When completed, the form of the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah was extremely simple. It consisted of an unpaved enclosure with walls made of mud bricks and an arcade on the qiblah side (towards Makkah) made of palm-trunks used as columns to support a roof of palm-leaves and mud. There were initially three entrances which pierced the eastern, western and southern walls. The northern wall was the qiblah side facing al-Masjid al-Aqsa – which was the first qiblah for about one year and a few months. However, as the qiblah was changed to face south towards Makkah, the southern entrance was subsequently bricked up and a wall on the northern side was pierced. Before the qiblah change, there was, in all likelihood, no roofed area in the mosque (some still believe there was) but after the qiblah change, an arcade on the southern side facing Makkah was created. There was no decoration of any kind within or without the mosque.
According to the Islamic worldview, this life is a brief journey necessary for arriving to the Hereafter. Death is seen as the gateway to the Hereafter. Death is by no means a negative thing. Believers are scared neither of death nor of the prospect of experiencing it themselves, as it brings them back to Allah, their Creator and Master. To believers, death is the gateway to everything they have patiently longed for in the earthly life. Thus, constantly reflecting on death and looking forward to facing it is considered a virtue; the opposite is viewed as a serious spiritual failing.
First Example: the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus
As the first example, we hear of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus as being one of the most splendid buildings ever built by Muslims, which was built by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid in 705 AC / 87 H. The Mosque was, as Ross Burns describes, “the glittering epicenter of this (Islamic) new civilization, probably the most richly decorated building since the passing of ancient Rome. In the 14 years from the Dome of the Rock to the Umayyad Mosque, the Umayyads developed a series of architectural symbols of great significance and massive proportions, decorated with unparalleled splendor. They were truly imperial gestures marking the transition in a few generations from a people who had few architectural traditions to an empire that dramatically asserted its new order.”
However, the original site of the mosque was a big church, the Church of St John the Baptist. When the Muslims opened Damascus to Islam in 635 AC / 14 H, one of their commanders, Khalid b. al-Walid, entered by force from the eastern side of the city through one of its gates reaching as far as the city’s center that included a half of the Church of St John the Baptist, while the other commander, Abu ‘Ubaydah, as a result of negotiations entered peacefully from the western side of the city and also reached the city’s center that included the other half of the Church. Because the Muslims urgently needed -- just like everywhere else -- a principal mosque as their community center, preferably in the center of urban and densely populated Damascus, and because a half of the city and a half of one of its main churches, the Church of St John the Baptist, had to be overcome by force, and because the Christian population in Damascus was set to start decreasing from then onwards and, as a result, the role of Christianity and the people’s affiliation with the existing churches to wane – because of all these factors a solution was devised to the effect that the eastern part of the Church of St John the Baptist, which was captured by force, be changed into a mosque, and the other western half, which was part of a capitulation treaty, to remain as a church.
Second Example: the Persian Iwan (Hall) in al-Mada’in or Ctesiphon
The other example where the early Muslims fully availed themselves of, or even shared, an existing architectural legacy that belonged to the non-Muslim local population of a territory newly opened to Islam is as follows. When in the year 637 AC/16 H the Muslims opened to Islam (fath) the Persian capital al-Mada’in, or Ctesiphon, in Iraq, they used without much repugnance its great Iwan (Hall), which was part of a royal White Palace, as their mosque in spite of some paintings and statues decorating it. The paintings and statues, which included men and horses, were done away with much later. According to K.A.C. Creswell, the decorative paintings were still there in 897 AC/284 H. It was in this Iwan-turned-mosque that the first Jumu’ah or Friday Prayer was performed in Iraq. In it, a pulpit or a minbar was erected for delivering sermons (khutbah) during Friday Prayers and for other communication purposes. The Muslims were requested to perform their Friday Prayers in congregation in the Iwan even if they happened to be as far as in the very centers of their villages.
The second category of the early architecture of Muslims, especially outside Madinah, was the one adopted completely from the local population that was not always Muslim. This applies, more than anything, to transforming churches and temples into mosques and sometimes even sharing them with the followers of other native religions. This Muslim interim architectural preference existed mainly in the established cities and settlements to which the Muslims came and where they eventually settled, like, for example, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo in Syria, Jerusalem in Palestine, and some Persian cities in Iraq. K.A.C. Creswell went so far as to allege, baselessly though, that there is no reason for believing that any mosque was built as such in Syria until the time of the Umayyad caliph al-Walid b. Abd al-Malik or possibly his father Abd al-Malik b. Marwan. The only thing that the Muslims had during that period of time were the churches which they had turned into mosques.