Building as a Basis of Civilization

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

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, that is one 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 causal, man always being the cause and built environment the effect. So therefore, no phase of man’s presence on earth could be imagined to be devoid of building activities, irrespective of their scale and sophistication.

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…”[1]

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…”[2]

The very first man on earth, Adam, was a builder, so to speak. He built the first House of worship on earth, i.e., the al-Masjid al-Haram or Baytullah (the House of God). Having descended on earth, Adam is said to have yearned for the exaltation and praises of God by angels he had accustomed himself to in the Garden of Eden, and, thus, he desired to have a house which will resound with the prayers and praises of God on earth too. God fulfilled his wish and sent down the angel Jabra’il (Gabriel) to guide and help Adam in laying the foundations of the al-Masjid al-Haram.[3] Allah says in the Qur’an: “The first House (of worship) appointed for man was that in Bakka: full of blessing and of guidance for all the worlds” (Alu ‘Imran 96).

Some even assert – and Allah knows best — that God did not send Adam to earth until it was set and fully equipped to accommodate him so that he and his family would be able to smoothly and responsibly carry out their duties as vicegerents (khalifah) on earth. Due to the nature of man, which is predisposed to worship, one of the essential requirements was the existence of a House of God for worship purposes. As a result, some angels were assigned to build the al-Masjid al-Haram for Adam.[4]

Exactly forty years following the completion of the al-Masjid al-Haram, either Adam himself or some of his offspring 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.According to a hadith (the Prophet’s tradition) Abu Dharr is reported to have said: “I have asked the Prophet (pbuh): “Which mosque was built first on earth?” The Prophet (pbuh) answered: “The al-Masjid al-Haram.” Then I asked: “And which one was built thereafter?” He said: “The al-Masjid al-Aqsa.” Then I asked: “What was the interval separating the two?” The Prophet (pbuh) replied: “Forty years.”[5]

It goes without saying that the craft of building, aimed at providing a framework and support for human conscious behavior, was by no means foreign to Adam and his progeny. The first generations of humans on earth needed no substantial timeframe to evolve a basic acquaintance as regards the significance and purpose of building. Fundamental building skills and techniques must have been inherent in Adam, which he later passed on to his immediate offspring. Such was the case because in contradistinction to his children and the rest of humans, Adam was not born in a conventional biological way nor was he subjected to the conventional processes of gradual learning and attaining maturity — as is the case with all humans. Rather, he was created instantly as an adult. Thus, following his creation at the hands of God, Adam had to undergo an intensive and unusual learning process in order to become fully prepared to take on the demands of vicegerency.

On this Allah says: “Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? – Whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name) ?” He said: “I know what ye know not.” And He taught Adam the names of all things; then he placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell Me the names of these if ye are right.” They said: “Glory to Thee: of knowledge We have none, save what Thou hast taught us: in truth it is Thou who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom.” He said: “O Adam! tell them their names.” When he had told them their names, Allah said: “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal, and what ye conceal?” (al-Baqarah 30-33).

With the words “He (God) taught Adam the names of all things,” we understand that God had taught Adam the inner nature, functions and qualities of all things on earth. Because they are vital for man’s   both survival and civilizational progression, matters related to building are believed to have been some of the things that Adam had been taught by God. They are seen as a means, an instrument, a carrier of the spiritual. Building as a craft fulfills an honorable mission, which is in line with the mission of man on earth, yet it is part of the latter.

Adam’s tenure on earth was too short to be spent on discovering those things one by one and by him and other humans alone without the intervention of God. In the same vein, being a vicegerent on earth and father of humanity, Adam’s task was too big and too exigent that no time or energy could be spent on things that could seriously distract him from concentrating on fulfilling the main purpose of his creation. It would be illogical if one were asked to accomplish a mission, only to be compelled to spend his entire lifetime trying to come to grasp with such things as means, methods, flair and other prerequisites needed for the task, without really succeeding even in doing that.

As a small digression, this means that Adam was a civilizedand cultured being par excellence. He was God’s first prophet. Yet, he was one of God’s greatest prophets (ulu al-‘azm min al-rusul, the prophets of firm resolve). As such, his outlook on reality, his approaches to and ways of doing things ensured him, and such as followed him, happiness and total satisfaction in both worlds. And total and continuous happiness that stems from such boons as security, safety, knowledge, spiritual and mental health and strength, strong morals, peaceful and meaningful interaction with space and nature, is central to every civilizational enterprise in every time and space. Should a people fall short of achieving such happiness and contentment in things they plan and do — it follows — their achievements in no way can be called a civilization and their behavior a refined culture, no matter how much their outward show and make-up are able to ostensibly suggest otherwise.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr rightly observed: “Traditionally speaking, the truly civilized man is one who has realized this civitas Dei within himself and gained the inner vision with which he is able to realize that the only master of this city is the Immortal Spirit within and not his rebellious ego. Without this realization, man lives in barbarism even if he invents the fanciest of gadgets.”[6]


[1] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, (London: Rotledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), vol. 2 p. 357.

[2] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, translated from the thirteenth French edition with an introduction by Frederick Etchelles, (Oxford: Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd, 1989), p. 13.

[3]Al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makkah, (n.pp.:, 1980), vol. 1 p. 3-17. IbnKhaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 250.

[4]Al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makkah, vol. 1 p. 3-17. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 250.

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

[6]Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Civilizational Dialogue and the Islamic World,

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