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An Overview

Mosque as Public Space in City and Community

Monday 30 April 2018, by Dr. Iftikhar Ahmed

In established scholarship Islam has long figured as, distinctively, an urban phenomenon.(1) In appreciation of this, and under the impress of important recent/contemporary developments such as the Iranian revolution or more generally the rise of political Islam, there is now a growing concern with understanding the mosque, a key Islamic religious institution, both in its overarching historical setting and its contemporary role and positioning in cityscapes: the mosque in the life of the city, its residents and its socio-political, cultural and public spaces.

Emerging trends in modern scholarship recommend a broad reappraisal of the mosque along the following lines:

1. It now looks pretty obvious that at its very inception – i.e. in the prophet’s own scheme of creating a site for addressing and forging a new community – and then across the succeeding centuries, the mosque well exceeded the function of a place where the faithful merely congregated for worship. At the heart of its expanded function lies the khutba, the pious address delivered to a congregation by the imam (the one leading the prayer) from the pulpit (the minbar of the mosque), this being an integral part of the mosque/payer ritual from the beginning. The khutba was not just meant to inculcate Islamic dogma or precepts in the believers, but to orient the community toward important public issues of the day, assayed in appropriately Islamic terms. In a more direct (though politically narrower) sense, it was customary for the name and message of the reigning monarch to be pronounced in the khutba. Conversely, in the event of the breakdown of civic or moral consensus, the pulpit could come under the spell of fractious politics and be put to partisan ends.

2. Given the open-ended character of the Islamic congregation, the Islamic pulpit is well regarded as being laden with social agency for insinuating a sense of the public into people at large, i.e. across divisions of class, status, ethnicity, occupation and language. However, under the universalizing weight of Eurocentric versions of temporal shifts (from medieval to modern, for instance), the potential of the mosque and the pulpit as a form of public communication in the ‘pre-modern’ world has gone largely unrecognized and empirically unexplored.(2)

In principle, the attributes of a public space – and periodically of a contestatory, often fraught, public space – appear to have been features of the mosque in both ‘modern’ and ‘medieval’ times. Examples of this can be cited in plenty from the existing documentation, relating to different parts of the Islamic world in both historical periods, and continuing into the present (3). Academic tardiness to acknowledge these perduring dimensions of ‘Islamic publics’ and submitting them to a comparative inquiry has left us in the dark as regards the dislocation, disruption, submergence, or transmutation of these publics into the present. To understand their contemporary salience and articulation a genealogy of Islamic publics is called for.

3. Far from being a stand-alone - i.e. a functionally delimited space for worship - for the larger part of its history the mosque was part of a complex of interlinked institutions. The complex became more elaborate through time and the contributions of succeeding generations of Islamic rulers and social elites. Thus, by the second-half of the eleventh century the ‘mosque-inn college of law’ had emerged out of the initial teaching circles connected with mosques. Combined with the key Islamic institution of waqf (Islamic endowments), this became the ‘standard institutional form’ of the madrasa that attracted to itself a diverse body of students from different parts of the Islamic world. In the subsequent period, under the Seljuqs, the existing institutional complex became even more elaborate. It drew in another large cluster of institutions, which included hospitals for teaching medicine, observatories for the study of astronomy and schools for mathematics. Rulers, powerful viziers, and prominent patrician families vied with each other to establish one or another, minimal or maximal version of this institutional combine, which for convenience we may henceforth refer to as the mosque-madrasa-waqf (mmw) complex or ensemble.(4)

So deeply enmeshed was the mmw complex in urban society that in some writings it is seen to be the dynamic basis of civil society in Islam, its specifica differentia compared with other societies, Europe in particular. In his important work on Islamic cities, Ira Lapidus for one reads the urbanity of Mamluk cities around the ecclesiastical-epistemological practices of Islamic knowledge communities (5). The latter furnished the nucleus and spawned the network through which the city assumed form and content: a social form inhering in the peculiarities of Islam as an ideological, discursive, occupational-professional mode of communication. The integrative force of many an Islamic city of the past (with some transmuted, and as yet inadequately understood, continuities into the present) could perhaps be gainfully studied around the social and ideological articulations of the mmw complex.

4. In varied contexts of space and time, and with different implications, the expanded mmw complex came to be severely hemmed in and undermined, fatefully, with the advance of modernity, more appropriately colonial modernity. The greatly withered function of the ‘Islamic academia’ broadly speaking - which was at once secular and ecclesiastical, technical and theoretical, scientific and humanistic, etc., and its disaggregated aspects and elements, subsisting in isolation from one another without any substantive connecting links to a whole – that is one obvious outcome of the changes that have overtaken the original mmw complex. In the circumstance, its centre piece, the mosque, underwent a paradoxical change in its social profile. On the one hand, it suffered a loss of its intricate positioning in a dynamic whole; and, on the other, gained a singularity and centrality of function such as it did not have as part of a once thriving urban society. The gain and the loss would appear to have almost seamlessly collapsed into one another.

Wrenched from its once capacious institutional moorings - losing overtime its linkages with a thriving and varied clientele and social and political patronage - the mosque and the pulpit experience a reduction of cultural and socio-political scale. They become narrowly identified with ‘worship’ just as the latter divested of its original integument is reduced to mere religiosity and a narrow set of rituals articulating it.

In the case of regions of South Asia, India in particular, the picture of dislocation and breakdown sketched above will perhaps apply more sharply, in some respects at least. The reversal in the fortunes of the mosque has stood coeval with the eclipse/disempowerment of an erstwhile Muslim-minority ruling elite at the point of the region’s transition to modernity under colonial aegis. Here, more often than not, mosques are now situated in ghettos, marked by squalor, social, economic and educational backwardness, and a looming sense of dystopia accompanied by absence of purposive functionality that was once their leitmotif.


(1) Across wide disparities of region, culture, and circumstance, the political economy of Islamic regimes as also its complex of social, cultural and educational institutions remained anchored overwhelmingly in urban centres. Even when the bulk of the resources of these regimes were derived from taxing the countryside, the Islamic ruling elites, whether Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Persians, Mamluk, Mughals, or Berbers, seldom took abode outside the city. Differing backgrounds notwithstanding, they chose to be residents of the city and spawned an array of institutions that were essentially adapted to varied urban contexts and milieus and which in turn they helped to shape.

(2) Cf. Asghar Fathi, ‘The Islamic Pulpit as a Medium of Political Communication’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol 20, No. 2 (Jun, 1981), pp. 163-72.

(3) Ibid.

(4) For an elaboration of these features of the institutional complex, see Said Amir Arjomand, ‘The Law, Agency, and Policy in Medieval Islamic Society: Development of Institutions of Learning from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), pp. 263-93.

(5) Ira M. Lapidus, Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984.

Dr. Iftikhar Ahmed was Associate Professor of History at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat, India. He taught medieval and early modern history of South Asia , in a comparative perspective that related India to Europe and the Islamic East. His Ph.D is on Surat (Gujarat, western India) in the second-half of the eighteenth century, focusing on collective violence and state, community and society in pre-colonial South Asia.