The Great Mosque of Paris is one of the grandest mosques in Europe. Like the old mosques of Britain, it too is a record-holder, being the largest mosque in Europe outside of Spain and the Balkans. It is also one of the major mosques of the colonial era, and was built to honor Muslim soldiers who served in the French armed forces during World War I. Because of France’s long ties to the Muslim states of North Africa, the Great Mosque has close associations with the people of Morocco and Algeria, and its architecture closely reflects that which is typically found in the Maghreb. For nearly a century it has remained the religious and cultural center of Islamic life in France.
France has a longer history with Islam than any other nation in Western Europe outside of the Iberian Peninsula. During the great expansion of Islam under the Umayyad Caliphate, Muslim armies pushed into southern France in the early 8th century, but were stopped at the Battle of Tours. The Muslims maintained territories in southern France until they were forced to withdraw in 975 AD. The Ottomans briefly used the city of Toulon as a naval base in the 16th century.
During the 17th and 18th century, France began to expand its colonial empire. Because of its proximity to North Africa, the Berber states of the Maghreb became France’s prime targets for colonization. After the sale of the Louisiana Territory in North America, the states of North Africa became by far France’s largest, and most lucrative, colonial territory. It also gave France greater exposure to the Islamic world than any other colonial power, including Britain. By 1900, France had more Muslim citizens than any other western nation, including many who actually resided in continental France as citizens.
During World War I, France conscripted many citizens from its colonies to serve in the armed forces. Many Muslim men from France and North Africa fought for the Entente powers in a number of theaters of war. According to some counts, as many as a hundred thousand Muslim infantrymen died fighting the Germans on the Western Front. In honor of their sacrifice, the French sponsored the construction of the Great Mosque of Paris, the most magnificent mosque to be built in Western Europe in over five hundred years.
The Great Mosque in Paris has had an interesting history. Inaugurated in 1926, it became an important symbol of union between France and its colonies in Morocco and Algiera. During World War II, the mosque sheltered enemies of the Nazis, and helped many Jewish children escape the death camps. Since the end of the colonial era, the Grand Mosque has become the defacto center of Islamic religious and cultural life in France, and one of the most important Muslim centers in Europe.
The Great Mosque of Paris is Europe’s most magnificent mosque of the colonial era. Built to honor fallen Muslim soldiers, many of whom were Berbers from Morocco and Algeria, it was constructed in the manner of a traditional North African mosque, but with distinctly European elements. From the outside, the complex appears to be a jumble of white-washed buildings topped by green shingle roofs. The central prayer hall is crowned with an octoganal, green shingled tower topped with the tradition three spheres common to North Africa. A beautiful, square minaret stands next to the main entrance.
The mosque interior boasts a brick courtyard lined with magnificently columned breezeways. The tilework and mosaics are some of the finest in Europe. The courtyard is also home to a serene, tree-filled garden. The main prayer hall is a forest of white marble double-columns which may be unique in Islamic architecture.
The Great Mosque of Paris is located close to the city center, close to the Sorbonne and a little more than a half mile south of Notre Dame Cathedral. It is open daily. As of this writing, no visiting time information was available. There is no charge for admission. Web: www.mosqueedeparis.net (official website).
Aside from Spain and the Balkans, and to an extent Russia, all of whom had previously been home to Islamic empires, there were no mosques in continental Europe until the construction of the Great mosque of Paris. However, the East Pavilion of the National Exhibition of Brussels, built in the 1880s, now serves as the Great Mosque of Brussels. Other early mosques in continental Europe include the Ahmadiyya Mosque in Berlin and the Mobarak Mosque in The Hague.