What is the exact meaning of “mosque” (and “temple” and “church” while we’re at it)?


Debate is easy, and yelling is easier. How often, however, do people examine their most basic knowledge?

Right now, the proposed construction of an Islamic worship center in relative proximity to “Ground Zero” in Manhattan is a nexus of conflict and emotion. The missing ingredient is definition. Let’s examine basic terms, starting with mosque.

All the variants of “mosque” in European languages go back to the Arabic masjid, “a place of worship.” But masjid derives from the Arabic sajada, “to bow down in prayer.” Dig into the origins of “Muslim” and “Islam” and a common theme emerges: both words relate to the Arabic aslama, “to accept, surrender, or submit.”

Church” comes from the Greek kyriake, “the Lord’s house,” with kyrios meaning “ruler” and oikia “house.” Temple is based on the Latin templum, “a piece of ground marked or cut off for worship.” Temno in Ancient Greek is the first person verb form “I cut.”

After investigating all three terms, we are struck by a distinction between mosque and the other two terms for places of worship. Whereas the words temple and church have a fairly broad meaning and origin, mosque has a quite specific meaning. The name of the faith (Islam) the name of a member (Muslim) and the name of the place of worship (mosque) all relate directly to its main tenet, submission to God.

A possible explanation for this consistency is the unique history of Islam in relation to the two earlier abrahamitic faiths, Judaism and Christianity. Islam incorporates a specific response to Judaism and Christianity and actually includes figures such as Moses and Jesus. Also, compared to the other monotheistic religions, the texts of Islam have a clearer history of attribution, allowing for greater consistency in the terminology and expression of its concepts.

To conclude and bring our look at the Ground Zero mosque controversy full circle, let’s focus on the phrase “Ground Zero.” Before the term came to refer to the area of former World Trade Center towers, it already resonated with destruction and loss. Here are two definitions:

  1. The point on the surface of the earth or water directly below, directly above, or at which an atomic or hydrogen bomb explodes.
  2. Informal. The very beginning or most elementary level.

How does this information affect your reaction to Ground Zero mosque dilemma? If you have any other questions that can help bring insight to the discussion, let us know.

(Also, do you know what “amen” actually means? It is one the few terms shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. You can learn the answer, here.)

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