Islamic versus Muslim Architecture: Some Observations

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia


Islamic Architecture

Islamic architecture, as both a concept and sensory reality, is an architecture whose function and, to a lesser extent, form, are inspired primarily by Islam. Islamic architecture is a framework for the implementation of Islam. It facilitates, fosters and stimulates Muslims’ ‘ibadah (worship) activities, which, in turn, account for every moment of their earthly lives. Central to Islamic architecture is function with all of its dimensions: corporeal, cerebral and spiritual. The form divorced from function is inconsequential. This, however, by no means implies that the form plays no role in Islamic architecture. It does, but in terms of value and substance the form always comes second to function and its wide scope.

Islamic architecture promotes unity in diversity, that is, the unity of message and purpose, and the diversity of styles, methods and solutions. Certainly, this renders Islamic architecture so relevant and dynamic, and so consistent and adaptable. It is such a fascinating subject to study, for doing so is not about sheer art and architecture. It is more than that: it is about beholding the Islamic ideology and creed at work. It is about witnessing a microcosm of Islamic society, civilization and culture. Islamic architecture is about Islam taking up a manifest form. The identity and vocabulary of Islamic architecture evolved as a means for the fulfillment of the concerns of Muslim societies. Islamic architecture was never an end in itself. It was the container of Islamic culture and civilization reflecting the cultural identity and the level of the creative and aesthetic consciousness of Muslims. Architecture, in general, should always be in service to people. It is never to be the other way round, that is to say that architecture should evolve into a hobby or an adventure in the process imposing itself on society while forsaking, or taking lightly, people’s identities, cultures and the demands of their daily struggles. Architecture, first and foremost, should remain associated with functionality. It should not deviate from its authentic character and stray into the world of excessive invention and abstraction.


The evolution of Islamic architecture commenced with the revelation of Islam to Muhammad (pbuh) the last Messenger of God to mankind. Although Islam is a complete code of life, it could not impose itself as such instantaneously on people doing away with their flawed living patterns, because it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) gradually over a span of about 23 years: thirteen in Makkah and ten in Madinah, so that the hearts of people would be able to comprehend and absorb the message of Islam. After the people had accepted Islam, making it their happy choice, it was only natural that the formation of inclusive Islamic lifestyles and cultures came about next. Then, the creation of new building styles that needed to frame, so to speak, and facilitate the new lifestyles followed, which, in turn, signified the birth of Islamic architecture. The new architecture needed some time to evolve. When it did, it typified everything that Islam stood for: its universalism, prominence, dynamism and originality. Hence, it is very much appropriate to brand such an approach to and style of building as Islamic architecture.

And finally, for reviving Islamic architecture today, it will be vital to resort to restoring first the causes which were responsible for the creation of the phenomenon of Islamic architecture before, and which can do the same today in contemporary contexts. One of the most fundamental causes, surely, will be a change in the Muslim mentality according to the dictates of the Islamic perceptions of God, man, life and its compelling realities, the truth, history, excellence, culture and civilization. Next will be a complete overhaul of general as well as built environment education systems in the Muslim world based on the Islamic worldview and its value system, as well as on the exigencies of the socio-political, economic and cultural contexts in which Muslims live.


Muslim architecture


However, what if an architectural enterprise created and used by Muslims entail some substantial and unambiguous features that clearly go against the worldview, values and teachings of Islam, what is the status of such an enterprise?

Such an enterprise, it stands to reason, is not to be called “Islamic” as it betrays the connotations of the adjective “Islamic” placed before “architecture”, which implies that the noun “architecture” is judged to be an epitome of the Islamic message, or a major portion of it. Arguably, some minor inconsistencies between an Islamic architectural enterprise and the essential character and value system of Islam could be tolerated provided that the same inconsistencies are the target of some constant corrective measures.

Such an architecture is to be called rather “Muslim”, that is to say, the architecture of Muslims who perceived, designed, built and then used it. Calling an imperfect architectural creation as “Muslim” entails no problems for the sake of a proper comprehension of what goes on, whereas calling the same as “Islamic” could create problems. The serious spiritual failings of certain Muslims — at times more and at other times less — are not atypical and constitute a segment of life’s spiritual paradigm. What normally represents a problem are the magnitude, frequency and effects of such failings. So, therefore, an imperfect architectural creation by Muslims is a direct outcome of their some or many shortcomings, deliberate or otherwise, while living in the shade of the laws and precepts of Islam. Such an architectural creation can be a deficiency in itself, a direct or indirect result of some other correlated deficiencies, or it can be used as an avenue to performing or aiding some other inadequacies. Just as many Muslims may err in the business, education, political, social and pure spiritual arenas, they likewise may easily err in different aspects of the architectural arena.

In other words, while Islamic architecture represents the spirit of Islam, Muslim architecture represents the spirit and mentality of Muslims. The former is constant, the latter fluctuates. Every Islamic architecture is Muslim. Every Muslim architecture is not Islamic. Islamic architecture in principle is flawless, in accordance with the laws and standards of this world. Muslim architecture accommodates spiritual imperfections, which reflect the spiritual imperfections of its people. While Muslim architecture can be generalized according to regions, communities and historical episodes, Islamic architecture must be studied with a set of more specific methods and with much direct and close interaction with buildings. Islamic architecture cannot be studied and accurately experienced and assessed from a distance: from pictures, video tapes, documentary films or stories. As is the case with Islam, Islamic architecture is more about the soul and spiritual as well as psychological sentiments and experiences than about the outward show. The former is the substance, the latter the supplement.

Unfortunately, it is a fact that a vast majority of Muslims today fail to completely adhere to the dictates of the Islamic law and the connotations of the Islamic worldview. This is a rough assessment experienced more in some aspects of living and less in the others, and more in some geographic regions and less in the others. The field of built environment freely falls within the category of those life aspects where Muslims adhere less and less to the teachings and judgments of Islam. Some researchers go so far as to assert that many of the new buildings in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, apart from being unfaithful to the Islamic indigenous traditions and culture, are direct imitations of Western models that were designed for another culture, thus creating alien environments in Islamic communities.[1] Hence, it would be more appropriate and also safer to identify today’s architecture of Muslims in most cases as “Muslim” rather than “Islamic”.

Indeed, a clear distinction is to be made between Islamic and Muslim architecture, at both the conceptual and empirical planes. This is in order that confusion and certain misconceptions about Islam and its peoples are avoided. If an architectural establishment contains a thing or two that are clearly against the body of Islamic teachings and principles, classifying such an architecture as “Islamic” is likely to confuse some people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who are not familiar with the substance of Islam. Moreover, it may pave the way for the creation of some misconceptions about Islam, or it may cause the existing misconceptions and its advocates to be further strengthened. As a result, some people may even end up asking what Islam actually is, who Muslims actually are and what should be the features of their primary cultural expressions.


[1] The Future of Islamic Architecture,

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