The Form and Function of the Prophet’s Mosque during the Time of the Prophet (pbuh)



Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
International Islamic University Malaysia



Seven Lessons in Architecture


1) Function–form relationship

2) Respect for the environment

3) Cleanliness

4) Comprehensive excellence

5) Promoting just social interactions

6) “La darar wa la dirar” (There is neither inflicting nor returning of harm)

7) Indigenous versus foreign influences





The following are seven broad lessons in architecture that could be gleaned using the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah during the Prophet’s epoch as a case study. The lessons in their basic forms revolve around the following main themes: function–form relationship; respect for the environment; cleanliness; comprehensive excellence; promoting just social interactions; safety; and the relationship between the indigenous and foreign influences in the sphere of Muslim architecture. Every theme is discussed separately. The lessons signify seven permanent features of Muslim architecture as a whole, deriving their primary strength and merit from the Prophet’s experiences. Hence, a close analogy is always drawn between those architectural features and the Prophet (pbuh).


1) Function–form relationship


In Islam, the functions of buildings are to be optimised. Buildings are created to be at the complete service of their users. As a result of this principle, the Prophet’s Mosque eventually evolved from a simple enclosure to a multifunctional community centre catering to the spiritual, social, educational and political needs of the nascent but dynamic Muslim community.

Function is more important than the form. The role of the form is a supportive and complementing one to the functions of buildings. Thus, it is inappropriate for people to become obsessed with the mere forms of buildings and treat them in isolation from the requisites of the functions and purposes of buildings. It was reported that some of the Prophet’s companions from the ranks of ansar one day brought a considerable amount of money to the Prophet (pbuh), telling him: “How long shall we pray under these palm-leaves (referring to the simple conditions in the Mosque)? Take this, build and adorn the mosque (zayyinhu) (that is to say, improve its physical condition).” The Prophet (pbuh) did not reprimand them and their proposal, but retorted: “I have no intention to differ from my brother Musa (Moses); an arbour like the arbour of Musa”. The arbour of the prophet Musa is said to have been so low that he could touch the roof if he raised his hand, or when he stood up, his head could touch it, as reported in another account (al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. 1 p. 339).


There is nothing inherently wrong with the form in buildings, especially if the form is justifiable on the strength of the functions and aims of buildings. If such is not the case, however, the form then becomes uncalled for and unacceptable. Accordingly, whenever a genuine need called for improving the physical appearance of his Mosque, such as in the cases of roofing the Mosque, paving a section outside one of the Mosque’s entrances, creating a minbar (pulpit) and a dakkah or dukkan (seat, bench), providing lamps, enlarging the Mosque, and so on, the Prophet (pbuh) was very supportive. He never hesitated for a moment to sanction such initiatives which, in fact, were meant to facilitate the functions of the Mosque and to help it realise its objectives. The Mosque’s overall performance depended on such initiatives.


Let us now refer to the circumstances in which the introduction of the minbar (pulpit), the dakkah or dukkan (seat, bench), the roof and the lamps to the Mosque’s fabric took place, and how the Prophet (pbuh) had reacted to them.


The Prophet (pbuh) is said to have been delivering his addresses in his Mosque leaning against a palm-tree, or a palm-trunk fixed in the ground. However, after the number of Muslims had grown, it became difficult for everyone to see and hear properly the Prophet (pbuh). The matter was compounded by the wish of the Prophet (pbuh) to have something to sit on in case he got tired of standing while speaking. It was thus suggested to him to allow a pulpit (minbar) to be made and then be placed in the Mosque for communication purposes to which he, after consulting his nearest companions, consented. The minbar was like a chair consisting of three steps. On the third and the last the Prophet (pbuh) used to sit, keeping his feet on the second (al-Bukhari, 1981, Hadith No. 3560).

In view of the Prophet’s Mosque having been the seat of the Prophet’s government, messengers representing external tribes and communities would normally go straight away to the Mosque, most of the time finding the Prophet (pbuh) therein with his companions, engrossed in a beneficial pursuit. However, the Prophet (pbuh) was so similar to others that strangers would, as a rule, find it quite difficult to recognize him. Thus, they had to ask some of the Prophet’s companions who the Prophet (pbuh) actually was. In order to avoid this inconvenience, some companions suggested that a dakkah or dukkān (seat, bench) be made in the Mosque on which the Prophet (pbuh) would sit in public assemblies flanked by his companions. The proposal was consented to, and a seat of clay slightly raised off the ground was built (al-Nasa’i, 1956, Hadith No. 4905).


As said earlier, at the very beginning, no section of the Prophet’s Mosque was roofed. However, after sometime, when the people complained about hot weather and to what extent it troubled them in prayers, a roof of palm-leaves supported by palm-trunks as columns on the qiblah side was built. Mud was later added so as to prevent rain dripping onto the ground of the Mosque. A companion Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri once described the initial conditions of the Mosque – most probably when it had only a simple roof of the branches of date palms before mud was added to it, and before the Mosque ground was strewn with pebbles: “A cloud came and it rained till the roof started leaking, and in those days the roof used to be of the branches of date palms. Iqamah (signalling the beginning of prayer) was pronounced and I saw the Prophet (pbuh) prostrating in water and mud and even I saw the mark of mud on his forehead” (al-Bukhari, 1981, Hadith No. 638).

Originally, the people used to illuminate the Mosque by burning up palm fronds. Only sometime later were lamps introduced. Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri reported that a companion called Tamim al-Dari was the first who lit up the mosque with lamps (Ibn Majah, 2008, Hadith No. 752). The Prophet (pbuh) was delighted and his comment was: “You have lit up Islam, may Allah light up both this world and Hereafter for you” (al-Kattani, 1980, vol. 1 p. 84).


2) Respect for the environment


In architecture, utmost respect for the environment ought to be displayed. The way architecture is conceived, created and used must confirm that there is a peaceful co-existence between people and the environment, and between the realms of natural and built environments. Architecture must be an environment-conscious enterprise, realizing and then inviting and accommodating nature’s advantages, and also realizing and then repelling its disadvantages. In other words, architecture must be sustainable.

At the very outset of the mosque-building process, the Prophet (pbuh) taught his companions a lesson in sustainable use of the environment.  In a place earmarked for building the Mosque were the graves of some pagans, and there were some date palms on it. The Prophet (pbuh) ordered that the graves of the pagans be dug up, the unlevelled land be levelled, and the trees be cut down. The cut date-palms were not wasted. Rather, they were later reused as an alignment towards the qiblah of the Mosque forming a wall (al-Bukhari, 1981, Hadith No. 420).


We have already said that at first, the Prophet (pbuh) used to lean against a tree absorbed by building, or just a palm-trunk fixed in the ground – most probably it was the latter — when delivering his addresses (khuṭbah) in the Mosque. However, sometime later, a pulpit (minbar) was made for him. On the first occasion when the Prophet (pbuh) used the pulpit and abandoned the palm-trunk, the latter yearned and even cried like an infant because it was sad and it missed the Prophet (pbuh), knowing that the Prophet (pbuh) did not need it anymore. The Prophet (pbuh) then descended from the pulpit, came to the trunk and rubbed it with his hands till the tree stopped crying. The trunk stayed where it was until the Mosque was rebuilt and enlarged by the third Caliph ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan when it was either buried somewhere in the Mosque proper, or was taken away by the Prophet’s companion Ubayy b. Ka’b. The latter kept the trunk with him until it was eaten by woodworms (al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. 2 p. 393).

Also, the ground of the Mosque was bare at first. However, one night it rained profusely and the ground became too wet to be prostrated on. As a result, some people brought along some pebbles to overcome the problem. After prayer, having seen what the people had done, the Prophet (pbuh) said: “This is a very good idea”. Afterwards, much of the area of the Mosque was gradually strewn with pebbles (al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. 2 p. 655).


Covering the Mosque ground with pebbles proved very advantageous as pebbles allowed rainwater to go through to the ground and once absorbed by it no muddy areas could be created inside the Mosque. During dry spells, on the other hand, the ground without pebbles would have been dusty and the Mosque ambiance occasionally unpleasant, as dust could be easily stirred up and fill the air. Since the Mosque ground was covered with pebbles, furthermore, it took a longer time to dry out after rain, or after any ground watering exercise, thus allowing for longer evaporation and cooling of the surface. In the winter, no matter how uncomfortably cold pebbles might have been, yet the condition was by far more expedient than one generated by a bare and frequently wet ground. Also, the presence of pebbles was very helpful because generally some of the thermal qualities of many stone types are that they have a high level of resistance and a low level of thermal conductivity.


3) Cleanliness


Since cleanliness – be it the cleanliness of the body, dwelling places, courtyards, streets, markets, rivers and the whole surroundings – constitutes a branch of faith (iman) in Islam, as declared by the Prophet (pbuh) (Muslim, 2005, Hadith No. 328), Muslim architecture must be known for typifying and promoting it. The Prophet (pbuh) was very much concerned about the cleanliness of the whole of the city-state of Madinah in general, and about the cleanliness of his Mosque in particular. He also said that God is clean and loves cleanliness (al-Tirmidhi, 2010, Hadith No. 2723). When the Prophet’s Mosque was first put in use in the beginning, some people were not totally cleanliness-conscious; they were most likely those who had freshly entered the fold of the new religion. Among other things, they had the habit of spitting and expectorating phlegm inside the Mosque without doing away with it afterwards, or covering it up. The Prophet (pbuh) disliked the habit very much but the matter needed to be cured gradually and with a great deal of wisdom and goodly counsel. Thus, he advised those who did this that phlegm be scraped off and the place overlaid with saffron or crocus (za‘faran) or anything else pleasant and fragrant. The Prophet (pbuh) himself on a couple of occasions scraped off some people’s spit after having seen that it had been left behind. He would likewise shower with praises those who did the same. Towards this end there is a ḥadith (tradition) wherein the Prophet (pbuh) said that whoever does away with a disturbance from a mosque, God will build a house for him in Paradise (Jannah) (Ibn Majah, 2008, Hadith No. 749). In the Prophet’s Mosque, there was always plenty of water meant for the cleanliness of the Mosque as well as its users (Muslim, 2005, Hadith No. 4682).

An Abyssinian (Ethiopian) woman (or man, according to some sources) later took up the chore of looking after the cleanliness of the Mosque. So high a regard did the Prophet (pbuh) have for her that he told her one day that a double portion of reward would await her. When she died, however, some people treated her as of little consequence and buried her without informing the Prophet (pbuh). However, on discovering that she was missing, the Prophet (pbuh) asked concerning her. When told what had happened, he replied that they should have informed him. Then, he asked to be shown her grave where he prayed for her (al-Bukhari, 1981, Hadith No. 438).


4) Comprehensive excellence


Muslim architecture with all its aspects should embody the notion of comprehensive excellence because the latter is what is prescribed for Muslims in all situations and in all of their undertakings. The spirit of excellence and the striving for it should be felt at every stage and in every aspect of the process of creating buildings, from choosing a site and conceptualising and making a design, over a selection of building materials and quality of work, to the final execution of buildings and the activation of their function as environment-friendly, energy-efficient, and catering to the exact needs of their users. Excellence is to be a culture; it is not to be reduced to a mere slogan. Excellence is to be seen, not just heard.

Striving for excellence is what God loves and what Islamic cultures and civilization ought to be famous for. Conversely, deliberate mediocrity, or that which stems from routine negligence or indolence, is what God loathes and what ought to be alien to genuine Islamic cultures and civilization. Due to both its conceptual and practical connotations, the significance of the concept of comprehensive excellence had to be advocated during the earliest stages of the arduous process of building the Madinah community. That was exactly what happened. The Prophet (pbuh) utilized the opportunity of building his Mosque as the first urban element in the course of urbanizing the city of Madinah, to educate the Muslims on many pressing issues including that of comprehensive excellence.

It is thus reported that in course of building the Mosque, a man from Hadramawt in the southern Arabian Peninsula was expertly treading clay for the making of the bricks of which the Mosque was built. On seeing him, the Prophet (pbuh) said: “May Allah have mercy upon him who excels in his profession.” To the man, he said: “Keep doing this job for I see that you excel in it” (al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. vol. 1 p. 333).

Another man from al-Yamamah in the east of the Arabian Peninsula reported that he came to the Prophet (pbuh) when the latter was building his Mosque with his companions. However, he realised that the Prophet (pbuh) did not really like how the people worked. The man said that he then took a shovel to work the clay and the Prophet (pbuh) seemed to have liked how he was doing the job. The Prophet (pbuh) then said: “Leave al-Ḥanafi (the man’s name) and the clay alone, for I see that he is the most competent among you to handle the clay” (al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. 1 p. 333). In another account, the Prophet (pbuh) said: “Bring al-Yamami (another name for the man) closer to the clay because he is the most excellent among you in handling it” (al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. 1 p. 334). The Prophet (pbuh) is also said to have called the man “the proprietor or lord of the clay, sahib al-tin” (al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. 3 p. 334).


5) Promoting just social interactions


Muslim architecture should promote and, at the same time, denote a field of equitable social interactions. In this way, realising some of the most prominent Islamic values and principles will be greatly aided. In this regard, too, is the Prophet (pbuh) the best example to get inspiration from. Strengthening fraternity among the migrants (muhajirs) from Makkah and helpers (ansar) was at all times one of the major aims of the Prophet’s actions, fully knowing that the future of Islam and the Muslim society in Madinah depended on the strength of the relationship between the two sides. His planning and development pursuits in Madinah, with the erection of his Mosque more than anything else, therefore, aimed to foster constructive and fair social interactions. While building the Mosque following the migration from Makkah, building houses for the Migrants, including for the Prophet (pbuh) himself, was for a time deferred. During that period – approximately six or seven months – the migrants stayed together with the helpers, sharing everything with them. While staying together, the two sides developed a stronger and warmer relationship, which later proved its value time and again while surmounting the challenges posed by the community-building. The Prophet (pbuh) himself stayed in the house of a companion Abu Ayyub al-Ansari till the Mosque was completed.


While building the Mosque, the Prophet (pbuh) and the people used to chant: “O God, no good except the good of the Hereafter, so have mercy upon the migrants and helpers!” (al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. 1 p. 329).


Some of the underlying societal qualities and features of Islam, such as commitment to the established cause, justice, equality and mutual understanding and cooperation, have been underlined as early as during the exercise of determining the site of the Mosque and marking out its boundaries. At the earmarked location, there was a walled piece of land that belonged to some people from the Banu al-Najjar clan. The Prophet (pbuh) sent for them and asked them to suggest to him the price of the land. They replied: “No! By Allah! We do not demand its price except from Allah.” The Prophet (pbuh) accepted the offer and the occurrence inaugurated, so to speak, as well as typified a new dimension to the unreserved keenness of the first Muslims to sacrifice whatever they possessed for the cause of strengthening Islam and Muslims (al-Bukhari, 1981, Hadith No. 420).


Additionally, when the Mosque was set to expand into an area used for drying dates which belonged to two youths, both orphans, named Sahl and Suhayl, the Prophet (pbuh) asked them, too, to suggest to him the price of the place. However, when they said that they demanded no price for it, the Prophet (pbuh) insisted that they name the price, since they were orphans and possessed little. Eventually, the Prophet (pbuh) paid them ten golden dinars. The money was Abu Bakr’s.


It also should be noted that the Mosque and with it the midpoint of the new urban marvel, Madinah, was positioned in an area between the old settlements – virtually in the middle of them – rather than either too far away from them, or within the ambit of any of them. Thus, the message was that Islam favours nobody based on the considerations of history, culture, and socio-political and economic status and affiliation. Everyone was set to have a place in the forthcoming Madinah urbanisation scheme, and everyone was set to be given an opportunity to make a contribution. Credit was given only on the basis of people’s merit, god-consciousness and honest contributions to society.


Since the Mosque was established on a relatively uninhabited piece of land, the majority of the migrants were honoured to be able to settle near it. This way, justice was done to them for all the services they had rendered earlier to the Islamic cause while in Makkah. This also meant that the migrants at the same time were encouraged to work hard and become self-reliant and start a life on their own as soon as they could, thus becoming an asset to the modest and nascent community rather than a liability. Had the Mosque been constructed somewhere within the ambit of any of the existing settlements and the migrants had to settle elsewhere, there would have existed a real possibility of marginalizing some of them, making thereby their plight all the more difficult, and with it the solicited integration and adaptation a thorny task. In this case, their initial stay with the helpers would have been prolonged as well, and both their self-sufficiency and contributions to satisfying the socio-political and economic needs of the city-state of Madinah would have been forestalled for some time.


Nor were the helpers held in contempt for not selecting the location of the Mosque in any of their established settlements. The arrival of Islam and the Prophet (pbuh) in Madinah meant that each and every avenue to reviving the centuries-old and all-encompassing antagonism between the two major Arab tribes in Madinah: the Aws and Khazraj, was forever thwarted. Doing a favour to either the Aws or Khazraj, by positioning the Mosque in the settlement(s) of either side, could have triggered a fresh wave of antagonism, given the fact that faith (iman) was yet to conquer the hearts of many individuals from each of the two tribes. Certainly, not positioning the Prophet’s Mosque in the ambit of either the Aws or Khazraj was one of the most constructive moves that could have been made under the circumstances.

Once the Mosque was built and the people started using it, the Prophet (pbuh) asserted that his Mosque — and every other mosque — was blind to socio-economic ranks and statuses. Mosques belong to everybody. They are inclusive and everybody is equally entitled to them and their services. Favouring a category of people in a mosque on the basis of their socio-economic position at the expense of another category of people, is unacceptable. Being societal institutions that embody the profundity and strength of Islam, mosques are there to inspire, monitor and oversee the rest of societal institutions and their performances insofar as realising equitable social interactions in Muslim societies is concerned.


6) “La darar wa la dirar” (There is neither inflicting nor returning of harm)


 One of the most consequential Islamic principles in architecture and in built environment in general is the one highlighted in a ḥadith of the Prophet (pbuh): “There is neither inflicting nor returning of harm” (Ibn Majah, 2008, Hadith No. 2331). The message of the ḥadith is that everyone should exercise his full rights in what is rightfully his, provided that the decisions/actions that one makes do not generate harm to others. Likewise, none shall return injury in case it has been inflicted on him, intentionally or otherwise. People are instead encouraged to share both their happiness and problems, care for each other, respect the rule of law and settle their disputes amicably. This way, they will secure sound and friendly relations, as well as a healthy environment conducive to all kinds of constructive human engagements.

Being a field of human interactions and undertakings, it is paramount for architecture to embody in all of its segments the notions of safety and security. Surely, people’s physical, psychological and even spiritual wellbeing depends on the conduciveness and productivity of the environments that their architecture generates. If it is said that a healthy mind resides in a healthy body, it likewise could be said that both a healthy body and healthy mind reside in a healthy and safe built environment.

It is because of this that the objectives of the Islamic shari‘ah (law) whose task is to regulate and guide people’s actions, are preserving and sustaining 1) religion, 2) the self, 3) the intellect, 4) descendants, and 5) wealth and resources. Hence, every religious injunction has been tailored in such a way as to enhance the total wellbeing of man and his surroundings. In the same vein, nothing did Islam forbid except those things which are capable of harming man – directly or indirectly – or can hinder his spiritual, intellectual and civilizational progress.

In many of his initiatives, while building and then activating and using his Mosque, the Prophet (pbuh) promoted the significance of safety and security in the arena of building. Those safety and security initiatives were: the Prophet’s broad lessons on peaceful coexistence with the environment; ensuring the highest standards of hygiene not only in the realm of the Mosque, but generally in all aspects of life; the Prophet’s concern about the needs and welfare of his companions to which the Mosque especially catered; the Prophet’s insistence that no unaccompanied children and madmen patronise the Mosque; that the Mosque be free from disputes, discords and conflicts; that swords are not to be brandished in the Mosque; and that even legitimate punishments are not to be carried out in it (Al-Samhūdī, 1997). The Prophet (pbuh) went so far as to announce that those who have eaten beforehand of either garlic or onion will not be allowed admittance into the Mosque lest their strong smell should disturb those who could not stand it.

Also, the people were advised not to talk and recite their prayers loudly when inside the Mosque so as not to disturb the others. Furthermore, the people were asked to cooperate with each other when optimum utilisations of the Mosque’s inner spaces were needed. That some special attention was given to public gatherings and the ways people should behave in them may be corroborated by the following Qur’anic verse: “O you who believe! When you are told to make room in the assemblies, (spread out and) make room: (ample) room will Allah provide for you. And when you are told to rise up, rise up: Allah will raise up, to (suitable) ranks (and degrees), those of you who believe and who have been granted knowledge. And Allah is well-acquainted with all you do” (al-Mujadalah, 11).

The Prophet (pbuh) insisted that mosques belong to everybody and that reserving certain places for certain people – like a camel which fixes its place – is not acceptable. The Mosque was not allowed to be made a thoroughfare. When coming to and entering the Mosque, the people were bidden to wear a sober, calm and dignified deportment. No running or scrambling was permitted. One was not allowed to enter the Mosque indiscreetly and thoughtlessly, excessively talking and laughing as if one did not know where he actually was. When coming to or leaving the Mosque, men and women were not to mingle freely in the road. They were asked to keep to different sides (Abu Dawud, 1997, Hadith No. 5252).

In other words, virtually everything that could generate any amount and any type of harm – physical, mental and spiritual – was prevented in the Mosque and elsewhere. Similarly, the initiatives that were able to bolster the people’s overall wellbeing were encouraged and facilitated. Hence, the ways buildings are designed and built need to take utmost heed of safety and security considerations. Once built and occupied, buildings are to serve as places of safety and protection from both natural and man-made hazards. Buildings are to serve as safe havens on earth for their occupants.


7) Indigenous versus foreign influences

The Prophet’s Mosque epitomised at once the character of the Islamic message and the disposition of Islamic civilisation that was bound to stem from the former. The Mosque promoted the notions of Islam’s finality and universality, as well as the notions of universality and unity-in-diversity in Islamic civilisation. The Mosque was built not only as a communal place of worship, but also in order to satisfy the swelling needs of the Muslim community which the Mosque was endorsing, facilitating and further advancing their authenticity and worth. In other words, the Mosque symbolised the message and mission of Islam. Moreover, it symbolised both the absolute and constant dimensions of Islamic civilisation, as well as the relative and transient ones.


Through its perception, philosophy, purpose and function, the Mosque characterized the substance of Islam which is permanent and not subject to change, because it is based on permanent, essential human nature and its needs, as well as on the permanent nature of the whole of existence and its needs. However, when it comes to inventing systems, regulations, views and attitudes so that people’s worldly life is duly comprehended and regulated in accordance with both the absolute substance of Islam and the exigencies of people’s different eras, regions and needs, it is there that the solutions and perceptions become transitory and fluctuate as they signify what people deduced from the fundamental principles and permanent values of life as their best practical solutions and answers.


As a result, the function of the mosque institution always remains the same, whereas its form changes, varies and evolves in response to the various cultures, geographies and climates, and to the changes and developments in people’s socio-economic conditions. The form of the mosque institution is the physical locus of its functions. Hence, changes in the form are inevitable for mosques to function properly. Certainly, this principle applies not only to the mosque, but also to all other aspects of the Islamic built environment. Since the changes in the Islamic built environment are unavoidable and necessary, innovations in the same field, it stands to reason, must be regarded as highly recommended and even obligatory in that the functions of buildings depend on the appropriateness and effectiveness of their forms.


Having said this, the Prophet (pbuh) did not hesitate to add anything to the form of his Mosque which could enhance its projected roles and stature. At the same time, however, he turned down those suggestions and prospects that could possibly get in the way of maximising the performance of the Mosque as the community development centre, in both the spiritual and worldly sense of the term. While doing the former, that is, amplifying the Mosque’s facilities so that its performance is enhanced, the Prophet (pbuh) was open not only to the indigenous resources, expertise and influences, but also to the foreign ones, including those from non-Islamic locales. We have already referred to the prominent roles played by two persons in the course of building the Mosque: one from Ḥadramawt in the southern Arabian Peninsula, and the other from al-Yamamah in the eastern Arabian Peninsula, and how much the Prophet (pbuh) was delighted by their expertise.


When oil lamps were introduced to the Mosque for the sake of illuminating it at night, it should be pointed out that the lamps were brought by a companion called Tamim al-Dari from Syria, which was a Christian land. The Prophet (pbuh) was so happy that he made a prayer for the man, and he named his servant who had set up the lamps in the mosque “Siraj”, which means “Light” (al-Kattani, 1980, vol. 1 p. 84).


Also, when the minbar or pulpit was introduced to the Mosque’s fabric for communication purposes, it should be mentioned that the person responsible for making the minbar was, in all likelihood, again Tamim al-Dari. While conversing with the Prophet (pbuh) about the issue, the companion clearly told the Prophet (pbuh) that he would make the minbar as he had seen people in Syria making it. What inspired Tamim al-Dari to come up with the idea of the minbar and its design could well have been the pulpit of a Syrian church. Yet, such was not a problem due to the universal appeal of Islam and its civilisation, as well as due to Islam’s open-minded outlook on other people’s cultures and civilisations, with the sole condition that the foreign elements and influences should not collide with the worldview and law of Islam (shari‘ah), both outwardly and inwardly.


To this end, certainly, is the declaration of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that the people of stature and influence, or simply, the best ones (khiyarukum), during the time of ignorance (jahiliyyah), i.e., prior to the advent of Islam and prior to people’s acceptance of it, will remain the best with the best stature and influence after accepting Islam, provided they understood and adhered to it (Ahmad b. Hanbal, 1982, Hadith No. 9905). In other words, people’s achievements, engagements, positions and ranks prior to Islam will not undergo dramatic changes afterwards, as long as they do not entail elements that are at odds with the spirit and message of Islam, and as long as they make the objectives of Islam their own objectives and the objectives of their aspirations. Moreover, such people’s accomplishments, authority and social standings will be very much needed for the sake of championing and advancing the cause of Islam against its many challenges. The Prophet (pbuh) also said that wisdom is the lost property of the believer. He constantly searches for it and wherever he finds it, he takes it. Wisdom is to be taken from any source.


Without doubt, because of this nature of Islam and its attitude towards the cultural and civilizational bequests of the world, custom (‘adat) and customary usage (‘urf) are regarded as a source of the rulings of the Islamic law (shari‘ah) where there are no explicit texts from either the Qur’an or the Prophet’s sunnah (tradition) specifying the rulings. It is also a requirement in making custom (‘adat) and customary usage (‘urf) a source of shari‘ah rulings that there are no contradictions between them and the contents of the Qur’an and sunnah. About the meaning of custom and customary usage, Abu Zahrah (1970) said: “Custom is a matter on which a community of people agree in the course of their daily life, and common usage is an action which is repeatedly performed by individuals and communities. When a community makes a habit of doing something, it becomes its common usage. So the custom and common usage of a community share the same underlying idea even if what is understood by them differs slightly.”


And about the reasons why ‘adat and ‘urf are deemed the appropriate source of Shari‘ah, in absence of explicit texts from the Qur’an and sunnah and when there are no conflicts between the ‘adat and ‘urf and the latter, Abu Zahrah (1970) said: “Many judgments are based on ‘urf because in many cases it coincides with public interest… Another reason is that custom necessarily entails people’s familiarity with a matter, and so any judgment based on it will receive general acceptance whereas divergence from it will be liable to cause distress, which is disliked in the judgment of Islam because Allah Almighty has not imposed any hardship on people in His din. Allah Almighty prescribes what normal people deem proper and are accustomed to, not what they dislike and hate. So when a custom is not a vice and is respected by people, honouring it will strengthen the bond which draws people together because it is connected to their traditions and social transactions whereas opposition to it will destroy that cohesion and bring about disunity.”


So strong is this source of Islamic Shari‘ah that according to many Muslim jurists, most notably the Malikites, it makes the general specific and qualifies the unqualified. As for the extent to which the three leading schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh): the Maliki, Hanafi and Shafi‘i schools, accept ‘adat and ‘urf as a source of Islamic Shari‘ah, Abu Zahrah (1970) said, “Maliki fiqh, like Hanafi fiqh, makes use of custom and considers it a legal principle in respect of matters about which there is no definitive text. In fact it has an even deeper respect for custom than the Hanafi school since, as we have seen, public interest and general benefit are the foundation of Maliki fiqh in coming to decisions and there is no doubt that respect for a custom which contains no harm is one of the types of benefit. It is not valid for any faqih to leave it: indeed, it is obligatory to adopt it. We find that the Malikis abandon analogy when custom opposes it. Custom makes the general specific and qualifies the unqualified, as far as the Malikis are concerned. It appears that the Shafi‘ites also takes custom into consideration when there is no text. If text dominates in its judgment because people are subject to and do it by way of familiarity and habit. Nothing can prevent them from adopting it except a prohibiting text. Where there is no prohibiting text, then it must be adopted. We find that Ibn Hajar stated that custom is acted on it when there is nothing in the custom contrary to a text.”


As a conclusion to this section on the validity, yet inevitability, of integration between indigenous and foreign influences in Muslim architecture, we shall quote ‘Umar Faruq Abdullah (2006) who in his paper on Islam and cultural imperative elaborated on the Prophet’s attitude and the attitude of his companions towards the multifaceted cultural and civilizational legacies of the world which they were set to inherit and whose threads they would weave into a newly-emerging all-inclusive and total Islamic culture and civilisation: “The Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world’s cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places. The Prophet and his Companions did not look upon human culture in terms of black and white, nor did they drastically divide human societies into spheres of absolute good and absolute evil. Islam did not impose itself – neither among Arabs or non-Arabs – as an alien, culturally predatory worldview. Rather, the Prophetic message was, from the outset, based on the distinction between what was good, beneficial, and authentically human in other cultures, while seeking to alter only what was clearly detrimental. Prophetic law did not burn and obliterate what was distinctive about other peoples but sought instead to prune, nurture, and nourish, creating a positive Islamic synthesis.”


‘Umar Faruq Abdullah (2006) also said: “Much of what became the Prophet’s sunnah (Prophetic model) was made up of acceptable pre-Islamic Arab cultural norms, and the principle of tolerating and accommodating such practices among Arabs and non-Arabs alike may be termed a supreme, overriding Prophetic sunnah. In this vein, the noted early jurist, Abu Yusuf, understood the recognition of good, local cultural norms as falling under the rubric of the sunnah. The 15th century Granadan jurisprudent Ibn al-Mawaq articulated a similar outlook and stressed, for example, that it was not the purpose of Prophetic dress codes to impinge upon the cultural integrity of non-Arab Muslims, who were at liberty to develop or maintain their own distinctive dress within the broad parameters of the sacred law. The Qur’an enjoined the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to adhere to people’s sound customs and usages and take them as a fundamental reference in legislation: “Accept (from people) what comes naturally (for them). Command what is customarily (good). And turn away from the ignorant (without responding in kind)” (7:199). Ibn ‘Attiyyah, a renowned early Andalusian jurist and Qur’anic commentator, asserted that the verse not only upheld the sanctity of indigenous culture but granted sweeping validity to everything the human heart regards as sound and beneficial, as long as it is not clearly repudiated in the revealed law. For classical Islamic jurists in general, the verse was often cited as proof for the affirmation of sound cultural usage, and it was noted that what people generally deem as proper tends to be compatible with their nature and environment, serving essential needs and valid aspirations.”


At any rate, as a final remark, whatever can enrich culture, enhance civilisation and bolster the wellbeing of people, barring any conflict with any of the Islamic principles and values as the precondition, Islam with its cultures and civilisation warmly welcomes to its fold. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions were the best models to follow in this regard. In virtually all fields of their daily existence they did not hesitate to apply this Islamic principle, such as the fields of architecture, medicine, clothing, foodstuff, business, entertainment and art of war.



Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
International Islamic University Malaysia