The Supreme Court on Thursday declined to refer to a larger bench the issue of reconsideration of its observations in the 1994 Ismail Faruqui case that held that ‘mosque is not an integral part of the practice of Islam.’ Today’s decision cleared the way for the apex court to hear the main Ayodhya title suit. The question regarding whether mosque is integral to Islam had come up as part of the long-pending Ayodhya land title case and dates back to 1994 when the Supreme Court had stated that “a mosque is not an essential part of the practice of the religion of Islam and namaz (prayer) by Muslims can be offered anywhere, even in open”. The verdict given in the Ismail Farooqui case, therefore, ruled that the government could, if needed acquire the land on which a mosque has been built.
The conflict over the site of Babri Masjid is over a century old and in the past few decades has undergone several legal twists and turns. A three-judge bench comprising of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, and Justices Ashok Bhushan and S. Abdul Nazeer had taken up the appeal against the Allahabad High Court judgment of 2010 that ordered a three-way partition of the site. However, in the course of the hearings, Muslim appellants urged the court to first spell out the importance of a mosque in Islam.
“It is true that it is not obligatory for a Muslim to pray in a mosque, a Muslim can pray anywhere. Even then, historically a mosque has been a central site for congregational prayers,” says historian Farhat Hasan. He goes on to explain that “in any religious practice, there is a component that is deeply personal, but there is also a part which is extremely social. A mosque caters to the communal aspect of social life.”
“Never in history, have mosques remained as mere stations of rituals or theological observances. They in fact, in both past and present, functioned as centers of learning, legal courts, and very importantly places of inter-religious theological engagements,” says historian P K Yasser Arafath.
But the mosque, as we understand it today has also undergone a large scale evolution since the time Islam was founded by Prophet Muhammad, so as to absorb the multifaceted social and political changes that accompanied the growth and enlargement of the Islamic community. “The role of the mosque has hugely evolved over time. Further, there is no uniform understanding of the social and religious role of the mosque. So the Shias would have a very different understanding of the role of the mosque from the Sunnis. Even across the world, in Africa, the Arab countries or in India, mosque has historically played very different roles,” explains Hasan.
The mosque under the Prophet
It is a long-held belief that the foundation of Islam in the Arabian peninsula in 610 CE was a response to the growing crisis within the tribal society there by the Prophet through the extraordinary revelations he experienced. At that point in time, he never thought that he was laying down the foundations of a new religion. As British historian Karen Armstrong explains in her book, ‘Islam: A short history’, “he was merely bringing the old faith in one God to the Arabs, who had never had a Prophet before.” By the seventh century, Christianity and Judaism were established religious orders and the tribal community of the Arabian peninsula was fairly acquainted with their ideals.
The Prophet did not exactly break away from the previous tribal religious order but introduced a certain organisational aspect to the community under a uniform scriptural tradition. The Prophets and reformers of the period had all built on the pagan rites of the region, and Muhammad did the same. Central to the ritual traditions of tribes in Arabia was the Kaaba, a cube-shaped shrine in the heart of Mecca. “It was extremely ancient even in Muhammad’s time and the original meaning of the cult associated with it had been forgotten, but it was still loved by the Arabs, who assembled each year for the Hajj pilgrimage from all over the peninsula,” writes Armstrong.
Officially, the shrine was believed to have been dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity and there were 360 idols arranged around the Kabah. Armstrong notes that Muhammad was himself dedicated to the shrine and instructed the community he was bringing together to recite the Quran beside the Kaaba. Accordingly, the first mosque of the world is often considered to be the area around the Kaaba.
However, there are others who believe that the first mosque in the world is the one built by the Prophet immediately after he migrated to Medina, now known as the Masjid an-Nabawi. “It was a rough building, which expressed the austerity of the early Islamic ideal. Tree trunks supported the roof, a stone marked the qiblah (the direction of prayer) and the Prophet stood on a tree trunk to preach,” writes Armstrong. All future mosques, would as far as possible follow this same model. “In Prophet’s time, the mosque was no more than an assembly of his select followers. So the Prophet would sit in a corner with his followers and they developed rituals and all formalities for the articulation of faith and then that became the spirit of the mosque,” says Hasan.
The mosque after the Prophet
After the death of the Prophet in 632 CE, Islam acquired a political aspect to it, as multiple dynasties competed for succession and the religious traditions made its way outside Arabia. The dynamic changes that affected the religious order, had its impact felt directly on the role that the mosque played. “It has been argued that the transformation of the qibla space in the early mosque may be related to a process of politicisation occurring during the decades following the death of the Prophet Muhammad,” writes historian Heba Mostafa in her article ‘The early mosque revisited’.
It is noteworthy that in the earliest mosques built in the days immediately following the death of the Prophet, space served a critical function of not only providing a space for congregational prayer but also a place for discussing the affairs of the emerging community. Further, there was a strengthening concept of an Arab-Islamic rulership, visible in the way the palace, or the center of the political administration in the city or town, influenced the architectural development of the mosque. “The historian-geographer al-Masudi captures for us a vivid description of how the mosque space and palace worked together to allow for complementary forms of reception: the setting of the mosque allowed congregants more open access to the ruler, in contrast to the more formal type of audience held in the palace,” writes Mostafa.
“Later on, when Islam became a political power, under the Umayyads and Abbasids, you have the tendency to build mosques as an assertion of power,” says Hasan. He further explains that this politicisation of Islam was accompanied with urbanisation and an expansion in trade and commerce, and often on, “mosques also came to be patronised by prosperous communities and they came to be identified with community identities.” However, it is also worth noting that never were they associated exclusively with particular dynasties. “Particularly from the time of the Abbasid caliphate, they became contestatory spaces. So khutba (sermon) in the mosque was necessary as a device for legitimising sovereignty. Yet there are instances when the discontented social elements have used the mosque to rebel against the state,” says Hasan.
Arafath echoes Hasan’s thoughts when he explains that in India too, mosques played “instrumental roles to express a wide range of ‘disobedience’ when it came to resisting against authoritative regimes- colonial as well as post-colonial.” “In 1947, Maulana Azad chose Jama Masjid of Delhi to make a direct appeal to Muslims to not migrate to Pakistan, emotionally evoking their historical connection with the mosque and its role in the making of ‘Hindustan’ over a period of time,” he says. “Mosque, as an institution of Islamic piety, an instrument of discipline and as an imagination of community became indispensable in the lives of Muslims across time and space.”