Bernard O’Kane, scholar and author of Mosques: The 100 Most Iconic Islamic Houses of Worship, says he has a message for non-Muslim tourists curious about exploring the local mosque on their travels — go inside.
And here Mr. O’Kane provides some basic facts about mosques as well as some etiquette guides via the Washington Post:
Is a mosque always related to Islam?
Nobody else specifically uses the word “mosque” as a place of prayer. It comes from the Arabic word meaning a “place of prostration,” where you bow down while praying to God.
Do mosques share similar characteristics?
You can make your own personal mosque by marking off a space to pray, but the mosques people visit communally will have some distinguishing features, such as a mihrab, a niche in the center of the wall facing Mecca. The mihrab is a commemoration of the place where the prophet Muhammad led the first prayer.
Do the mosques demonstrate regional differences?
There are certainly stylistic differences that are both regional and chronological. There’s a big difference between mosques in the west of Africa, mosques in Egypt, and mosques in Iran and India. The building materials can be very different, the types of decoration can be different, and sometimes the forms differ substantially.
How many of the 100 mosques (in your book) are open to the non-Muslim public?
Almost all of them are. Just a few countries like Algeria and Tunisia restrict entrance to Muslims only, but in other parts of the Islamic world, it’s not a problem.
What is the proper etiquette of visiting a mosque?
You shouldn’t go during communal Friday prayer at noon. In fact, it’s best to miss communal prayer if an imam is leading prayers inside. Wait the 20 minutes for it to be over. You should dress conservatively. Try not to go in shorts or tank tops. You should maintain decorum inside, so don’t speak or laugh loudly. Other than that, there are very few restrictions.
Should women cover their heads?
It depends on the country. In many countries it’s not necessary at all.
Non-Muslims are not permitted to go to Mecca, correct?
That’s correct. While Mecca might be an amazing experience, the Saudis have unfortunately not been keen on preserving any of the old buildings and have knocked most of them down to build new structures.
Which mosques would you recommend visiting?
I lived in Iran for a few years, and some of my favorite mosques are in Isfahan, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But there are also other cities like Istanbul, Cairo and Delhi that have an amazing concentration of buildings from a wide range of periods. This is an excellent way to get the feel of an Islamic city.
Any mosques you can recommend in the States?
The Islamic Center in New York is one of the finest buildings in the world. It’s by the American architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It has a beautiful dome chamber with a great sense of space inside.