Man and Environment in Islam: Implications for Islamic Architecture


Environment as Allah’s faithful servant


The holy Qur’an in numerous contexts explicitly declares that everything in the universe is in a state of continuous worship of Allah. Each and every aspect of creation is Allah’s faithful servant constantly glorifying Him and celebrating His praise. The whole universe thus constitutes a mega mosque (masjid), a place of worship. Allah says, for example: “Do not you see that to Allah prostrate all things that are in the heavens and on earth, – the sun, the moon, the stars, the hills, the trees, the animals, and a great number among mankind? But a great number are (also) such as unto whom the chastisement is justly due. And such as Allah shall disgrace, – none can raise to honor: for Allah carries out all that He wills.” (al-Hajj, 18)

“Have they not observed all things that Allah has created, how their shadows incline to the right and to the left, making prostration unto Allah, and they are lowly?” (al-Nahl, 48)

“Not one of the beings in the heavens and the earth but must come to (Allah) Most Gracious as a servant.” (Maryam, 93)

“The seven heavens declare His glory and the earth (too), and those who are in them; and there is not a single thing but glorifies Him with His praise, but you do not understand their glorification; surely He is Forbearing, Forgiving.” (al-Isra’ 44)

“Do you not see that Allah is He Whom do glorify all those who are in the heavens and the earth, and the (very) birds with expanded wings? He knows the prayer of each one and its glorification, and Allah is Cognizant of what they do.” (al-Nur, 41)

The Prophet (pbuh) once condemned the using of animals which people normally ride as sitting platforms or pulpits (manabir) saying that those animals perhaps are better than the people who mistreat them. It may be that those animals praise and glorify Allah more than their abusers.[5]

The Prophet (pbuh) also said that the phrase “subhanAllah” which means “glory be to Allah” is the prayer of the created world and everything in it, its glorification and praise of Allah (tasbih), and with it the whole of the created world receives sustenance.[6]

Based on the contents of the Qur’an as well as the experiences of the Prophet (pbuh), some early authorities in the interpretation and commentary of the Qur’an concluded that there is absolutely nothing in the universe, natural or man-made, animate or inanimate, but worships and glorifies Allah, its Creator. Indeed, “He (Allah) knows the prayer of each one and its glorification…” (al-Nur, 41) “…but you (people) do not understand their glorification…” (al-Isra’, 44). Hence, for instance, the squeaking of the door is its glorification of Allah; the murmuring of water is its glorification; the standing of a column is its worship; the waves of the sea are its glorification; the shadow of every being and its movement signify their prostration and worship, etc.[7]

Indeed, as the vicegerent on earth endowed with free will, man while interacting with his surroundings, taking and giving, is in a position both to sustain and damage the existing natural equilibrium. It is up to what choice and life orientation and purpose man chooses. This is applicable not only to the physical aspects of the natural world, but also to the metaphysical or spiritual paradigms of whole existence. That is to say, Islam does not speak only about physical sustainability on earth, but also about a spiritual one throughout the realms of the vast universe, which God’s vicegerents on earth must be fully aware of and must readily aim for. Such, it could be inferred, is the supreme goal of man’s divine mission. Such, furthermore, is a clear measure of man’s success or failure in his vicegerency undertaking.

About the negative impact that man is capable of incurring upon his surroundings through his bad schemes and pursuits, Allah says, for example: “Corruption has appeared in the land and the sea on account of what the hands of men have wrought, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, so that they may return.” (al-Rum, 41)

It follows that the earth with everything thereon both rejoices and prospers due to the uprightness, piety and conformity of man. On the other hand, the earth and everything on it suffer and their benefits for man gradually fade – are being withheld — due to the disobedience, corruption and evil perpetrated by man. Righteousness begets but harmony and prosperity on earth; evil begets the opposite, that is, chaos and misery. Allah thus says: “And if the people of the towns had believed and guarded (against evil) We would certainly have opened up for them blessings from the heaven and the earth, but they rejected, so We overtook them for what they had earned.” (Al-A’raf, 96) The Prophet (pbuh) said that when people observe a religious standard or a restriction (hadd), such is dearer to the inhabitants of the earth than that rain is sent forty consecutive mornings upon them.[8]

Allah also says: “They say: “The Most Gracious has betaken a son!” Indeed you have put forth a thing most monstrous! At it the skies are about to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin, that they attribute a son to the Most Gracious” (Maryam, 88-91).

A companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Abdullah b. Abbas, commented about the last set of the Qur’anic verses to the effect that the heavens, the earth, mountains and all the created things, except some humans and jinns, are all terrified of shirk (polytheism or associating other gods with Allah). As a result, they are on the verge of perishing due to the incompatibility between the committed shirk that they witness and their supreme respect for Allah and His majesty and power.[9]

The Prophet (pbuh) said that when an infidel or a profligate servant of Allah passes away, human beings, land, animals and trees get a moment of respite from him and his bad actions.[10]

The Prophet (pbuh) also said that for every servant of God there are two doors in the heavens: a door from which his sustenance comes out and a door through which his deeds and words enter. When a (good and obedient) servant of God dies, these two doors grieve for him and cry. However, in case of an infidel or a wicked servant of God, neither the heavens nor the earth sheds a tear over him when he dies, as no good deeds or words were coming from him. As such, no worthy traces or effects could he possibly leave behind on earth, and no good deeds were going through his personal gate in the heavens.[11]

The Prophet (pbuh) furthermore said that the heavens weep because of a person to whom God gave a healthy body, an ability and ample means to enjoy eating and drinking, as well as a comfortable life, but he behaves unjustly towards people. The Prophet (pbuh) described such a person as violent, cruel and wicked.[12]


The implications of the concept of man as the vicegerent (khalifah) on earth for architecture


The implications of the concept of man as the vicegerent (khalifah) and his interaction with nature for architecture are both ideological and practical. To begin with, humans are not the only creatures that build. Many a creature that we classify low down the hierarchy of the animal kingdom, such as bees and ants, build elaborate structures. However, it has been suggested that it is awareness and imagination that single out humans as superior to other animals in architectural output.[13] While the rest of creation act on environment instinctively with no reasoning or training, man does the same willingly and at his own discretion. Since his actions are preceded with thinking and rationalizing, man clearly demonstrates through acts of building — and through every other engagement of his — his philosophy of, and outlook on, life’s realities.

Based on his free will, awareness and imagination, man builds edifices in various shapes and sizes and with various function patterns in order to facilitate, nurture and motivate his copious life activities. In fact, such is of the fundamental things that distinguish man from other animate creatures that share this earth with him. The existence of man cannot be imagined without the existence of a built environment. The relationship between the two is a fundamental and intimate one. Therefore, no phase of man’s presence on earth could be imagined to be devoid of building activities, irrespective of their scale, simplicity and sophistication.

This principle applies to all including the very first man and prophet on earth, Adam, who is said to have built the first House of worship, i.e., the al-Masjid al-Haram or Baytullah (the House of God). Exactly forty years following the completion of the al-Masjid al-Haram, either Adam himself or some of his descendants were instructed to proceed to a designated location (later Jerusalem or Bayt al-Maqdis) and build there the al-Masjid al-Aqsa’, the second mosque on earth.[14]

Ibn Khaldun rightly observed that building is a basis of civilization, and is of the most indispensable crafts which man ought to gain knowledge of: “This (architecture) is the first and oldest craft of sedentary civilization. It is the knowledge of how to go about using houses and mansions for cover and shelter. This is because man has the natural disposition to reflect upon the outcome of things. Thus, it is unavoidable that he must reflect upon how to avert the harm arising from heat and cold by using houses which have walls and roofs to intervene between him and those things on all sides. This natural disposition to think, which is the real meaning of humanity, exists among (men) in different degrees…”[15]

Le Corbusier also remarked: “Architecture is one of the most urgent needs of man, for the house has always been the indispensable and first tool that he has forged for himself. Man’s stock of tools marks out the stages of civilization, the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age. Tools are the result of successive improvement; the effort of all generations is embodied in them. The tool is the direct and immediate expression of progress; it gives man essential assistance and essential freedom also…”[16]

Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman golden age, said: “It is obvious and proven to men of intelligence and wisdom and persons of understanding and vision that building with water and clay being an auspicious art, the Children of Adam felt an aversion to mountains and caves and from the beginning were inclined to cities and villages. And because human beings are by nature civilized, they invented day-by-day many types of buildings, and refinement increased.”[17]

While erecting buildings for himself, God’s vicegerent on earth in fact creates a wide range of facilities which are aimed at smoothing the progress of the realization of his heavenly purpose on earth. Buildings are thus subjected to serve together with their occupants an elevated order of things and meanings. They are to be both the means and ground for worship, which is man’s principal task. Though serving him and his wants, God’s vicegerent on earth always sees his buildings in an additional light, not seen by those who are bogged down with and blinded by fervently pursuing some lowly material gains. He sees them as an extension of the existing universal setting, God’s physical realm, where all components, irrespective of their sizes, functions or positions, incessantly worship God. Buildings are thus seen as serving God rather than man. Their services to man even though genuine and real are rather relative. Because the whole universe constitutes a mosque (masjid) with everything in it, save a group of men and Jinns, voluntarily singing in unison God’s praises and celebrating His glory with neither fatigue not boredom ever befalling them, Islamic architecture aspires to add to this exhilarating set-up. It aspires to endorse the divine spiritual standards and expands them to the spheres of human influences, thus making them more easily approachable and perceptible by more people with different interests and aptitudes. Hence, Islamic architecture apart from facilitating man’s vicegerency mission also promotes as well as spawns people’s interest in it.

When Mawlay Idris decided to build the city of Fas (Fez) in northern Africa (Morocco), having sketched the ground-plan of the city and before construction got underway, he recited the following prayer: “O my Lord! You know that I do not intend by building this city to gain pride or to show off; nor do I intend hypocrisy, or reputation, or arrogance. But I want You to be worshipped in it, Your laws, limits and the principles of Your Qur’an and the guidance of Your Prophet to be upheld in it, as long as this world exists. Almighty, help its dwellers to do righteousness and guide them to fulfill that. Almighty, prevent them from the evil of their enemies, bestow Your bounties upon them and protect them from the sword of evil. You are able to do all things.”[18]

When building an edifice, the Muslim architect and structural engineer charged with the vicegerency spirit are first and foremost concerned about how the end result of their efforts will stand out when juxtaposed with the existing universal setting, a result of heavenly artistry, in terms of both function and outward appearance: will it complement or contrast with it; will it go well with it, or will it appear as if something of a misfit, oddity, or even offensiveness?

Concerning function, the Muslim architect always exerts himself to ensure that a new structure serves a noble purpose, regardless of whether it is a mosque, school, dwelling, caravanserai, hospital, fountain, mausoleum, etc., whereby God alone is meant to be worshipped and adored. In this way, every new structure even though man-made yet it signifies, as it were, a conformation and even enhancement of the aura generated by the character and role of the natural world. Instead of standing alone amidst the marvels of God’s creation, quite alien to them, a structure rather integrates itself with them as much as its plan, design and utility are able to suggest, identifying its status vis-à-vis the otherworldliness with that of the natural sensations around it.

Building materials and substances used in building processes are normally taken or “borrowed” from nature. The same materials heretofore belonged to the flawlessly executed universal web singing God’s praises and celebrating His glory. Although they have been removed from their original contexts, the building materials from nature are still utilized for some other perfectly fitting goals related to man, thereby causing their intrinsic “holy pursuit” to remain unaffected or perturbed. As a result of the restricted and controlled intervention of Muslims in nature, the original condition and context of natural building materials and substances change only, which is nevertheless expected, needed and in full accordance with God’s universal will and plan. The inherent functions of those building materials and substances remain the same.

Before they are used in buildings, building materials from nature worship God in unison with the rest of nature’s components. It is thus only fair that they are used in those buildings where God is worshipped as well, so that their unremitting acts are still performed in peace and without interruption. It sounds strange but it would be an act of injustice towards nature if some of its ingredients were used for erecting buildings wherein the authority of God will be disrespected and His words contravened. Besides, such a deed would also denote that a contribution toward upsetting the fine equilibrium in nature has been made. When the Prophet (pbuh) declared that “there is neither harming nor reciprocating of harm”[19], he had in mind not only human beings but also the natural world with all its components. And surely, it is a form and degree of harm when the spiritual paradigms of nature are perturbed, just as it is harmful to abuse the physical aspects of nature’s kingdom.

Surely, it stands to reason that as man is very much capable of perturbing the physical laws of nature by his actions, so is he in a position to get in the way of the covert aspects of nature’s existence, as much as God allows it. Therefore, while creating buildings, that is to say, while creating frameworks and fields for their activities, God’s vicegerents wish not to contravene any of the universe’s spiritual laws and patterns. On the contrary, they wish to enhance them forever remaining on friendly terms with them. Certainly, a building can be either a “friend” or an “antagonist” to its animate and inanimate neighbors.

As regards the form of erected structures, the Muslim builder, powered with the spirit of tawhid and a desire to fulfill the will of a higher order or cause, always tries his best to make his edifices come into sight adhering to the existing spiritual paradigms of the natural environment. Nature is the perceptible sign of the Creator’s will and presence, which is as evident in the most trivial as in the most splendid. Thus, every new component of built environment ought to become, in a way, a “sign” itself, lest they become irreconcilable with both nature and the spiritual and psychological disposition of their users. Islamic architecture is to be seen as a man-made “sign” amid the signs of God in nature. The two sets of signs coexist peacefully with one another, supporting each other’s mission and purpose of existence.

Humans must live on friendly terms with nature, as much as such an arrangement is possible, beneficial and needed. Under no circumstances can man in any endeavor of his declare a war on the natural environment, because, on account of many a physical, mental and emotional weakness of his and his actual total dependence on environment, man and nobody else is bound to emerge at all times as a dire loser. The natural environment is simultaneously an obstruction and help, and architects seek both to invite its aid and to drive back its attacks. If rightly conceived and seriously pondered, the placement and form of edifices in relation to their sites with arrangement of their axes and spaces may well be turned into a device for controlling natural light, ventilation, heating, cooling, insulation, acoustics, etc. The same philosophy is to be attached — perhaps in a more forceful and compelling mode — to the spiritual dimension of the relationship between the built and natural environment, as it concerns one’s well-being in both this world and in the Hereafter. Because it goes along with the objectives of the Islamic Sharî’ah (Law), peaceful, harmonious and sustainable coexistence with nature, in the spiritual sense of the term, was, furthermore, at the core of the Muslim religious existence.

In view of the fact that Islamic architecture bears a strong spiritual impression and is one of the means for espousing the cause of Islam, it did not really matter in the history of Islamic civilization who were the builders, planners and developers of many a project. What actually mattered was whether the ultimate roles and utility of such projects were justifying the time, effort and capital spent on them, as well as what their impact was on the existing state of the community and on its future progress. Although architecture as a profession was extremely important and honored, architects, most of the time, have not been excessively venerated, neither by their patrons nor by the public. It was for this that on most of Islamic buildings no names of their builders were inscribed. If there was anything imprinted on them, then it was the date of their commencement or completion, or the name of the ruler or the patron. Except in cases of insincere undertakings, never were the architects, planners or developers concerned about promoting their name or status, about their position in history, about what some shortsighted people would say about their work, about how some members of the ruling elite would react during and after construction, and so forth.

This indicates that buildings in Islam are erected to serve together with their occupants the only Creator and Lord of the universe. As a result, buildings in Islamic architecture are heavily transfigured aiming to negate their mundane worldly ingredients and stand out as the man-made “signs” of God’s oneness and greatness. Also, Muslim architects and structural engineers turned down a prospect of drawing attention to themselves, their careers and their works of art. They feared that such an act would somewhat impinge on and, in the worst scenario, debilitate the promotion of the idea of total spirituality underlining the total identity of Islamic architecture. Nothing was to stand between God and a building’s users and observers. Through the planning and organization of spaces in buildings, through the handling of buildings’ forms, through the methods and styles of ornamentation and beautification in buildings, and through the envisioned functions of buildings — through all these channels and means Muslim architects and structural engineers go all-out to put on view the signs of the Creator’s presence, infinite authority and greatness, on the one hand, and to display the signs of men’s fragility, dependence and smallness, on the other. This way, every building in Islamic architecture is transformed into a kind of a house of God, baytullah, so to speak, thus translating onto reality the implications of the Prophet’s tradition (hadith) that the earth has been made as pure and a place of worship (masjid) to the Prophet (pbuh) and his followers.[20]


[1] Genesis 3:1-19 (Holy Bible, New International Version)

[2] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Book 032 Hadith No. 6205-6226.

[3] Abd-al-Hamid, Exploring the Islamic Environmental Ethics, in Islam and the Environment, edited by A. R. Aqwan, (New Delhi: Institute of Objective Studies, 1997), p. 59.

[4] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam and the Environmental Crisis, in Islam and the Environment, p. 17.

[5] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sabuni, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 2 p. 379.

[6] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 379.

[7] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 333, 379.

[8] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 57.

[9] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 466.

[10] Al-Bukhâri, Sahîh al-Bukhâri, Kitâb al-Riqaq, Hadîth No. 6031.

[11] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 3 p. 303.

[12] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 534.

[13]Parker Michael & Richards Colin, Ordering the World: Perceptions of Architecture, Space and Time, in: Architecture & Order, edited by Parker Michael & Richards Colin, (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 2.

[14] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Ahadith al-Anbiya’, Hadith No. 3172.

[15] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, Translated from Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1967), vol. 2 p. 357.

[16] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, p. 13.

[17] Sinan’s Autobiographies, Five Sixteenth-Century Texts, p. 65.

[18] See: Ahmad Farid Moustapha, Islamic Values in Contemporary Urbanism, (unpublished), paper presented at the First Australian International Islamic Conference organized by the Islamic Society of Melbourne, Eastern Region (ISOMER), 1986, p. 6. Titus Burckhardt, Fez City of Islam, (Cambridge: The Islamic Text Society, 1992), p. 64.

[19]Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitâb al-Ahkâm, Hadîth No. 2331.

[20] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Tayammum, Hadith No. 323.

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