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A mihrab in Sultan Ibrahim Mosque in Rethymno
A mihrab in Sultan Ibrahim Mosque in Rethymno
Mihrab (prayer niche); 1354-1355; mosaic of polychrome-glazed cut tiles on stonepaste body, set into mortar; 343.1 x 288.7 cm, weight: 2041.2 kg; from Isfahan (Iran); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Mihrab (prayer niche); 1354-1355; mosaic of polychrome-glazed cut tiles on stonepaste body, set into mortar; 343.1 x 288.7 cm, weight: 2041.2 kg; from Isfahan (Iran); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)

Mihrab (Arabic: محرابmiḥrāb, pl. محاريب maḥārīb) is a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla; that is, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and hence the direction that Muslims should face when praying. The wall in which a mihrab appears is thus the "qibla wall".

Mihrab should not be confused with the minbar, which is the raised platform from which an Imam (leader of prayer) addresses the congregation. The mihrab is located to the left of the minbar.

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Voiceover: Normally when you see a niche, you expect a sculpture to be in it. However, we are looking at a prayer niche, a Mihrab. Voiceover: This is really just a directional pointer. Voiceover: It is a pointer. In the Islamic faith, you are supposed to pray five times a day and you're supposed to pray towards Mecca. So knowing where you are meant to be pointing and where you are meant to be praying is really a fundamental thing so all of the mosques anywhere in the world are set up to do this. Voiceover: And so they'd have this Mihrab in a wall which is known as the Qibla Wall. Voiceover: Correct. Voiceover: And that just basically faces towards Mecca. It's not oriented east or north or south or west, but in the direction of Mecca, whatever that might be. Voiceover: And there's no altar, no religious edifice that stands in front of it so some of the things that you might be expecting to see as you would see in a Western church or cathedral don't exist here. Voiceover: And so people wouldn't pray towards this niche, they would just pray in the direction that this niche was set. Voiceover: That's exactly right. If you imagine this back into its mosque, into its context, you could see people in rows facing the Qibla Wall praying towards Mecca. Mecca was the home of the prophet Muhammad. He lived in Mecca until 620 when he was forced out and he went to Medina. His house in Medina had a large courtyard. His house was more a civic center than really just a domestic space and it was oriented towards Mecca. Now we have no evidence, physical evidence of the house, it's long gone, but that is what the Hadiths and early sources tell us. Voiceover: So this basic architectural form which is now found in every mosque may have in fact been based on perhaps an archway within the courtyard of the prophet's home in Medina and it's interesting that you say that his house was the civic center because that's the way that we think about mosques. That is, that they're not just religious spaces, but they're really cultural centers. Voiceover: One of my favorite experiences was going to the Great Mosque in Damascus and you go into the courtyard and it is social. Families are there, children are there, people are talking, meeting up, having a good time. It's a place of community. We've also seen that with the Arab Spring that Friday prayers and people going to the mosques was a kind of flashpoint for many people to then go and protest their governments so the mosques hold this very important political and social place in the Islamic world. Voiceover: Let's put this particular Mihrab back in its historical context. This is from the city of Isfahan and its brilliant blues that we see in these tiles is not distinct just to this Mihrab, but was really distinct to the entire city. Voiceover: Oh, Isfahan is the blue city. It is spectacular. Really you have to imagine blue tile, light blue, dark blue, turquoise blue, everywhere. A vibrant glowing city that would have shimmered. Voiceover: This Mihrab would have been within not a public mosque but a Madrasa, part of a school. Voiceover: Yes, and is believed to have come from, I think it's called the [Minani] Madrasa in Isfahan so this is where people who were enrolled at the school studying theology would have come to pray and often they would hear a sermon, not dissimilar to what people would hear in a church or in other religious spaces. Voiceover: But in this context, you don't really even need the sermon because it's written into the tile work itself. Voiceover: Yes, and that's one of the things that makes this so gorgeous. On the exterior rectangular frame, we have a verse from the Quran. Voiceover: This is Arabic and it is read from right to left, the opposite direction that we read in English. Voiceover: Right, the Quran was always in Arabic and the Quran should always be learned, and studied, and recited in Arabic because it is the word of God, it is divinely revealed. Muhammad is believed to have been a conduit for the word of God, not the person who created it so it has to be in Arabic. Voiceover: That outer frame that you were pointing out, the script is so fluid, and so beautiful, and so decorative it almost seems to be a pure abstraction. The inner frame is really distinct. This is not that kind of fluid script that we see on the outer part of the Mihrab. This seems much harder edged and much more geometric. Voiceover: This is called [Kuthic] script and it's one of the most well known scripts throughout the entire Islamic world. We have [Kuthic] script written on the dome of the rock that was finished in 691, 692. This is also really interesting. It stands out partially because you have the blue on the white as opposed to on the rest of the niche where you have white on blue. Blue is your dominant background color. But what's also particularly interesting about this inscription is what it says and it basically lists the five pillars of Islam. Voiceover: So these are the five rules that any adherent to Islam must follow. Voiecover: That's right and it's very simple. You have to believe in the confession of faith, there is only one God but God and Muhammad is his prophet, he is His messenger. You have to give alms. You have to pray five times a day. If you are able, you should undertake a pilgrimage, the Haj to Mecca. And lastly, Ramadan, the month of fasting. And those are the five basic things that you should try to achieve in your life if you are to be a good Muslim. Voiceover: So this is a really didactic statement and seems so appropriate that it's within a Madrasa within a school. Voiceover: Yeah, it's a constant reminder. You also would have had a literate population. You have people that who studying the Quran for hours upon end. Voiceover: I see that there's a third area within the niche that has text within it. It's low so it would be visible when one was praying. Voiceover: It says in Arabic, "The prophet peace be upon him, "the mosque is the dwelling place of the pious" so it's another nice reminder that you should be contemplative but also invoking Muhammad, that he is the kind of beacon to which all Muslims should be looking to live their lives.



The word is derived from Iranian mythology, as described in the "History" section below.


The word mihrab originally had a non-religious meaning and simply denoted a special room in a house; a throne room in a palace, for example. The Fath al-Bari (p. 458), on the authority of others, suggests the mihrab is "the most honorable location of kings" and "the master of locations, the front and the most honorable." The Mosques in Islam (p. 13), in addition to Arabic sources, cites Theodor Nöldeke and others as having considered a mihrab to have originally signified a throne room.

The term was subsequently used by the Islamic prophet Muhammad to denote his own private prayer room. The room additionally provided access to the adjacent mosque, and the Prophet would enter the mosque through this room. This original meaning of mihrab – i.e. as a special room in the house – continues to be preserved in some forms of Judaism where mihrabs are rooms used for private worship. In the Qur'an (xix.11), the word mihrab refers to a sanctuary/place of worship.[1]

During the reign of Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644–656), the Caliph ordered a sign to be posted on the wall of the mosque at Medina so that pilgrims could easily identify the direction in which to address their prayers (i.e. that of Mecca). The sign was however just a sign on the wall, and the wall itself remained flat. Subsequently, during the reign of Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik (Al-Walid I, r. 705–715), Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet) was renovated and the governor (wāli) of Medina, Umar ibn AbdulAziz, ordered that a niche be made to designate the qibla wall (which identifies the direction of Mecca), and it was in this niche that Uthman's sign was placed.

Eventually, the niche came to be universally understood to identify the qibla wall, and so came to be adopted as a feature in other mosques. A sign was no longer necessary.

The Qur'anic passage (xix.11) that refers to a mihrab – "then he [i.e. Zakariya] came forth to his people from the sanctuary/place of worship" – is inscribed on or over some mihrabs.[1]

Present-day use

Today, Mihrabs vary in size, are usually ornately decorated and often designed to give the impression of an arched doorway or a passage to Mecca.

In exceptional cases, the mihrab does not follow the qibla direction. One example is the Mezquita of Córdoba, Spain that points south instead of southeast. Among the proposed explanations, there is the localization of the ancient Roman cardo street besides the old temple the Mezquita was built upon.

Another is the Masjid al-Qiblatayn, or the Mosque of the Two Qiblas. This is where the Prophet Muhammad received the command to change the direction of prayer (qibla) from Jerusalem to Mecca, thus has two prayer niches. In the 21st Century the mosque was renovated, and the old prayer niche facing Jerusalem was removed, and the one facing Mecca was left.


See also


  1. ^ a b Kuban, Doğan (1974), The Mosque and Its Early Development, Muslim Religious Architecture, Leiden: Brill, p. 3, ISBN 90-04-03813-2.

External links

  • Diez, Ernst (1936), "Mihrāb", Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3, Leiden: Brill, pp. 559–565.
  • Fehérvári, Geza (1993), "Mihrāb", Encyclopaedia of Islam, New edition, 7, Leiden: Brill, pp. 7–15.
This page was last edited on 23 May 2019, at 16:36
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