When we were in Madina, my brother Dahud, a new friend Ferhat Amin and I went to visit Dr. Mostafa for a few hours. We caught a cab to his residence which was about 15 or so minutes from Masjid al-Nabawi. I have known Dr. Mostafa for a number of years and have been in sporadic but fairly regular contact with him for a number of years. Most people will be familiar with his translations of Imam al-Haddad’s writings and recently his own work entitled “Man and the Universe”. He is also an expert on the historical sites of Mecca and Madina and currently has a book prepared on the subject awaiting publication.
We spent about three hours with him and most of that time was spent discussing the significance and symbolism of Islamic architecture and why Islamic architecture is not aesthetic by accident or just pretty for the sake of it but how it has deep meaning and significance to its design purposely intended by the designer. He covered a lot in the short while that we were in his company, a lot of it was just to mindblowing for me to even relay accurately so I will share what little I did grasp.
Dr. Mostafa explained the significance and symbolism of the minaret, outwardly it is a device utilised by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer. Inwardly it has many meanings, one of which is the shahdah such as when one raises the index finger, secondly, Dr. Mostafa said, is that it signifies the Mir’aj, since the minaret goes from the ground, (the earth) to the heavens and is symbolic of this mystical journey. He mentioned that the classic minaret design is as follows:
a square base,
then a balcony,
then an octagonal column,
then a balcony,
then circular (cylindrical) column,
and then the top balcony.
The octagonal column quite often has a “zig-zag” pattern as per the minarets of Masjid Nabawi.
On the top of the minaret you often find three sphere arranged vertically and then a crescent moon upturned like “U” rather than “C”.
He went on to say that each component has a significance:
the square base: a square has four sides, the number 4 signifies the four basic elements of the material world, usually, Earth, Water, Air, Fire – this represents the world of the material
the octagonal column: represents the Angelic realm (Alam al-Malakut) and I can’t remember the reasoning Dr. Mostafa gave but it is the state when ones starts to shed the material and is tending to the ethereal. This column also has the “zig-zag” symbol which is a universal symbol for water, which again emphasises the “fluidic” nature of this state, that it is not quite solid and it is not quite spirit.
the circular (cylindrical) column: represents the world of “power” (Alam al-Jabarut), again details of this are hazy, but this is the world where one has direct knowledge of God and has shed the material completely.
the balconies (and this is my own feeling on this) represent the maqam you reach after passing through each of the stages.
The three spheres on the top, again emphasis these three realms and then the upturned crescent represents a receiving vessel as it is cup shaped. The bottom edge of the crescent is convexed and in optics and convex lens radiates out, therefore this crescent receives from heaven and then radiates and distributes down through the realms.
This then makes the minaret a metaphor for the spiritual path, in that it takes great effort to reach the top and you go through these stages attempting to shed the material to become lighter so that you can rise and penetrate the upper realms.
He mentioned a specific minaret in Cairo, an old Ottoman minaret that a Muslim architect studied in detail. The minaret in question was built such that when you enter it at the bottom it is pitch dark, you can’t see your hand in front of your face, however as you ascend the minaret steps there is a subtle and gradual change in the light, as you ascend you get more light and when you reach the top the light is nearly blinding. The architect came to the conclusion that the person who designed this minaret designed it on purpose to obtain this affect, to symbolise going from darkness into light in the vertical plane much like the spiritual path.
The other thing pointed out by Dr. Mostafa was that when one reaches the top of a minaret, one’s vision is extended, one’s hearing is extended and you can see in both space and time. He gave an example that you could see that a bus was approaching in the distance before anyone on the ground would know, similarly with the spiritual heights such phenomena are what one is rewarded with.
He spoke about the motif designs and other features of mosque design but by this time my poor brain had absorbed more than it could handle and process so I can’t recall what else he said on the subject. One thing I do remember him saying was that none of this is documented anywhere, the great artisans and architects very rarely documented their work due to the highly competitive nature of their business, they were always secretive and protective over their techniques and skills. All this Dr. Mostafa has managed to glean and unlock through personal research, may Allah increase him and protect him.
I hope I have relayed what I heard correctly or at least with some accuracy as I was totally blown away by it all.