Minarets: The Lighthouses of Spiritual Calling
The minaret is one of the most recognizable elements of Islamic religious architecture. Essentially, the minaret is a tower attached to a mosque. In the past, the minaret served mainly as the from which a muezzin would summon Muslims to prayer. Today, however, this role has largely been taken over by loudspeakers.
Apart from that, this structure serves a number of other purposes as well. The prominence of the minarets is evident in the fact that they are found in mosques around the world from different time periods. This also means that the minaret has no standard form, and many variations of this structure can be seen.
The Foundation of the Minaret
The word ‘minaret’ is derived from the Arabic manarah, which means ‘beacon’, and refers to a lighthouse or signaling tower at sea. It has been speculated that the use of the same word in Arabic for a lighthouse and a mosque’s tower is due to the resemblance of one to the other. According to scholars, the minaret was not part of the architecture of mosques during the early Islamic period.
According to the Hadith (a collection of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds), for example, the Muslim community of Medina gave the adhan, i.e. the call to prayer, from the roof of the prophet’s house, which doubled as a place for prayer. As a matter of fact, the first Muslims of Medina did not even have the Adhan to summon them to prayer.
When the Muslims heard that the Jews were using a horn, while the Christians a clapper, to call their faithful to prayer, they requested for something similar from the prophet. Therefore, Bilal, who was, in general, the prophet’s herald, was appointed as the first muezzin.
During the early days of Islam, the Adhan was made from the highest roof in the vicinity of the mosque. This was a practical arrangement, as it was from here that the muezzin could be seen and heard by all the inhabitants of the town. In the lands of the Byzantine Empire, which had fallen to the Muslims, such a spot would have been the towers of Christian churches and Greek watchtowers.
A depiction of the muezzin's call to prayer from the balcony of a minaret. (Dudubot / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Therefore, these structures would have been used by the muezzins for the recital of the adhan. It has been suggested that these towers would eventually serve as the inspiration for the minaret.
Later on, during the Umayyad period, some mosques, for instance the ones at Medina, Damascus, and Fustat (the first capital of Egypt under Muslim rule), had towers attached to them. Nevertheless, these are not considered to be truly minarets.
Establishing the Minarets
It is generally agreed that minarets only became a regular feature of mosques during the subsequent Abbasid period , i.e. after 750 AD. According to Andrew Petersen, the author of Dictionary of Islamic Architecture , the early minarets were meant to demonstrate the religious authority of the Abbasid caliphs. Petersen notes that “Six mosques dated to the early 9th century all have a single tower or minaret attached to the wall opposite the mihrab”.
The mihrab, by the way, is another architectural feature in mosques, and is a niche or marker usually set in the wall of the mosque to indicate the qibla, i.e. the direction of Mecca, to which Muslims face during their prayers. In any case, only the areas that acknowledged the authority of the Abbasid caliphs had minarets attached to their mosques. On the other hand, areas that did not recognize the Abbasid Caliphate, like Fatimid Egypt, did not have minarets attached to their mosques.
From the Abbasid period onwards, minarets became a common feature of mosques. Some of the earliest known minarets can be found in Syria. The oldest minaret in the country is said to be the one opposite the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Damascus, known also as the Umayyad Mosque. This is the earliest surviving stone mosque, and was built by al-Walid I, the 6th Umayyad caliph, between 705 and 715 AD.
The site has long been a place of worship. Before the mosque was built, a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist stood on the site, and prior to this, it was occupied by a 1st century AD Hellenic temple dedicated to Jupiter. The mosque also contains a shrine allegedly housing the head of Saint John the Baptist, a figure revered by both Muslims and Christians.
Although the Great Mosque of Damascus was built during the Umayyad period, it was only during the succeeding Abbasid period that the first minaret was added to the building. This minaret, constructed around 850 AD, is known also as the Minaret of the Bride. This minaret, along with other traditional Syrian minarets, is a square plan tower built of stone.
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The Minaret of the Bride was the first minaret built for the Great Mosque of Damascus. (Bgag / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
This form is believed to have been inspired by Christian church towers of the Byzantine period. The main tower is separated from its upper part, which is a spire, by a lead roof. This spire may have been re-built several times over the centuries. The Great Mosque of Damascus possesses two other minarets, the Minaret of Isa (the Arabic equivalent of Jesus), and the Minaret of Qaitbay.
The former was erected around 1217, while the latter around 1488. Rising to a height of 253 feet (77 meters), the Minaret of Isa is the tallest of the three minarets and is so called due to the belief that Jesus will descent to earth via this minaret to confront the Antichrist before Judgment Day. The Minaret of Qaitbay, on the other hand, is named after the Mamluk sultan Qaitbay.
Minaret of Isa is the tallest of the three minaret of the Great Mosque of Damascus. (Heretiq / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Were Minarets Influenced by Christian Church Towers?
It has been suggested that the design of Christian church towers was brought by the Muslims from Syria to their western territories. The Great Mosque of Kairouan, known also as the Mosque of Uqba, is located in Tunisia and was built in 670 AD, the year of the city’s establishment by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi. The original mosque was destroyed around 690 AD but was rebuilt in the following century.
The current structure, however, dates to the 9th century AD. Kairouan is considered to be the Maghreb’s most ancient and holiest city, and its mosque among the oldest in the African continent. Furthermore, Kairouan is regarded by some to be the fourth holiest site in Islam, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.
Unlike the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Great Mosque of Kairouan has only one minaret. This structure is 104 feet (32 meters) high and is still one of the tallest points in the city. Another difference that can be observed between the minarets of the two mosques is that the one in Kairouan is a three-story structure, whereas the Damascene Minaret of the Bride is divided into two sections.
The minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan as shown from inside the courtyard. (Monaambf / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
On the other hand, both minarets have a square plan, which, as indicated earlier, was inspired by the design of Christian church towers in Syria. It may be added that this form also found its way to the Iberian Peninsula and was later adapted by the Christians of Spain as church towers. Some scholars, however, trace the origin of this design not to Syrian church towers, but to lighthouses from the Classical period.
The most famous lighthouse in the ancient world is undoubtedly the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Known also as the Pharos of Alexandria, this monument was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The lighthouse was constructed during the 3rd century BC, when Egypt was under the rule of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Kingdom.
The lighthouse had three sections; each sloping slightly inwards. The base of the lighthouse was a square, its middle section an octagon, and its top a cylinder.
On the top of the lighthouse was a fire that burnt at night, which was reached via a broad spiral ramp. This description comes from the German scholar Hermann Thiersch, who scoured ancient sources for information about the structure of the ancient lighthouse.
Drawing by archaeologist Hermann Thiersch (1909) of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. (Hermann Thiersch / Public Domain )
Evolution of the Minaret
Apart from discovering the structure of the lighthouse from ancient texts, Thiersch also showed that the ancient monument was still in existence during the Islamic period and argued that it may have served as the inspiration for the minarets of the Mamluk period.
These minarets were composed of three parts – a square section for its base, an octagonal middle section, and a dome on the top. Changes were made to this basic design over time. For instance, the earlier minarets had a tall square section, but this part was later reduced to a square socle at the base. At the same time, the octagonal middle section became longer in later times.
As for the dome, this was initially ornate, but was transformed into the form of a stone bulb by the 14th century. Interestingly, the minarets of the Mamluk period were not limited to congregational mosques (which was the case during the Abbasid period), but were found on other buildings as well, including smaller mosques and tombs.
Although square plan towers were common, minarets were built in different forms as well. In fact, the eastern parts of the Islamic world, minarets were commonly built as cylindrical towers. This is visible, for example, in the mosques that were built in Iran and Iraq.
In the former, the oldest known minaret is that of the congregational mosque at Siraf, which dates to the 9th century AD. This mosque, however, is no longer in extant. Therefore, the oldest surviving minarets in Iran are to be found in the Fahraj and Na’in.
The congregational mosque in both these places are dated to the 10th century and have minarets that are cylindrical in form. As a result of the Seljuk conquests during the 11th century, this minaret form spread over a large area, including Anatolia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
In Iraq, the most famous minaret is arguably that of the Great Mosque of Samarra . The mosque itself was built in the 9th century AD, during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil. Although the mosque was destroyed when the Mongols invaded Iraq, its outer walls and minaret have survived.
The minaret, known also as the Malwiya (meaning ‘Snail Shell’), is a cone with a base of 355 square feet (33 square meters), and a height of about 180 feet (55 meters). The top of the minaret can be reached via a spiral ramp that winds anti-clockwise five times up the minaret, starting from the side closest to the mosque. According to one story, Al-Mutawakkil rode a white donkey up the minaret’s spiraling path to its top.
The minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra. (Taisir Mahdi / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
According to one hypothesis, the unusual form of this minaret was inspired by the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. Alternatively, it has been pointed out that since the Great Mosque of Samarra was meant to be the largest mosque in the world, it would need to have a correspondingly large minaret.
A tall, slender minaret would have been both impractical and visually unimpressive in the flat Samarran landscape. Therefore, a minaret with enough mass in relation to its height would have made a more significant visual impact on its viewers.
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Aerial view of the Great Mosque of Samarra with the minaret in forefront. (Jennifer Mei / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Where are the Minarets Missing
Although the minaret eventually became one of the most characteristic features of Islamic religious architecture, they are by no means present in all mosques. In areas such as East Africa, Arabia, India, and much of the Far East, many mosques were built without minarets. In the parts of India under Muslim rule, for example, minarets were not very popular until the Mughal period.
Like the Mamluks of Egypt, the Mughals did not limit the building of minarets to mosques. The first Mughal minarets, for instance, were four towers built during the 17th century. These minarets flank the tomb of Akbar, the third Mughal emperor. As another example, mosques in East Africa prior to the 19th century were usually built without minarets, whereas the minaret was only introduced on a large scale in the Far East in more recent times.
Today, the primary purpose of the minaret, i.e. as the place where the muezzin recited the adhan, has largely been replaced by loudspeakers. Nevertheless, the minaret still retains its aesthetic value.
As a matter of fact, the minaret has served an aesthetic function even in earlier times. Had it been a purely functional structure, each mosque would have only needed one minaret.
Of course, many mosques had more than one minaret. Lastly, the minaret also serves a symbolic function, not only of the Islamic faith, but also of the civilizations it established.
Top image: The minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Source: robnaw / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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