The Minaret, Symbol of a Civilization

The minaret is the architectural shape which best indicates the presence of mosque. Over the centuries the mosque assumed a number of roles including a social centre, place for prayer, teaching institute, court of justice, space for financial transactions and an area for administrative organization. This presentation reviews the philosophy behind the shape and function of the Minaret.

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Figure 1. Yivli (Grooved) Minaret Mosque, Antalya, Turkey (Image from Miniaturk, Istanbul).

This is an edited version of a presentation given by Cherif Jah Abderrahmán, (President, Islamic Culture Foundation) at a seminar in Marrakesh on 7 March 2006. Published here with kind permission from funci.org.

Traditionally Western culture has had some difficulty in interpreting, in abstract terms, the physical and material realities of Islam. So I wish to share a few ideas and thoughts from the point of view of a humanist and of someone who has studied Islam.

The study of semiotics is always ambiguous and complicated given that the attributes of symbols are not static, but change according to the feeling and attitudes evoked in the observer.

However, our day-to-day life is full of symbols, and it is important to learn to unravel these as they are an abstract construct of ways of thinking, ways of life, and essentially embody the product of a civilization. Thus the "tower", an edifice taller than it is wide and which was devised in response to problems of defense and communication, has throughout history come to represent dominance and power. In mankind's collective unconscious, since the beginning of time, there has always been this association between elevation and height with the concept of superiority, divinity, and supreme power. Cities, harbors, countries and civilizations display their towers with pride. We could almost trace History through their presence: Babel, symbol of the confusion of languages; Mesopotamia's ziggurats as symbols of the quest for wisdom; Italian towers, symbols of the rivalry among cities; the Eiffel tower and New York skyscrapers, symbols of the power of technology…All these bring to mind mankind's earnest for perpetuation. Every builder, had the capacity been available, would doubtlessly have made them taller, higher.

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Figure 2. Spiral minaret in Samarra, Iraq (Source).

In the case of the Islamic civilization, the architectural shape which best and more clearly indicates the presence of Islam, is the minaret, whatever its current function and whichever may be the social reasons which led to its construction.

The main problem which we face in dealing with the minaret is how and when it acquired a towering shape, given that the ceremony of calling the faithful to prayer, almost as ancient as the Prophet's settlement in Medina, originally took place in the streets and then from the highest roof of the neighboring houses.

If there is a feature particular to Islam it is this: that particular capacity, that intelligent attitude of providing a service to the community when a need must be overcome. Islam was born, grew, and evolved with and for the Umma. As tradition states, "Wherever you may be as the time for prayer comes and you perform salat, that place is a mosque." But the mosque had to physically match the community's need for a dedicated space, although the structure was not seen in a rigid, defined manner. It adapted instead to circumstance.

Accordingly it also became a social centre, a place for prayer and teaching, a court of justice, a space for financial transactions, an area for administrative organization, etc.

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Figure 3. Cifte (Double) Minare Madrasa, Erzurum, Turkey (Image from Miniaturk, Istanbul).

In response to this principle of meeting the community's needs the adhan therefore also arose, as an efficient method of calling the faithful. The minaret later became the physical location for this purpose.

We note once again how the symbol stands for a multiplicity of principles, a system of values, of knowledge, of tradition. In the same way as Islam struggled and worked to lay down its foundations, like any other expanding civilization, its architects and builders needed to solve technical problems which forced them to adopt specific shapes. These led to ever taller, more beautiful, more significant minarets.

As part of this logical evolutionary process, which paralleled the establishment of mosques throughout the Islamic world the minaret grew, limited only by conditions prevailing in the surrounding environment.

But as the minaret unified the various social, political, and religious elements common to the unifying force of Islam, it never lost its primary function as the main lookout from which to gather the members of the community.

The usefulness of symbols, whether architectural or any other type, stems from their capacity to remind us of the values for which they stand, and they will always remain present as long as their driving principles also continue to exist.

All this leads us to think it logical that any idea we hold must ultimately aim at gaining knowledge, which shall become useful if it can help in creating a future. Otherwise, all our efforts would be sterile.

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Figure 4. Minaret Koutoubia, Morocco (Source).

The world of Islam must thus remain faithful to the principles embodied in the minaret. Today's increasingly globalized culture which blends the various civilizations; the major problems facing mankind, the need for cooperation and solidarity in response to future challenges, all these factors make it necessary that there be a call for unity in humanity from the many existing towers.

Islam has proven throughout history that it has no problem in evolving according to need by adapting to different circumstances. Today's Islamic world must thus provide solutions in solidarity with the rest of the world without losing sight of its own traditional values and of its original balance.

The Kutubiya, which together with the Tinmal mosque is an emblem of the Almohade civilization which provided so much knowledge and development for Humanity, well deserves that we all honor it by providing our single grain of sand to the Euro Islamic dialogue.

The Western Institute for Islamic Culture, over which I am honored to preside, and on the basis of the deep respect inspired by the traditions it studies and transmits, is carrying out a series of activities aimed at bringing together the Islamic world and the West, both victims of fanaticism and ignorance.

Last May another high-profile institution, the Council of Europe, jointly organized with our Institute a seminar held in UNESCO headquarters in Paris on the contribution made by Islam to European culture. As a follow-up to the discussions and debates that took place the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly approved Recommendation 1162 in plenary session on September 19 with the purpose of taking concrete measures to help overcome problems in the area of intercultural relations which affect all of us.

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Figure 5. Qutub Minar, Delhi, India (Source).

On this occasion, where we are dealing with a cultural and political movement which extends to both shores of the Mediterranean. I must call for, as I did in Paris and this is included in the text of the Recommendation, the need to consider the cultural unity of the Western Mediterranean as an unquestioned reality and as a Basic premise which we can and should accept in a natural manner, without any complexes.

I would finally like to express my wish that this type of activity should multiply so that symbols as beautiful and suggestive as the minarets in the Kutubiya and in the Giralda, which represent the two leading Almohade capitals, retain their significance and their current values.

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