There is something particularly graceful about Islamic architecture. Its perfect smoothness overlaid with a lacework of intricate design and open courtyards cornered by tall thin towers and perfect domes. These features are still used to highlight modern mosques from the surrounding buildings, but even without the beautiful mosaics and domes like the heavens, the atmosphere of quiet reflection inside many mosques make them sacred and inspiring places to visit.
In ancient Islamic culture the mosque wasn’t just a place of worship but a place of community, so all the action of a town, the markets, the social life, the ceremonies, took place around the mosque and cities sprang from them, flooding the area surrounding them. When visiting the three main Islamic pilgrimage sites, the Quba Mosque and the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina and the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the most exciting cultural sites take place around the mosques. Watching the pilgrims file in and around these sage buildings then freshen up in the medinas must be not unlike the scenes that took place here a thousand years ago.
Most interpretations of Islamic law allow non-Muslims into mosques as long as they don’t sleep or eat there, but if you feel a little nervous or intimidated about entering a mosque, for any other reason than the grand sweep of the architecture and the wonder of the religious fervour then there are a few simple points of etiquette that may give you more confidence: Mosques have strict rules regarding cleanliness and visitors as well as worshippers are expected to be respectful, some of the ways of showing it is to remove your shoes, dress modestly, stay quiet and not walk in front of or distract anyone at prayer. Unfortunately Mecca, the Grand Mosque and the Masjid al-Nabawi are closed to non-Muslims, but there are many more wonderful examples which are open.