An especially vivid sense of beauty is evoked by the architecture of the Muslim world, and nowhere more so than in those buildings erected for religious observances. Called mosques, they have existed since the rise of Islam 13 centuries ago.
When the Prophet Muhammad migrated to Medina in 622, he prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, then considered the center of the world. Soon he substituted the Ka'bah, a small sanctuary in the sacred city of Mecca, and ever since, Muslims at prayer the world over have faced toward it. Today it is a cubical stone building in the courtyard of the Great Mosque, shrouded in black silk, the kiswa, and containing the sacred Black Stone, believed to have been sent by God as a sign.
As a meeting place for public prayer on Fridays, the Muslim day of rest, Muhammad used a simple assembly room (musalla) with a flat roof supported on pillars. A niche resembling a door (mihrab) indicated the direction of Mecca, toward which the congregation prostrated itself while praying. The prayer leader (imam) spoke from a pulpit (minbar) and a superstructure on the roof (minaret) was the site from which a man (muezzin) summoned the people to prayer with a call known as the adhan. Series of arcades parallel to the mihrab wall were included so the faithful could come to prayer in the same ranked formation in which they went forth to battle unbelievers. The final arcade opened on a courtyard surrounded by colonnades, with a fountain in the center for ritual ablutions.
The basic components of the mosque have remained much the same through the years. Mosque architecture, however, has absorbed something of the spirit and culture of each country where Muslims are found. Different building materials and variations in structural styles and techniques mean that from nation to nation the mosque changes its appearance, but not its purpose.