Short Answer: There were no minarets on mosques during the Prophet’s lifetime. These were a later development for the purpose of making it easier to hear the muezzin calling people to prayer and acts of public worship. Now, especially in the west, loudspeakers within mosques announce these public acts of worship. They are largely forbidden to be attached to minarets, which is unfair considering that church bells, for example, still ring loud and true calling Christians to worship.
Salam (Peace) Rose,
Thank you for contacting About Islam with your question.
First of all, please allow me to explain that the role of a mosque in Islam, as it is a bit different from the role of a church.
The Role of the Mosque
If we refer to the Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we will realize that the mosque, in addition to being a place of worship that unites Muslims, is also a place for socializing, sort of like a community center in modern terms.
The mosque was where Muslims, young and old, men and women, were to meet, connect, and follow up on their local news.
A mosque was also a place for spreading awareness of Islam by receiving non-Muslim guests who would like information about Islam.
Prophetic tradition also shows that a mosque was a place for celebration, such as weddings and Eid celebrations.
Aishah, the Prophet’s wife, narrated that:
Ethiopians used to play with their arrows in the Prophet’s mosque. (Al-Bukhari)
The Prophet’s mosque, during his life, was even a place for medical care before Islamic civilization developed hospitals centuries later.
So, a mosque originally is not just a “place of worship” in the ritual sense.
Its role is much more fundamental to the community.
History of the Minaret
As for minarets, these were developed after the Prophet’s era.
The Prophet’s mosque was a very simple square structure built from palm trees, and covered with branches and leaves.
It did not have any domes or minarets.
Historically, minarets were developed for a muezzin (a caller for prayers) to climb in order for his call to prayers to be better heard by the local community.
That was before the invention of loudspeakers.
Today, in countries of Muslim majorities, and in some cities outside them, the minaret is where the loudspeaker hangs in order to carry the voice of the muezzin as far as possible.
In the West, however, loudspeakers are always kept inside the mosque (except in very few places), and minarets are merely symbolic.
Over the course of centuries, minarets took many architectural shapes and forms, and generally represented every place and time’s culture.
It is believed, though, that a minaret represents a human “finger” which is pointing upwards; a sign of human affirmation to the Oneness of God.
Thus, a minaret symbolizes Islam as a faith, the call for prayers, and its various architectural designs are symbolic.
Minarets in the West
In the West, minarets sometimes take designs that are reminiscent of other famous minarets for some local Muslim community.
Often, however, minarets take a shape that represents a Western flavor.
In that sense, it is a sign of integration and contextualization of Islam itself in its environment.
Therefore, despite the fact that minarets are not “religiously prescribed” by the Islamic law, they are an integral part of every “Islamic culture”, including the developing Islamic culture in the West.
Freedom to practice Islam is traditionally defined as the freedom to practice Islam’s “public acts of worship.”
Although minarets are only symbolic, they do touch on the freedom of building mosques, which are connected to many of the other Islamic obligations mentioned above, and they create a situation that many Muslims would find problematic.
On the other hand, as you noted, Muslims are upset about that ban because it simply infringes on their rights.
European Muslims, like other European citizens, take the issues of rights, freedoms, and civil liberties seriously.
They might view banning minarets as similar to banning crosses on churches.
But they also view banning minarets as similar to banning a certain color of clothing, chimneys on houses, for example, or some other styles that clearly fall under the category of what people are free to choose.
History teaches us that a decision like this develops into much more serious decisions in the future that infringe more on people’s lives and freedom of faith.
I hope this helps. Please keep in touch.
(From AboutIslam’s archives)