Some Lessons from the Holy Qur’an on Housing

Dr. Spahic Omer



In this paper, I shall discuss some major aspects of housing which the Holy Qur’an, the primary source of Islam, deals with, directly or indirectly. Those references are deemed very crucial as they constitute part of Allah’s revelation to man, as well as because they were aimed at contributing to the cleansing of the nascent Islamic society from all the erroneous beliefs and practices that had resulted from people’s earlier rejection of truth and its ways, replacing them with the new ones instead, which were inspired and guided by Allah’s direct intervention, i.e., revelation.

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The Qur’an’s references to the issues pertinent to housing are presented in a number of contexts. Normally, the contexts revolve around providing education, guidance, inspiration, orientation and clear signs to the followers of Islam whose primary task will always be to live up to the requirements of their vicegerency (khilafah) mission on earth, creating in the process a virtuous society, culture and civilization, as well as making the earth a beautiful, safe and consequential place to live and work at. Thus, the references of the Qur’an to housing are sometimes direct and sometimes indirect. They at times are in the contexts which are solely dedicated to housing, and at other times in the contexts which are dedicated to some other themes of which the theme of housing is seen as a supportive, complementary or an elucidatory one. The difference in the Qur’anic contexts, styles and tones on housing notwithstanding, the Qur’an intends to expound to the last of Allah’s messengers, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and through him to the first and every subsequent generation of Muslims, a selection of normative and enduring values, truths and life principles which are central to the religion of Islam and will always have to feature dominantly in the lives and earthly accomplishments of those who follow it, i.e., Muslims.

The values and principles which the Holy Qur’an prescribes through the various aspects of the theme of housing to Muslims in their undertaking of creating a just society and a righteous culture and civilization, are extremely important. This is so due to the extraordinary significance, position and role the house or dwelling phenomenon plays in Islam. The house in Islam is a microcosm of Islamic culture and civilization in that individuals and families bred and nurtured therein constitute the fundamental units of the Islamic Ummah (community). The places where people live are the first and arguably most influential and critical educational centers. If functioning properly, such centers have a potential to produce, in concert with other societal establishments and centers, the individuals who will be capable of transforming and making better their immediate surroundings and the whole communities they belong to. Conversely, if misconstrued and their roles distorted, the places where people live have a potential to become a breeding ground for nearly all social ills, which if left unchecked are able to paralyze entire communities and eventually stifle the civilizational undertakings of theirs.

This is due to the simple fact that a society is no more than a mixture of individuals, which are grouped into families. The family institution is the most basic social unit which signifies a person’s foundation in life with which he permanently stays affiliated and to which he always leans and feels strongly inclined: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. A society is an organization whose most basic and at the same time most significant configuration substance is its people or individuals, who, in turn, make up the family units which are a society’s destined and thus uncompromising and unalterable building blocks. It goes without saying that a relationship between the society and its substance and basic units or blocks is a causal one, the latter, that is, the family institution and its members, being the cause and the society with its total conditions being the effect. This means that the health or the development, for example, of a society depends mainly on the health and development of its substance and basic units or blocks, that is, its family institution and its members. An improvement in the family inevitably and proportionately leads to an improvement in the society. Likewise, any degeneration in the family inescapably and proportionately leads to a degeneration of the society. It follows that the best method in diagnosing and remedying the ills of a society is one which makes the contributions and roles of the family institution as part of its focal interest, that is to say, the method that seeks out and deals with the root causes of a problem. Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi thus went so far as to conclude that the family is indispensable for the fulfillment of the divine purpose. Regardless of which is the cause and which the effect, “civilization and the family seem to be destined for rising together and falling together.”[1]

If this is the importance of the family institution in Islam, it then easily can be gauged how important the house phenomenon or institution in Islam is because the house is the framework for the family. It is both the means and field for the implementation of a major portion of the vicegerency mission of the family members that live therein. The house thus both facilitates and promotes the fulfillment of such a mission. The existence of the family depends on the existence of the house, its physical locus. The proper functioning of the family depends on the proper planning, building and functioning of the house. The ways in which houses are planned, designed and built either encourage and assist their members in executing their tasks as God’s vicegerents on earth, or obstruct and slow them down in doing the same. The family means the house, and the house means the family. Hence, it could be also stated that the house institution is indispensable for the fulfillment of the divine purpose on earth, just as it is the case with the family institution. Regardless of which is the cause and which the effect, human civilization and the phenomenon of the family seem to be destined for rising together and falling together.

This is especially so in the case of Islam and Muslims because Islam is a comprehensive worldview and a complete way of life where no segment of human existence has been neglected. Islam signifies not only the prescribed rituals at appointed times, but also comprehensive articles of faith, philosophy, ideology, culture, civilization and all life’s systems: personal, family and societal. Practicing or living Islam inevitably means the creation of a comprehensive culture and civilization that carry the imprints of Islamic values, teachings and principles at all of its levels, in some aspects more and in other aspects less. The subject of architecture is no exception to this tenet. Islamic beliefs shape the ways Muslims build and use their built environment. Thus, since the dawn of Islam and Islamic society the Islamic residential architecture always occupied a prominent place in Islamic art and architecture, surely second only to the mosque architecture.

The Qur’anic references to the subject of housing, by and large, could be classified into the following broad themes:

  1. The house as a shelter and private sanctuary;
  2. The house and the subject of privacy;
  3. Peaceful and constructive coexistence with the environment (the houses of bees, ants and the spider).
  4. The house as a microcosm of culture and civilization;
  5. The house as a place of delight;
  6. The house and harboring superstitions;
  7. The house and people’s spiritual failings;

The first four themes will be discussed in this paper.

Although I will be using the terms “the house and housing” most of the time throughout the paper, what is meant by those terms are all common types of residential units and dwellings that Muslims may have: houses or apartments, in independent or shared structures.

1. The house as a shelter and private sanctuary

The Qur’an highlights that the house is a shelter or a private sanctuary to its residents. Allah says: “It is Allah who made your habitations homes of rest and quiet for you…” (al-Nahl, 80) The word used for the house in this verse is bayt (min buyutikum sakanan) which is derived from an Arabic verb bata which means, among other things, to spend or pass the night, to stay overnight, etc. The house is called bayt because when the bustle of the day starts fading away with the arrival of the night, man, just like most of the earthly creatures, hasten to withdraw to his sanctuary or shelter (the house) so as to take rest, enjoy tranquility and seek refuge from the disadvantages, and even perils, associated with the night and its drawbacks.

Allah the Creator of the night and day refers in the Qur’an to the night as “sakan” (al-An’am, 96), which means “rest and tranquility”, and as “libas” (al-Furqan, 47), which means “robe”. In the verse where the night is called “libas or robe”, the sleep phenomenon, which is central to night activities, is called “subat”, which means “repose and tranquility”. In opposition to the night, and in order to wrap up a set of the major natural laws that govern human existence, Allah calls in the same verse the day as “nushur”, which means “resurrection”. The relationship between the house (bayt), on the one hand, and night and “sakan or rest and tranquility”, on the other, appears clearer and stronger if we recall that one of the Arabic expressions for the house is “maskan”, which is derived from “sakan”. Even in the Qur’anic verse mentioned above, according to which human habitations have been made as shelters or the homes of rest and quiet for them, the word “sakan” has also been employed as a foremost description of what the house (bayt) is to man.

However, the significations of the word bayt (the house) must be viewed from a much wider perspective. Bayt does not imply just a place where one takes refuge overnight. Rather, it implies a place where one takes refuge whenever necessary from all the hazards of the outside world. The word “night”, as in the connotations of “bayt”, is rather symbolic. The house phenomenon, thus, ought to be read as a retreat, a shelter or a safe haven for all times if need be, rather than for certain periods only. To the Muslim, the house is a haven that offers him total and endless warmth, privacy, refuge, security and protection. The house is a shelter or a sanctuary where one can live and enjoy himself without being affected by much of the laws, rules and regulations which regulate the outside world. The house is a place where the inhabitants — and nobody else — pass a great many laws, rules and regulations with regard to their routine doings within the boundaries of their house.[2]

It follows that homelessness is one of the most harmful occurrences. It accounts for one of the most dangerous deceases and biggest obstacles on the way to the progress of a community. Homeless people and their lives are defenseless, vulnerable, open to the elements, indifferent and bleak. In the same vein, furthermore, forcing somebody out from his house, the Qur’an, while frequently referring to it, regards as an extremely serious crime against humanity. The victims of such a crime are promised Allah’s unreserved help, protection and abundant reward, while the perpetrators are assured of His wrath and retribution. Says Allah, for example: “So their Lord accepted their prayer: That I will not waste the work of a worker among you, whether male or female, the one of you being from the other; they, therefore, who fled and were turned out of their homes and persecuted in My way and who fought and were slain, I will most certainly cover their evil deeds, and I will most certainly make them enter gardens beneath which rivers flow; a reward from Allah, and with Allah is yet better reward.” (Alu ‘Imran, 195)

Because the house is the safest shelter and the most private sanctuary to its residents, one of the miracles of Prophet Isa (Jesus) has been associated with it. As one of the signs of him being a prophet of Allah, Prophet Isa told the children of Israel, to whom he had been sent: “…and I inform you of what you eat and what you store up in your houses; most surely there is a sign in this for you, if you are believers.” (Alu ‘Imran, 49) The message of this Qur’anic verse is that unless he was a prophet of Allah from whom he used to receive the revealed knowledge, by no means was Prophet Isa able to know on his own what he had informed his people about. The houses and what transpires inside them denote one of the greatest secrets of men, which one easily conceals from all except from Allah who alone knows the secret of the heavens and the earth, and who alone knows that which people disclose and which they hide. (al-Baqarah, 33)

The house is a symbol of man’s noble status on earth, relative liberty and independence. It affords him the necessary comfort, retreat, security and safety, functioning as his shelter and safest haven on earth. People’s houses stand for their very identity and the identity of their culture. If they signify how far a people have moved ahead in terms of culture and civilization, then likewise, in the opposite scenario, houses unmistakably exemplify how low a people have sunk in the same regard. Allah thus sees it apt to use the notion of ruined, abandoned, worthless and unutilized houses for projecting an image of the failure and downfall of a people or a civilization. One of the foremost messages thus meant to be conveyed is that the wrongdoers cannot hide away or escape from Allah’s wrath and decrees, especially those decrees which concern the appointed times of such persons’ demise and the destruction of their boastful civilizational achievements. They cannot find refuge even inside the most clandestine and safeguarded sections of their houses. The dismal and horrid sites of the abandoned and destroyed houses of the wrongdoers, which once functioned as their shelters, categorically testify to that.

Hence, when Allah wants us to derive some lessons from the fates of the selected past rebellious nations, He draws our attention towards the ruins of their houses, thus implying that their inhabitants have vanished long ago, succumbing to their mortality and the mortality and relativity of their material legacies. They were easily overtaken by Allah’s will and judgments. Their ways and standards of living availed them of nothing after Allah’s final verdicts concerning them had been pronounced. And finally, their ostensible luxury, contentment and security that they apparently possessed and enjoyed were, in actual fact, a grave deception and a root cause of their waywardness.

Allah says, for example, about Thamud, the mischievous people of Prophet Salih: “And they planned a plan, and We planned a plan while they perceived not. See, then, how was the end of their plan that We destroyed them and their people, all (of them). So those are their houses fallen down because they were unjust, most surely there is a sign in this for a people who know.” (al-Naml, 50-52)

Furthermore, about the dreadful end of ‘Ad, the vicious people of Prophet Hud, Allah says: “And mention the brother of ‘Ad; when he warned his people in the sandy plains,– and indeed warners came before him and after him –saying: Serve none but Allah; surely I fear for you the punishment of a grievous day. They said: Have you come to us to turn us away from our gods; then bring us what you threaten us with, if you are of the truthful ones. He said: The knowledge is only with Allah, and I deliver to you the message with which I am sent, but I see you are a people who are ignorant. So when they saw it as a cloud appearing in the sky advancing towards their valleys, they said: This is a cloud which will give us rain. Nay! it is what you sought to hasten on, a blast of wind in which is a painful punishment, destroying everything by the command of its Lord, so they became such that naught could be seen except (the ruins of) their houses. Thus do We reward the guilty people.” (al-Ahqaf, 21-25)

It should be recalled here that ‘Ad were a materialistic people. A highlight in their materialistic civilizational achievements was their ostentatious built environment, including the houses. They felt quite secure in their grand residences, palaces and fortresses, believing only in brute force when dealing with those who came within their power. They excessively prided themselves on show and parade, building palatial monuments on every high place, not because they needed them but in order to amuse themselves and impel others to hold them and their material prosperity in awe and utmost respect. However, when Prophet Hud came to them with Allah’s message and clear signs, they ridiculed and rebuffed them, so Allah destroyed them by a furious wind, exceedingly violent. “Verily in this is a sign: but most of them do not believe”. (al-Shu’ara’ 139)

Allah says about these behavioral tendencies of ‘Ad: “Do you build a landmark on every high place to amuse yourselves? And do you get for yourselves fine buildings in the hope of living therein (for ever)? And when you exert your strong hand, do you do it like men of absolute power?” (al-Shu’ara’, 128-130)

Another hint at the boastful lofty architecture of ‘Ad is given in the following verses, where a reference, perhaps, has been made to their capital city, Iram: “Don’t you see how your Lord dealt with the ‘Ad (people), of the (city of) Iram, with lofty pillars, the like of which were not produced in (all) the land?” (al-Fajr, 6-8)

In the Qur’anic chapter al-‘Ankabut (the Spider), in three consecutive verses, Allah summarizes the agonizing fates of three mischievous nations: Madyan, the people of Prophet Shu’ayb, ‘Ad and Thamud. Underscored in those verses is the role of the remnants of their ruined and deserted houses as a manifestation of what had befallen them as a result of their abuse of their position, intelligence, talent and skill. They utterly betrayed the trust with which Allah had entrusted them. Instead of gratefully striving towards contributing some goodness to the interests of mankind, having been assigned a massive civilizational enterprise with their prophets in control, they, instead, en masse failed, giving in to the advances of Satan and their own selfish interests. They thus presented Satan with a license to hoodwink them into skepticism, non-belief and rejection of prophets, self-centeredness and pleasure-seeking, who then easily manipulated them keeping them back from the rays of the truth and the right path. The materialistic lifestyles of Madyan, ‘Ad and Thamud, which their dwelling places personified, proved of no use whatsoever in holding back Allah’s punishments for them once they had been decreed.

“And to Madyan (We sent) their brother Shu’ayb, so he said: ‘O my people, serve Allah and fear the latter day and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief.’ But they rejected him, so a severe earthquake overtook them, and they became motionless bodies in their homes. And (We destroyed) ‘Ad and Thamud, and from their (ruined and deserted) dwellings (this) is apparent to you indeed; and the Satan made their deeds fair-seeming to them, so he kept them back from the path, though they were endowed with intelligence and skill.” (al-‘Ankabut, 36-38)

Finally, in yet another context, Allah says about those past nations or communities which did injustice to themselves by rebelling against Allah and His messengers, and thus brought the inevitable upon themselves: “And how many towns have We destroyed which exulted in its means of subsistence, so these are their houses, they have not been dwelt in after them except a little, and We are the inheritors.” (al-Qasas, 58)

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