Early Phases of the Evolution of Islamic Architecture (Part One)

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
E-mail: spahico@yahoo.com

During the early periods of Islam when the comprehensive and worldwide, but peaceful and judicious, Islamization of the community topped the individual and societal priorities of the Muslims, evolving a total and pure identity of Islamic architecture was wittingly relegated to a lower tier of priorities. That was the case not because the Muslims did not care about architecture, or because they completely lacked the means and ability to do that, but because they knew very well that creating a unique Islamic architecture though being an integral segment of the Islamization program, had to come subsequent to the ideological, educational and social segments. In fact, the latter segments signified a foundation for, or a prelude to, the emergence of a genuine and enduring Islamic architecture with its easily recognizable identity and traits. The ultimate emergence of Islamic architecture was part of a natural course of events which was initiated by Allah’s sending of His revelation to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), just as it was the case with the rest of the components of Islamic culture and civilization.

During this formative period that lasted roughly about two centuries and a half, the interim architecture which the Muslims were employing could be divided into two main categories: 1) the austere Muslim buildings, and 2) transforming churches and temples into mosques.


1. The austere Muslim buildings

The first category is an austere and relatively ephemeral architecture which the Muslims have created particularly in their new settlements and cities in new territories where they lived firstly as soldiers and then as permanent settlers. Examples of the settlements where this category of architecture existed were the early Muslim settlements such as Qayrawan in Tunis (670 AC/50 H), Fustat in Egypt (641 AC/21 H), Kufah (637 AC/16 H), Basrah (637 AC/16 H) and Wasit (705 AC/86 H) in Iraq. However, since they were created much later towards the end of, or soon after, this formative period, such cities as Abbasid Baghdad (762 AC/145 H) and Samarra (836 AC/222H) in Iraq and Ahmad b. Tulun’s al-QatÉi’ (868 AC/255 H) in Egypt represented no longer the existing trend but rather the approaching of its demise, paving the way for Islamic art and architecture to finally come of age.

While building their first urban settlements outside Madinah, the first Muslims clearly demonstrated where their biggest priorities lied and how much faithful they were to honoring them. Undoubtedly, not only in substance but also in numerous methods and means did the first Muslims strive to follow their Prophet (pbuh) who had left behind a remarkable legacy while developing and urbanizing the city-state of Madinah. Striking a delicate balance between the obligation of meticulously following the Prophet’s way of life and the obligation of successfully meeting and answering the emerging challenges imposed by the volatile space and time factors, was a very difficult task that the first generations of Muslims were up against. Moreover, knowing that they were in the midst of creating a novel legacy with regard to the integration of the permanent and the temporary in the religion of Islam while applying its comprehensive message onto the world stage and to which the subsequent Muslim generations will always refer to as a point of reference, added an extra weight to the burden placed on the shoulders of the early Muslims. Thus, their total and painstaking efforts, sincerity, devotion and piety characterized everything associated with their age and their contributions not only to Islam but also to humanity in general. Nothing was left to chance lest the noble goals of Islam and its noble struggle for the good of mankind could be put in jeopardy one way or another. Hence, the legacy of the first and to some extent the second Muslim generations is considered a secondary source of the Islamic law (Shari’ah).

For example, the houses in Kufah and Basrah which the first Muslims built were made with reeds which were too ephemeral a building material. In addition, they were overly susceptible to fire and other destructive environmental factors. So, when fire caught them on one occasion in Kufah, the Muslims asked their caliph Umar b. al-Khattab in Madinah to allow them to use the stone in building for it is more durable and safer. Because their demand was reasonable and justified, Umar allowed them but cautioned not to get carried away:  “Do, but no one should build more than three houses. Do not vie with each other in building. Adhere to the sunnah and you will remain in power.” Additionally, he ordered them not to build buildings higher than what was proper. Asked what “proper” was, he replied: “What does not lead you to wastefulness and does not take you away from purposeful moderation.”[1]

Concerning the mosques erected in the new Muslim cities in new territories, they too were very simple following the example of the Prophet’s mosques in the prototype Islamic city of Madinah, especially the example of the Prophet’s Mosque. When Jerusalem capitulated to caliph Umar b. al-Khattab, having visited the place himself he is said to have built a simple crude mosque where most probably the al-Masjid al-Aqsa had been once established. The mosque was capable of accommodating about 3000 worshippers. The mosque was constructed by setting great beams on some remains of ruins.[2]

At Basrah, Creswell wrote, the first mosque was simply marked out, and the people prayed there without any building. It was, in all likelihood, enclosed by a fence of reeds.[3] The mosque at Kufah was equally austere. The sole architectural feature in the mosque area was a covered colonnade (zulla), 200 cubits (about 100 meters) long, which ran the whole length of the south side. The columns were of marble, taken from some neighboring buildings about 4 miles away. This zulla was open on all sides and one praying in it could see through beyond the mosque boundary.[4]

The Mosque of ‘Amr b. al-‘As in Fustat in Egypt too was an extremely simple structure: low, without an inner court, and measuring roughly twenty-nine by seventeen meters. “The mosque was free-standing and surrounded by open space: a passage some four meters wide on the eastern side and probably large on the other sides. It was entered by six entrances, two on each side with the exception of the qiblah side. Since it could not be spanned by single beams, it was supposed that palm trunks were used as columns to support beams of split palm trunks and a thatching of palm leaves and mud.”[5]

The early settlers in the first Muslim cities, by and large, were Arab soldiers with their families who had no or very little talent and skills concerning not only building but also all the other vocational crafts.[6] It is no wonder then that most of the early Muslim buildings outside the birthplace of Islam were extremely simple. In cases where more structural sophistication was needed, the services of local builders and artisans, who often were non-Muslims, were required. Later, however, the situation changed commensurately with the changes and advances witnessed across the spectrum of the whole body of Islamic civilization.

The role of non-Muslims in creating some early buildings was never viewed as a snag for in charge of conceiving, supervising, monitoring, sponsoring and finally using those buildings were the Muslims who epitomized the Islamic belief system and values and who ensured that there were no discrepancies between the character of the erected buildings and the character of the people’s lifestyles. The role of non-Muslim workers was confined mainly to executing the wishes and plans of the Muslim patrons. At most, non-Muslim workers were in a position to put forward some of their own ideas and proposals within given contexts which nevertheless could not be implemented unless endorsed by the Muslims who were in charge of the whole thing.

An example of this relationship between the Muslim patrons and non-Muslim professionals in the field of architecture where the latter served the ideas and aims of the former is the rebuilding of the Great Mosque of Kufah in 670 AC/ 50 H by Ziyad b. Abihi, an Umayyad governor in both Basrah and Kufah. At first when the city was established the mosque was built simple in approximately the same way like the rest of the mosques elsewhere thereby mirroring the one and same mentality and approach of the early Muslims to building. While embarking on the project of rebuilding the Mosque, Ziyad is reported to have expressed his wish to erect a building that would be without equal, thus expecting to assert both the victory and permanent presence of Islam and Muslims in the region and the political supremacy of the Umayyads vis-a-vis the rest of the pretenders to the caliphate throne. However, in order to do that he needed to summon non-Muslim architects and structural engineers seeking their advice and help. According to K.A.C. Creswell, “a man who had been one of the builders of Khusrau replied that that could only be accomplished by using columns from Jabal Ahwaz, the drums of which should be hollowed out, drilled and fitted together by means of lead and dowels of iron. The roof should be 30 cubits (15 m.) high. He built it with sides and back (porticoes?). Ziyad then said: “That is what I desired, but I could not express it.” The height of the roof struck all observers.”[7] That the Mosque was built by non-Muslims incorporating some ancient Persian architectural traditions especially in its roofing system where the roof “resembled that of an apadÉna, or Hall of Columns of the old Persian kings”[8] was not seen by anybody as a problem or an impediment to realizing the Islamic spiritual and civilizational purpose.

While building the Great Mosque of Basrah,[9] Ziyad b. Abihi, the city’s governor, might have adopted the same building strategies like in the case of Kufah’s Mosque. The two Mosques were of similar proportions as well as spiritual and socio-political significance.

This reciprocated relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in building, apart from being a normal occurrence during the early days of Islam, it sometimes put on some international coloring as well. For example, for the reconstruction of the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah, the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid is said to have written to the Roman Emperor at Constantinople seeking his help in terms of providing craftsmen, technicians and a load of mosaics for the purpose of decorating the exalted Mosque of the exalted Prophet (pbuh). A group of, in all likelihood, 80 workers plus a load of mosaics and gold were sent to the Caliph. One half of the mosaic workers were the Coptic and the other half the Roman artisans.[10] They were assigned, among other things, to decorate the Mosque according to the clearly outlined themes and general behavioral procedures. The mosaic workers are reported to have said that they decorated the Mosque in accordance with the ways trees and palaces in Paradise are described. When one of the workers painted a marvelous tree, the impressed governor of Madinah, Umar b. Abd al-‘Aziz, rewarded him with a bonus of 30 dirhams.[11] Al-Samhudi, quoting al-Waqidi who in turn reported from Abdullah b. Yazid, said that the Coptic workers were in charge of the Mosque’s front part, which is apparently the praying area proper, and the Roman workers were in charge of what was beyond the Mosque’s roof, that is, the sides and back of the Mosque. Sayyid b. al-Musayyib, one of the most prominent scholars of that time, commented that the Copts did their job better than their Roman counterparts.[12]

However, there were among the workers some who were unhappy with the prospect of serving the interests of Islam and Muslims. One of them, while expressing his frustration, on his own or after having been instigated by someone else, audaciously drew a pig on an arch inside the arcade that stood between the Mosque’s  courtyard and its qiblah wall. He did this in order to desecrate the Mosque and Islam. He was later caught and duly punished.[13]

Al-Samhudi even reported that a worker planned to urinate on the Prophet’s grave. His fellow workers were not happy with it and tried to stop him but in vain. When the man was about to do what he wanted, he was suddenly uprooted and then thrown on his head resulting in the head to be broken and the brain to come out. Having seen this and having been convinced that a higher invisible force was at play guarding the Prophet’s body, some of the workers accepted Islam.[14]

Also, when the Caliph al-Walid built the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, he wrote to the Roman Emperor at Constantinople requesting that some craftsmen with the required skills be sent to him to take part in the project. The Caliph al-Walid threatened the Emperor by invading some of his lands and destroying the remaining Byzantine monuments under the Muslim control if his request fell on a deaf ear.[15] The Emperor responded positively to the request and sent, according to Ibn Kathir[16] and Ibn Asakir,[17] two hundred workers, and according to Ibn Battuta,[18] twelve thousand of them. The Great Mosque in Damascus has been described by Ibn Battuta as “the most magnificent mosque in the world, the finest in construction and noblest in beauty, grace and perfection; it is matchless and unequalled.”[19] Certainly, due to the nature of the circumstances in which the Umayyad Mosque was built, it, according to Ross Burns, was a synthesis of the Byzantine, neo-Roman, Sasanian, Syrian design schemes and a first flowering of a new Islamic art and architecture.[20]

However, as the time was passing and Islamic civilization was becoming richer and more robust and diversified, need for non-Muslims in architecture was likewise waning. The Muslims were able to draw on their own ability, talent and resources which the diverse and multinational Islamic society was by then capable of affording. When the Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur embarked on creating the city of Baghdad, dubbed by al-Ya’qubi as a city of no equal in the whole world in terms of, among other things, architecture and size,[21] he is reported to have written to each and every Muslim province requesting that the architects, engineers, planners, carpenters, blacksmiths, diggers and others who could be useful in the process of building the city, be commissioned for the task. Eventually a workforce of a hundred thousand both ordinary workers and experts in different fields was assembled.[22] Although there is no explicit mention as to who the majority of workers in particular professionals were, we can easily conclude from the available accounts and from the ways they have been presented that they, or an overwhelming majority of them, were Muslims. Whether they were Arabs or not was irrelevant because by then non-Arab Muslims were so successfully integrated into the fabric of the Islamic community that the influences of some non-Arab Muslim communities started superseding in a number of matters and ways those of Arab Muslims. That non-Arabs were eclipsing the Arabs was in no way seen as a flaw or a setback. Rather, it was seen as a natural thing. It meant that the universal and natural disposition of Islam was really at work.  

The same is true with regard to building the city of Samarra by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’tasim. Al-Ya’qubi reports that the Caliph al-Mu’tasim too gathered an enormous and diversified workforce from all over the Muslim world including from the already flourishing city of Baghdad. The workforce certainly was dominated by Muslims, although a helping hand from non-Muslim artisans, especially for handling the marble, might have been sought.[23]

The initial Arab desert attitude that resulted in the Arabs’ inability to erect sophisticated structures, coupled with the restrained attitude of Islam towards excessive building as well as the circumstances which surrounded the early expansion of the Islamic state and the evolution of its civilization, all this prompted Ibn Khaldun to conclude while dwelling on the laws that govern the rise and fall of human civilizations in general and Islamic civilization in particular, that the buildings and constructions in Islam are comparatively few considering Islam’s power and as compared to preceding dynasties, and that buildings erected by Arabs, with very few exceptions, quickly fall into ruin.[24] Ibn Khaldun explains: “The Arabs are quite firmly rooted in the desert and quite unfamiliar with the crafts. Furthermore, before Islam, the Arabs had been strangers to the realms of which they then took possession. When they came to rule them, there was not time enough for all the institutions of sedentary culture to develop fully. Moreover, the buildings of others which they found in existence were sufficient for them. Furthermore, their religion forbade them to do any excessive building or to waste too much money on building activities for no purpose.”[25]

In the same vein, Ibn Khaldun concluded that for the same reasons when the non-Arabs entered the fold of Islam, they quickly outshone the Arabs not only in the crafts and professions, including those related to architecture, but also in sciences both the religious and intellectual ones. Says Ibn Khaldun: “It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars both in the religious and in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs. When a scholar is of Arab origins, he is non-Arab in language and upbringing and has non-Arab teachers. This is so in spite of the fact that Islam is a religion revealed in the Arabic language and its prophet was an Arab.”[26]

It could be inferred, therefore, that according to Ibn Khaldun there are two chief reasons for the proliferation of Islamic architecture and the emergence of its total identity: firstly, when many Muslims shed the ascetic lifestyles that featured prominently during the early days of Islam opting instead to avail themselves of the legitimate benefits brought about by the swift expansion of the Islamic state, that is, when “royal authority and luxury gained the upper hand”, as Ibn Khaldun puts it;[27] and secondly, when the Persians and Romans were defeated and when many of them entered the fold of Islam and thus greatly enriched the existing culture and civilization of Muslims with their competence, flair and enormous experiences. (To be continued…)





[1]Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 268. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, The History, vol. 4 p. 44.

[2]Ibn Jarir al-Tabarir, The History, vol. 12, p. 194-196. R. A. Jairazbhoy, An Outline of Islamic Architecture, (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1972), p. 33.

[3] K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, p. 7.

[4] Ibid., p. 7.

[5] Wladyslaw B. Kubiak, Al-Fustat, its Foundation and Early Urban Development, (Cairo: The American University in Cairo, 1988), p.121.

[6] Salih Ahmad al-‘Ali, Al-Tanzimat al-Ijtima’iyyah wa al-Iqtisadiyyah fi al-Basrah, (Baghdad: Matba’ah al-Ma’arif, 1953), p. 271.

[7] K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, p. 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 10.

[9] Yaqut al-Hamawi, Mu’jam al-Buldan, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1979), vol. 1 p. 433.

[10] Al-Samhudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, vol. 2 p. 518. Yaqut al-Hamawi, Mu’jam al-Buldan, vol. 5 p. 102.

[11]Al-Ya’qubi, Tarikh al-Ya’qubi, vol. 2, p. 284. Al-Samhudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, vol. 2 p. 523.

[12] Al-Samhudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, vol. 2 p. 524, 525.

[13] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 519.

[14] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 519.

[15]Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Madinah Dimashq, vol. 2 p. 258.

[16] Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 9 p. 153.

[17] Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Madinah Dimashq, vol. 2 p. 258.

[18] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa,Translated and selected by H. A. R. Gibb, (London: Darf Publishers LTD, 1983),p. 65.

[19] Ibid.,p. 65.

[20] Ross Burns, Damascus, a History, p. 118.

[21] Al-Ya’qubi, Kitab al-Buldan, 24.

[22] Ibid., p. 25.

[23] Ibid., p. 58.

[24] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, p. 271.

[25] Ibid., p.271.

[26] Ibid., p. 428.

[27] Ibid., p. 271.

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