Islamic versus Muslim Architecture: Some Observations

 

Since Islam proscribes erecting buildings over graves, funerary architecture in Islamic civilization should be called “Muslim” and not “Islamic” architecture. Taj Mahal in Agra, India, is a classic example of Muslim funerary architecture.
Since Islam proscribes erecting buildings over graves, funerary architecture in Islamic civilization should be called “Muslim” and not “Islamic” architecture. Taj Mahal in Agra, India, is a classic example of Muslim funerary architecture.

Since Islam proscribes erecting buildings over graves, funerary architecture in Islamic civilization should be called “Muslim” and not “Islamic” architecture. Taj Mahal in Agra, India, is a classic example of Muslim funerary architecture.

The Qusayr al-Amra palace as an example

 

An excellent case in point here is the Qusayr al-Amra palace from the Umayyad period near the city of Amman, Jordan. The tiny palace is both unique and intriguing in that its interior is almost fully decorated with images that include different types of animals, dancing girls, topless women, the alleged portraits of some members of the royal family, bathing and hunting scenes populated by many figures. Being what it is, the palace and its unusual decorative styles need to be viewed against the backdrop of the Islamic spiritual and cultural sophistications considering them as no more than a one-off case perpetuated by an individual or a small group, which represented neither an established trend nor a school of thought associated with the mainstream of the Islamic architectural presence. The palace’s weird embellishments are to be subjected to the Islamic beliefs and its laws. It should not be the other way round, that is to say, to subject the latter to the former, thus attempting to bend it and perhaps make happy some existing prejudgments and bias.

(The tiny Qusayr al-Amra palace near ‘Amman in Jordan)

(The tiny Qusayr al-Amra palace near ‘Amman in Jordan)

(Some paintings inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)
(Some paintings inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)

(Some paintings inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)

(An image inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)
(An image inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)

(An image inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)

(Another controversial image inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)
(Another controversial image inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)

(Another controversial image inside the Qusayr al-Amra palace)

However, many people did not adopt this as a course of action. Apparently, they were confounded by the glaring inconsistency between what the Islamic spirituality preaches and what has been discovered in the Qusayr al-Amra palace as hard evidence. Because such people were not too inclined to do justice to the pristine message of Islam and keep it well-elucidated, or they simply were poorly grounded in it, they ended up endorsing the validity of the findings in the palace associated with the Umayyad ruling family, making it out as an Islamic manifestation. However, as mentioned earlier, it is not always the case that Muslims and their endeavors typify the spirit of the religion of Islam, nor is something like that ever necessary so that Islam may establish its worth. At any rate, however, it still remains a mystery why a small palace became such an important issue overshadowing hundreds, if not thousands, of other buildings of all possible types but which were devoid of the sort of images that adorn the walls of the former. In other words, why is it that an exception is capable of annulling the rule? Could it be that the Qusayr al-Amra palace is so much venerated in certain circles simply because it serves an agenda of creating and cementing more than a few misunderstandings about Islam and its civilization?

Due to the palace’s historical proximity to the earliest and most exemplary Muslim generations, on the one hand, and due to the nature and intensity of its decorative images plus its association with the ruling family which an overwhelming majority of Muslims have endorsed, on the other, the proponents of Islamic iconography, arguably, most regularly cite this Umayyad desert palace as evidence in their theorizings. They deduced that there is nothing inherently wrong with painting in Islam, including statues and all representations of living forms. What can be called as “Muslim iconoclasm”, or according to Titus Burckhardt “Muslim aniconism”,[1] was a non-existent trend during the early days of Islam. However, the same originated at some point of time due to a number of internal as well as external factors. Evidently, the people fell victims to their failure to differentiate between Islamic and Muslim architecture, according each concept its clear meaning and position. They underestimated the cultural and epistemological impact that messing up the two issues can have.

Ahmad Muhammad ‘Isa, for instance, concluded his paper on the subject in question by saying: “I have no doubt that representations and statues in themselves have nothing to do with the question of whether they are lawful or unlawful as debated by some jurisconsults. They represent one of the crafts which elevate the mind, an art which develops thought, and a need which men cannot dispense with in this day and age. No one should say that Islam opposes that which elevates the mind, and develops thought, or that it desires to lead men away from the march of culture and civilization.”[2]

K.A.C. Creswell also concluded his paper entitled “The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam” by saying: “My conclusion, therefore, is that the prohibition against painting did not exist in early Islam, but that it grew up gradually, partly as a result of the inherent temperamental dislike of Semitic races for representational art, partly because of the influence of important Jewish converts, and partly because of the fear of magic. “[3]

It is interesting to note that K.A.C. Creswell admits, quoting and relying on Arnold, that while the Qur’an contains no explicit messages on the matter, Prophet Muhammad’s traditions, the second source of Islam and a complementary one to the Qur’an, are uniformly hostile to all representations of living forms. The paintings of the Qusayr al-Amra were thus executed in defiance of the Prophet’s stance, as did some other subsequent caliphs and sultans.[4] So, therefore, to K.A.C. Creswell and others like him, an ultimate authority in determining what constitutes an Islamic tradition and what does not, is the actions of some Muslims, not all Muslims and not the original Islamic sources.

While being perplexed as to what exactly the Islamic position on painting is and how to reconcile the same with what has been found in the Qusayr al-Amra palace and in a small number of other secular buildings, many scholars and researchers stopped virtually at nothing. Nonetheless, the chief evidence around which most of their theorizings revolve is a historical account recorded by one and the same person. According to such an account, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), following his triumphant entry into Makkah while liberating it, went inside the Ka’bah and ordered the pictures in it to be effaced, but put his hands over a representation of Mary (Maryam) with her son Jesus (Prophet ‘Isa) seated on her lap, intending to protect the same, and said: “…Except these under my hands”. The picture remained therein until the Ka’bah was destroyed by a fire and then was rebuilt some 56 years later. Had the Ka’bah not been destroyed at all, the picture would have stayed therein forever. There might have remained some other pictures of prophets, trees and angels inside the Ka’bah as well, from the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) till the fire destroyed it.[5]

In a few words, this whole theory is principally founded upon a couple of unsound and fabricated Prophet’s traditions (ahadith) narrated by al-Azraqi in his book “Akhbar Makkah” (The Stories of Makkah) in relation to the occasion of Makkah liberation.[6] In it, al-Azraqi cited virtually everything he had heard of the sayings and practices of the Prophet (pbuh) and of the sayings and practices of his companions pertaining to the issues he wanted to deal with. However, he declined to venture into giving any preponderance to some of the accounts over others leaving the onus of doing so to the readers. Therefore, it would be a serious scientific blunder if one chooses an account from the book and considers it sound without meticulously evaluating it by whatever reliable criteria and methodology, more so if an account happens to be a bizarre one and in conflict with some authentic ones.

This is exactly the case with the above mentioned story. It is an extremely bizarre one and it clearly conflicts a number of the authentic traditions of the Prophet (pbuh). Not only did the acclaimed authorities in the field, such s al-Bukhari, Abu Dawud and Ahmad b. Hanbal, reject the mentioned ahadith (traditions), but they also in the anthologies of their own recorded some authentic ones in which it is explicitly stated that the Prophet (pbuh) ordered all the pictures in the Ka’bah to be obliterated. It was not until such was done that he entered and prayed inside the Ka’bah.[7] In all likelihood, a companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Umar b. al-Khattab, was assigned to efface the pictures.[8]

While strongly condemning such acts of polytheism (shirk) as manifested in the pictures of some prophets and angels, among others, inside the Ka’bah, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: “May Allah wage a war against those people who depict what they cannot create”.[9] Before effacing the pictures, the Prophet (pbuh) destroyed the idols, about three hundred and sixty of them, which were dotting the immediate vicinity of the Ka’bah. In doing so, he recited the following Qur’anic verse: “And say: The truth has come and the falsehood has vanished; surely falsehood is a vanishing (thing)” (Al-Isra’, 81) Thus, the two actions of the Prophet (pbuh): destroying the pagan idols outside and effacing the pagan pictures inside the Ka’bah, signified the ultimate, complete and irreversible cleansing of the first House of Good on earth, as well as of the holy city of Makkah, from all the traces and influences of polytheism (shirk) and their permanent end. The words “the truth has come and the falsehood has vanished” were both the slogan for and the embodiment of the whole exercise of Makkah liberation. Leaving thus a trace inside or outside the Ka’bah in the form of a picture, or an idol, or even an idea, regardless of how insignificant, would have defeated, or tarnished at best, the purpose of the much-sought victory of the truth over the falsehood, and of the purity of monotheism (tawhid) over the deceit and ailment of polytheism (shirk). Hence, the Prophet (pbuh) insisted that no picture be left intact inside the Ka’bah.

At any rate, as a concluding remark, it is a high time that the above mentioned controversial and clearly fabricated account that alleges that the Prophet (pbuh) kept a representation of Mary (Maryam) and Jesus (Prophet ‘Isa) inside the Ka’bah, as well as many other foreign intellectual pollutants, be removed once and for all from our Islamic intellectual heritage. It is a high time that such elements are permanently done away with from our textbooks, thereby putting a stop to the adulterating and poisoning especially of the young and fragile Muslim minds.

 

 


[1] Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, (London: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976), p.5.

According to the author, it is wrong to attribute to Islam the notion of “iconoclasm”.

[2] Ahmad Muhammad ‘Isa, Muslims and Taswir, translated by Harold W. Glidden, in Fine Arts in Islamic Civilization, edited by M.A.J. Beg, (Kuala Lumpur: The University of Malaya Press, 1981), p. 67.

[3] K.A.C. Creswell, The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam, in Fine Arts in Islamic Civilization, p. 82. See also:  K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1989), p. 115.

[4] Ibid., p. 71-73.

[5] K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, p. 4.

[6] Al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makkah, (n.pp.: n.np., 1980), vol. 1 p. 111-113.

[7] See: Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Ahadith al-Anbiya’, Hadith No. 3103. Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Manasik, Hadith No. 1732. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad ibn Handbal, Kitab Baqi Musnad al-Mukaththirin, Hadith No. 14742. Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, (Cairo: Matba’ah Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladuhu, 1936), vol. 4 p. 55.

[8] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Libas, Hadith No. 3625.

[9] Al-Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi, (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1984), vol. 2 p. 834.

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