I recall this discussion from Architecture school. The discipline is about standing out to impress, emphasizing visual glamor while compromising social and economic factors.
Sadly many mosques are currently built as iconic landmarks to pivot idealistic urban grids or to reflect the prestige of their founders.
Recently I learned that a great mosque could be a single room because people can line up in the street and follow the Imam’s voice. In fact, Muslims are privileged over the earlier Muslim nations by being able to pray anywhere.
The greatest mosque in Islamic history was only properly roofed decades after its foundation because the greatest Muslim Imam, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, was not troubled by “prostrating in mud and water.” Indeed, he prioritized nurturing souls over constructing buildings.
What makes a great mosque is not its architecture.
What makes a great mosque is its Imam.
The truth is, Islam was revealed to a man, and it was propagated by men standing for its cause while enduring centuries of suppressive attempts. Therefore, if you’re seeking Sadaqah Jariyah (ever-flowing charity) by investing in mosques, consider also cultivating men who are willing to carry Islam’s burden.
Besides architecture, this article will discuss a number of other factors which contribute to an impactful mosque. Still, since it’s based on personal observations of a local mosque, there’s probably room for more factors to be added to the list.
Seek Allah’s Assistance
“…You are our ˹only˺ Guardian. So grant us victory over the disbelieving people.”
If there’s good in building a mosque, then it’ll likely be met with friction. Therefore, we should constantly ask for Allah’s alliance, as we’ve been taught in the Quran. The moment we rely on our means is the moment the spiral of defeat commences (Quran, 9:25).
Purify the Intentions Behind Mosques
In Surat at-Tawbah, Allah disregards the wrongdoers’ efforts to maintain a mosque. To the contrary, He values belief, emigration, and striving in his cause; with wealth and lives as true proofs of faith, submission, and sincerity (Quran, 9:19-20).
Simply put, the value of a mosque is not as a building if it is not serving the purpose of Tawhid (oneness), both spiritually and in practice. Allah prohibited the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ from praying in Masjid Ad-Dirar because its founders were scheming against Islam (Quran, 9:107-110).
Differentiate Your Path from Falsehood
Even if you were to bring every proof to the People of the Book, they would not accept your direction ˹of prayer˺, nor would you accept theirs; nor would any of them accept the direction ˹of prayer˺ of another. And if you were to follow their desires after ˹all˺ the knowledge that has come to you, then you would certainly be one of the wrongdoers. (Quran, 2:145)
The first Juz’ جزء of the Quran includes a subtle introduction to the controversial event of changing the Qiblah direction, which is then detailed further in the opening of the second Juz’. Metaphorically, the Qiblah distinctively directs the believers away from the desires of those who went astray.
Clearly, the Quran’s call for differentiation is the exact opposite of today’s religious integration and “interfaith” trends. What will such blending-in cost us? Allah’s assistance (Quran, 2:145).
Embrace Humble Mosque Architecture
In the end, a mosque is a building, and its architecture still matters. However, when it comes to Islamic architecture, less is definitely more.
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ passed by Sa’d (may Allah be pleased with him) when he was performing ablution, and he said: ‘What is this extravagance?’
He said: ‘Can there be any extravagance in ablution?’
He said: ‘Yes, even if you are on the bank of a flowing river.'”
Since Islam’s inception, Muslims have been guided to allocate their greatest resources towards building mosques. However, Islam hasn’t exempted religious rituals—such as ablution (wudu’)—from the strict responsible use of natural resources.
Similarly, extravagance in building mosques is an unjustified waste of the Muslim Ummah’s financial resources. Indeed, mosques shouldn’t be prioritized over Muslim communities suffering from homelessness and famine. Human value always comes first in Islam.
Ibn ‘Abbās (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
“I have not been ordered to build lofty mosques.“
Ibn ‘Abbās added: “You will surely adorn them as the Jews and Christians did (with their synagogues and churches).”
(Sunan Abi Dawud)
If the Qiblah sets us apart from Jews and Christians, we should also set our mosques apart from their ornamented places of worship.
From another perspective, ornamentation and loftiness are condemned because they strengthen material attachment and distract from humility and concentration (خشوع) in prayer.
Help Detach From the Material World
Islam is a religion of practice, and mosques will remain part of the worldly context. The challenge is that people will often rush to prayer with their everyday struggles in mind. To achieve humility and concentration (خشوع) in prayer, we have to prepare mentally from the moment we hear the Adhan.
Interestingly, a mosque’s architecture can also support us in this preparation. To detach worshippers from the outside world, several historic mosques utilize the entrance because it dramatically influences the first impression of a place.
For instance, the architect(s) of Masjid Al Sultan Al-Ghury aided this detachment by extending the visitor’s walk through dark narrow pathways which finally lead to a skylit courtyard its heart. To date, this is a place of refuge from the city’s heat and the adjacent bustling market.
With limited means, the entrance can be designed with humble arrangements such as changes in pavement, plantation, lighting, path width, and floor or ceiling heights. Still, the key here is to prolong the walk through several layers of those spatial expressions.
Seek Political Aid
The inspiration behind this article is the new Imam at our local mosque. From day one in this position, his Friday sermon (Khutbah خُطبة) made me realize how our mosques have been spiritually drained.
It’s clear to us as local observers that our Imam had some “connections.” Last Ramadan, he was able to finish a Khatmah ختمة in the Tarawih تراويح by exceeding the state-demanded time limit (because Covid only requires restrictions for the mosques, apparently).
In case you weren’t aware, this is a rare case even for Muslim-majority countries. It seems to be a generalized strategy for suppressing any sort of Islamic activism.
The Hate for Tawhid
And when Allah is mentioned alone, the hearts of those who do not believe in the Hereafter shrink with aversion, but when those [worshiped] other than Him are mentioned, immediately they rejoice.
Those who restrict mosque activities are, in effect, preventing “Allah’s Name from being mentioned in His places” (Quran, 2;114). In this regard, the above-quoted Ayah reveals that the real motive behind such restrictions is hatred for Tawhid, not Covid nor terrorism.
Tawhid implies oneness in submission. The Arabic word Masjid is derived from the verb sajada سَجَدَ, meaning prostrated (past tense). Interestingly, the building is named after a specific position in prayer—the closest point of contact between worshippers and Allah.
Sujud (prostration) is the sign of complete submission to Allah. Also related is that it is forbidden to use the mosque’s congregation for personal gain because its sole purpose is for the mentioning of Allah’s name (Quran, 24:36).
In reality, total submission to Allah is liberating. However, every replica of Fir’awn demands you consult them before changing your faith, let alone their policies (َQuran, 20:71).
Admittedly, the mosque poses a threat to the state because it challenges its centralized rule. The power of mosques lies in them being a network of independent “think tanks” that physically gather communities.
In general, Islam discourages revolt against rulers. However, Imams should still be able to communicate the distinction between truth and falsehood. In fact, it’s the Imam’s responsibility to regularly address contemporary issues and being honest with regard to their Islamic rulings.
Imams Liberalizing Muslim Communities
The Friday prayer is one of the most influential Islamic moments for solidifying truth. For this reason, the earliest Egyptian views on “liberating” women were propagated through local Imams in the early twentieth century.
Eventually, “Paris was brought to the Nile” in terms of architecture and societal values.
Thankfully, that was before the likes of the Sahwa movement successfully revived Islamic practices like Hijab. It’s frustrating for some liberals (11:40) that Islam survived the Arab secular dream despite the persecution of opposing Islamic groups.
Today, countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and France have confined Imams to “permissible” Friday sermon content. As a result, the state could propagate its views on specific religious groups, the permissibility of interest-based banking, family planning, and nationalism.
Political Support for Imams
In his Tafsir (Quran, 61:14), Ibn Kathir mentions the quest of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ for a political alliance with various influential individuals and tribes. This stage extended into years of humiliation until he met Al-Ansar (Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj).
Similarly, during the days of Hajj, Allah’s Messenger ﷺ used to ask:
“Who will support me in conveying the Message of my Lord Verily, the Quraysh have prevented me from conveying the Message of my Lord.” [Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Sunan Abi Dawud and Sunan ibn Majah – with slight variations in wording]
Allah, the Exalted and Most Honored, raised Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj to support the Prophet ﷺ. They were the residents of Al-Madinah who gave the pledge to him and supported him, vowing to protect him from mankind and the Jinns if he ﷺ migrated to them.
The goal here is to achieve independent decision-making at mosques, especially regarding appointing Imams. However this should never come at the cost of religious compromises.
Let’s take Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a guide for where to strike a balance. While he sought several non-Muslim allies at the beginning of his Da’wah, he was always clear that they’ll end up in hell if they didn’t embrace the truth.
Again: Allah’s Assistance
Throughout history, the radars of disbelieving tyrants have been unable to pick up on some exceptional game-changers. Not only did Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) miraculously evade the mass murder of male infants, but he even had a privileged upbringing in Fir’awn’s own home.
This is a reminder that political alliances should never come at the expense of Allah’s support, which is partly achieved by differentiating ourselves from the wrongdoers. It’s also a reminder not to lose hope, because we never know when Allah will tip the scales in our favor.
Nurture Imams of Other Mosques
As we’re sincerely seeking Allah’s pleasure, we should generalize our contributions to mosques.
We all know that making high-quality blog posts or videos takes time and money. So we can’t expect high-quality lectures, or any other mosque services, without investing in their providers.
More importantly, Imams and mosque administrators are prone to manipulation when funded by the state. That’s why we need to create independent income streams for those sensitive roles if we seek Islam to be represented faithfully at the mosque without any compromise.
Dedicating charity to funding “mosque executives” might be a straightforward solution. However, creating fair-paying jobs is a more sustainable approach as it maintains the beneficiary’s dignity while investing in enhancing their skills. Sadaqah could still be used as an initial investment though.
Good Imams should also be valued by the community and paid appropriately for their time and effort.
Hire an Impactful Imam
Principally, what we’re missing the most from today’s Imams is the unapologetic vocalization about halal and haram, whether they’re questioned or not.
In an era where fewer Muslims are seeking out rulings, we need more people to actively “enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong” (Quran, 3:110). Yet, besides this primary role, we’re missing many other roles of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as an Imam.
An Imam is a leader by definition. For centuries, Muslim rulers have led the prayers in major mosques, but we rarely see this happening now.
Unfortunately, a deliberate distinction has been made between political and religious leadership. For instance, wives of Muslim-majority country leaders being unveiled has become normal.
On the other hand, mosque Imams have been confined to scholarly roles, barely addressing societal concerns, much like priests. Thus, the Muslim community has little incentive to follow Imams who have been portrayed as politically inexperienced laypeople.
Essentially, the Imam must ensure the effectiveness of the mosque he’s leading. He has to instill a sense of community among Muslims while inspiring their attendance and active participation.
The Imam should also check on vulnerable community members. Thus, allowing the community to offer materialistic or spiritual support before any misunderstanding cracks its brotherhood bonds.
Those bonds motivate individuals to give back to the community and act, out of shared responsibility, as guardians of its faith.
Finally, what’s more effective than therapy? Consulting someone who can offer Islamically-approved practical solutions.
Ideally, mosque Imams should be approachable to the youth, encouraging them to vent their doubts and seek advice regarding how to abandon sins and delivering timely, relatable guidance.
Perhaps more critically, an Imam should intervene in family disputes, avoiding many potential cases of divorce. Much can be learned from how women could safely complain to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ about their marital issues (Quran, 58:1).
RELATED: Heed the Advice of the Righteous
Revive Collective Worship
Besides establishing new mosques, we need to revive many of our current dormant mosques. While Imams play a significant role, it’s still the responsibility of men to regularly show up at the mosque for active participation.
And when you are among them and lead them in prayer, let a group of them stand [in prayer] with you and let them carry their arms. And when they have prostrated, let them be [in position] behind you and have the other group come forward which has not [yet] prayed and let them pray with you, taking precaution and carrying their arms…
This Ayah details the special prayer called Salat Al-Khawf صلاة الخوف. It’s profound how Allah provided no exemption from collective prayer (Jama’ah) to active combatants on the battlefield because, apparently, collective worship is key to victory.
Disputes Are a Gift for the Enemy
And obey Allah and His Messenger, and do not dispute and [thus] lose courage and [then] your strength would depart; and be patient. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.
Allah has stated that disputes weaken the Muslims against their enemies on the battlefield. Since they’re aware of this truth, disbelievers and hypocrites have continuously triggered conflicts within the Muslim community. In fact, Islam’s enemies could achieve so much only through the gaps overlooked by Muslims.
Physical Alignment Matters
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ directed us to keep our rows as straight as arrows. He continued stressing this until he realized that we had learned it from him (recognized its significance). One day he came into the mosque and stood up. He was just about to say Takbir (Allah is Greater) when he noticed a man whose chest was projected from the row, so he said, “O slaves of Allah, you must straighten your rows or Allah will certainly put your faces in opposite directions.“
If this is the effect of slight misalignment in the prayer rows, what can we expect from kilometer-wide gaps? Over the years, Muslim males have become negligent of joining collective prayers, and this has gradually weakened community ties.
Therefore, we need to seriously revive our commitment to the Jama’ah جماعة at the mosque.
For instance, if it’s within a reasonable distance, make the trip to the mosque instead of praying with your colleagues at your workplace. Not to mention, collective prayer should be a significant part of the upbringing of our young boys.
Prepare Next Generation Imams
“Seven are (the persons) whom Allah will give Shade of His Throne on the Day when there would be no shade other than His Throne’s Shade: A just ruler; a youth who grew up worshiping Allah; a man whose heart is attached to mosques;…”
If we want more of our youth to grow up worshiping Allah, we need to attach their hearts to the mosque. Today, we’re competing with lucrative educational systems that portray Islamic practices as shackles.
Balance Play and Discipline
Masjid Bait Ur Rouf at Dhaka has allocated the outside space for child play, encouraging the youngsters to make the trip to the mosque. It’s equally important however, to teach them to pause playtime and join in like responsible adults at prayer times.
The Mosque’s Safe Upbringing
Currently, the mosque is one of the few gender-segregated places of children’s learning which can cultivate gender-specific roles and manners. It’s also a safe place to hone the youngsters’ independent decision-making and accountability.
They shouldn’t be called “my son” and “your daughter.” They’re “our children” and collective responsibility.
When speaking of nurturing Imams, the proactive approach would be to start some generations earlier. Childhood is the time for ingraining lasting impressions that stay for life. It’s about time we bring up our children as champions of the mosque and the religion it sustains.