The meaning of Islamic architecture

Much has been written and said about the meaning of Islamic architecture. Nonetheless, scholars considerably differed — and they still do — in their verdicts as to whether there is an architecture that can be called “Islamic”, and if there is, what is the meaning, as well as main characteristics, of such an architectural tradition. To many of such people, Islam as a religion is seen irrelevant to architecture, and the latter as one of life’s biggest necessities is seen too sophisticated and actual to need a religion as a point of reference.

The answer to the above quandary is that Islamic architecture, as both a concept and sensory reality, exists. Saying otherwise would do a great deal of injustice to both the religion of Islam and its peoples who strove hard for centuries to realize it in their thought, deeds and words. Islam is a comprehensive worldview and a complete way of life. No segment of existence that Islam has neglected. Practicing Islam inevitably means the creation of a comprehensive culture and civilization that carry the imprints of Islamic values, teachings and principles, in some aspects more and in other aspects less. Islam signifies not only prescribed rituals at appointed times, but also comprehensive articles of faith, philosophy, ideology, culture, civilization and all life’s systems: personal, family and societal. The subject of architecture is no exception to this tenet. Islamic beliefs shape the ways the Muslims build.

However, it must be borne in mind that it is the nature of Islam that provides humanity with basic rules of morality and guidelines of proper conduct in those spheres of life which are not related to prescribed ritual worship, such as the spheres 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. 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.

So what would be the most proper understanding of Islamic architecture?

Islamic architecture is an architecture whose functions and, to a lesser extent, form, are inspired primarily by Islam. Islamic architecture is a framework for the implementation of Islam. It facilitates, fosters and stimulates the Muslims’  ‘ibadah (worship) activities, which, in turn, account for every moment of their earthly lives. Islamic architecture only can come into existence under the aegis of the Islamic perceptions of God, man, nature, life, death and the Hereafter. Thus, Islamic architecture would be the facilities and, at the same time, a physical locus of the actualization of the Islamic message. Practically, Islamic architecture represents the religion of Islam that has been translated onto reality at the hands of the Muslims. It also represents the identity of Islamic culture and civilization.

Ibn Abdun, an Andalusian judge from the 12th century, is reported to have said, as quoted by Stefano Bianca: “As far as architecture is concerned, it is the haven where man’s spirit, soul and body find refuge and shelter.”[1] In other words, architecture is a container of people’s lives.

Also, Ibn Qutayba, a Muslim scholar of the 9th century, compared the house, as quoted by Afif Bahnassi, to a shirt, saying that just as the shirt should fit its owner, the house too should suit its dwellers.[2] That is to say, the aesthetic and utilitarian ends of the house must correspond to the needs and capabilities of its users. The two must perfectly suit each other.

Central to Islamic architecture is function with all of its dimensions: corporeal, cerebral and spiritual. The form divorced from function is inconsequential. This, however, by no means implies that the form plays no role in Islamic architecture. It does play a prominent role, but its relevance is a supportive one supplementing and enhancing function. The form is important, but in terms of value and substance it always comes second to function and its wide scope. There must be the closest relationship between the ideals that underpin the form of buildings and the ideals that underpin their function, with which the users of buildings must be at ease. A rift or conflict between the two is bound to lead to a conflict of some far-reaching psychological proportions in buildings users.

We emphasize the word “function” simply because Islam is a religion not only of a faith and abstract philosophy but also of deeds, action and concrete life strategies. The term “islam” means “submission”, which in itself implies a continuous and comprehensive action. Islam is not a religion of symbols, slogans and rhetoric. It strikes a fine balance between the exigencies of the material and spiritual aspects of existence, between the conditions of this world and the Hereafter, and between the requirements of personal, family as well as societal development.[3] Islam means having a strong and complete faith in God and the other required realities from the spiritual and corporeal worlds plus performing good deeds under all circumstances. Possessing either aspect of Islam without the other is insufficient for attaining salvation. The two must be integrated in a whole that is called “Islam”, which, in turn, must be interwoven with the life-force of the notion of comprehensive excellence or ihsan. Normally, what a believing person does first is securing the belief aspect, which then causes him to do good deeds. The relationship between the two is a causal one the former always being the cause and the latter the effect. There is no person who has faith but does not perform good deeds. Likewise, there is no person who does deeds sanctioned by Islam and in the name of Islam but has no Islamic faith. A strong relationship between faith and good deeds are the only way towards comprehensive excellence.

Certainly, herein lies the actual importance of Islamic architecture, in the sense that it not only meets the requirements of living the Islamic lifestyle by just enveloping or framing it, but also by facilitating it, as well as promoting its worth and encouraging Islamic architecture users and observers to give such a lifestyle its due consideration and respect. Islamic architecture is both a field for the implementation of Islam and a vehicle for its promotion and advancement.[4] This is done at all planes of architecture: its perception, visualization, planning, execution and utilization. This is done, furthermore, through inspired and innovative practical plans, designs and structural solutions, which, as a matter of fact, can never be exhausted due to the countless opportunities presented by the integration of the Islamic religion into all life’s segments, or by the unison between the material and spiritual domains, and between the heavens and the earth. Islamic architecture is a style that glorifies God and His revelation. Likewise, it humbles man in his capacity as a worldly creature. At the same time, however, it celebrates man’s honorable position as God’s vicegerent on earth and his most respectable mission.

The total image of Islamic architecture is thus like everything else that validly bears the title “Islamic”, such as the notions of “Islamic city”, “Islamic arts”, “Islamic dwelling”, “Islamic state”, “Islamic university”, and so on. The projected functions of all these phenomena epitomize, either completely or mainly, the ethos of Islam. In other words, they are microcosms of the Islamic doctrine.  The multifaceted roles that such phenomena play in society, though ingenious, modern, dynamic and applicable, always remain in full accordance with the divine inspiration and guidance. Their holistic outlook on countless life’s challenges stems from a symbiosis between the Islamic faith and an unprejudiced, pragmatic and brave approach to life.

Having said this, it follows that it is grossly inappropriate to use the adjective “Islamic” before such entities or phenomena as only partly and superficially represent the Islamic doctrine and its value system. Such may lead to confusion and the creations of misconceptions about Islam and its peoples. It is inappropriate, for example, to advance such concepts as “Islamic tiles”, “Islamic patterns”, “Islamic costume”, “Islamic door”, “Islamic window”, and so on.

Islamic architecture as a means, not an end

Islamic architecture exists because of the existence of Islam. Moreover, in so many ways it serves the noble goals of Islam. Islamic architecture serves Muslims too, in that it aids them to carry out successfully their vicegerency (khilafah) mission on earth. Islamic architecture aims to help rather than obstruct Muslims in fulfilling that which they have been created for. Islamic architecture is Islam manifested. Islamic architecture, Islam and Muslims are inseparable. Islamic architecture originated with the advent of Islam on the world scene. It never existed before, even though the peoples that became instrumental in molding and perpetuating its conspicuous identity lived where they were for centuries before embracing Islam and possessed the cultures and civilizations of their own. Indeed, studying Islamic architecture by no means can be separated from the total framework of Islam: its genesis, history, ethos, worldview, doctrines, laws and practices. Any approach by anybody and at any point of time to disconnect Islamic architecture from that which held sway over its conception and formation would result in failure and, worse yet, may lead to a distortion of the real picture of the entire subject matter and with it the picture of Islam.

While exemplifying Islamic beliefs and teachings through the hierarchy of its diverse roles and functions, Islamic architecture evolved a unique soul. Such a soul is best recognized and appreciated only by those whose own lives are inspired and guided by the same sources as is Islamic architecture. Furthermore, it stands to reason that if one wanted to genuinely understand and value Islamic architecture, one, first and foremost, must possess an intimate knowledge of Islam whose precepts and values it exemplifies. Next, one should disengage himself for a moment and as much as he could from whatever he has formerly perused or has been told about Islamic architecture, exerting himself an effort to experience it in its totality and as if he is one of its users. One is to try hard via one’s hands-on experiences if one wanted to feel the spiritual and sensory aura that Islamic architecture exudes within its realm. Not to one or a few of its aspects, and not to a single and static moment of time, should one’s comprehension and appreciation of Islamic architecture be restricted. Rather, one’s thoughts and interest are to encompass all its aspects and dimensions, honoring in the process its remarkable spiritedness and dynamism which were conditioned by neither the time nor space factors. Finally, whatever one’s approach in studying Islamic architecture might be, one should never try to extricate it from the contexts which governed its commencement, rise, dominance and survival. Islamic architecture ought to be viewed as a revolutionary world phenomenon as universal, omnipresent, perpetual and revealing as the standards and values that gave rise to it. It was as responsive to the climatic, geographical and cultural requirements as any other architectural tradition, nevertheless, it never treated them apart from the exigencies of a higher order. By means of skills, creativity and imagination, on the one hand, and by its distinctive combination of aesthetic and utilitarian ends, on the other, Islamic architecture never, even by a whisker, separated man’s physical, psychological and spiritual needs, treating then some sets of needs at the expense of the others.

Due to all this, Alfred Frazer, as reported by M. A. J. Beg, said about the fundamental nature of Islamic architecture: “The architecture of Islam is the expression of a religion and its view of the world rather than that of a particular people or political or economic system.”[5]

In the same vein, Titus Burckhardt also wrote that it is not surprising, nor strange, that the most outward manifestation of Islam as a religion and civilization reflects in its own fashion what is most inward in it.[6] The same author further remarked: “If one were to reply to the question ‘what is Islam?’ by simply pointing to one of the masterpieces of Islamic art such as, for example, the Mosque of Cordova, or that of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, or one of the madrasahs in Samarqand….that reply, summary as it is, would be nonetheless valid, for the art of Islam expresses what its name indicates, and it does so without ambiguity.”[7]

Afif Bahnassi wrote on the relationship between Islam and Islamic architecture and to what extent the former influences the latter: “Islamic faith shaped Islamic architecture both on the artistic and technical planes, and gave it that uniform personality that has characterised it all through the ages. However, the diverse traditions, languages, and cultures of the peoples who converted to Islam throughout the world, from China in the east to the Atlantic, in the west, gave variety to the architectural enterprise, while sticking all to the principle of functionality. Greeks and Romans, for instance, had a standard style for all kinds of buildings, while Islamic architecture always strove to make the shape of the building fit its function. The architecture of the mosque is different from that of the school, the cemetery, the hospital, or the house, and it is very unlikely that the function of a building be mistaken from its architectural form. Rather, the value of a building is proportional to its capacity to fulfil the function set for it. A house is perfect when it carries out its mission; that of ensuring protection and peace.”[8]

It would also be appropriate to quote Le Corbusier who was very eloquent about the extent architecture can hold sway over our senses, experiences and thoughts: “The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and shapes he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.”[9]

Although Le Corbusier meant no particular style or school of architectural thought, it is clear he meant that every architectural representation is pervaded with an ideology which through its physical expressions connects with the users and greatly influences their feelings. It is thus expected that there always exists an intimate relationship between people and their architecture. Consequently, it is said and rightly so, as reported by John S. Reynolds, that “when people lose their emotional connection to the buildings they occupy, all architecture ends”.[10]

Based on the contents of his autobiographical memoirs,[11] Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman golden age and for many one of the greatest architects in Islamic civilization, is believed to have had an exuberant emotional connection with the buildings he had designed and built hoping that the people will do the same. He said, for example, about his masterpiece, the Suleymaniye Mosque, which still proudly stands and captivates its worshippers and tourists alike in Istanbul, Turkey: “Upon examination, its pleasing arches, like the vault of heaven and the eyebrows of beauties, amazed the eyes of perfect experts. Each of its variegated marbles was renowned to the horizon and came as a token from a (different) land…And each of its artistically fashioned doors and wood-carved fittings filled with ornament and decoration of mother-of-pearl is like a leaf of the Erjeng (a famous Persian book containing paintings described as having been unequaled in the subtlety of their art), such that they are admired by the grandees of the time and esteemed by the people of all lands. And that canopy-shaded pulpit and pillared throne is a keepsake of a skillful master that stands as a model to the world. Among the revolving spheres its like has not been seen nor shall it be seen. And the domes of that noble Friday mosque are ornaments like the bubbles of the sea of elegance, and its highest dome is like the revolving heavens. And the golden finial shining upon it is like the brilliant, gleaming sun. And the minarets and dome are like the Chosen Beloved (Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)), the canopy of Islam, and of the Four Friends (the four rightly-guided caliphs). And the ornamented windows, which are without like or equal, resemble the winds of Gabriel. When they are illuminated with the sun’s radiance, they are like an embellished rose garden of the springtime, and the rays of the azure vault reveal their chameleon-like iridescent designs. Ruby, cinnabar, lapis, and verdigris were lavished on this transcendent exemplar of ornament and design, and beautiful, heart-attracting designs were fashioned, the elegance of which confounds the eyes of those endowed with sight.”[12]

[1] Stefano Bianca, Urban Form in the Arab World, (London; New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000), p. 22.

[2] Afif Bahnassi, The Islamic Architecture and its Specificities in Teaching Curricula,

[3] Oleg Grabar, Art and Culture in the Islamic World, in “Islam: Art and Architecture”, edited by Markus Hattstein & Peter Delius, (Cologne: Konemann, 2000), p. 35-43.

[4] Ernst J. Grube, What is Islamic Architecture?, in “Architecture of the Muslim World”, edited by George Michell, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1987), p. 11-14.

[5] Fine Arts in Islamic Civilization, edited by M.A.J. Beg, (Kuala Lumpur: The University of Malaya Press, 1981), p. 16 (Introduction).

[6] Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, (London: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976), p. 1.

[7] Ibid., p. 1.

[8] Afif Bahnassi, The Islamic Architecture and its Specificities in Teaching Curricula,

[9] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, translated from the thirteenth French edition with an introduction by Frederick Etchelles, (Oxford: Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd, 1989), p. 1.

[10] John S. Reynolds, Courtyards: Aesthetic, Social, and Thermal Delight, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, INC, 2002), p. 41.

[11] Sinan’s Autobiographies, Five Sixteenth-Century Texts, introductory notes, critical editions and translations by Howard Crane and Esra Akin, edited by Gulru Necipoglu, (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2006), p. 53-158.

[12] Ibid., p. 123, 124.

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