The meaning of excellence
Comprehensive excellence (ihsan or itqan) is one of the most important Islamic values. It likewise constitutes a vital aspect of the conceptual framework for Islamic architecture. Excellence saturates every dimension of the Islamic message. Since Islam is a complete way of life, it follows that excellence is to be felt in all life’s spheres. When the angel Jibril (Gabriel) asked Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) what excellence is, the Prophet’s reply was: “Excellence is to worship God as if you see him, for if you do not see Him He sees you.”
Excellence is prescribed (kataba) to Muslims as explicitly as the other fundamental obligations, such as praying (salah), fast (siyam) and struggle for the holy Islamic cause (jihad).
The Prophet (pbuh) once said: “Indeed, Allah loves when one of you does something that he does it to perfection.” It is interesting to call to mind the context in which these words of the Prophet (pbuh) were uttered, thus drawing attention to the seriousness of the matter. When the Prophet’s son Ibrahim died and was buried, some unevenness had been left in the earth on his grave. The unevenness must have been minor in that the people were able to overlook it. It was such a sad occasion, so it was unthinkable for anyone to say or do anything, no matter how trivial, that could aggravate the people’s feeling, in general, and that of the Prophet (pbuh), in particular. Noticing the unevenness, the Prophet (pbuh) leveled the earth by his hand and made the above statement.
During the process of building the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah in which practically all Muslims participated, the Prophet (pbuh) also called people’s attention to the significance of excellence. It is reported that a man in course of building the mosque was expertly treading clay for making bricks of which the mosque was built. On seeing him, the Prophet (pbuh) said: “May Allah have mercy upon him who excels in his profession.” And to the man he said: “Keep doing this job for I see that you excel in it.”
Therefore, Islam is a religion of excellence. Muslims are to strive for excellence in all that they do: in both religious rituals and pure worldly affairs. All forms of deliberate mediocrity, which is the opposite of excellence, are deemed against the spirit of Islam and are thus disproved off. Human actions, if executed in the spirit of deliberate mediocrity, are likely to be repudiated by God. So important in Islam is integrating excellence into human actions that it represents a condition for such actions to be accepted by God.
The implications of excellence for architecture
The Islamic notion of comprehensive excellence exerts much influence over the identity and chief characteristics of Islamic architecture. The implications of such a notion for Islamic architecture are both ideological and practical.
Sakar Datoo rightly observed that Islam molded the dominant character of its art and architecture in two respects, at least. “First, it taught man that he was the highest form of creation in all the world — ‘Ashraful Makhluqat’. This meant that he was to aspire
to lofty heights, and not to the conditions of lower objects: ‘Do you not see that Allah has made what is in the heavens and what is in the earth subservient to you, and made complete to you His favors outwardly and inwardly?’ (31:20)
Secondly, man was taught to avoid ‘exalting the physical fact above the spiritual.’ He was not to focus attention on his bodily aspect but to point to ‘some universal idea beyond himself,’ and to remember that this life after all was transitory. This philosophy translated into the works of the architects of Islam who could weave ‘such strange enchantment through domes and minars.’ They could ‘suggest the cool splendor of moonlight by means of columns and arcades,’ and over and above that, it was to ‘delight the heart with laughing water,…to keep the vision agog with racing surface lines, or to sober it with broad sweeps of gently graded masses.’ Indeed, Islamic architecture was a reflection of Islam: ’the sacred message of Allah was inscribed upon its walls, in the very shape of the arch was the Peace prescribed by Islam.” Although the concept of excellence is not explicitly stated here, its sway over the dominant character of Islamic art and architecture is clearly implied.
In Islam, creating buildings in principle is classified as a permissible act (mubah). It remains so as long as something does not come about and causes it to infringe some of the divinely-prescribed norms, hence renders it either objectionable (makruh) or prohibited (haram). However, if achieving the goals of Islam is meant to be realized through the pursuit of building, the whole matter then becomes highly praiseworthy and so correspondingly rewarding. In other words, making buildings becomes a segment of worship (‘ibadah). It becomes an excellent act meant for achieving the most excellent goal. It follows that while creating and using architecture, people can be elevated to the highest or dragged to the lowest level on account of architecture functioning as our third skin as well as the ground for achieving or betraying our life mission.
Islamic notion of excellence necessitated that Islamic architecture be known for its sophistication in relation to its delicate form-function relationship, profound decorative arts systems and its clear and focused spiritual orientation. Based on the implications of comprehensive excellence and its pertinence to the Islamic presence, buildings are to be perceived as built for the sake of God alone, in that all the acts that are bound to be repeatedly executed therein stand for modes of worship (‘ibadah). As such, buildings should contain as many and as diverse spiritual components as possible, so that whenever observed, or made use of, such buildings easily become redolent of their divine qualities. Of such components, for instance, are ornamentation strategies loaded with spiritual decorative themes and techniques, which play a prominent role towards the attainment of Islamic architecture’s sophistication and class. Through them, experiencing the otherworldliness of buildings’ qualities and purposes should become an easy task and should be able to eclipse the experiences redolent of the splendor of this world alone. In fact, the quintessence of all Islamic buildings should exhibit the neat compatibility between the spiritual and material aspects of life, that the former takes precedence over the latter yet needs it for its own realization, exactly in the same way as the Islamic ideology does at the theoretical level. Thus, failing to attend to the imperatives of this principle by means of reasonable and meaningful decoration and beautification pursuits while erecting buildings signifies to certain people that the notion of comprehensive excellence has not been pursued to the fullest. Disregarding the prospects of maximizing ornamentation in buildings would signify a disregarding of an important facility or a resource whose potentials for getting the most out of erected edifices appear to be as immense as those of a majority of buildings’ constituents. Hence, such is not to be seen completely as a gain. Such are the benefits of ornamentation and beautification that overlooking them could at times even connote a shortcoming and an act of unprofessional conduct.
Of the reasons for this conviction, among other things, is the fact that a considerable medium for drawing attention to the actual moral fiber of the building enterprise in Islam, and of life in general, i.e., the decoration medium, has been readily left aside. Left aside also are the recurring opportunities that one could have in ornamentation, so that one could take pleasure in the artistic expressions inspired by the faith he treasures more than anything else on earth, occasionally taking those expressions as far as a spiritual refreshing and total transformation could take him.
Indeed, under certain circumstances the drawbacks of an approach towards creating austere buildings with no wholesome ornamentation and beautification may surpass the benefits intended thus to be achieved. Leaving buildings simple and austere, whereas people enjoy material capabilities to make buildings’ form and serviceability reflect better the blessings which God has bestowed upon them, is to many people an unnecessary abstemious lifestyle. The idea of comprehensive excellence in Islam obliges people to get the most out of the opportunities which God has conferred on them, or they have generated them for themselves, so that the betterment of both worlds is ensured. It is true that certain ornamentation and beautification interests can be superfluous, luxurious, deceptive and morally wrong, yet, at the same time, many other interests in the same field can turn out to be extremely beneficial, moral, enlightening and economical, subject to people’s intentions and goals. The interests of true believers will always sway towards the latter. It is owing to this, perhaps, that according to a majority of scholars of Islam, extravagance is a less serious vice than miserliness because in the latter case the soul is much more attached to wealth and this world than in the former case. Extravagance for the goals concerning the truth is not like extravagance for the goals of one’s self-centeredness.
Comprehensive excellence calls for creating perfectly clean and safe buildings that use latest and most beneficial technological and engineering advancements. Such buildings must aim to create safe and conducive environments for people to live in. There must be a perfect match between what people need and want and what they get. Harmony between people’s requirements and what their buildings offer is a sign of excellent architecture. A conflict between the two is a sign of mediocrity, incompetence and failure.
Buildings must be perfectly environment conscious and friendly. They must be energy efficient, especially today when people face more and more problems relating to energy generation, distribution and consumption. Failing to produce energy efficient buildings could be seen as a form of wasting which Islam abhors calling spendthrifts the brothers of Satan (ikhwan ash-shayatin). (Al-Isra’, 27) Buildings must be sustainable too, because the core of the idea of sustainability and sustainable development, i.e., the preservation of the interests and wellbeing of the present and future generations, as well as the preservation of the personal, societal and natural wealth and resources, represents a major portion of the mission and objectives (maqasid) of Islam.
Comprehensive excellence also calls for establishing a delicate balance between sophistication in architecture and avoiding the major transgressions often associated with built environment. It is true that Islam not only regards architecture as an inevitable pursuit but also calls for the idea of excellence to pervade all its aspects, however, one must not be so obsessed with the matter of building that some of the serious transgressions such as squandering, exercising and promoting arrogance, mutual envy, corruption, rivalry in building and destroying nature, may possibly be committed, even moderately. People must observe moderation, their limitations, personal and societal needs, and of course the utility of whatever they erect. Via its status, function and maintenance, built environment is to be an asset to the community and not a liability.
Architecture is but one of the noble means by which the noblest goals are attained. It is an instrument, a carrier of the spiritual, not a goal itself. People are not to build more than what they really need for the reason that every building activity will be harmful to its executor on the Day of Judgment, unless carried out due to a real necessity, i.e., to meet a justifiable need, as proclaimed by the Prophet (pbuh). The Prophet (pbuh) announced this on seeing a dome imposingly surmounting a house in Madinah.
If adulterated by jahiliyyah (ignorance) elements, the idea of making buildings may in the long run prove disastrous for the future of the Muslim community as a whole. The reason for this is that under some unfavorable circumstances not only will the issue of building and its splendid goals be then garbled, but also will people start drifting away, little by little, from purposeful moderation in the end becoming liable to warp even the character and role of their very existence on earth. No sooner does this come about than breeding the causes, which the Prophet (pbuh) has singled out as responsible for every upcoming cultural and civilizational slump of Muslims, happens next. The causes highlighted by the Prophet (pbuh) are: exaggerated love of this world and having aversion to death. Truly, the more people fritter away their time, energy and resources on buildings, the greater affection do they develop for the results of their work and this world in general, and the more they are attached to this world, the “farther” and more detested death and the Hereafter appear. “The dwellings in which you delight” has been referred to in the Qur’an (Al-Tawbah, 24) as one of the potential hindrances in Allah’s cause, in that man’s heart is prone to clinging to it in this world together with wealth and prosperity, commerce, and kith and kin. And if it be that any of these turns out to be a hindrance “…then wait until Allah brings about His decision: and Allah guides not the rebellious.” (Al-Tawbah, 24)
Against the background of these damaging vices often committed in the field of building — sometimes unconsciously and under the influence of popular and widespread dissolute trends, though — must we view every tradition of the Prophet (pbuh), as well as the sayings and practices of his nearest companions, wherein some aspects of building are at a first glance denounced.
Because of the appropriate functions of Islamic buildings, on the one hand, and because of their heavily transfigured outward appearances aimed to negate mundane worldly ingredients and stand out as the man-made “signs” of God’s oneness and greatness which try to amalgamate as much as possible with the array of surrounding natural signs, on the other, it is always difficult to describe an Islamic building, no matter how huge, complex and costly the same may be, as a “white elephant” or an extravagant endeavor that violates the truth and its ways. Seeing that their fundamental social and economic needs have been satisfied, and that Islamic civilization was on a steady upward surge conquering places, hearts and minds, because of this, the patrons, architects, structural engineers and the masses, saturated with the standards and ideals of the Islamic struggle, found it often inoffensive to embark on a series of costly building activities, for they knew that their undertakings followed a plan, were free of every type of iniquity, and via their utility and form were envisaged but to serve a higher order of truth and goodness. Without doubt, such an outlook on building and everything that goes with it, along with judiciously using up worldly goods for the purpose, ought not to be frowned upon. It should be viewed as a manner of glorifying God, as an avenue to making His universal word and plan rise above all other pretentious but transparently sham “words” and systems of living.
Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman golden age, perceived an excellent architecture as one that blends the strong Islamic spirituality and ethics with mastering the necessary building technology and engineering skills and techniques. The net result of this approach, it seems to be Sinan’s suggestion, would always be a safe, functional, durable, sustainable, cost-effective and aesthetically gratifying architecture. It goes without saying, however, that all these traits of an excellent architecture are implied in just two of the many Prophet’s traditions which contain some wide-ranging meanings and messages: firstly that Allah loves whenever His servants do something to do it excellently, and secondly that whatever they do to do it in such a way that no slightest harm is inflicted on people, flora and fauna. Sinan thus offered some of his advices to those engaged in architecture: “There is no art more difficult than architecture, and whosoever is engaged in this estimable calling must, to begin with, be righteous and pious. He should not begin to lay the foundations if the building site is not firm, and when he sets out to lay the foundations he should take great care that his work be free from defect and he reach the firm ground. And, in proportion to the abundance or paucity of piers, columns and buttresses, he should close up the domes and half domes that are on top of them, and bind the arches together in an agreeable manner, without carelessness. And he should not hurry in important matters but should endure in accord with the import of the saying “Patience brings one victory!” in order that, with God’s help, he finds divine guidance for the immortality of his work. And in this there is no doubt.”
Martin Lings (Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din), Muhammad, (Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen, 1983), p. 325.
 Al-Samhudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 1 p. 333.
 Sakar Datoo, Islamic Architecture – An Appreciation, http://www.amaana.org/tajik/sakarchit.htm.
 Muhammad Abul Quasem, The Ethics of al-Ghazali, (Kuala Lumpur: Central Printing Sendirian Berhad, 1975), p. 129.
 Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 4559.
 Ibid., Kitab al-Malahim, Hadith No. 4284.
 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. 66.