (ritual cleansing) done before prayer.”[3]

800px-greatmosqueofkairouantunisiaThe Large Sahn of the Mosque of Uqba in Tunisia- courtesy of Wikipedia

Another aspect of Islamic architecture that is a common characteristic to a mosque, is the niche or in Arabic, the mihrab.[4] The mihrab is a shallow recess or niche in wall within the mosque that shows the direction of Mecca. The congregation of Muslims will use the mihrab when they pray. The location of the mihrab is dependent on the location of the mosque in relation to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.


A Mihrab in Iran- courtesy of Cleveland Art

A minaret of tower is another key feature of all mosques. Minarets are usually attached and adjacent to mosques.[5] The styles of the towers vary regionally and the time in which they were built. The towers’ function is to serve as the area to which the call to pray is announced. However, the towers are “not solely functional in nature, the minaret serves as a powerful visual reminder of the presence of Islam.”[6]


A Minaret at the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul- courtesy of Khan Academy

The qubba or dome is another predominant quality of a mosque. The dome is a part of most mosques, because it serves “as a symbolic representation of the vault of heaven.”[7] The interior of the dome is lined with decorations of geometric, stellate, or vegetal motifs. The dome is normally found topping the qible wall, which is the holiest part of the mosque.[8] Some mosques have more than one dome, depending on the size.


The Qubba al-Sakhra in Jerusalem- courtesy of


[1] Kendra Weisbin, “Introduction to Mosque Architecture,” Khan Academy, accessed December

8, 2016,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

What does a mosque look like inside?

Mosques near Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania

Islamic Center of Lancaster
739 W Vine St
Lancaster, PA
(717) 391-6211

Islamic Center Masjid as-Sabereen
1403 S Cameron St
Harrisburg, PA
(717) 238-8313

Hadee Mosque Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
245 Division St
Harrisburg, PA
(717) 232-7566

Islamic Society of Greater Harrisburg
407 N Front St
Steelton, PA
(717) 939-3107

Information for Visitors 

Every mosque is unique, and may have variations of rules, but generally there are certain things to be expected anywhere. The prayer service is lead by an imam, in front, and everyone else stands behind him, in parallel rows, oriented toward the qibla. Men and women are separated, with men being up in the front with the imam and women either behind a screen or in a separate room. Both men and women are expected to dress modestly, but women in particular should wear loose fitting clothing, covering as much skin as possible. Women should also cover their hair, while it may not be required, it shows respect for the regular worshippers. In the mosque, there is a place to put shoes, since they are not to be worn inside. It is a good idea to contact someone at the mosque before you go, if you have any questions or if you want to know the particular suggestions for the mosque you want to go to.



[1] Bowker, John. World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored and Explained (New York: DK Publishing, 2003), 194.
[2] Gordon, Matthew S. Understanding Islam: Origins Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Scriptures. (London: Watkins Publishing, 2010).
[3] Gordon, Understanding Islam: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Scriptures.
[4] Bowker, World Religions, 195.
[5] Ariffin, Syed Ahmad Iskandar Syed. Architectural Conservation in Islam: Case Study of the Prophet’s Mosque. (Skudai, Johor Darul Ta’zim, Malaysia: Penerbit Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, 2005)
[7] Dr. Reuven Firestone. (2005) Jerusalem in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (pdf only), Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition.
[8] Bowker, World Religions, 195