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"O believers! When the call for Salah (prayer) is made on Friday (the day of congregational prayers), hasten to the remembrance of Allah and cease your business. That is better for you if you but knew." (Al-Jumu'ah, 62:9)

early thoughts on early mosques

Once upon a time a man and his handful of supporters were persecuted for their religious beliefs and driven from their native city. Another city offered them refuge. They humbly accepted, relocating, women, men, children; even the little ones too. A new way of conceiving time, and space, began.
This is no new story but what happened next is remarkably radical. The man was Muhammad, and upon arriving in Medina (literally ‘The City,’ 360km north of Mecca, in 622CE) he built a humble building which changed human history irrevocably. Tradition relates how the site was divinely ordained;

As he moved to the south of Medina, he and his congregation gradually entered closely built districts. Several times, the camel he was riding, Qaswa, was held up by a group of clansmen who eagerly invited the Prophet to reside at their place. Each time, he blessed them and carefully avoiding giving offense by saying, ‘let her go her way, for she is under the command of God.’ Finally, Qaswa arrived at a large walled courtyard, which had in it a few date palms and remains of a building. Part of the site was used as a place for drying dates. The camel knelt and flattened her chest against the ground, and the Prophet said, ‘this, if God wills, is the dwelling.[1]

So it was, and still is; Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (The Prophet’s Mosque) became the blueprint for all later Islamic places of worship, and in many ways, set the tone for Muslim community structure. Building work took seven months[2] and the humble architecture merged domestic, social and divine spheres of action. It was

a simple house of mud bricks on a stone foundation ... Opening onto the courtyard there was, to the North, a shelter, Zulla, built with palm-tree trunks which supported a roof of palm leaves and mud ... ‘one could touch the roof with one’s hand.’ ... On the East side of the courtyard small rooms, jujra, were built for the Prophet’s wives, each opening onto the courtyard ... in one corner of the courtyard, opposite the Zulla, there was a smaller shelter, Suffa, for the visitors or poor to stay overnight.[3]

The Prophet’s mosque housed (and functioned as) the natural ‘heart’ of Muslim community building. ‘This Madina mosque had social, political, and judicial functions, in addition to housing Muhammad's (peace be upon him) family. The religious functions were mixed with other functions’[4] as ‘the Prophet’s own house was the seat of the government.’[5] Living literally next to the mosque, the Prophet’s familial and personal life was entwined from the very beginning, with Muslim social and spiritual life. During congregational prayers children, including the Prophet’s grandchildren, spilled through the rows and clambered across sajda’ing backs. When the Prophet passed away (in the room of Aisha) it was here that he was buried.
The socio-political structure enacted in and from this humble building emanated through a distinct spiritual-order which realigned existing social foci. To appreciate how hugely this sociospiritual space challenged existing social norms, we must recall how

Arabian society was inseparable from one’s clan and tribe, and the measure of one’s character was directly related to the nobility of one’s tribe... The radical egalitarianism of Muhammad, who preached that the only distinction in the sight of God was based on a person’s piety, not lineage, was a challenge not only to their polytheistic outlook but also to their very society.[6]

As immigrants whose persecution was far from over (and had completely redrawn social structures) the nascent Muslim community was necessarily inclusive and the space ‘gave unfettered right of access to all Muslims regardless of race or gender.’[7] History suggests that gender segregation crept in later

By the end of the third Islamic century, the pattern of Islamic society, especially among the higher classes, had changed markedly from what had prevailed during the first period. The system of total segregation and seclusion of women had been instituted, and women no longer had the right to participate freely in public life.[8]

Whilst it is impossible to map exactly how gender originally intersected with spatial experience in this mosque,[9] it is significant that ‘there appear to have been no walls or other barriers separating men and women, or any other known material evidence of gender segregation during the Madinan period.’[10]
Today the Prophet’s mosque remains on the same site but is larger, vaster, shinier. It is also supposedly gender segregated (at least for congregational prayers), an official stance which seems to stumble under the sheer weight of praying bodies during hajj season, and is hardly perceptible in the countless courtyards that surround it. Whilst internal sections of the Prophet’s mosque are clearly gender segregated (including access to the rawdah and surrounding areas) when the adhan descends, clusters of praying, gendered bodies are formed wherever they are standing.

In 1889 the first purpose-built mosque was built on UK soil.[11] Just like the early Muslim community, it drew together all ethnicities, ages and degrees of Islam. Unlike the mosques of early Islam, the first UK mosques saw a significantly higher proportion of male worshipers than female, reflecting the specificities of British Muslim history more than it does anything intrinsic to global mosque design.
Fast forward 120 years and estimates of existing UK mosques are around 1600,[12] with many more places are used as temporary mosque space/s (such as during Ramadan). There are more than three million Muslims in the UK today, of which about half would be women[13] and as a whole, our mosques do not reflect or accommodate this. The only UK-specific piece of written research which deliberately attends to female experience contends that

[s]sometimes women are very happy with separate facilities, such as another room, or a balcony, etc, but it can also discourage progress for women ... Sometimes the facilities for women are very inferior, cramped, and not at all conducive to the attitude of worship.[14]

The sense that mosques are widely perceived as ‘prayer-clubs for men’[15] is often reflected in the physical spaces and facilities made available to female worshipers; whilst some do it must be noted that some mosques do[16] not provide any at all.[17] Shockingly, a recent survey found that ‘women form part of the congregation in [only] half (51%) of the organisations surveyed.’ [18] Relatedly, UK mosque management committees seem to privilege male involvement, decision-making and leadership roles, with figures of as few as 15% in management positions[19] and more committees who ‘will simply not entertain the idea.’[20]
Just as significantly, our mosques remain divided along secretarian, ethnic, economic, social and linguistic lines. A young interviewee in Kabir’s work on UK mosque explains;

It is like one Mosque is completely Bangladeshi, one Mosque is ... African, one Mosque is Pakistani and no one would think of going in the other Mosque, because you would be worried about what was going to happen.[21]

Instead of welcoming believers in all shapes and sizes, the majority of UK mosques are directed and managed by a select group of men. Whilst mosque-attendance is less age-stratified than in the Christian community (a 2006 study found that 52% of young people attend mosques[22]) ‘boys were much more likely than girls to attend the mosque (91% vs 16%)’ and more likely to go ‘regularly’.[23]

The Inclusive Mosque Initiative aims to establish a ‘place of worship for the promotion and practice of an inclusive Islam,’[24] and reconnect with the inclusivity and justice of the ‘spatial sunnah’[25] of the Prophet’s own mosque. We believe that this cannot happen outside of existing Muslim (specifically mosque) networks, and that the topic of inclusivity within British Islam deserves deeper discussion. Thus as well as working on building a mosque, we are conducting a large-scale research project into inclusivity issues in existent UK mosques.

a mosque is compared to the heart of a man’s body, regulating the nourishment of the spirit of community living. It is the core of a community life. A Muslim community cannot live harmoniously without a mosque becoming the centre of their communal activities. So a mosque cannot prosper without a vibrant community who submit themselves to ... the Oneness of God ... a mosque gives identity to a society and a sense of togetherness to which the Muslims can associate with.[26]


by Dervla Shannahan


[1] Syed Ariffin, S., 2005. Architectural Conservation in Islam: Case Study of the Prophet's Mosque. Penerbit: Skudai, 49.
[2] ibid., 49.
[3] Kuban, D., 1974. The Mosque and its early development. Brill: Leiden, 2.
[4] Kanaan Kanaan, ‘Mosque History,’ available online from Last accessed 24 December 2012.
[5] Kuban, D., 1974. The Mosque and its early development. Brill: Leiden, 2.
[6] Safi, O., 2010. Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters. Harpercollins: New York, 47.
[7] Woodlock, R., 2010. ‘Praying Where They Don't Belong: Female Muslim Converts and Access to Mosques in Melbourne, Australia,’ Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 39, 2: 3.
[8] Reda, N., 2004. ‘Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation,’ The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 93.
[9] The principles and positionings of gender in congregational prayer have preoccupied classical and contemporary scholars; ‘There are, in fact, scholars who did not see anything wrong with women leading even mixed ritual prayers, among them Abu Thawr al-Kalbi (d. 876), Abu Isma'il al-Muzani (d. 879), al- Isfahani (d. 884), the founder of the Zâhirite school, at-Tabari (d. 923), and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). We do not have many details about their arguments but on the other hand there is no news that they raised a public outcry with their position in their time or were condemned by their contemporary collegues.’ Krausen, H., 2009. ‘Analysis Halima Krausen: Can Women Be Imams?’ Qantara, available online from Last accessed 24 December 2012.
[10] Reda, N., 2004. ‘Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation,’ The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 82.
After a careful study of historical and textual sources, Reda concludes that ‘the material, and textual records appear to support full female access to the major mosques during the Makkan and Madinan periods. Importantly, at the two earliest and most important Muslim shrines, there were no barriers separating women from men and no separate entrances. There also appears to be an indication that the thought of women being buried together with men in the inner sanctum was acceptable ... Both general and gender-specific Qur’anic verses indicate that women had full access to the mosque and that praying next to men was considered normal and legitimate. Therefore, in the material as well as the textual sources dating to Islam’s ‘ideal’ period, there appears to be no indication of gender apartheid; rather, evidence points to the conclusion that women had full access the mosque.’ (86)
[11] This was in Woking, Surrey. The first recorded mosque, however, was in Cardiff (1860), and in London almost 80 years later, The East London Mosque (1941). Quraishi, M., 2005. Muslims and Crime: A Comparative Study. Ashgate: Aldershot, 19.
[12] ‘Mosques,’ Muslims in Britain, available online from Last accessed 24 December 2012.
[13] Pew Forum, 2010. ‘Pew Forum on Religion and Pubblic Life,’ available online from Last accessed 24 December 2012.
[14] Maqsood, R, W., 2005. ‘The Role of the Mosque in Britain,’ A study sponsored by The Muslim Institute Trust & Bait al-Mal al-Islami. The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain: London, 7-8.
[15] ibid., 4-5,
[16] Faith Matters UK. 2010. Developing Diversity Directory: The top 100 mosques in England that provide excellent services to Muslim women.
[17] ‘Dispatches - Women Only Jihad,’ Channel 4, 28 October 2006, trailer available on Veoh,
[18] Coleman, L., 2009. ‘Survey of mosques in England and Wales, Charity Commission report'. BMG Research: London.
[19] Asim, Q, M., 2011. Mosques and Youth Engagemnet: Guidelines and Toolkit. MINAB: London, 34.
[20] ibid., 39.
[21] Kabir, N, A., 2010. Young British Muslims: Identity, Culture, Politics and the Media. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 206.
[22] Din, I., 2006. The New British: The Impact of Culture And Community on Young Pakistanis. Ashgate: Aldershot, 131.
[23] ibid., 132.
[24] Inclusive Mosque Initiative, available online from
[25] Kahera discusses the term ‘spatial sunnah’ at length, suggesting that ‘the fundamental purpose of defining the space of teh seminal mosque by using the term ‘spatial sunnah’ is not to suggest an absolute definition but rather to identify the general characteristics of the edifice apropos to the acceptance of orthodox belief, so that we can discuss its functional aspects accurately. Because the Prophet’s mosque laid the foundation for the elements of the space, it can be regarded as a nascent structure. Hence it proved acceptable as a legally binding precedent in the first instance following the importance of the Prophet’s sunnah. However, over time we find that a fundamental architecture of the grid developed that was clearly related to cultural or regional adaptation. This change was due to the subsequent proliferation of architectural features that predate the history of the seminal mosque.’ Kahera, A, I., 2002. Deconstructing the American Mosque: Space, Gender, and Aesthetics. Austin: University of Texas Press, 42.
[26] Syed Ariffin, S., 2005. Architectural Conservation in Islam: Case Study of the Prophet's Mosque. Penerbit: Skudai, 70.