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5 / Cosmology and Belief

La Mezquita (Great Mosque) (interior)
La Mezquita (Great Mosque) (interior)
Artist / Origin Unknown architect(s) (possibly Syrian), Andalucía (Islamic Spain)
Region: Europe
Date Umayyad Dynasty, begun ca. 784–86; enlarged in the 9th and 10th centuries
Material Stone, brick, marble, porphyry, jasper, and other materials
Dimensions (Columns) H: approx. 13 ft. (3.96 m.) (each)
Location Córdoba, Spain
Credit © Pawel Wysocki/Hemis/CORBIS

expert perspective

Kishwar RizviAssistant Professor of Islamic Art, Yale University

La Mezquita (Great Mosque) (interior)

» Unknown architect(s) (possibly Syrian), Andalucía (Islamic Spain)

expert perspective

Kishwar Rizvi Kishwar Rizvi Assistant Professor of Islamic Art, Yale University

There is a passage in the Qur’an in which God says to the believers that let me show you my signs. And the signs in the material world are considered to be signs of God. And objects of beauty that are created in the religious context of Islam whether it’s architecture, whether it’s calligraphy, whether it’s illumination of pages of the Qur’an hold beauty because they are considered to be signs of God, that anything that is beautiful cannot be beautiful without that signature that connects it to the esoteric, to the spiritual world of Muslims.

There is no formal liturgy in Islam. And the belief is that all Muslims belong to a community of equals. There is no hierarchy, there is no person per se who defines or interprets the religion. And so anybody has access to the greatest mosque in the world and to the most humble space. There is just one requirement for a mosque, which is that it should give you the direction to the Ka’ba in Mecca. That’s the only requirement. And beyond that there really isn’t any prerequisite. Everything else that is added to the mosque—and, of course, we see the most elaborate ones all over the world as well, from Grenada to Egypt to Indonesia even now—but all those other extras really are additional aspects of the religion and that, again, speak to humanity and humanity’s need at a certain moment in time. A mosque really is a place of meeting. It’s a place not just to celebrate your devotion, but also to come together as a community, and I think that’s what really, really brings them together and that’s what really makes them special. And that they are open. And historically mosques, always and even today, historically mosques and shrines have been places of asylum. And I think that’s what’s most compelling about them is it’s not just the space itself, but what it represents to so many people—that it’s a place of safety and a place also of devotion.

I think if there was a mosque that I think really defines the religion, it would be the great mosque in Spain, for a number of reasons. Not only because it’s one of the earliest mosques in Islam, not only because now it’s become a church, that it’s converted, it’s changed, it has this amazing flexibility in it. When you look at this great mosque, what you see are these pillars and there are pillars and pillars and pillars that seem to go on to infinity. And they stand like individuals. There is no hierarchy in them. They stand there as individual devotees, as each person who could stand there as equals. And that mosque has always represented to me, the interior of that mosque, the essential aspect of Islam that is about a community of a gathering, and a gathering in this case of pillars, but that gathering can represent the community of Islam, of people praying together.” 

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