Islamic Housing Today: Towards its Sound Policies

 

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

 

For successfully completing the project of reviving Islamic housing, having sound housing policies in place is absolutely essential. The primary goal of those policies will be to ensure that people without much ado can acquire decent, proper, functional and affordable houses. People must get houses that function as their family development centers, which are perceived as their earthly sanctuaries and even paradises. They are not to get just a roof of their heads, or just a shelter that protects them against the harmful natural elements. Houses are to function as a means for achieving a spiritual purpose on earth. They are thus to be affordable and all the problems related to them are to be solvable within the means of their owners and users. Houses are not to be turned into a goal of people’s existence because, perhaps, acquiring or maintaining them is too complicated and expensive, or because a world in which houses are produced does not correspond with the world of a majority of people. Houses are to be an asset and not a liability to people. Houses, furthermore, are to be a source of joy and happiness and not a source of stress and anxiety to people. Here the roles of government authorities and agencies, as well as their affiliates, will be of paramount importance. Regular customer satisfaction surveys are to be conducted in order to ascertain that Muslims are happy with their houses, as well as to identify areas and concerns where improvements are due. The best way to find out whether the Muslim customers are satisfied with their houses is to honestly ask them and to listen to them. They handsomely pay for their houses and they spend a great deal of their lives in them. Hence, they are the most important stakeholders in Islamic housing. Their views and feedback are to be constantly sought and valued.

          Sound housing policies revolve, mainly, around the following thrusts.

Firstly, the involvement of the community in all the steps concerned with the planning, constructing and maintaining of the housing projects is needed. “There is much that government can do in this area. Government can encourage and nurture the creation of community organizations. They can then work with them to mutually design and carry out housing projects. When the private sector is involved, government can act with and on behalf of the people to insure that quality housing is produced. Once constructed, government can offer technical assistance for maintenance of housing units and the associated residential infrastructure.”[1]

Secondly, “insuring that those who build housing, whether they are self-builders or private sector firms, have access to good quality building materials at a cost they can afford. In far too many situations, it is inadequate access to building materials that limits the kinds of construction activity that could contribute significantly to the solution of the housing problem.”[2]

Thirdly, there must exist comprehensive building standards that ensure the quality of housing.[3] These standards, however, must be amplified and must transcend the scope of the concerns of, for example, water, sanitation, sewage drainage, the form and size of houses and some of their components, reducing the danger of fire and other hazards, etc. — albeit without diminishing the importance of those issues and concerns even in the slightest. Building standards must entail myriads of other issues and concerns in relation to the psychological and spiritual wellbeing of people as well.

If we examine the exhaustive encyclopaedic works on the Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh islami) and the hisbah institution[4] from the pastwhen Islamic housing was a norm across the vast Muslim world, we can see that such works systematically deal with the themes of setting and maintaining comprehensive and all-inclusive Islamic housing standards. Indeed, those references are still relevant today and can provide much invaluable input in a quest for a contemporary Islamic housing and its quality standards. Some of the subject matters which are consistently dealt with in the works of the Islamic jurisprudence and the hisbah institution, and which stand for some major criteria, indicators and parameters not only of Islamic housing but also of the whole of the Islamic built environment are: legal frameworks relating to neighbours and neighbourhoods, reconciliation (al-sulh) between immediate neighbours and all the people in a neighbourhood, people’s individual and collective rights, prohibition of inflicting harm (darar), legal frameworks pertaining to building, and public services and facilities (al-marafiq).

Fourthly, constantly finding ways and means to reduce the costs of housing to a minimum, as well as to help people finance their houses and housing loans. The poor in society cannot be neglected. However, with expensive houses dominating the market, even the middle-class population, let alone the poor, will be severely affected.

Mahbub ul Haq, a renowned Pakistani economist, wrote about pragmatism in Islamic architecture, with Islamic housing at the forefront, and how it must serve its people. He rightly argues that Islamic architecture must not be seen as an elitist enterprise. It is a pursuit that aims to ensure the welfare of all Muslims, in the process reflecting the essential spirit and universal value system of Islam. Islamic architecture must be practical in the sense that it is affordable, accessible, functional and tackles the issues and problems concerning all Muslims, many of whom are unfortunately poor today. Thus, a form of Islamic architecture that we aim to revive today must not be discriminatory, elitist, impractical, fanciful and utopian. Mahbub ul Haq reflects: “If Islamic architecture is to become a living reality in modern times, it must respond to the needs of the poor people who are the overwhelming reality in the Muslim world. It cannot afford to become an elitist concept. Islamic architecture must be unlinked from the popular image of kings’ palaces and old castles and overflowing gardens and ornamental monuments. It can certainly borrow its essential designs, concepts, indigenous technology, functional features of drainage and cooling systems, etc., from the past, but it must translate them into a wholly new architecture which reflects the essential spirit and value system of Islam: equality, accessibility, mass participation and cost-effectiveness.

           In other words, there are two fairly clear choices. We can proceed from a study of architecture to the needs of the people; or we can reverse the relationship, and proceed from the needs of the people to the relevance of Islamic architecture to those needs…I do not believe in art for the sake of art; I believe that art must be for the sake of life. And I certainly do not believe in Islamic architecture merely for the sake of Islamic architecture; I believe that a revival of Islamic architecture must correspond to the needs of the poor people of Islam…It should be possible to engineer a happy blend, a proper fusion between the functional needs of our poor people and the aesthetic needs of an architecture which truly reflects our Islamic culture, traditions and history.”[5]

Fifthly, there must be adequate land for residential construction at a price that households can afford, even if it means that government agencies should free up some of their own surplus land holdings.[6]

Sixthly, there must be sets of comprehensive housing policies which will aim to tackle the housing problems that are connected to some relatively new social and natural phenomena, such as sustainable development, recycling, energy efficient built environment, environmental impact assessment, crime prevention, resistance to natural disasters common to an area, and the like.

Seventhly, there must exist clear policies and guidelines that will target and monitor the proper conduct of Islamic housing professionals. This could be part of a broad and comprehensive Islamic architectural, as well as planning and development, ethics.

 


        


[1]Charles L. Choguill, The Search for Policies to Support Sustainable Housing, The Proceedings of the International Conference on Sustainable Housing, 18-19.9.2006, Penang, Malaysia, p. 5.

[2]Ibid., p. 5.

[3]Ibid., p. 5. See also: Rouhi Al-Sherif, Solving the Housing Problems for Poor Groups in Islamic Cities, (pp. 249-266); Housing and City Planning Problems in the City of Tehran, by a representative from the municipality of Tehran, (pp. 155-160); Inside: Housing in the Islamic City, Proceedings of a Symposium held in Ankara, Turkey, on 21-25.7.1984. Proceedings prepared by: Center of Planning and Architectural Studies, Cairo.

[4]This institution is both religious and social in nature aiming to protect the interests of the members of society regardless of whether such interests are connected to pure religious matters or to some other worldly concerns.

[5]Mahbub ul Haq, Islamic Architecture and the Poor People of Islam, in Places of Public Gathering in Islam, edited by Linda Safran, (Philadelphia: Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1980), p. 126-127.

[6]Charles L. Choguill, The Search for Policies to Support Sustainable Housing, p. 5    .    

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