‘Beyond the mosque’: Seeing Islam’s diversity reflected in worship spaces


The Semahane, or prayer hall, of the Galata Mevlevihanesi in Istanbul, Turkey, is a space where the Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes have prayed and performed since 1491. Courtesy photo

For more than a decade, Rizwan Mawani has been living, working and praying with Muslims in 50 different communities across 17 countries. As you’d expect, he has visited plenty of masjids, as mosques are called in Arabic, meaning “a place of prostration.”

But Mawani, a 45-year-old Canadian scholar and research consultant, whose new book is called “Beyond the Mosque: Diverse Spaces of Muslim Worship,” also spent time in Sufi khanaqas, Shia husayniyyas, Druze khalwas, Ismaili jamatkhanas as well as religious schools known as madrasas and other spaces of Islamic devotion from Canada to China.

Mawani uses these varied sacred spaces as lenses through which to offer readers a primer on the expansive histories, varied architectures and evolving ritual practices of Muslims around the world.

“While the mosque has come to predominate over our architectural assumptions and is often considered as the place of worship for Muslims, a survey of where ritual takes place … demonstrates that there are alternative venues in which Muslims pray,” Mawani wrote in the new book.

Mawani spoke to Religion News Service about how learning about Muslim sacred spaces blurs sectarian boundaries, challenges attempts to define Islam and can help unite the global Muslim ummah, or community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your goal with writing this book?

As I began to travel around the Muslim world, I began to realize there was a whole group of spaces, communities and practices excluded from the typical narratives about what it means to be Muslim.

Even with the mosque itself, we have a particular image both in terms of the architecture — that it has domes and minarets — as well as the rituals and practice that happens within it. I wanted to look at what space told us about what it means to be Muslim, the way in which Muslim communities utilize those spaces for their own practices, and how those spaces communicated to us the values that each community deemed to be important.

So space was an organizing principle for me, but I quickly realized that this had to be combined with ritual. It wasn’t just the building itself that spoke about what it meant to be Muslim, but the people who used that space, the culture that brought that space about.

I started in Lebanon and spent some time in China and Pakistan and other corners of the Muslim world. I wanted to understand how these local cultures influence both Muslim religious architecture and Muslim piety. Nobody has taken a global perspective to say, what does this now look like when we travel geographically or explore Muslim piety across theological lines?

What common characteristics bind these diverse spaces?

I construct a triangle of belief: there’s the belief in Allah, the Quran and the Prophet, regardless of denomination, architecture, rituals and so forth. But how these are expressed differs. One element associated with the masjid is salat, which almost without exception is the predominant ritual of Muslim communities. There are some variations on salat amongst the madhabs (schools of thought), which are sometimes minor and sometimes much more stark. 

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