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A Whole New Muslim World

Explore Islamic destinations around the globe, and uncover some history at the same time. There’s a hundred thousand things to see, so don’t you dare close your eyes!

Al Zaytuna Masjid: Tunis, Tunisia

The capital city of Tunisia hosts the Al-Zaytuna Masjid that played a significant role in religion many centuries ago and recently renewed this role. This masjid is the oldest in Tunis and has quite a history to it. Its very structure has an interesting history, for 160 of its columns were brought from the ruins of the old city of Carthage. It was the second masjid to be built in its region, the first being the Masjid of Uqba, which is two hours to the north. The exact date of the construction of the building is debated, but most scholars believe it was in 703 by Hassan Ibnu-Noauman, who also led the conquest of Tunis and Carthage. In 731, the masjid was enlarged and its architecture was enhanced.

The architecture of the masjid followed the design of previous masajid. Its most important influence was the Masjid of Uqba and would later on be an inspiration for other mosques, including the masjid established in Cordoba by the Moors (side note: be sure you check out our guest series, The Flight of the Moors!). The square minaret was built in 1894 and was influenced by the minaret of the Kasbah Masjid, another masjid in Tunis, which was built in 1230 by the Almohads.

This masjid would become an important educational center, but that did not come about until the 13th century when Tunis became the capital of the region under the Almohad and Hafsid rule. It became one of the major centers of Islamic learning and attracted many students from all over the world known to them at the time. The university flourishing here taught both religious and secular subjects, including the Qur’an, jurisprudence, history, science, and medicine. The libraries at the university were some of the largest in North Africa and had tens of thousands of books that covered a wide variety of subjects, like grammar, cosmology, vocational training, and the methodology of research. For over a thousand years, many Muslim scholars graduated from the university established at this masjid.

Over the centuries however, its educational functions diminished more and more, often under the regimes of the country. The school was closed in 1964 by a secular leader named Habib Bourguiba in efforts to curb the influence of religion. In the beginning of April 2012, the court officials reopened the university, allowing students to attend. This was done in hopes to counter the spread of radical views and was driven by religious scholars and activists. They hope to revive the masjid’s role in education and religion in North Africa and help spread the principles of Islam.

Juma Masjid: Durban, South Africa

Juma Masjid on Grey Street

The largest and oldest masjid in the Southern hemisphere is actually located in South Africa. Its original building was constructed in 1881 but by whom? Had Islam traveled south throughout the continent Africa and the indigenous people there converted to Islam? Not exactly. And the European colonizers certainly were not the ones who brought Islam there. So how did Southern Africa first get in contact with Islam? People from India brought it there.

Are you wondering what on earth Indians were doing in South Africa? Well gather around, it’s time for a history lesson.

In the eastern coast of modern-day South Africa is an area called Natal. This area was colonized by the descendants of the Dutch who originally landed on the western side of South Africa. During the nineteenth century, the British gained control of it. This area was good for growing sugar, so large-scale sugar plantations developed in Natal. A few decades earlier, this area used slave labor to process crops but the British banned the slave trade in the early 1800s and abolished slavery in 1835. The British thus had a difficult time getting labor to work on these plantations during the following decades.

The nearby African peasant farmers weren’t going to work for them, not only because it was difficult work, but also because they were doing fine on their own. The mining industry grew quite a bit, and they were wealthy growing food and selling it to miners. Many of them were wealthier than the Dutch descendants who lived in the area. So where did they get this labor from?

That’s right, India. Tens of thousands of Indians were contracted in India and sent over to be indentured laborers on these sugar plantations. Eventually, these Indians were able to start business ventures there and began to import and export goods within Natal. As a result, they grew to become a major political and economic force in the region. (If you want to learn more about the Indian population in Durban, South Africa especially during the years of apartheid, the South Asian Studies Department will be hosting a talk on Monday, March 24 in the Alexander Library!)

The ones who started this masjid were like one of these Indians. In 1881, a man named Aboobaker Amod Jhaveri bought a portion of land on Grey Street, Durban. He arrived in 1863 in Natal to manage an Indian business firm’s trade there. He was the first Indian trader and therefore the first member of a class of Indians who would later be known as “free” Indians.

In 1884, the Muslim community grew, leading to the demolition of the original building to construct a larger space by buying nearby sites. The new masjid was completed in the 1930s. The larger space held 200 prayer mats and accommodates 6,000 worshipers today. Although its appearance is similar to Islamic architecture, its design is very unique in that one structure is part of a masjid, shops, offices, and a school. There are a series of connected buildings and corridors that allow a wide variety of activities to take place under the same structure.

The majority of the shoppers in this area were Muslim and as a result, the Grey Street complex is known for the prominent Indian culture. This neighborhood was so successful that it became the trading center of Durban. Today, with its strong Indian community, the Grey Street area still retains its success and position as the trading center of Durban, while the Juma Masjid has become a major tourist attraction.

Wangjia Hutong Women’s Masjid: Kaifeng, China

Here in the West, we have many crucial conversations about women’s place in the masjid and including a space for them (see the Side Entrance blog or the Twitter hashtag #BringDowntheBarrier for more information). However, in some areas in China, the situation is quite different.

The residents of the city of Kaifeng are Muslim and are of the Hui ethnic group. The Hui total about 10 million and are spread over many provinces in China. This beginnings of this ethnic group originate in the seventh century. Arab and Persian scholars, traders, and diplomats came to China via the Silk Road and sea, and they eventually formed their own class of important civil servants. This helped Islam emerge in China, and it became even more permanent in the 10th century, when the Arabs and Persians married Chinese women and raised Muslim children with them. Today, the Hui speak Mandarin and are indistinguishable from the rest of the population, unlike other Chinese Muslim groups who retain some elements of their non-Chinese ancestors’ languages.

During the second half of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), schools for women were established so they could learn to read Qur’an. Eventually, they developed into women-only masjids with female imams. This started in the Henan province, where the city of Kaifeng is located. Wangjia Hutong Women’s Masjid in Kaifeng is the oldest surviving women’s masjid in all of China. In fact, one of the plaques on the walls dates back to 1820!

unnamed (1)Yao Baoxia is the imam of Wangjia Hutong and studied four years to become one after she was laid off from her job as a factory worker. She claims her main role is to teach women how to read the Qur’an. The women-only masjids in China achieved much in terms of girls’ education. For many of the elderly women, these masjids were the only place to receive some education when they were young. Yao believes perhaps female imams came to be because of the equal status men and women are given in the socialist country of China.

However, there are limitations in what female imams are allowed to do. For example, they are not allowed to lead the five daily prayers or the janazah prayer.

Furthermore, although there are 16 women-only masjids in Kaifeng, it is only a third of the number of masjids for men. There aren’t any reliable statistics on the total number of women-only masjids in China either since most women-only masjids are seen to be an addition of the male establishments. Regardless, for these Muslimahs, their masjids are seen to be a center for their community that offer important resources that help them teach Islam to the younger generations.

Photo credit: Ariana Lindquist

Great Masjid of Kano: Kano, Nigeria

Postcard image of the Great Masjid of Kano
Postcard image of the Great Masjid of Kano

Go back about ten centuries and you’ll find that the modern city of Kano, Nigeria used to be the capital of the Hausa Kingdom of Kano. This kingdom was made up of the Hauso people who are the largest ethnic group in West Africa and one of the largest in the continent. In the 1300s, the king of Kano accepted Islam, but the religion wasn’t widespread until about 100 years later, when Muhammad Rumfa ascended the throne. During his reign from 1463 to 1499, he furthered the Islamization of Kano by urging influential residents to convert and also by ordering the construction of the Great Masjid of Kano. The visit of Cabd al-Rahman, who came from Egypt to Nigeria to survey the influence and spread of Islam, triggered the construction of this masjid. After all, by this time, trade routes between present-day Mali and present-day Egypt allowed for frequent contact and thus increased Islam’s reach.

There was already a masjid in Kano when Cabd al-Rahman arrived, but he built another one. This masjid was larger and had a minaret, the first mud one of this type to be built in Nigeria. In 1582, it is said that the masjid was relocated to a new site under the rule of Muhammad Zaki. The masjid was rebuilt in the mid-19th century to repair some damage. The original construction was said to be the most impressive structure in West Africa and its subsequent constructions were said to be as impressive and structurally similar. However, in the 1950s this construction of the masjid was destroyed.

Modern-day construction
Modern-day construction

The British government then sponsored a rebuilding of the Great Masjid of Kano to reward Nigeria for its role in World War II. This masjid was completely different in appearance than the constructions before it and is the one that still remains today. Its style is much more in line with Islamic architecture and unfortunately has no trace of Nigerian architecture. Although the value of the current masjid is not to be ignored, it’s questionable how much of a reward the new construction is if one of the most impressive displays of Nigerian architecture is lost.

Image © Sam Guru

Hagia Sophia: Istanbul, Turkey

During its first construction, the Hagia Sophia was not intended to be a masjid and very little of it is used for prayer today. It was built in the year 360 as a cathedral under the rule of the Byzantine Empire (the eastern half of the Roman Empire) in the ancient city of Constantinople, which is current-day Istanbul, Turkey. The Hagia Sophia was rebuilt in the next century, but its current structure was not formed until 532 under Emperor Justinian’s rule. The rebuilding of this church came after a destructive riot and in response, Justinian ordered that a more majestic building be made to display his power to his subjects. Justinian commissioned a physicist and a mathematician to design the new building. Their expertise allowed the Hagia Sophia to be an impressive technical feat for its time.

One of the most notable aspects of the Hagia Sophia is its central dome. The architects used a complex system of vaults and semi-domes to support the dome, which has come to be known as the epitome of Byzantine architecture. However this system had its flaws, for it made the church vulnerable to earthquakes. One earthquake in 557 led to the collapse of the dome; to fortify the structure, the new dome was not only taller, but also built with more support.

Interior of Hagia Sophia
Interior of Hagia Sophia

Because of its size, the Hagia Sophia became the center of Eastern Christianity and was the largest church until 1520, when another cathedral was built in Spain. However, the city of Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the Hagia Sophia was converted to a masjid. Until 1616, the Hagia Sophia was the primary masjid in Istanbul and was inspiration to several other masajid in the Ottoman Empire. The Hagia Sophia was in a poor state when the Turks arrived, so Sultan Mehmet II ordered its renovation. Part of its many improvements included a slightly off-centered mihrab. When the Hagia Sophia was rebuilt under Justinian, the church faced Jerusalem. To face Makkah however, the mihrab had to be off-center. Its most famous renovation under Ottoman rule began in 1846 under Sultan Abdulmecid. The interior and exterior were refurbished, and gigantic circular disks were installed on the interior columns of the masjid. These disks have the names of Allah, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, his two grandsons Hassan and Hussein, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali (radi Allah anhum).

In 1935, when Turkey became a republic, the Turkish president changed the Hagia Sophia from a masjid into a museum, although the minarets are still used by a muezzin to recite the adhan twice a day in the afternoon. The Hagia Sophia has undergone multiple changes throughout its history but what survives from its construction under Emperor Justinian is its magnificence and people’s widespread admiration for it.

Ganting Grand Masjid: Padang, Indonesia

The Ganting Grand Masjid, also known as Masjid Raya Gantiang, is one of the oldest masjids in Indonesia and the oldest in the city of Padang. The masjid was built in the early 18th century at the bank of a river in Padang, but was soon relocated to its current location because the Dutch—who exerted control over Indonesia at the time—desired to build a road to a port through the previous location of the masjid. After multiple constructions, a sturdy building was erected in 1805. This building was very modest: it was small, had wood and dirt walls, and stone flooring.

Construction of the masjid was very much a community effort, like the maintenance of the Great Masjid of Djenné. This project was funded by local businesses and built on land donated by local people. Prominent local leaders also directed the construction. This particular building was completed in 1810. Since then, the Ganting Grand Masjid is used as a gathering place to advise people embarking on Hajj on how to perform the pilgrimage properly. The pilgrims also used the masjid as a departure point.

Renovations to the building began in 1900 when the Dutch arranged to install tiled floors and to expand the front chamber and façade. At the same time, Chinese Indonesians started to construct an octagonal dome on the roof of the masjid. As for the interior, certain areas were given Chinese-style carvings. The masjid also had 25 columns on the inside, which were decorated with ceramic tiles in 1960. Each column is dedicated to one of the 25 prophets mentioned in the Qur’an and has that prophet’s name engraved on it. A few years afterwards, two minarets were built on either side of the octagonal dome of the masjid. The various renovations culminated in the Ganting Grand Masjid being a mix of various architectural styles. The masjid not only displays aspects of Islamic architecture, but also Chinese and European architecture.

Interior of Ganting Grand Masjid
Interior of Ganting Grand Masjid

In the early 1920s, the Ganting Grand Masjid partially functioned as a school and continued to serve in future significant events. During Japan’s short occupation of Indonesia in the early 1940s, the masjid was the military’s headquarters for that region. It was also where indigenous people received military training from the Japanese. After Indonesia gained independence, the masjid was frequently visited by many domestic and foreign officials, including dignitaries from Malaysia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Today, the Ganting Grand Masjid is a popular tourist attraction and functions as a school and of course, as a masjid.

Great Masjid of Djenné: Djenné, Mali

Out in Western Africa, in the country of Mali, is the largest mud brick building in the entire world. This building also happens to be the Great Masjid of Djenné (pronounced juh-nay), named after the town in which it is located. The other buildings and houses in Djenné are also made from sun-baked bricks. This and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status makes it a popular tourist attraction. It is critical to note, however, many residents are unhappy with their town being a World Heritage Site since it greatly limits their freedom to modernize their homes. Nonetheless, the Great Masjid of Djenné is a great source of pride for the residents and plays an important role in the culture of the town.

The current masjid looks very different from the building that was originally constructed. The first masjid was built in the 12th century when the local ruler became Muslim. He designated the location of his palace to be the site of the masjid and relocated his palace to the eastern side of the place of worship. Later, this masjid had deteriorated and fallen into disrepair, and in the middle of the 19th century, the ruler of the area had a new masjid built on the site of the previously relocated palace. This new masjid, although large, was very plain and not very tall.

The French, who took control of the area at the very end of the 19th century and at the very beginning of the 20th century, ordered the reconstruction of the original masjid. They also built a school on the site of the second masjid. A year later, the reconstruction was complete. Over the years, the Great Masjid of Djenné has been somewhat modernized through the additions of electrical wiring, indoor plumbing, and a loudspeaker system.

Palm wood logs on the walls of the masjid

Every masjid should be a community center to the group of Muslims it serves, but the Great Masjid of Djenné plays an especially unique role in the community. Because of its adobe architecture, the masjid requires much upkeep and maintenance, in which the entire town actively participates. There is even an annual festival dedicated to applying new plaster to the cracks and other damage the masjid underwent because of any erosion over the year. Young boys prepare the plaster in pits during the days prior to the festival by playing in the mixture to keep the contents stirring continuously. Women and girls bring water to the pits to assist with this step. Later, some of the men climb on the masjid’s walls to apply the plaster to the sides. The design of the masjid lends itself to this task since there are palm wood logs jutting out from the walls all over the building. The men use these logs as scaffolds to climb on when smearing plaster. Another group of men bring the plaster from the pits to the first group. To help create a festive mood, the town even made a race out of this task, which is held in the beginning of the day. During the festival, the women also bring water to the men working on the masjid and in the meantime, the elderly supervise this process from the market square where they are given a place of honor.

The Great Masjid of Djenné is regarded to be one of the greatest accomplishments of Sudano-Sahelian architecture, a well-deserved title considering its history, unique design, and significance to the community and culture of Djenné.

Makkah Masjid: Hyderabad, India

Don’t let the name of the masjid fool you: although it’s called the Makkah Masjid, it’s not located in the city of Makkah but actually the city of Hyderabad, India! The name of the masjid might seem to be a misnomer, but it is called the Makkah Masjid because some of the original bricks for the masjid were made from the soil in Makkah, Saudi Arabia.

The masjid was built during the reign of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, who was the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah was the founder of the city itself and had architects from Iran to plan out the layout of the city. Among his many projects as ruler was the construction of the Makkah Masjid.

The building of the Makkah Masjid was a very lengthy process. It began in 1617 and was not completed until 77 years later in 1694 by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb who had conquered Hyderabad in those later decades. In total, 8,000 workers were involved for the construction of the Makkah Masjid. In fact, the granite of the masjid even comes from the same rock and took five years to quarry. Since completion, the masjid is able to accommodate 10,000 people, making it one of the largest masjids in India. It is one of the oldest as well, so the Makkah Masjid is listed as a heritage building of Hyderabad.

The design of the masjid is very impressive. Three of the outside walls of the masjid each have five arches providing entrance to the main hall. The fourth wall is blocked to indicate the direction of the qiblah. The main hall is 75 feet high, 220 feet wide, and 180 feet long.  To put those numbers into perspective, that’s a little more than half of a football field.

Design of one of the minarets

The Makkah Masjid also has four minarets that have arched galleries and octagonal balconies. The minarets are each topped off by a small  dome, which were included because of later Mughal emperors. The Qutb Shahi style however is present through the floral motifs and frescos on the arches. The interior of the masjid also has Qur’anic verses on the walls decorated with gold thread.

Near the Makkah Masjid is a large open-air market, which is a popular destination for those who would like to shop, and the Charminar, another significant monument of India initiated by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah. Both are located a short walk from the Makkah Masjid and are necessary visits to get an enhanced experience of Hyderabadi culture.

Jerusalem, Palestine

The literal English translation of Masjid Al-Aqsa (pictured above) is “the farthest mosque” which refers to the event of the night journey Prophet Muhammad ﷺ took, known as Al-Isra and Al-Miraj.The angel Jibreel came to the Prophet ﷺ at night and transported him from Makkah to the site of Masjid Al-Aqsa. The Prophet ﷺ made this journey on a Buraq, which according to hadith is a white animal smaller than a mule but larger than a donkey. At Masjid Al-Aqsa, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ led the other prophets in prayer and then ascended to the heavens from this location. In the Qur’an, Allah refers to this event as a journey from the sacred masjid, alluding to Masjid Al-Haram, to the farthest masjid, referencing Masjid Al-Aqsa.

The religious significance of Masjid Al-Aqsa does not end there. For almost a year and a half after emigrating to Madinah, Muslims would pray towards the site of Masjid Al-Aqsa. While praying in Madinah, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ received revelation to change the qiblah from the direction towards Masjid Al-Aqsa to the direction towards the Kaabah.

Dome of the Rock
Dome of the Rock

Masjid Al-Aqsa underwent major expansion and reconstruction during the Umayyad rule of Palestine in the late seventh century. During this rule, the Dome of the Rock was built to complement Masjid Al-Aqsa. The Dome is one of the most recognizable structures in this city and is decorated with calligraphy on the outside and inside. When the Ottomans came to power in the 16th century, many renovations took place, including a new fountain and new domes in Masjid Al-Aqsa.

In light of the current situation in Palestine, where instances like these are not out of the ordinary, traveling there, while doable, still might not be the most advisable of all options.

However, one should always recognize the religious significance of the sites within the city and remember to appreciate the history behind them.

Madinah, Saudi Arabia

Madinah, located a little more than 270 miles north of Makkah, is the second holiest city in Islam. This city was host to important history and significance during the time of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. It is home to many religious sites and of course the beautiful Al-Masjid An-Nabawi.

The city’s religious significance began with the migration of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and other Muslims from Makkah to Madinah. The Muslims in Makkah were enduring many difficulties and they sought sanctuary within the city of Madinah. There, the number of Muslims greatly increased, and the city is near where important battles of early Islamic history took place.

When Prophet Muhammad ﷺ arrived in Madinah, the Muslims immediately worked to construct a masjid. When Al-Masjid An-Nabawi was first built, it was an open-air building and since then, it greatly expanded. The architecture and layout was largely influenced by whoever was in control of the area. Over the years, Al-Masjid An-Nabawi steadily grew to the amazing architectural feat it is today.

The structures outside the building were clearly built with an obvious purpose. Different entrances are specifically for either men or for women. There are fences clearly indicating spaces for women and giving them privacy from men. Fountains for making ablution and providing a drink are located all around the perimeter, some of them bringing Zamzam all the way from Makkah. A more recent addition to the external structure of the masjid are large umbrella-like canopies that provide shade for Muslims sitting outside the building during the day. They open during the day and close at Maghrib time. Because the temperatures of Madinah are so high, the floor can get very hot and sitting outside for a long period of time can even be dangerous, so these canopies provide much relief.

The interior of Al-Masjid An-Nabawi is absolutely breathtaking. When the Ottomans were in control of Madinah, they had the floors of the prayer rooms paved with marble and red stone. They also added domes to the masjid that were decorated with verses from the Quran and lines from al-Busiri’s Qasida al-Burda (which you can read more about here). In 1951, when Madinah was officially under control of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, slightly-pointed arches were added to the interior of the building. White marble columns support these arches. Another recent addition includes 27 moving domes on the roof of the masjid. During the nighttime, the domes are able to slide away to allow cool air inside.  In their original positions however, a masjid visitor can observe the intricate decorations on the inside of the dome. At the center of the masjid is an area called Riad ul-Jannah, which means Gardens of Paradise. This area goes from Rawdah, the tomb of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, to his minbar. Riad ul-Jannah, as can be told by its English translation, is part of Paradise and all prayers and supplications performed in this area are always accepted.

Not only does the religious significance of Al-Masjid An-Nabawi make a Muslim’s journey to Madinah a magnificent experience, but the layout, design, and structure of the masjid add entire new layers of awe.

Images photographed by me and my siblings in July 2012.

Makkah, Saudi Arabia

In Islam, Makkah is undoubtedly one of the most important places on Earth. The historical significance lends itself to the religious significance of this magnificent city. A huge portion of the prophethood of Muhammad ﷺ centered around Makkah, including the battles to reclaim the city from the non-Muslims. Still much earlier than that, Makkah had significant history that is very relevant to Islam.

Prophet Ibrahim and his son Ismail built the Kaaba, the structure toward which Muslims pray.  Ibrahim’s wife Hajar was blessed with Zamzam while running between Safa and Marwa to find relief for Ismail, an act replicated by Muslims who perform Hajj and Umrah. The history of Makkah in relation to Islam dates back to its very inception.

The significance of a city like Makkah can truly be understood by spending time in the city. Alhumdulillah, I had the opportunity to visit Makkah with my family. Before the trip, I was aware of the importance of Makkah, but it never really hit me until I got there. Yeah, I knew performing Hajj was one of the Five Pillars of Islam and it was obligatory upon me if I had the means, but I never fully realized the barakah of the city until I arrived.

In retrospect, I honestly believe every Muslim should strive to make a trip to Makkah a high priority, even if it’s not to perform Hajj, especially if they are inclined to traveling. I know tons of people want to go to some country in Europe and sure, that trip will be amazing but forget that trip to Europe, and go to Makkah instead. I’m not saying your desire to visit Europe downplays your awareness of how important Makkah is, but seriously—go to Makkah first.

During the time of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Makkah was a bustling trade city through which many caravans traveled. Centuries later, Makkah retains some of these elements as a very active city to which Muslims travel to for a temporary stay. The diversity of the ummah is immediately noticeable in the city and especially in Al-Masjid Al-Haram. You see Muslims from all different parts of the world in the masjid, yet a strong sense of community permeates the masjid. Communities are already emphasized in Islam, but the emphasis is strengthened in many acts of prayer at Al-Masjid Al-Haram. You’re performing tawaf with hundreds of people. You’re walking between Safa and Marwa with a similar amount of people. And most of all, during the jama’ah of the five prayers, you’re praying with literally thousands of people all behind one imam and all facing the Kaaba.

That experience can’t be beat.

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