Islam as the Final and Universal Revelation: Implications for Islamic Architecture

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
E-mail: spahico@yahoo.com

  

Islam as the Final and Universal Revelation

That Islam is the final and universal revelation from God to mankind constitutes a foundation stone of the conceptual framework for Islamic architecture. The other three cornerstones of the same conceptual or philosophical framework are: tawhid (the idea of God’s Unity or Oneness), man as the vicegerent (khalifah) on earth and his peaceful and accountable relationship with environment, and comprehensive excellence (ihsan or itqan).

 

Since there is only one God, Allah, there must be only one Truth. There cannot be two or more Truths, just as cannot be two or more Gods. Moreover, as people came from the same origin, are subjected to the same laws of existence, and march towards the same destination, it is only logical that they should possess only one vision and mission when in this world and that they are subjected to the same spiritual and ethical doctrines, guidelines and rules. It is because of this verity that every prophet from Adam to Muhammad (peace be upon them all), and there were hundreds of thousands of them, was appointed to fulfill the same purpose. They had to convey the same message to their respective nations and communities, that is to say, the message of tawhid, bearing testimony that Allah is the only God, the Creator and the Lord of the universe, and who alone deserves to be glorified and worshipped. God declares in the Qur’an: “Not a messenger did We send before you without this inspiration sent by Us to him: that there is no god but I; therefore worship and serve me.” (Al-Anbiya’, 25)

The only religion before Allah is Islam (Alu ‘Imran, 19). The rest is error and delusion, being either the distorted versions of Islam revealed at some points of history to some of God’s messengers, or the belief systems and ideologies which men now and then have invented in full absence of the direct influences of revelation and prophets. In either of these two cases, people are false to their own nature and the reasoning strength of theirs, as they are false to Allah’s will and plan. On this, the Qur’an says: “If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah) never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost.” (Alu ‘Imran, 85)

Thus, Islam is the first and last revelation from God. All the prophets before Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them all) while preaching the same message operated in single historical episodes until the emergence of their successors, succeeding each other and reviving each other’s teachings and complementing them, until Muhammad (pbuh) was sent as the seal of prophets whose message is meant to be valid for all times till the end of this terrestrial life. Likewise, all the prophets before Muhammad (peace be upon them all) were sent only to their respective nations and communities, operating in certain geographical regions, until Muhammad was sent to the whole of mankind, thus completing the heavenly cycle which commenced with the creation of the first man and prophet on earth, Adam.

By virtue of being the last prophet and the message revealed to him the final revelation, the mission of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is characterized by a number of unique features. Just like the messages of other prophets which even though the same in essence yet were characterized by certain features imposed by the conditions under which they were preached and implemented. Some of the prominent features of Prophet Muhammad’s message are as follows.

Prophet Muhammad’s message is a universal and permanent one not affected by the implications of the time and space factors. Besides, not only is it meant for all people till the end of time but also for Jinns. This necessitated that the Qur’an be meticulously guarded against being lost, misunderstood, interpolated or distorted, which unfortunately was not the fate of previous revealed scriptures. The one in charge of preserving the Qur’an is God Himself, as He explicitly vowed in the Qur’an. Since the Sunnah, Prophet Muhammad’s words and actions, constitutes the second source of Islam, whose primary task is to interpret, elucidate and complement the Qur’an, it is also a form of revelation. It too had to be preserved against misinterpretations, interpolations, distortions and loss, which unfortunately was not the fate of the life stories of previous prophets.

As the seal of prophets, Prophet Muhammad’s task was not only to look at the present as well as the future and chart the courses for people’s moral and spiritual fulfillment. It was also to look back at the past where the tawhidic schemes of other prophets have been corrupted and tampered with setting the things right and occasionally naming the culprits. That way, the struggle, achievements and legacy of prophets, their followers and whoever wished and contributed any good to the spiritual and civilizational enrichment of mankind have been duly recognized and endorsed. At the same time, the falsehood and deceptiveplots of the opponents of prophets were unmistakably exposed and strongly refuted.

Thus, the direction and tone of the last God’s revelation to man were clearly set. The chief objectives of the last Prophet’s mission were also clearly spelled out. According to such objectives, the last Prophet (pbuh) was as much a reformer as an originator. He was concerned as much about the present and future as about the past. He came as much to initiate some new systems of living as to Islamize some existing but flawed ones. Even though he laid a foundation for a new divinely inspired and universal civilization, yet he never failed to acknowledge the righteous aspects of the existing cultures and civilizations that he came into contact with. Although he resolutely repudiated the immoral and corrupt aspects of the existing cultures and civilizations, yet whenever needed he never failed to avail himself of their positive contributions to the good of mankind. This was possible due to Islam’s recognition that every community is capable of making a contribution to the wellbeing of human society. The basis for such contributions could be either some remnants of a past prophet’s wisdom and experience, which the people may or may not be aware of, or the human reasoning power supported by the human unadulterated primordial nature which God has bestowed upon man as a gift. And finally, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was an Arab operating within an Arab context, but his teachings were meant for all people from whatever race or background they might be.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) thus stands for the microcosm of the prophethood phenomenon and all its protagonists. It is because of this that at the core of the Islamic faith is believing in all prophets and the holy books revealed to them. Rejecting a prophet or a revealed book renders a person a nonbeliever. It is because of this, furthermore, that fundamental to the Islamic message are the notions of Muslim brotherhood, the unity of mankind, mutual understanding and respect, dialogue, tolerance and learning.

The following are some verses from the Qur’an on the finality and universality of Islam as the final revelation given to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):

“Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets; and Allah is ever Aware of all things.” (Al-Ahzab, 40)

“To you We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the Scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the Truth that has come to you. To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single People, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” (Al-Ma’idah, 48)

“We sent you not, but as a mercy for all creatures.” (Al-Anbiya’, 107)

“We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption).” (Al-Hijr, 9)

“We have not sent you but as a (Messenger) to all mankind, giving them glad tidings, and warning them (against sin), but most men know not.” (Saba’, 28)

Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus), the second last prophet, while prophesying the arrival of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), said: “O Children of Israel! I am the Messenger of Allah (sent) to you, confirming the Law (which came) before me, and giving Glad Tidings of a Messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad.’ But when he came to them with Clear Signs they said, ‘This is evident sorcery!” (Al-Saff, 6)

According to an article posted on www.berkati.net, “Islam is a religion for all people from whatever race or background they might be. That is why Islamic civilization is based on a unity which stands completely against any racial or ethnic discrimination. Such major racial and ethnic groups as the Arabs, Persians, Turks, Africans, Indians, Chinese and Malays in addition to numerous smaller units embraced Islam and contributed to the building of Islamic civilization. Moreover, Islam was not opposed to learning from the earlier civilizations and incorporating their science, learning, and culture into its own world view, as long as they did not oppose the principles of Islam. Each ethnic and racial group which embraced Islam made its contribution to the one Islamic civilization to which everyone belonged. The sense of brotherhood and sisterhood was so much emphasized that it overcame all local attachments to a particular tribe, race, or language — all of which became subservient to the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam.”[1]

Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote about how far Islam went in absorbing other people’s civilizational achievements, particularly in science: “Islam came into contact with a number of sciences which it absorbed, to the extent that these sciences were compatible with its own spirit and were able to provide nourishment for its own characteristic cultural life. The primordial character of its revelation, and its confidence that it was expressing the Truth at the heart of all revelations, permitted Islam to absorb ideas from many sources, historically alien yet inwardly related to it…The revelation contained in the Qur’an, and expressed in the sacred language (Arabic), provided the unifying pattern into which many foreign elements became integrated and absorbed, in accordance with the universal spirit of Islam.”[2]

Isma’il al-Faruqi also said about the universality of Islam and its culture and civilization: “Only Islam acknowledged provincial culture as content of the ethos of Islam proper, and managed to maintain a universal adherence and loyalty to it amid the widest ethnic variety of the globe. Bushmen from equatorial Africa, Europeans and Chinese, Indians and Berbers, as well as the ethnic mixtures of the Near East, the world’s crossroads of civilizations, all participated in Islamic culture just as they should, building their unity and hence their definition on the culture of Islam and, under its guidance, continued to keep, develop and promote their hundred ethnic sub-cultures.”[3]

 

The implications of Islam as the final and universal revelation for architecture

 

The implications of the notion that Islam is the final and universal revelation for Islamic architecture are rather practical. Due to the fact that the religion of Islam is universal, the architecture of its peoples, which functions as a framework for their Islamic lifestyles, is universal too. Indeed, universal is every segment of Islamic eclectic civilization of which Islamic architecture is an integral part.

Being what it is, once revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) the principal and most immediate concern of Islam was not building pursuits as such. Islam felt that the most pressing issue was to correct people’s perception of life, the world, nature, civilization and man: his role and position on earth, for if these are perverted, people’s perception of and approach to building would be perverted and corrupted as well. Similarly, if these issues are properly grasped and honored, people’s perception of and approach to building would be apt and inspired as well. For this reason, for example, does the Qur’an speak not only about faith but also about building and development when referring to some of the ancient civilizations, such as that of the ‘Ad, Thamud, Pharaohs and the children of Israel. The Qur’an thus wishes to explicate some of the detriments that human society is bound to put up with on the physical plane of civilization as soon as the divinely prescribed worldview is forsaken and other alternatives become sought instead.

The message meant to be thus communicated is that the major and most urgent task of the followers of Islam is to strive to understand, accept as true, apply and further advance the message of Islam by all the rightful means. However, as for the building systems, styles and techniques that they meanwhile may evolve, as part of life’s essential affairs, it at the end of the day does not matter what they shall be as long as they stem from the body of Islamic teachings and norms, conform to the tawhidic worldview, and are subjected to the realization of the objectives that man is asked to accomplish on earth. By the same token, it does not matter whether such systems, styles and techniques are developed solely by Muslims or, after having been duly refined and corrected, are totally or partly imported from other cultures and civilizations. In other words, Muslims are advised to attend to the root cause, which is the actualization and translation of the word of God on life, which will gradually but inevitably lead to a desired goal, which is the creation of Islamic civilization with all its segments including architecture, for the latter is both the ground and container for the former’s realization. At any rate, the whole exercise must be seen as aiming as much at the enriching and enhancing of the building technology and expertise of Muslims as at the constituting and intensifying of the all-inclusive Islamization process which Muslims had embarked on since the earliest days of revelation.

Just like the religion of Islam, Islamic architecture is not confined to an ethnic group, historic episode or a geographical region. It is not governed by a restricted perception or an outlook, nor is it locked up in a style and a set of rigid methods and techniques. Islamic architecture is open to all people to enrich and enhance it through their various styles, methods and techniques and to enjoy its many benefits. Islamic architecture is a global phenomenon with an outlook that not only makes use of but also transcends the experiences and ideas of this world. It is a phenomenon with a universal appeal and meaning. It is a product of an interplay between the absolute or permanent and the relative or temporary realities, i.e., between the Islamic beliefs that give Islamic architecture its quintessence and those corporeal elements that give it its form. Islamic architecture is a symbiosis between a global religion and life in its totality. It is a union between the material and spiritual spheres, and between the heavens and the earth. Islamic architecture cherishes its perpetual heavenly spirit and identity never compromising them. At the same time, however, it is ever ready to welcome any contribution by anyone, even non-Muslims, so that the former is made even more conspicuous and its impact further enhanced.

That is why while spreading Islam to the world, Muslims never hesitated to avail themselves of the existing built environment. The only thing that needed their most immediate attention and so correction were those aspects of architecture that were closely associated with faithlessness and idol worship. With the processes of Islamizing people’s minds, attitudes and systems of living, another process, that of Islamizing architecture, went concurrently on, albeit with less dynamism and less dramatic effects as the former. This was so because once the former in its capacity as a cause took place, the latter in its capacity as an effect spontaneously came about. In so doing, the existing indigenous building styles, technologies and engineering were not only fully respected but also adopted as the best way for conducting building activities now under the aegis of Islam and Muslims. As a result, local building materials, expertise and draftsmen were widely employed.

This was utterly a natural course of action and fully in line with the nature of Islam and its mission. By no means is it fair to accuse especially the first Muslims of blindly borrowing from or imitating others while embarking on building activities, in the sense that they failed or, at best, were embarrassingly slow in initiating some completely novel and unprecedented styles in architecture. In contrast, it would be strange, embarrassing and repressive if Muslims upon subjecting a territory to the authority of Islam set out to annul and eradicate those indigenous traditions and life systems that people evolved over centuries as most effective in their living conditions and which did not oppose any of the Islamic teachings. Thus, such traditions and life systems were kept in tact. In demonstrating this Islamic principle, while settling themselves in newly conquered territories, Muslims went so far as to convert a number of churches and temples into mosques with minimal or no significant structural alterations, and employ non-Muslims in their own building initiatives. Indeed, the whole thing of integrating other people’s contributions while evolving the identity of Islamic architecture is rather to be understood as witnessing the Islamic concepts of universality, finality of Prophet Muhammad’s message and unity in diversity, being at work and producing some tangible results, while fully conforming to the dictates of the normative Islamization code. As Titus Burckhardt remarks that “art never creates ex nihilo (from nothingness). Its originality lies in the synthesis of pre-existing elements. Thus, the sacred architecture of Islam was born on the day when success was achieved in creating, not new forms of pillars and arches, but a new kind of space conformable to Islamic worship.”[4]

It is true that in terms of architecture Muslims were by far inferior to their Persian and Byzantine counterparts in the newly acquired territories. However, to compete with and eventually overshadow them in that regard was not on the list of the immediate priorities of Muslims. What was on the list was how to conquer the people’s hearts with the new Islamic spirit which, in turn, will trigger subjecting the existing architecture to the new living paradigm. Once injected with the new life-force, the same architecture was bound to be elevated to new levels starting from where it already was. And that is exactly what soon came to pass. Other people’s indigenous architectural legacies, once purified if such was necessary, were seen as an asset and not a liability, as a help and not an obstruction. They were used as a vehicle for expressing Islamic architecture. Hence, apart from identifying the genuine architecture of Muslims as “Islamic”, it is also appropriate to add an indication of a geographical region or an ethnic group that added an extra flavor to what Islamic architecture actually is. Hence, it can rightly be said “Islamic Umayyad architecture”, “Islamic Abbasid architecture”, “Islamic Turkish architecture”, “Islamic Iranian architecture”, “Islamic Malay architecture”, etc. In this type of appellation, the notion of universalism in Islamic architecture is not meant to be downgraded or violated. On the contrary, however, it is duly acknowledged and highlighted. The Islamic idea of unity in diversity is clearly spelled out too. No architectural expression that is firstly indigenous and secondly Islamic. Islam is Islamic architecture’s soul. Indigenous components can have no more than some bearing on shaping the form of Islamic architecture, whereas its essence remains forever the same. Even though limited, the influence of indigenous components in Islamic architecture is still overseen by and is fully submissive to the Islamic ideology.

Finally, while dwelling on the theme of the birth of Islamic art and architecture, Robert Hillenbrand’s line of discussion is such that it somewhat excessively focuses on geographical, socio-political and cultural aspects,[5] to the point where one feels that the real character of Islamic art and architecture is being rather localized, privatized, downgraded and even de-spiritualized. In fact, such is the case with a majority of scholars who dealt with the subjects of Islamic art and architecture, especially with the subject of their history. When one reads those materials, one almost gets an impression that it was the Umayyads or the Abbasids, for example, who were in total charge of Islam and who independently and freely charted the growth if its art and architecture, and not the other way round, that is, Islam was in charge of its peoples: their mentality, traditions and aspirations. It was their point of reference, whereas the ruling Muslim dynasties and the leading socio-political protagonists were no more than the instruments and trustees entrusted with the spread and implementation of the Islamic message on the world scene.

To Muslims, there is nothing bigger and more important than Islam. Islam is their greatest thing. It is the beginning and the end of every Muslim ambition and endeavor. Islam did not come to be inferior or subservient to any person, group or idea. It did not serve the interests of the Umayyads or Abbasids, for example, or any other dynasty or regime. Irrespective of how they became the rulers of the Muslim community, their sole task was to serve the goals and interests of Islam and Muslims. Against the backdrop of this precept alone are the legacies of the Umayyads, Abbasids and any other ruling elite to be viewed and judged. Surely, if there was no Islam, there would have been neither the Umayyad nor the Abbasid dynasty as we know them today. Nor would there have been Islamic art or architecture as we know them today and which both the Umayyads and Abbasids associated themselves with and so famously patronized.

Thus, Robert Hillenbrand, for example, while discoursing on the nature of early Islamic architecture, makes it appear as though the Umayyad or the Abbasid factor outweighs the Islamic one and thus sends some wrong messages to the readers, though the author does not seem to mean so. It appears as though the novel socio-political factors in the state administrated by the Umayyads and Abbasids come first and the Islamic spirituality factor comes second. Says Robert Hillenbrand about the Umayyads: “Similarly, the success of Umayyad solutions to many problems of religious and secular architecture ensured that the building types evolved during this period repeatedly recurred in one guise or another in subsequent centuries. This readiness of later generations to copy Umayyad prototypes was at least partly due to the unique glamour which invested this, the first and most powerful of Islamic dynasties.”[6]

In the same vein, K.A.C. Creswell wrote while comparing between the roles and influences of the Umayyads and Abbasids in early Islamic art and architecture: “But the influence of this imperial art of the Abbasid Empire, although widespread, did not extend over the whole of Islam. Umayyad art was still full of life in Syria, as is proved by the wooden panels of the Aqsa Mosque, and the style of that structure as rebuilt by al-Mahdi about AD 780. Moreover, Umayyad art had a new career in Spain, whither it was taken by ‘Abd ar-Rahman, the last Umayyad, and the ‘hordes of Syrians’ who emigrated to the country. This same Syrian Umayyad influence also manifested itself in Tunisia.”[7]

 

 


[1] World of Islam, http://www.barkati.net/english/#04.

[2] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam, (Shah Alam: Dewan Pustaka Fajar, 1984), p. 30.

[3] Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, Islam as Culture and Civilization – Not Relativism, http://www.islamicity.com.

[4] Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, (London: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976), p. 18.

[5] Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Art and Architecture, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), p. 11-60.

[6] Ibid., p. 16.

[7] K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1989), p. 417.

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