The Architectural, Cultural, and Religious Significance of Minarets

Islamic architecture is a significant and influential typology that transforms the core beliefs of Islam into concrete structures. It has been long recognized as a key component of Islamic architecture. The Islamic world’s architecture is known for its emphasis on interior spaces. The contrast between interior and exterior is evident, whether it’s a systematic organization of interior layouts that make the most of natural light and ventilation, as well as intricate detail in ornamentation through carvings or paintings. One architectural feature stands out from the rest and is a strong visual representation of Islam’s presence. Its unique structure made it a central point and guided people to the holiest place of Islam. We will examine the reasons for the use minarets, and the evolution of its function architecturally and culturally.

The typical mosque’s architecture includes an open courtyard, an arcade and a prayer hall. The dome structure has a Qibla wall facing Mecca, a mehrab (a semicircular niche that allows the mosque’s Imam or Imam to lead prayer) and the minbar, which is an elevated seat for Imam. The mosque serves a religious purpose as a place to worship. It also has cultural and social significance, providing a space for education, social gatherings, and philanthropy.

The call to prayer (or Athan) was first performed at the mosque’s highest point. Because people didn’t have the technology to amplify the sound, the mosque’s architecture and location had a significant impact on how it was being transmitted. The first minaret-like structure built was inspired by the Greek watchtowers. Scholars believe that the inspiration for building tower-like structures was from ancient Syrian church steeples.

Minarets have been built in many different ways throughout history. They can be squared or spiraled, and come in many heights. The minaret’s base is a square-shaped foundation that is attached to the corner. As the structure rises it becomes a series squared, hexagonal or octagonal stacks with balconies or niches. The minaret’s top is sealed with a dome- or cone-like element. The tower’s highest point, regardless of whether it is the structure or the top, is heavily decorated with carvings, paint or reflective material.

Minaret of Kairouan Mosque. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Depending on the size and visual prominence of the mosque in relation to its surroundings, minarets can be as many as six. Access to the highest level can be made via either an internal or external staircase. The Great Mosque of Samarra, also known as Malwiya in Iraq, is an example of such a structure. It contains a great minaret that is enclosed by a spiral ramp. This can be accessed by members of the public.

Malwiya . Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The oldest continuously operating minaret in the world dates back to 727 AD. It is a monolithic square-formed tower located in Tunisia’s Kairouan Mosque. The mosque is located in Kairouan, Tunisia (UNESCO World Heritage Town). It is known also as the Mosque of Uqba. The minaret, which is square-based, was constructed in the middle of the northern façade. This is an unusual placement. It rises 31.5m with a base of 10.7m on each side. It is composed of three levels and topped by a small dome with ribbed edges. The tower is made of rubble stone and has a staircase with 129 steps that can only be accessed through the interior. The tower’s courtyard-facing side is punctured by windows that allow light and ventilation to the area.

Minaret of Kairouan Mosque. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today, architects see the minaret as more than a functional call to prayer. They view it as an architectural symbol of Islam, without straying from its established principles. Many environmental, structural and government constraints forced the architects to alter the typology of the “typical Mosque”, which saw the removal of some of its more traditional features such as domes and arcades. However, architects were able to use the minaret’s symbolic significance and create a new context for the building’s function by using it as a creative canvas. Minarets, which have dimensions comparable to skyscrapers’, were reimagined to be cultural landmarks. They offer panoramic views and are visual references to Islam.

KAPSARC Mosque / HOK. Image © Abdulrahman Alolyan
Central Mosque of Pristina Competition Entry / Victoria Stotskaia, Raof Abdelnabi, Kamel Lokman Salem. Image Courtesy of Invert Studios
Mohammad Rasul-Allah Mosque / Paya Payrang Architectural Group. Image © Samaneh Motaghipishe
Mosquée d’Algérie / KSP Juergen Engel Architekten. Image Courtesy of KSP Juergen Engel Architekten