What is the role of the mosque in Islam? ‘Masjid,’ or mosque, literally means ‘a place for self-prostration,’ that is, a place formally designated for the saying of prayers. According to a hadith, the Prophet of Islam observed: "The masjid is a house of God-fearing people." This means, in effect, that it is a center for the inculcation of reverence, where individuals learn what is meant by piety and are thus prepared for a life of devotion to the Almighty.
The Masjid is built so that people may visit it to read the Book of God, to remember their Creator, silently and in prayer, and to hear His commandments on how they should lead their lives, that is, how to conduct themselves according to His will.
The most important of all these activities is the saying of prayers, a ritual to be carried out five times a day as prescribed by Islam. This act of worship, the greatest means of instilling a sense of awe in the devotee, may be carried out at any place, but ideally, is performed in an organized manner, in congregation, within the mosque. There the worshippers range themselves in orderly rows behind a single prayer leader, the Imam. (The acceptance by the group of just one individual to lead the congregation avoids any dissension which might arise from there being more than one.) The number of the worshippers may be ten or ten thousand: all have to stand in rows behind the Imam. This teaches the lesson of unity. Nevertheless, namaz, in essence, is an individual action. Everyone recites his own prayer and is rewarded on account of its innate rectitude and sincerity.
The prayer begins with ablution, that is, with the washing of the face, hands and feet. This bodily cleansing is a symbolic reminder that the Muslim should lead his life in this world in a state of purification of the feelings and the soul.
What is recited during prayer consists either of verses from the Qur’an or dhikr, remembrance of God, and dua, invocation and supplications. All of this is aimed at bringing about a spiritual awakening such as will induce the worshipper to renounce his life of ignorance and heedlessness in favor of a life inspired by Islamic moral values.Throughout the prayer (namaz) the phrase, ‘Allah-o-Akbar’, ‘God is great,’ is repeated several times. Implicit in these words is the idea that the person uttering them is not great. Their frequent repetition is a lesson in modesty, designed to rid the worshipper of arrogance and egoism, and turn him into a humble servant of God.
The acts of kneeling down and self-prostration are also repeated several times in the course of the prayer, in symbolic submission before God. In this way, the worshipper is conditioned by namaz to surrender himself to his Maker in all humility.
The various postures in the namaz climax in the act of self-prostration—the ultimate demonstration of submission. Real proof of this submission to God will only become manifest, however, in subsequent dealings with other human beings, in which it is clear that self-glorification has been replaced by glorification of the Almighty, and that feelings of superiority have given way to profound humility. The namaz ends with each worshipper turning his face sideways and uttering these words: "May God’s peace and blessings be upon you." Every day, all around the globe, Muslims perform this rite. It is as if they were saying to their fellow men all over the world: "O people, we have no feelings for you but those of peace. Your lives, property and honor—all are safe." It is this spirit with which worshippers are enthused before they return to society.
Besides the five daily obligatory prayers, there is a weekly Friday prayer which is necessarily offered in the mosque. In practice and content it is just like any other prayer, but since a larger number of people gather on this occasion, a sermon (khutba), giving religious guidance, is also preached by the Imam before the prayers begin. In this, he reminds worshippers of their accountability to God, of the commandments pertaining to Islamic character and of the proper way to deal with others in society. In this way, the Friday sermon refreshes the memory on religious commitments.
The mosque, initially intended as a place of worship, has come to be built to serve other related purposes, such as housing the Madrasa, library, lecture hall, guest house and dispensary. According to a hadith the Prophet advised the building of mosques in a simple style, so that there should be no dissipation or dilution of the true religious and spiritual atmosphere.
All mosques (with the exception of three) are of equal religious standing, whether large or small, plainly conceived or architecturally magnificent. The three mosques that have a greater degree of sanctity because of their historical and religious associations are the Masjid-el-Haram in Mecca, Prophet’s mosques in Medina and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.