Dr. Spahic Omer
4. The house as a microcosm of culture and civilization
The house is a microcosm of culture and civilization because the primary elements of society: individuals organized along with the family lines, are born, raised and educated in them. The strength of the institutions of the family and house denotes the strength of a society and the verve of its cultural and civilizational agenda. Similarly, frailties in the institutions of the family and house denote frailties in a society and in its cultural and civilizational agenda.
One of the Arabic words used for the house is “dar”. The term “dar” is derived from an Arabic verb “dara” which means, among other things, to circulate, to take place, to go on, to be held, to center on or around, etc. The house is called “dar” because it is the physical locus of the family institution and its manifold activities. It is very seldom that the houses in Islam are devoid of active life and human actions at any point of a day, on account of them being the center for promoting and upholding the family unit, as well as for educating and preparing individuals for the challenges of the outside world. Thus, the author of an Arabic lexicon “Lisan al-‘Arab” (The Language of the Arabs), Ibn Manzur, stated that “dar” (the house) is drawn from the verb “dara, yaduru” because of so many human activities taking place therein.
The house in Islam is a framework whose plan, spatial arrangements and form facilitate and further encourage the worship (‘ibadah) practices of its users. The entire life of a believer is a form of total submission and service to Allah, the Creator and Master of the universe. As such, the house in Islam can also be described as a place of worship (mosque or masjid), as is the case with any other segment of the genuine Islamic built environment. Indeed, the whole of the Islamic built environment could be perceived as a macro place of worship (mosque or masjid) because it serves the dignified interests and accommodates the sanctified requirements of Allah’s faithful servants whose life on earth through the deeds, words and thoughts of theirs accounts for a sweet and incessant song of praise and glorification of their Master.
If the mosque institution plays the role of a community development center, then the house institution plays the role of a family development center. In reality, the two roles complement and support one another. The role of the Islamic house as the family development center is no less significant and, thus, is no less rewarding than the mosque institution which functions as the community development center. This strong alliance between the institutions of the house and the mosque in developing the Islamic society (Ummah) is supported by a fact that the Arabic term “bayt”, which is normally given to the house, is every so often given to the mosque as well, especially to the Ka’bah in Makkah, the first and holiest mosque on earth. The Qur’an refers to the Ka’bah as “bayt” as many as sixteen times.
By reason of this correlation between the house and the mosque institutions, the word “bayti”, which literally means “my house”, as part of a prayer (du’a) of Prophet Nuh (Noah), is sometimes understood to mean “my house” and sometimes “my mosque”. The Qur’anic verse in question is as follows: “My Lord, forgive me and my parents and him who enters my house (bayti) believing, and the believing men and the believing women; and do not increase the unjust in aught but destruction!” (Nuh, 28)
Also, in the following Qur’anic verse, the word “buyut”, which literally means “houses”, is normally taken in to signify “mosques”, based on the content of the verse. However, some commentators of the Qur’an believe that the word in question means both “mosques” and “houses”, as they all function in their respective ways as the places of worshipping Allah (‘ibadah). Says Allah: “In houses (buyut) which Allah has permitted to be exalted and that His name may be remembered in them; there glorify Him therein in the mornings and the evenings, men whom neither merchandise nor selling diverts from the remembrance of Allah and the keeping up of prayer and the giving of poor-rate; they fear a day in which the hearts and eyes shall turn about; that Allah may give them the best reward of what they have done, and give them more out of His grace; and Allah gives sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.” (al-Nur, 36-38)
The men to whom this verse refers to are instrumental in causing both the mosque and house institutions to function as the community and family centers respectively. Indeed, such men and women are instrumental in causing the total of the Islamic built environment to function as one macro masque (masjid) where Allah alone is desired and worshipped. Without such men and women, it follows, the human built environment, including houses and even mosques, would not only be rendered as meaningless and worthless but also would be gradually transformed into a means as well as a ground for a spiritual deterioration and sin.
As a result of this significance which Islam attaches to the societal and educational roles of the house, the Muslims from the very beginning set out to formulate some interesting and highly effective domestic spatial organization and utilization systems. Highlights in such systems are the spaces for guests and visitors, as well as the distinct and, wherever necessary, interactive spaces for children and adults, and also for the male and female members of the household.
In the same way, quite common to the morphology and plan of the Islamic houses is to have a designated space, irrespective of its form and size, to function as a mosque or musalla. In it, the daily prayers, tadarus al-Qur’an (collective study of the Holy Qur’an), meditation, religious discussions, study circles, spirituality enhancement sessions, etc., are conducted individually and collectively among family members. Relatives and neighbors are regularly invited too. Towards this end, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have directed his companions to have mosques in their quarters and to cleanse and odorize them on special religious occasions. Also, he consented to the idea of his companions earmarking spaces for worship (‘ibadah) in their private dwellings. He is said to have graced some of such dwellings by personally praying in them.
Encouraging his companions not to neglect the projected honorable roles of their houses, the Prophet (pbuh) advised them to perform their voluntary prayers in their houses and not in mosques. Allah would make the prayers as a means of betterment in their houses, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have proclaimed. Mosques are only for mandatory (wajib) prayers. In one of his statements, the Prophet (pbuh) went so far as to say that the prayer which a man offers in his house is more excellent than his prayer in the Prophet’s mosque, except the obligatory prayers.
For the Muslim women, however, performing even mandatory prayers at home is more auspicious, let alone voluntary ones. The enormity and significance of the women’s role in enlivening and utilizing the house institution, as advocated by Islam, comes here clearly into sight because all the rewards which men obtain for performing collective prayers in mosques, women procure too, but on account of them staying behind in their houses, performing their own prayers and overseeing the prayers of children, and attending to the rest of the matters they have been requested to do. Hence, according to a tradition of the Prophet (pbuh), while men are guardians of their families in general terms and are responsible for them, women are guardians of their husbands’ houses and children and are responsible for them.
Indeed, women have a variety of roles to play outside the house and the family precincts, yet their role inside the house remains a paramount priority. No sooner does a woman’s involvement outside the house start having a damaging effect on her role inside the house with her family, than her involvement in the outside world becomes questionable. In a hadith (tradition) the Prophet (pbuh) explicitly encouraged women to participate in the good deeds as well as the religious gatherings and activities of the faithful believers (da’wah al-mu’minin). This remains the case so long as the prescribed rules and regulations are observed, and as long as women’s fundamental roles as mothers, wives, house and family guardians are not neglected.
The Prophet (pbuh) used to say that houses wherein their inhabitants neither pray nor read the Qur’an (houses devoid of good deeds) are like graves and Satan loves to patronize them.
Another Arabic word used for the house is “manzil” as well. The term “manzil” is derived from a verb “nazala” which means, among other things, to come down, to disembark, to make a stop at, to camp at, to stay at, to lodge at, to settle down in and to inhabit. The house is called “manzil” because possessing and utilizing it show that one has started to, or has already settled down in a community, and in this worldly life taken as a whole. It symbolizes, furthermore, that one is perfectly clear as to his role, orientation and life goals. The house is a station, or a center, so to speak, from which one ventures into life and to which one returns, having successfully dealt with the challenges of the outside world, or having just decided to take a break before finally prevailing over them. That is why in many cultures across the globe we hear people saying: “No matter where and how far one goes, to his home is one’s ultimate return”.
The house sphere is the only fragment of space in the entire universe which one can regard as his own. It is central to our existence, to our identity. It is an important part of who we are. Through self-expression and personalization, the house comes to resemble or represent our selves. It is a symbol of self, the articulation and confirmation of our very existence. It is a microcosm of human culture and civilization. “Home helps us to know our place in the world. It is a center from which we venture and return; it is one way that we order our existence in the world. This ordering is not only spatial but also temporal. Home is strongly related to our sense of continuity: childhood experiences, leaving and returning, and the patterning of our daily lives.”
Due to all these roles played by the house in people’s lives and their intricate civilizational pursuits, the Qur’an often refers to the house and housing phenomena in the various contexts of highlighting the civilizational achievements or failures of some past communities and nations. It was apt to do so in view of the fact that their houses and everything that could be related to them, one way or another, unambiguously exemplified their achievements or failures.
About the material prosperity of Thamud, the people of Prophet Salih, for which they failed to be grateful and which was the chief cause for their rejection of Prophet Salih, Allah says: “And to Thamud (We sent) their brother Salih. He said: O my people, serve Allah, you have no god other than Him; clear proof indeed has come to you from your Lord; this is (as) Allah's she-camel for you — a sign, therefore leave her alone to pasture on Allah's earth, and do not touch her with any harm, otherwise painful chastisement will overtake you. And remember when He made you successors after Ad and settled you in the land — you make mansions on its plains and hew out houses in the mountains — remember therefore Allah's benefits and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief.” (al-A’raf, 73-74)
And about their demise, Allah says, again referring to their houses: “Then the earthquake overtook them, so they became motionless bodies in their homes.” (al-A’raf, 78)
The houses of the rebellious people of Thamud served as the symbol of their material prosperity. However, they also served as the basis and center of their misdeeds and so the bastion of their unbelief and repudiation of Prophet Salih and his message. Hence, it was proper that they met their unhappy end right inside their houses so that the spiritual lessons in history and human society for succeeding generations become clearer and more persuasive.
Allah says about the profundity of such lessons: “And you dwell in the dwellings of those who were unjust to themselves, and it is clear to you how We dealt with them and We have made (them) examples to you. And they have indeed planned their plan, but their plan is with Allah, though their plan was such that the mountains should pass away thereby. Therefore do not think Allah (to be one) failing in His promise to His messengers; surely Allah is Mighty, the Lord of Retribution.” (Ibrahim, 45-47)
“Does it not then direct them aright how many of the generations in whose dwellings they go about We destroyed before them? Most surely there are signs in this for those endowed with understanding.” (Ta Ha, 128)
By the words “and you dwell in the dwellings of those who were unjust to themselves”, as in the first set of verses, and by the words “in whose dwellings they go about”, as in the second verse, it is meant the disgraceful departure of all the previous mischievous nations, including the nation of Thamud. It also means the arrival of many other protagonists on the scene, including Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Muslims. They were to play their own role on earth and, as a natural course of events, to inherit the legacies of the past civilizations whose founders and architects, ironically, thought will immortalize them and will help them fend off Allah’s pronounced verdict against them. At the core of the cultural and civilizational legacies of the past nations and communities stood their houses for the reasons explained earlier in connection with the stature, roles and function of human dwelling places. In all this, surely, there are signs “for those endowed with understanding”.
About the end of Madyan, the wicked people of Prophet Shu’ayb, Allah says, reminiscent of what He says about Thamud: “Then the earthquake overtook them, so they became motionless bodies in their homes.” (al-A’raf, 91)
Even the destruction of Pharaoh and his vicious people is equated with the destruction of their built environment, including the houses, much of which, arguably, had been erected and maintained by the enslaved children of Israel. Hence, the historic victory of the children of Israel over Pharaoh in the following Qur’anic verse is illustrated by referring to the destruction of Pharaoh’s and his people’s built environment, as well as to the divinely given opportunity to the children of Israel to freely and dutifully participate in the development of human culture and civilization. Allah says: “And We made a people, considered weak (and of no account), inheritors of lands in both east and west, — lands whereon We sent down Our blessings. The fair promise of your Lord was fulfilled for the children of Israel, because they had patience and constancy, and We leveled to the ground the great works and fine buildings which Pharaoh and his people erected (with such pride).” (al-A’raf, 137)
Furthermore, the extent and severity of one of the punishments meant for the community of the children of Israel as a whole, which they alone had brought upon themselves due to their continuous and irrepressible mischief on earth, the Qur’an illustrates by saying that their enemies, the instruments of Allah’s chastisement, managed to enter and raze the very inmost parts of their houses. By referring to the desecration of the inviolability and privacy of their houses, the Qur’an, as a matter of fact, spells out the total annihilation not only of the defensive resistance but also of the civilizational strength of the children of Israel. Certainly, such entailed some broad and serious repercussions for the survival of their cultural identity. Even their bare survival was at stake.
Allah says on this: “We gave Musa (Moses) the Book, and made it a guide to the children of Israel, (commanding): ‘Take not other than Me as Disposer of (your) affairs.’… And We gave (clear) warning to the children of Israel in the Book, that twice would they do mischief on the earth and be elated with mighty arrogance (and twice would they be punished)! When the first of the warnings came to pass, We sent against you Our servants given to terrible warfare: They entered the very inmost parts of your homes; and it was a warning (completely) fulfilled.” (al-Isra’, 2, 4-5)
Also, in order to demonstrate the total defeat and neutralization of the treacherous Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah, Allah says that the early Muslims in Madinah inherited, apart from their land and property, their houses as well. That is to say, their presence in the land where they used to live was brought to an abrupt end. Others became the inheritors of what symbolized their existence, way of life and civilization, i.e., their land, property and houses. Says Allah about this: “And He drove down those of the followers of the Book who backed them from their fortresses and He cast awe into their hearts; some you killed and you took captive another part. And He made you heirs to their land and their dwellings and their property, and (to) a land which you have not yet trodden, and Allah has power over all things.” (al-Ahzab, 26-27)
By the way, the Banu Qurayzah tribe was punished this way because of their treacherous acts against the Prophet (pbuh) and the Muslims in Madinah during the terrifying battle of the Ditch (Khandaq) when the very existence of Islam and the Muslims was put in jeopardy, in spite of all the peace and collaboration treaties that had then existed between the Muslims and the Jews. The punishment applied to the Banu Qurayzah tribe was in total agreement with the Jewish Law of the Old Testament. (Deuteronomy, 20:10-18)
In the same vein, Allah says about the downfall and the ensuing expulsion of another treacherous Jewish tribe, that of Banu Nadir, from a Madinah neighborhood: “He it is Who caused those who disbelieved of the followers of the Book to go forth from their homes at the first banishment you did not think that they would go forth, while they were certain that their fortresses would defend them against Allah; but Allah came to them whence they did not expect, and cast terror into their hearts; they demolished their houses with their own hands and the hands of the believers; therefore take a lesson, O you who have eyes!” (al-Hashr, 2)
In this case too, there is an unequivocal reference to the houses of the Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir as an illustration of much of what had befallen them. Their houses functioned as the nests of their unbelief and intrigues against the Prophet (pbuh) and the Muslims, from which they eventually had to be expelled. In the course of events, however, they, ironically, together with the Muslims, ended up tearing down the same houses of theirs. This was an excellent way to convey appropriate messages to both the believers, about the power of Allah and the ways His decrees work towards the spread and dominion of the truth, and to the unbelievers, about how their plans and strategies, no matter how well from the outside they might be thought up, will never outstrip the will, plans and strategies of Allah.
For the same reasons relating to the function of the house did Prophet Musa (Moses) instruct his people, the children of Israel, while still in Egypt under the bondage of Pharaoh, to make their houses into mosques. This was so as to bring the level of their resistance, as well as the spiritual and mental preparations for victoriously leaving Egypt and entering a new phase of their struggle, to a new level. Since they could not openly build and possess mosques, activating them as the places of their collective worship and social meetings where such preparations could have been far better organized and their execution a lot better facilitated and supervised, other alternatives had to be pursued instead.
At the end, a viable solution was devised in such a way that the scope of the function of their houses had to be widened, from the family development centers to the community development and its resistance against the regime of Pharaoh centers. In other words, the houses of the children of Israel, the nests of hope, faith, worship and obedience to Allah and Prophet Musa, were their best hope for a transformation and eventual freedom. They were the essence and personification of everything the children of Israel stood for while in Egypt. The success of the mission of their houses would have signified the success of their civilizational enterprise as a nation. Conversely, the failure of the mission of their houses would have signified the failure of their civilizational enterprise as a nation.
Allah says about this: “Musa said: ‘O my people, if you do (really) believe in Allah, then in Him put your trust if you submit (your will to His).’ They said: ‘In Allah do we put out trust. Our Lord, make us not a trial for those who practice oppression; and deliver us by Your Mercy from those who reject (You).’ We inspired Musa and his brother with this Message: ‘Provide dwellings for your people in Egypt, make your dwellings into places of worship, and establish regular prayers: and give glad tidings to those who believe!” (Yunus, 84-87)
The housing themes which we have earlier discussed were as relevant during the time of the revelation of the Qur’anic verses concerned as they are now, and as they will always be. Islam is based on essential human nature, which is constant and not subject to change according to time and space. It is the outward forms which change while the fundamental principles, the basic values and the essential human nature together with men’s basic needs remain unchanged forever. Hence, being the revealed Book of guidance for all peoples, ages and places, the Qur’an pays little or no attention whatsoever to those housing aspects which are susceptible to change due to the change of conditions and circumstances. Presenting what could be branded here as the philosophy and the conceptual framework for housing – which was complemented and further explained by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) whose life as a messenger of Allah, or Sunnah, serves as the second primary source of the Islamic message – has been the objective of the Qur’an.
Having said this — as a small digression — it should be remembered that it is the nature of Islam that it provides humanity with basic rules of morality and guidelines of proper conduct in those spheres of life which are not related to the prescribed ritual worship or to its belief system, such as the spheres of housing and the whole of art and architecture, for example. Upon such general principles and guidelines people can establish systems, regulations, views and attitudes in order to comprehend and regulate their worldly life in accordance with their time, region and needs. Since every age has its own problems and challenges, the solutions and perceptions deduced from the fundamental principles and permanent values of life have got to be to some extent different. Their substance, however, due to the uniformity and consistency of the divinely given foundation and sources from which they stem, will always be the same. Islamic residential architecture, in particular, and Islamic architecture, in general, thus promotes the notion of unity in diversity, that is, the unity of message and purpose, and the diversity of styles, methods and creative solutions.
 Spahic Omer, The Origins and Functions of Islamic Domestic Courtyards, p. 12.
 Abu al-Fadl Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-‘Arab, (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1990), vol. 4 p. 297.
 Al-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf, http://www.altafsir.com.
 Al-Tabari, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, http://www.altafsir.com.
 Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Jum’ah, Hadith No. 542.
 Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Masajid wa al-Jama’at, Hadith No. 146, 747, 748.
 Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Book 4, Hadith No. 1705.
 Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Salah, Hadith No. 1039.
 Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 3, Book 46, Hadith No. 730.
 Ibid., Vol. 1, Book 6, Hadith No. 321.
 Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab Salah al-Musafirin wa Qasruha, Hadith No. 1300. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Salah, Hadith No. 413. Al-Darumi, Sunan al-Darumi, Kitab Fada’il al-Qur’an, Hadith No. 3208.
 Spahic Omer, The Origins and Functions of Islamic Domestic Courtyards, p. 26.
 Abu al-Fadl Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-‘Arab, vol. 11 p. 656.
 Robert Gifford, Environmental Psychology, (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1997), p. 196.
 Ibid., p. 196.