Monday 17 September 2012


As some of you may know, I have recently started teaching High School AP Art History in my home state of South Carolina. It’s been a rough month of adjustments, but I have come to love my students and their enthusiasm and am enjoying teaching the next generation of academics.  This week we spent some time looking at Byzantine and Islamic art, some of my favourite. The art of the East is unfamiliar to the majority of my students, having only been exposed to some of the more recognized Western works of art like the Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Monet’s Water-Lily Pond.  My high school seniors were fascinated with the geometric patterns and ornate architectural creations of the East, thus inspiring my post for this week: the minaret.The minaret, unlike the mihrab and minbar of the mosque, has not been subject to the same in-depth study when discussing symbolic significance in Islam. It is the location where the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer and has become a necessity in mosque design, especially as populations increased. Older mosques are accompanied by one or two minarets, whereas later mosques, or mosques in more progressive cities, have multiple. The need for several minarets at heavily populated locations, like Mecca, is so the call can be heard in all directions of the city. The original Muslim place of worship, the house of Muhammad, had no such structure and the daily calls to prayer were made from the roof of the house. Minarets are not noted until eighty years after the death of the Prophet and are perhaps an adaptation of Christian bell towers.  The similarities between minarets and bell towers involves height, duality as a guard tower, and as a location to announce church services and calls to prayer. However, light is a significantly more important feature in minarets and is exemplified in the word’s etymology.

            The religious purpose of the minaret is to announce the five daily prayers, but the name ‘minaret’ is what connects us to the topic of sacred light. The origins of ‘minaret’, manārah, means ‘lighthouse,’ and has the inclusion of the word nār, meaning ‘fire.’1 Arabic poems make reference to the light of a monk’s cell as he transcribes the word of God, and this is perhaps how the word came into being.2 In turn, a lantern is often placed in the mihrab as representation of the ‘light’ of Allah.3 The Koran references this sacred light in 24:35.

This same idea is applied to the minaret for the evening prayer. The muezzin climbs to the top of the minaret and makes the call to prayer, his path lit by a small lantern that flickers out to the faithful who prepare for the fifth paying of homage. The etymology of the word certainly implies religious significance to the light of Allah shining out into the darkness for prayer. Again, the idea of sacredness and light is more often linked to the lighting of the mihrab, but the action of lighting the way to the mosque is certainly intentional and symbolic and it is important that the minaret is recognized alongside its architectural counterparts.
As mentioned, minarets are relatable to Christian bell towers. The sacredness of light is more prominent in minarets, but the dual functions of both towers and minarets make them great subjects of comparability. Having a location of great height is important in both Christian cities of the West and Islamic cities of the East for means of protection. Guard towers were likely to exist in Muslim cities and it was possible that doubling the guard tower as a place for call to prayer followed the design of Christians residing in the East. One example of a minaret with a potential history of acting as a guard tower is the minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan (above).The minaret of Kairouan is the oldest surviving minaret in the Maghreb region (Northwest Africa) and dates to either the reign of Umayyad caliph Hicham Ibn ‘Abd al-Malik (724-743) or Ziyadat Allah I (817-838), to whom the mosque is attributed to.4 The facade facing the interior of the structure features square windows with bricked lunettes on a three-tiered building,while the outer facing walls are dotted with small slits serving as holes for defensive weaponry.5 This confirms the minaret’s militaristic use.     

The third floor was remodelled in the thirteenth century, complete with a large lantern. It should be noted that in some Islamic sanctuaries, Christian bells were taken as a means of spolia and repurposed as chandeliers.6 This is symbolic of the rise of Islam overpowering the existence of Christianity and the light of Allah out-shining Christian practices.  The sacred light of Allah and the call to prayer create a theological interpretation of the minaret as an architectural feature. Although it could not be said if the religious functions out-shine the more militaristic use of towers, the domineering message of Islam over Christianity, and the protection the tower provides against invaders creates a sense of cultural strength in this architectural feature.


[1] "Definition of Minaret." Accessed March 05, 2012.
[2] Gottheil, Richard J.H. "The Origin and History of the Minaret." Journal of the American Oriental Society 30, no. 2 (March 1910): 132-54. Accessed March 7, 2012.
[3] Michon, Jean-Louis. "The Message of Islamic Art." In Introduction to Traditional Islam, Illustrated: Foundations, Art, and Spirituality, 72. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008.
[4] "Minaret De La Grande Mosque De Kairouan." Qantara Mediterranean Heritage. Accessed March 09, 2012.
[5] Ibid.                                                 
[6] Guidetti, Mattia. "Spolia." Lecture, Interactions of Islamic and Christian Art within the Islamic World, Class at University of Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, March 14, 2012.

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