Stemming from his love of God and his religion the, Muslim, whether be from East or West, places the greatest importance upon the performance of the ritual prayer in a clean and undefiled place. There is no requirement in Islam that the faithful have a rug, only that prayers are performed in a suitably clean place and respectful manner. Thus for desert dwellers a clean area of sand can suffice, or a garment thrown upon the ground or sand. Equally in urban homes a simple clean shawl will be used as can be a rug woven specifically for the purpose.
The traditional prayer rug found throughout the Muslim world has evolved through the centuries reflecting the stylizations of local cultures and artistic influences. In the days of the great empires of the Islamic world there evolved intricate and complex techniques and motifs which weavers from the high Royal Court incorporated to create gardens of Paradise of the most exquisite beauty. These influences filtered down through the social fabric of each society to create textiles of unsurpassed beauty, from fine workshops to the simplest ground looms of migratory nomads.
The most important symbol found in the prayer rug is the Mihrab, or prayer niche, known as the Window of Heaven. This stylised design corresponds to the prayer niche found in every mosque throughout the world, reflecting the shape and artistic structure found in the various lands throughout the Islamic world. The Mihrab found in Afghanistan for example, is commonly a vertical stepped square structure, whereas that found in Turkey tends to be sharply angular and pointed. The classic Persian Mihrab by contrast may be very ornate and curvilinear, dense with detailed floral motifs representing the Gardens of Paradise. In between there are innumerable variations and adaptations according to local tradition and history, but all united with the same objective: To bring one to stop for a few minutes to honour the God of unity, peace and mercy to mankind.
At the time of ritual prayer the rug’s Mihrab is set in the direction of Mecca regarded as the Heart of the World, just as the one found in the wall of the mosque.
As a footnote it is a reflection of harmonious social integration that during the Ottoman period many such prayer rugs were in fact woven by Christians who earned their livelihood through this ancient craft of weaving for the Muslim community. It is not uncommon to find in older rugs as late as the early 20th century the cross discreetly woven into the design, perhaps in a border or adjacent to an open field.