On the purpose served by minars, spires and shikhars in the architecture of places of worship
Whenever people write about a mosque there are some things that all of them say, the narration might vary but the narrative rarely differs. Everyone talking or writing about minars or minarets if you prefer, states that their purpose was to provide a higher platform to the mu’azzin (the gentleman assigned the task of calling people to prayer, on the appointed hour, five times a day). The explanation is premised on the supposition that a person standing at ground level and reciting the aazaan (the call to prayers) will be heard by fewer people, while a person on an elevated position will be heard by many more.
This popularly held belief needs to be explored. Not being too familiar with the laws of physics generally and those governing the movement of sound particularly, I cannot claim that I am absolutely certain about it, but I would still think that your relative position, whether on terra firma or on a platform 30 or 40 feet above it, would not dramatically increase or decrease the reach of your voice. Being inside the enclosed space of the mosque or in an open space could perhaps make a difference. Climbing to the mosque’s roof would have overcome that disadvantage, one certainly did not need to build minars and so we need to look elsewhere for an explanation for minarets.
The first mosque in Delhi was built by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak. The mosque was built in 1198 with stones and pillars taken from two dozen odd Jain temples. The mosque has a minar -- the Qutub Minar, next to it and perhaps it is here that the mosque-minar association has its origins. There is however one problem with this association, the minar was completed many years after the mosque. In fact, the foundation of the minar was laid in 1199 and only the first storey was complete by the time Qutub Ud Din Aibak died in 1210, three other stories were added by Aibak’s successor and son- in-law Shams-ud-Din Altamash, the last storey was damaged by lightening and was replaced by two at the initiative of Ferozeshah Tughlaq in the mid-14 century.
The Qutub Minar was in fact a victory tower and just happened to be located in the vicinity of the mosque. A closer inspection of the later additions would reveal that the minar was well outside the mosque that Aibak had built and it is only the extensions made by Altamash and Khilji, seen as one building by later observers, that seem to make the minar a part of the mosque structure.
Even if the first stage, completed during the time of Aibak, was used by the mu’azzin to call people to prayer not too many would have heard him. The first storey is quiet high and I remember the first time when I, along with my siblings and cousins and several grown-ups had gone up the steps while a rather corpulent aunt and other elders had stayed in the open grounds below. We reached the first balcony and shouted for all we were worth but no one on the ground below took any notice. All our exertions met the same fate on the other balconies as well. Had the mu’azzin climbed up during the time of Aibak or Altamash or later, his voice too would have fallen on deaf ears. Another fact that the minar- mu’azzin connection theorists might not have considered is the likely impact, on the physical well being of the mu’azzin, of climbing up and down so many steps five times a day.
Mosque building in Delhi continued for several centuries. If you go and explore the ruins, you will notice there are no minars in any of these mosques. Commissioned by royalty and nobles, some of these like the Begumpur mosque and the Khirkee mosque are grand affairs, some like the Lodi period mosque in Lodi Garden, the mosque of Sheikh Fazl-ullah aka Sheikh Jamal-ud-din in the Mehrauli Archeological Park and the one commissioned by Sher Shah of Sur inside the Purana Quila are breathtaking in their detailing, carving and execution of design. And yet not one of them has minars.
The first mosque that has minars that could be climbed is the Jama Masjid, built by Shahjahan. The mosque is huge, 100 yards by 98 yards inside, the outside would cover a very large area once you include the steps that enclose the mosque on three sides. Would the voice of the muezzin, standing atop the tower, carry outside the mosque? Remember that the Jama Masjid is located atop a small hillock and climbing the tower inside the mosque would have placed the muezzin above everyone else in the city.
The towers, to my mind, were built for another purpose. They served the same purpose as did the spire in the church and the shikhar in a temple. The practice of locating places of worship atop hills and building them as high as possible was born of a desire to be closer to God who lived in the heavens above. The idea was born at a time when people believed that the world was flat.
Contemplate the beautiful architectural forms of the minar, the spire, the bell tower, and the shikhar, all born because of a misunderstanding concerning the relative location of the creator of the universe.