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Towers of Islam

Towers of Islam

Muslims in many lands hear the sonorous call to prayer sounded from minarets.

For fourteen hundred years the Muslim faithful have heard the call to prayer—"this perfect summons"—issue from the air around them. First it came from a low rooftop a few steps from the simple dwelling of Muhammad, the Prophet, in Medina. Then the sonorous Arabic cadences began to fall from a variety of towers, each of which reflected in its line and proportion the art of those distant places drawn into religious accord by the spread of Islam. Five times each day—at dawn, at midday, in the late afternoon, just after sunset, and during the evening—the voice of the muezzin speaks to four hundred million followers of the message of God brought to the world by the Prophet, calling from the minaret, enjoining the faithful to their duty.

From spare mud towers and roofs in poor villages, and from soaring towers of such magnitude and ornament that men come from half a world away to stand before them enchanted, the holy call is breathed upon the air, and its sinewy cantillation stirs the devout heart in the most labyrinthine byway. Whether it is round, square, polygonal, or a combination of these forms; whether it has only a rude porch or an imposing gallery; whether it is plain or ornate, the minaret is the symbol of Islam.

A Christian seeing the slender towers of the Middle East rise in the pale whiteness of the desert light might well assume that the minaret is an obligatory structure in Muslim worship. It is not. K. A. C. Creswell, the leading British scholar of Muslim architecture, has observed that "in the time of Muhammad no such thing as a minaret was known." He dates the first minarets, those at Damascus, from 673 A.D., 41 years after the death of Muhammad. It should be noted that the call to prayer can be cried in the streets or from the roof of the mosque (from the Arabic word masjid, meaning "the place of prostration"), and that mosques in villages and outlying places rarely have minarets.

However, the minaret as the setting for the call to prayer now has the force of fourteen centuries of tradition behind it and it would be hard today to conjure the image of a mosque without several towers looming from its corners. The traveler who first is impressed by the number of minarets to be seen in large Muslim centers may upon a second, and closer, look be taken by their variety. This difference in design and form serves well to illustrate a historic continuum of Islam—unity in diversity.

Although their variations seem endless to the untrained observer, minarets generally fall into one of four characteristic types as isolated by Talbot F. Hamlin of the Columbia School of Architecture.

Those of Cairo and Syria usually have several galleries with the tower diminishing at each gallery. The top is capped with a bulbous dome. Sometimes the lowest section is square.

The minarets of Morocco and Spain are generally large square towers, richly decorated, with a smaller pavilion at the top. The usual building material is brick, laid with relief patterns on all sides. The gallery of the lower stage serves for the call to prayer.

The Persian minaret rises in a high, slender, tapered, round turret. Often, pairs of these minarets flank a great entranceway. Usually the gallery is placed very high, and the tower is capped by a low dome. The entire minaret is frequently covered with green, blue, and yellow glazed Persian tile.

The fourth type, the Turkish minaret, is also slender and tapered, and may be round or polygonal. But unlike the Persian minaret, on which it may be based, the Turkish type has two, and even three, galleries. It is uniformly capped with a slim wooden cone. It makes no use of color and is frequently built of white marble.

The minarets of India, while not a distinct type, have impressive elements. They show the influence of native Hindu architectural styles as well as the influence of Persian minarets. Hamlin has noted that "the forms are, nevertheless, treated with that peculiar delicacy and restrained richness typical of Mogul work."

Some insight into the tradition of the minaret can be gained by examining the meaning and use of the word in Arabic. Creswell in his masterwork on Muslim architecture writes: "Three words have been employed in Arabic to denote minarets: midhana, sauma'a, and manara. The first is derived from adhan, the call to prayer, and simply means the place where the call to prayer is pronounced. The second appears to have been the name given by the Arabs to hermits' towers. All Syrian church towers and minarets built before the thirteenth century are square, and in this connection it is especially interesting to find that this word is employed throughout North Africa, where minarets are nearly always of this type. It was carried into Spain by the Arabs and has been incorporated into the Spanish language as zoma. The third term, manara, literally means 'a place where fire (nar) burns.' For this reason it was applied to the Pharos [the historical lighthouse at Alexandria], at the top of which a fire burnt at night, then to lighthouses generally, and then, by analogy, to mosque towers, our word minaret being derived from it."

The first use of a tower for the call to prayer appears to have been in Damascus where the early Muslims prayed in the sacred enclosure of a Syrian church which had once been a pagan temple. The first minarets, as such, were constructed when the Mosque of 'Amr was rebuilt and enlarged in 673 A.D. When Islam burst out of Arabia, Egypt was one of the first countries to fall before its epic force. The conquest of Egypt was completed in 640-641 A.D., just eight years after the death of Muhammad. The Mosque of 'Amr was built in 641-642 A.D., and in 32 years the Muslim congregation of Cairo (then, Fustat) outgrew it. Hence, the need for a larger place of worship. The four towers added to the enlarged structure were patterned after the towers of the Syrian church used by the Muslims at Damascus. Creswell, after years of cautious and thorough study, sealed the matter with scholarly care:

"The typical Syrian church tower in pre-Muslim times, especially in the Hauran, the region first conquered by the Arabs, was a square stone shaft, sometimes slightly tapering. ... We can now say with confidence that the idea of the minaret arose in Syria under the Umayyad dynasty.. .."

The minaret as a symbol of Islam was secured as early as 707-709 A.D. when the Mosque of Medina was rebuilt and enlarged. This was the mosque built by Muhammad. Four minarets were incorporated in the enlarged structure, and it was panelled with marble and polychrome mosaics, according to contemporary accounts.

Probably the strangest of all minarets still standing is that at Samarra. It is a helicoidal tower standing apart from the mosque and looks like a scaled-down Tower of Babel. An ascending ramp circles the truncated cone just as in the nineteenth-century Biblical, steel engravings of the Tower of Babel by Dore and others. Oddly enough, the Babylonian zikkurats (temple towers) were pyramidal and usually built upon a square base. Ascending and continuous staircases ran "round and round" (Herodotus) the outside. The Muslim innovation was to build such a tower (minaret) upon a circular base.

It has been observed that the religion of Islam is not, as some people believe, a profound departure from the other religions which originated in the Middle East—Judaism and Christianity. The three share much in common. As Islam rose and swept from China to Spain, it was far more tolerant of other religions than is commonly understood. Often the conquerors permitted Christian worship to continue while a part of a church was taken over for the obligatory Friday noon congregation prayer of Muslim practice.

One may find a vague irony in the fact that the minaret was adopted from the towers of a building used first for pagan worship, then for the worship of Christ. However, there is a more profound and responsible view which is exemplified in the writings of Kenneth Cragg, a Christian student of the implications in the "call of the minaret" heard five times daily by more than four hundred million people from Morocco to Indonesia.

"Two of the most sacred mosques of the Islamic world," Cragg writes, "look down from their sanctuaries eastward toward the trees of old Gethsemane. From its olive-covered slopes the Garden of Agony looks westward to the domes and minarets of the ancient skyline. In the still dawn the muezzin can be heard calling to prayer across the valley where Jesus communed with His spirit until midnight and went forth the Christ of the Cross, the Saviour of the World. Through all their history, since the minarets were raised, the two faiths have been that near, that far."

No less varied than the architecture of the minaret is the cantillation of the muezzin as he calls out (sometimes through a loudspeaker; and sometimes today through the disembodiment of a recording) across the rooftops of thousands of villages and cities. The chant rises and falls with microtonal nuance, the length of phrase may be short or spun out with embellishment, the style may be florid or spare. And the words and phrases may vary or convolve upon repetitions. But the burden of the call is essentially the same from place to place and from prayer to prayer.

Cragg has translated the familiar sentences of the call of the minaret as follows:

God is most great, God is most great, I bear witness that there is no god except God: I bear witness that Muhammad is the Apostle of God. Come ye unto prayer. Come ye unto good .... Prayer is a better thing than sleep. Come ye to the best deed. God is most great. God is most great. There is no god except God.

This article appeared on pages 18-21 of the March/April 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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