(“Traditional” houses in Istanbul, Turkey)
(A “traditional” residential area in Ghadamis, Libya)
Some prerequisites for a contemporary Islamic housing
Islam is a complete way of life. Its values and teachings, together with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), whose primary task was to explain to mankind and put into practice the precepts of Islam, are universal and timeless. The significance of Islamic built environment is universal and permanent too, in that the philosophy that it embodies is the Islamic one. However, such is the nature of Islamic built environment that it is receptive to both advances in science and technology and the dictates of people’s living conditions. Since Islamic housing is fundamental to Islamic built environment, this conceptual blueprint applies to it as well.
It is an imperative that Muslim professionals in relation to housing always remember this verity while trying to revive and sustain the notions of the Islamic house and Islamic housing. In so doing, Muslim professionals in question are bidden to, firstly, identify the general Islamic guidelines and principles pertaining to the phenomenon of housing. Next, they must be fully aware of the implications of the dilemmas and challenges their time and the diverse regions in which they live entail. They cannot be trapped in a historical episode, overly romanticizing it and attempting to emulate the housing solutions the Muslims of that particular period successfully evolved. If something was the norm during a period and in a particular ecological setting, such by no means can be the same in every subsequent period and in different ecological settings. Technological advancements rapidly change; demands of different eras fluctuate, even under the same ecological conditions; climate exigencies must be painstakingly heeded; and, lastly, human psychology also changes with the change of time and space posing a number of exigencies of its own. No housing plan and design which served as a solution for an age and place can be simply “parachuted” to another age and place without properly modulating it to its rigorous environmental, socio-cultural and economic requirements. To do that is to betray the dynamic spirit of both the common sense and the perpetual message of Islam. Blind and ignorant imitations and following, even in sheer religious matters, are categorically rebuked by Islam.
While taking hold of the general Islamic guidelines and principles with reference to creating an Islamic housing, on the one hand, and while studying the needs of different times and situations so that the former can be accurately understood and applied, on the other, Muslim professionals in reality perform a degree of ijtihad, i.e., forming an independent opinion or judgment within the framework of an available text. In doing so, if one excels one receives two rewards from Allah, but if one for whatever reason fails to deliver, after he had tried his best, one is bound to receive one reward from Allah, as propounded by the Prophet (pbuh) in one of his traditions.
Based on this tradition, in no way can a serious, enlightened, accountable and willing person be a loser as far as the execution of matters ordained by Allah is concerned. Verily, this divine assurance should serve to Muslim architects, designers and planners as a starting point to look carefully and critically at the state of Muslim residential architecture and planning and how houses and other residential units in the Muslim world are planned and designed, as well as to start contemplating the prospects of finding much better solutions which will be inspired by and infused with the values of Islam, and will be responsive to the exigencies of different times and regions.
At the start, Muslim housing professionals ought not to be bound by a single historical structural model, device or a solution. The past is to be viewed all the time as such, i.e., the past. It is to be neither excessively venerated or idealized nor completely disregarded. The past must be put in its true perspective with such notions as wisdom, pragmatism and practicality leading the way. In their daunting search for a contemporary Islamic residential architecture and planning, Muslim architects, designers and planners must be driven by a clear principled vision, a free spirit and an insatiable thirst for ingenuity, which must be shrouded in strong determination, self-belief and quest for excellence. However, should some modern structural devices or solutions appear to bear a resemblance, partly or totally, to the ones used in the past, one is not to shy away from reviving them within the existing contexts. The history of Islamic residential architecture and planning is not to be looked down at as entirely outmoded and worthless. As we are against blind and ignorant imitation of the past, we are likewise against disengaging ourselves from it and completely ignoring the numerous lessons that we can learn therefrom. Indeed, much can be learned from history because the protagonists of any historical episode while solving their problems possessed the same vision and objectives as we do today while solving the problems of our own. On the other hand, however, we have to be extremely mindful and selective as to what exactly to benefit from history, in which areas and how far we are to emulate our predecessors, because most of their problems were the product of the circumstances under which they operated, whereas our problems are the product of the circumstances under which we operate. Hence, seldom can their solutions be utterly ours.
There is no such thing as a standardized Islamic housing which can be reproduced anytime and anywhere. If truth be told, there is nothing as such in the whole body of Islamic built environment. Therefore, Muslim architects, designers and planners should not hesitate to unleash their burning Islamic spirit, desire, imagination and creativity in order to conceive and create such an architectural tradition in the sphere of housing that will be compatible with the requirements of both the Islamic religious message and modernity. Undoubtedly, the given solutions will have to vary from one region to another, somewhere more and somewhere less. But the essence of all the possible designs, including those adopted as the best solutions in history, will remain one, because of the same worldview and the same religious spirit and foundation that underpin the presence of Muslims and bind all the Muslim peoples regardless of their different geographical locations, cultures and historical appearances. Whatever conception and form are eventually given to such a residential architecture and planning, the same is absolutely qualified to be branded as “Islamic”. On account of its location, sheer exterior, or association with a historical moment, no house, or any other building, can be more Islamic than others. What matters, imperatively, is the total function and utility, that every building is imbued with the soul and purity of Islam, and that it stands for a personification of the Islamic values and principles insofar as the fulfilling of a building’s functions and roles is concerned.
Muslims must evolve housing systems and styles today that are in harmony with their people, their environment and their religious preferences. They must reject a blind following of their past because such is an exercise that is counter-productive, stifles ingenuity, and leads to a sturdy thinking and judgment degeneration. This leads to a retreat to the Islamic architectural and planning past and to an excessive and impractical idealism. This, at the end, can result in superficial, mock and tasteless hybrid residential buildings where traditional elements of arches, domes, courtyards, calligraphy and abstract decorative elements, are tastelessly and awkwardly grafted onto modern residential buildings. To an insightful observer, such buildings appear strange and even funny, and lack a true identity, substance and originality.
Similarly, Muslims must reject the invading Western-oriented residential architectural and planning legacy that completely ignores the Islamic spirit, and in the name of the rush for an industrial development, which is grounded in some alien-to-Islam belief and value systems, undermines the rich traditional culture of Muslim peoples. This leads to a haphazard and unreserved importation of Western modern housing systems and styles which, too, in the midst of Muslim lands, cultures and peoples, appear bizarre and incompatible, lacking a true identity, substance and originality. Just as blindly imitating the Muslim past, blindly imitating the Western culture and civilization is likewise, and even more, found objectionable. To the future of Islamic civilization, such is regarded as very damaging, futile and unproductive.
Muslims must understand the essence of Islam and Islamic residential architecture and planning, and then allow modern building technology and engineering to be a tool in the expression of this essence. Muslims must take advantage of opportunities that new materials and mass production techniques today offer. They have an opportunity to explore and transform the possibilities of the machine age for the enrichment of Islamic housing in the same way that craftsmen explored the nature of geometrical and arabesque patterns in the past. The forms that would evolve from this approach would have a regional identity, a stylistic evolution and a relevance to the eternal principles and values of Islam. A modern Islamic housing must be an ingenious mixture of the worldview and values of Islam, of a quest for excellence and originality, and of the technical resources, inventions and services presented by rapid advances in modern building technology and engineering.
While evolving a modern Islamic housing, Muslims are to look back at their, as well as at other people’s, history in order to learn from it for the benefit of their present and future condition, not to blindly imitate it. Their Islamic identity, and the identity of their culture and civilization, is by no means and under no circumstances to be compromised. Moreover, Muslims, by and large, are to look at the robust Western culture and civilization as a culture and civilization of others, not really theirs, and which ought to peacefully co-exist, and on an equal footing, with their own Islamic culture and civilization. While taking from, and giving to, the Western culture and civilization has become a necessity nowadays, largely due to the globalization phenomenon, Muslims should never end up glorifying and blindly following such culture and civilization. It is incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female, to contribute his/her share towards reviving the glory of Islamic culture and civilization. All their personal life goals and aspirations are to be geared, one way or another, towards the realization of this grand objective.
Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari,Kitab al-I’tisam bi al-Kitabwa al-Sunnah, Hadith No. 6805.
Spahic Omer, Islamic Architecture: its Philosophy, Spiritual Significance and Some Early Developments, (Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen, 2009), p. 35-38.
The Future of Islamic Architecture,
(Image of Terrace houses are very popular in Malaysia. Some terrace houses in Kuala Lumpur)
(Image of A house in the village of Orahovica, near the city of Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina)