The Masjid-i Jehan-Numa (lit. ’World-reflecting Mosque’), commonly known as the Jama Masjid of Delhi, is one of the largest mosques in India.
It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1650 and 1656, and inaugurated by its first Imam, Syed Abdul Ghafoor Shah Bukhari.
Situated in the Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad (today Old Delhi), it served as the imperial mosque of the Mughal emperors until the demise of the empire in 1857.
The Jama Masjid was regarded as a symbolic node of Islamic power across India, well into the colonial era. It was also a site of political significance during several key periods of British rule. It remains in active use, and is one of Delhi’s most iconic sites, closely identified with the ethos of Old Delhi.
The mosque has two names. The older one, bestowed by Shah Jahan, is ‘Masjid-i-Jehān-Numā’, roughly translating to “mosque commanding the view of the world” in Persian and Urdu.
The other more common one is ‘Jāmā Masjid’, which emerged among the common populace. Its literal translation in Arabic is “congregational mosque”. It is used in the sense of ‘Friday mosque’ (Juma Masjid), since this is when the congregational prayer is held.
The term ‘Jama Masjid’ is not unique to Delhi’s mosque; since the 7th century, it has been used in the Islamic world to denote the community mosque, and hence many around the world bear this name and its variants.
As one of the focal points of Old Delhi, Jama Masjid is surrounded by various commercial centres, such as the historic Chandni Chowk.
The tomb of Abul Kalam Azad, Indian independence activist, is located adjacent to the mosque.
Construction and Mughal Era
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the Jama Masjid between 1650 and 1656, at the highest point of Shahjahanabad.
The mosque was designed by architect Ustad Khalil, and constructed by approximately 5000 workers. The workforce was diverse, consisting of Indians, Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Europeans.
The cost of the construction at the time was ten lakh (one million) rupees.
The mosque was one of the last monuments built under Shah Jahan. After its completion, it served as the royal mosque of the emperors until the end of the Mughal period.
The Khutba was recited by the Mughal emperor during the Friday noon prayer, legitimising his rule. The mosque was hence a symbol of Mughal sovereignty in India, carrying political significance.
It was also an important centre of social life for the residents of Shahjahanabad, providing a space transcending class divide for diverse people to interact.
The British took over Shahjahanabad in 1803. The Mughal Emperor remained the ritual imperial head of the mosque, but Mughal power and patronage had significantly waned.
The initial policy of the British in the city was favourable towards its residents; the British undertook repairs and even renovations of the Jama Masjid.
The Masjid continued to serve as a site of social and political discourse, in keeping with other mosques of Delhi at the time.
The Revolt of 1857 was a major turning point in this situation. This event resulted in the deaths of many British people in the city, and weakened colonial authority, deeply affronting the British.
It also ended the Mughal empire.
After the British reclaimed the city in the same year, they razed many mosques and banned the congregation of Muslims in any remaining mosques. The Jama Masjid fell into British confiscation during this time, and was barred from any religious use.
It was repeatedly considered for destruction, but the British eventually began using it as barracks for its Sikh and European soldiers.
The Masjid was eventually returned to the Muslim population in 1862, due to their increasing resentment of British actions. Multiple conditions were imposed, including the usage of Jama Masjid as strictly a religious site, as well as mandatory policing by the British.
The Jama Masjid Managing Committee (JMMC), consisting of respected Muslims of Delhi, was established as a formal body to represent the mosque and enforce these conditions.
Upon its return, the Jama Masjid was reestablished as a mosque. Though the Mughal state had been dissolved, the mosque received patronage from various regional Islamic rulers and nobles.
In 1886, the Nawab of Rampur donated a large sum of 1,55,000 rupees to facilitate repairs. In 1926, a donation from the Nizam of Hyderabad of 1,00,000 rupees was used for similar purposes.
Growing unrest against British rule manifested in Delhi’s mosques from 1911. The Jama Masjid was frequently used for non-religious, political purposes, against the rules instituted.
While the British could police and clamp down on political activities in public spaces, the Jama Masjid was a religious space and was hence protected from such action, by both law and the sentiments of Delhi.
Hindus often gathered with Muslims in the mosque to express anti-colonial solidarity, in spite of simmering tension between the communities in the colonial period.
The Jama Masjid continued to be a political symbol after independence. Indian independence activist Abul Kalam Azad delivered a speech from its pulpit during the Friday prayer of 23 October, 1947.
The Partition of India was underway, causing massive population movements in Delhi. Azad implored the Muslims of Delhi to remain in India, and attempted to reassure them that India was still their homeland.
During 1948, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Asaf Jah VII was asked for a donation of 75,000 rupees to repair one-fourth of the mosque floor. The Nizam instead sanctioned 3,00,000 rupees, stating that the remaining three-fourths of the mosque should not look old.
The Jama Masjid serves as Delhi’s primary mosque, and has a largely congregational function. The Muslims of the city traditionally gather here to offer communal Friday prayer, as well as for major festivals such as Eid.
The mosque is also a major tourist attraction, and derives a significant amount of income through the visits of foreigners.