Dealing positively with constraints and limitations

Yulia Eka PUTRIE
Lecturer – Department of Architecture
Faculty of Science and Technology
State Islamic University (UIN) Maulana Malik Ibrahim Malang


From ancient cultures to modern civilizations across the world, we can clearly see traces of creativity in every human-made object. Creativity has taken an important place in the process of creating new objects, or producing new ideas. Creativity also has affected a large part of our daily lives through innovations and inventions in technology, art, science, etc. Therefore, creativity can be considered as a key to the development of our civilization.

Despite the importance of creativity, however, the definition of creativity itself is vague and complex. (Robinson, 2008: 3) There is a lack of agreement about what the term creativity means. Torrance (2008: 3) notes that some definitions are formulated in terms of a product, while others are formulated in terms of a process, a kind of person, or a set of conditions. In general, creativity is often described as an ability to make something uncommon, or something common in an uncommon way.  In other words, creativity is an ability to use imagination to develop new and original ideas, or things, especially in an artistic context (Encarta Dictionaries, 2008). According to Webster’s Dictionary the definition of creativity is artistic or intellectual inventiveness. Creativity is marked by the ability or power to create or bring into existence, to invest with a new form, to produce through imaginative skill, to make or bring into existence something new. (Robinson, 2008: 6) Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, 2nd Edition, even stated that creativity is defined as “the ability to create meaningful new forms, etc.” (Robinson, 2008: 6).

Unfortunately, this lack of adequate definitions of creativity has also affected the ways people apply it. In architecture, the above Random House’s definition of creativity is often (mis)understood as an ability to make certain unusual or distinct shapes and forms of buildings. The more eye-catching and striking a building’s form or shape, the more creative an architect will become, and the more approval will he get from his peers and people in general. This kind of a mindset may lead to an unproductive competition between architects in order to create more and more amazing buildings with the intention of seeking fame or recognition from others. Nowadays, we can easily set our eyes on those kinds of buildings all over the world. They are designed and built with the purpose of advertising and advancing the names of their owners and architects.

 Furthermore, the definition of creativity as an ability to create meaningful new forms is frequently associated with freedom of expressions. Some architects and artists love to use these phrases to justify their ‘unique’ and eccentric designs. A school of thought in art is thus known and identified by their principle of l’art pour l’art. This principle reflects their disputes on limitations, whether by law, morality, religion, or anything else outside art itself, in their creativity process. Faisal Ismael (1996: 65-66), for example, mentioned in his book, Paradigma Kebudayaan Islam, that one of the effects of  correlating art and religion is  the limitation of freedom and creativity in art itself. This statement indicates that there are certain ways of thinking that consider constraints as an impediment for creativity.

 Such opinions, even in certain solvable situations, face problems when creativity has to deal with constraints or limitations. Constraints, as has been generally known, are never absent in any circumstances of design. Unfortunately, architects and artists, consciously or unconsciously, often perceived constraints or limitations as an impediment for their creativity in design. This mindset generates a negative attitude towards constraints, as opposed to creativity. Thus, such a  negative perspective will affect their thoughts and will influence the ways they deal with those constraints in the process of design.

 This paper is intended to show that both constraints and creativity could be harmonized and fused into a very productive relationship. Islamic architecture is used as a viewpoint, because in the perspective of Islamic architecture, there is no such thing as total freedom. When we talk about Islamic architecture, we have to deal with some constraints that arise from the application of Islamic values and its worldview. Indeed, it is noteworthy to explore how Islamic architecture developed, fully honoring the rules and implication of creativity, whereas many people still think that there are so many unbridgeable constraints in this field.


 First and foremost, it is very important to describe the position of creativity and constraints in Islam. This is so because certain people think that there is no creativity at all in Islam and that this religion is all about countless restrictions and instructions. These judgements need to be corrected because Islam as a comprehensive worldview that 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 (Omer, 2009a: 2).

 Therefore, in Islam we can place creativity in a proper perspective based on two categories of activities: ‘ibadah and muamalah. Ibadah stands for ‘ibadah mahdhah (prescribed ritual worship or belief system), while muamalah (worldly matters) is another word for ‘ibadah ghairu mahdhah (all worldly matters considered as non-ritual worship). One of the well-known principles in the study of Usul al-Fiqh is the principle of muamalah, saying that the initial tenet in muamalah (al-aslu fil muamalat) is permissibility (ibahah) as long as something does not come about causing it to infringe some of the divinely-prescribed norms, hence renders it either recommended against (makruh) or prohibited (haram) (Omer, 2009b: 6). This principle is a sign that Islam gives much room for creativity in Muslims’ worldly lives. On the other side, however, when it comes to ‘ibadah, there is no room whatsoever for any compromise, or disregard for its proper interpretation and application (Omer, 2009a: 318). The principle of ‘ibadah in Usul al-Fiqh is that the initial tenet of ‘ibadah (al-ashlu fil ‘ibadati) is prohibited unless what had been taught and informed by Allah and the Prophet (pbuh). Hence, Muslims are bidden to strictly follow in their sheer religious matters, and to incessantly create and invent in their cultural and civilizational matters.

 From the principles mentioned above, we can learn that there are balances between creativity and constraints in Islam which provide a clear basis for Islamic architecture. Since Islamic architecture is a synthesis of the permanent spiritual disposition of Islam and the relative exigencies of the corporeal world, it had to demonstrate carefully the Islamic ways of dealing with things and issues brought about by the assertion of Islam on the world stage (Omer, 2009a: 319-320). Upon the basic rules of humanity and general principles which had been provided by Islam, Muslims can creatively develop their worldly life, including architecture, in line with the dictates of their own times and places.

 Furthermore, it is interesting to study how these constraints can cope perfectly with creativity in some aspects of Muslim architectural heritage. One of the rules in Islam in relation to the architectural constraints is an Islamic restriction for drawing some living creatures such as animals and humans in their naturalistic form. This restriction – in spite of its variety of interpretations – is a good example to illustrate how creativity can spring from a constraint, although both creativity and constraints, at a first glance, can be seen as opposite to each other.

 These unique correlations between constraints and creativity can be seen, for example, in some two and three-dimensional decoration techniques that have evolved while remaining completely loyal to the spirit of Islam’s restrictions to the drawing of animals and humans. Muslim architects and artists behind this evolution never wasted their time and energy trying to cross over the prescribed boundaries or limitations. Moreover, they did their best to improve the quality of their work of art within those boundaries. In their hands, the constraints were turned into opportunities, and challenges into sources of inspiration. As a matter of fact, their seriousness in exploring their creative abilities had resulted in the creation of some most unique decoration systems called the arabesque and the muqarnas. We still can witness high appreciations from all over the world for their great artistic works.

 An arabesque is one of treasured products created within the spirit of Islamic values. It consists of a structure of infinitive patterns inspired by flowering shrubs and hedging plants with their branches intermingled with each other. This decorative structure is also combined with calligraphy of Qur’anic verses and geometrical patterns. The intermingling lines spread through the area of walls and ceilings. Its infinitive and continous patterns seem to bring observers along a path to find the unseen end of the lines. Its complexity, precision and accuracy is very amazing for a product that was generated about thirteen centuries ago when much of the world was choking up with intellectual and scientific slumber and backwardness.

Figure 1. An arabesque design in one of Alhambra’s wall

Source:, 2009

Likewise, the muqarnas is another example of the product of Muslim architects’ and artists’ creativity along the corridor of Islamic principles and values. The muqarnas or the stalactite dome is one of the most recognizable three-dimensional decorative approaches in Islamic architecture. These vivid works of art can also be considered as an example of the application of chaos and fractal theories in architecture. The structure of the muqarnas — perhaps — was inspired by the beauty of stalactites in the deep caves, or by the beauty of beehives on the treetop – to which even the Holy Qur’an makes a reference. Amazing interplays of light is also provided by small windows around the muqarnas. Small concave moduls are organized in symmetrical patterns to make a large concave ceiling that takes its observers along to a different experience of space. Again, the complexity, precision, and accuracy of this work of art is surprisingly produced about thirteen centuries ago when much of the world was choking up with intellectual and scientific slumber and backwardness.

 Figure 2. A muqarnas in one of Alhambra’s ceiling

Source:, 2009

 Most of all, the highest appreciation accorded to Muslim architects and artists should be due to their unremitting creative explorations that have enabled them to reach far ‘beyond’ constraints and limitations. From their numerous works, we can learn a lot more than just about the physical appearances and the visual beauties of their objects and buildings. We can see that they easily find and explore many beautiful natural objects as the source of their inspiration, always trying to stay away from what is forbidden for them. This is a very valuable lesson that creativity is not merely an ability to make unique and beautiful objects, but also an ability to manage things under the weight of their constraints, getting the best of all situations and circumstances.


 There are at least three lessons that can be summarized from the discussion above. Firstly, architects and artists need constraints and limitations within their designs to ascertain their creativity level. An architect or an artist will be considered creative when he or she is able to create an excellent art, or an excellent architectural object, in the context of the existing constraints. A simple example of this is a football game that could only be regarded as entertaining and interesting when it is regulated by its rules, fair referees, allocated time, and the skills of players. Thus, creativity is not stifled by constraints; instead, it is spurred by them.

 The second lesson is that a positive viewpoint about any constraints could enhance a designer’s creativity level. This lesson is closely related to the fact that our mind-sets influence the way we act or behave. Since creativity is not merely an ability to create some ‘eye-catching’ forms, the chance of gaining creativity is wide-opened to all of us who have a positive point of view regarding any constraints in any circumstances of design.

 Thirdly, if we look further, any constraints, in fact, play an important role in generating the uniqueness of each design. As an example, constraints in Islamic architecture, as explained above, make it different from other schools of architecture. The same condition applies to almost all circumstances of design. Constraints could come out as site specifics, local climates, economic conditions, building technologies and materials, etc. It provides a great opportunity for architects to create ingenious and honorable architectural designs. At this level, we can conclude that the richness of architecture is, more or less, due to these constraints.

 Finally, we can conclude that both creativity and constraints are very important in the world of design. They are not at odds with each other; instead, they work together to promote us, architects or artists, as the real winners through our responsible qualified designs. It depends on the architects and artists themselves now, whether they will use that opportunity and deal positively with constraints, or they will squander it by perceiving constraints as a setback and a hindrance to creativity.


 ISMAEL, Faisal (1996) Paradigma Kebudayaan Islam. Yogyakarta: Titian Ilahi Press

OMER, Spahic (2009a) Islamic Architecture: Its philosophy, spiritual significance, and some early developments. Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen

OMER, Spahic (2009b) Islam, Architecture and Urban Planning. Selangor Darul Ehsan: Arah Pendidikan

ROBINSON, Joyce R. (2008) Webster’s Dictionary Definitions of Creativity. Online Journal of Workforce Education and Development. Volume III, Issue 2, Summer.  Accessed 10 April 2010

 Fig 3:An intricate arabesque in the Mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun in Cairo, Egypt.

 Fig 4:Details of the muqarnas from an entrance at the Mosque-Madrasah of Sultan al-Hasan in Cairo, Egypt.


Yulia Eka PUTRIE 

Lecturer – Department of Architecture

Faculty of Science and Technology

State Islamic University (UIN) Maulana Malik Ibrahim Malang, INDONESIA

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