History of Mehrab
Mehrab (Arabic: محراب miḥrāb, 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 mehrab appears is thus the “qibla wall.”
The word is possibly derived from the verb ḥariba (“to fight”, from the root Ḥ-R-B), so Mehrab would mean “battlefield” or “place of fight (with Satan)”. Some scholars have suggested that the word is from the Ethiopian mekʷerab, or from the Hebrew ḥorḇôt.
The word Mehrab 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, citesTheodor Nöldeke and others as having considered a mehrab 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 mehrab – i.e. as a special room in the house – continues to be preserved in some forms of Judaism where mehrabs are rooms used for private worship. In the Qur’an (xix.12), the word mehrab refers to a sanctuary/place of worship.
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.
Today, Mehrabs 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 mehrab 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.
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