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

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

First Example: the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

As the first example, we hear of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus as being one of the most splendid buildings ever built by Muslims, which was built by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid in 705 AC / 87 H. The Mosque was, as Ross Burns describes, “the glittering epicenter of this (Islamic) new civilization, probably the most richly decorated building since the passing of ancient Rome. In the 14 years from the Dome of the Rock to the Umayyad Mosque, the Umayyads developed a series of architectural symbols of great significance and massive proportions, decorated with unparalleled splendor. They were truly imperial gestures marking the transition in a few generations from a people who had few architectural traditions to an empire that dramatically asserted its new order.”[1]

However, the original site of the mosque was a big church, the Church of St John the Baptist. When the Muslims opened Damascus to Islam in 635 AC / 14 H, one of their commanders, Khalid b. al-Walid, entered by force from the eastern side of the city through one of its gates reaching as far as the city’s center that included a half of the Church of St John the Baptist, while the other commander, Abu ‘Ubaydah, as a result of negotiations entered peacefully from the western side of the city and also reached the city’s center that included the other half of the Church.[2] Because the Muslims urgently needed — just like everywhere else — a principal mosque as their community center, preferably in the center of urban and densely populated Damascus, and because a half of the city and a half of one of its main churches, the Church of St John the Baptist, had to be overcome by force, and because the Christian population in Damascus was set to start decreasing from then onwards and, as a result, the role of Christianity and the people’s affiliation with the existing churches to wane – because of all these factors a solution was devised to the effect that the eastern part of the Church of St John the Baptist, which was captured by force, be changed into a mosque, and the other western half, which was part of a capitulation treaty, to remain as a church.

Some credible accounts suggest that the two Muslim parties: the one advancing by force from the eastern side of the city, and the other one advancing peacefully from the city’s western side, met in the vicinity of another smaller and less important church also in the center of the city of Damascus. There is no direct reference to the great Church of St John the Baptist, which must have stood nearby, and how exactly it was taken: by force or peacefully. However, as part of general negotiations, it was decided that the eastern half of the Church of St John the Baptist be taken by the Muslims and be used as a mosque because the eastern part of the city was taken by force, and that the western half of the Church be retained by the Christians and be used as a church because the western side of the city was taken peacefully.[3] The mentioned church where the advancing Muslim forces from the east and west of Damascus met while capturing it was later included as one of the city churches which the Christians were able to keep in their possession.[4]

Based on their interpretations of certain historical sources, some scholars even advance a theory – albeit a weak one — that it is possible to believe that the Church of St John the Baptist has never been divided between the Christians and Muslims. The Church remained always in the complete Christian possession until the caliphate of al-Walid when he appropriated and then destroyed the Church, building then on its foundation the Great Umayyad Mosque. There were, according to this possibility, two distinct edifices in the same central area of the city: a mosque which the Muslims had initially built following their entering Damascus, and the Church of St John the Baptist. The two separate edifices stood close to each other. They both occupied part of the present mosque area and were both pulled down by the caliph al-Walid to give way to the new Umayyad Mosque.[5]




As time was passing, however, the number of Muslim worshippers significantly increased whereas the number of Christians and so the users of the Church of St John the Baptist significantly decreased. Consequently, the caliph al-Walid decided to appropriate the entire Church and then to destroy it and build a new grand mosque as both the community center and a symbol of the community’s permanent presence and victory, because sharing the Church longer than 72 years after the arrival of Islam in Damascus, and longer than 45 years after Damascus had become the splendid capital of the vast and mighty Islamic state, proved, to all intents and purposes, no longer feasible. There existed many other churches which were protected by the state and were capable to comfortably cater to the needs of the ever-shrinking Christian population in the city and the region in general. Al-Walid asked the Christians to sell him their portion of the Church for whatever equivalent they desired, so that he could embark on building the city’s principal mosque, but they refused. Thus, al-Walid had no choice but to resort to using his shrewdness and the power of argument in order to proceed smoothly with his plan.

The message of the caliph al-Walid to Christians was that he meant no deliberate offence or humiliation for them or their religion. After all, he could not do so even if he somehow so desired, as Islam strictly forbids him from doing anything like that. Al-Walid was the leader of a multi-religious community and as such was entrusted with making sure that the rights of every member of the community, Muslim or non-Muslim, strong or weak alike, were duly respected. At the same time, however, the Christians were expected to be pragmatic, fair as much to themselves as to the others and read the reality with fewer emotions and more with logic and reason. As the situation since the capitulation of Damascus was always one of mutual giving and taking, it had to continue that way so that peace and social equilibrium could be maintained between all.

It is worth mentioning here that during the period between the opening of Damascus to Islam (fath) and al-Walid’s decision to appropriate the Christian portion of the Church and then build a stately mosque on a hitherto unknown scale and with unknown proportions, a period of about 72 years, there was no physical destruction or dismantling of buildings associated with the Byzantines or Christianity. The city and indeed the whole region of Syria witnessed arguably more than any other region the open-mindedness, tolerance and progressive nature of Islam and Muslims being at their best. The transition in the city from one administration to the order was a relatively gentle one. The Arab presence was initially modest. The influx of new Arabs was limited. The city was not handed over to nomadic Arabs. Initially, Christians remained the great bulk of the population as conversion at first was a slow process. Not only that there was no destruction of existing churches but also new churches continued to be built.[6] According to Georges C. Anawati, the total Islamization of Syria that resulted in the total impregnation with Muslim values of the social, intellectual and economic life in the region was not completed until after the first centuries following the conquest. As Islam gradually took root and conversions multiplied, it was only by then that the whole style of daily life in Syria became that of a Muslim community.[7]

However, in the era towards the enthronement of the caliph al-Walid, the end of the seventh century, many things in Syria and in Damascus in particular changed warranting a new measure in relation to the shared Church of St John the Baptist. By then, while the Christian presence was still numerically dominant, the Muslim population had grown considerably. There were more Muslims than what could be accommodated in the limited place in the Church initially set aside to serve as the focus for the Muslim religious and other pertinent life activities.[8] Al-Walid thus needed a radical change to the status quo. He needed to have a chief mosque right in the heart of both the capital of the Muslim world empire and one of the first great Arab-Muslim cities so that the mosque through its stature, commanding physical appearance and functions, becomes commensurate with the ongoing civilizational enterprise and future ambitions of the Muslims. However he studied the situation, al-Walid realized that his best option appeared to be the appropriation of the second half of the Church of St John the Baptist that belonged to the Christians through a deal that would be fair and acceptable to them.  That was to be followed by a demolition of the Church and building a landmark mosque at its site.




A few reasons could be given for this al-Walid’s decision. Firstly, the position of the Church which was shared by the Muslims and Christians was so strategic in relation to the city plan and design that it was more fitting that it completely belonged to the Muslims, the victors, administrators and the emerging majority in the city, and not to a vanquished community that was, as a result, steadily dwindling in terms of both its size and influence. The status quo seemed both impractical and an obstacle to the development and growth of the city of Damascus that was meant to clearly reflect the city’s latest power shift and its new socio-political, economic and administrative landscape. In the city center where the government buildings, institutions, personnel and the principal mosque, albeit in the form of a shared church, were concentrated, the Muslim victory and authority plus the emerging pure Islamic civilizational identity were set to be felt more and stronger than anywhere else. The future planning and development schemes in the city, it goes without saying, had to be devised along the lines of the latest urban trends. Al-Walid viewed his initiative through the prism of this compelling verity and he wanted others, especially the Christians, to do the same in order that a fair and realistic accord could be reached.

The second reason for al-Walid’s decision to strike a deal with Christians and appropriate their section of the Church of St John the Baptist and then demolish it and make a mosque where the Church stood, was that the Christians had enough churches in the city which were under the state’s protection. In fact, what they had was proportionate to and later as many Christians embraced Islam was even exceeding their religious requirements. Under the terms of a treaty concluded between the Muslims and Christians in Damascus, fourteen churches were to remain completely in the Christian possession.[9] Thus, if they relinquished their half of the Church in question which was steadily losing its original usefulness as a consequence of the rapid socio-political and religious transformations that the city of Damascus was subjected to, that would not have meant any real disaster for them and would have had a minimal impact on their social and religious wellbeing. Al-Walid’s several proposals to the Christians, as part of his negotiations with them, attest to this, as well as to the fact that he did not violate, intentionally or otherwise, any of the Christian basic rights in relation to their freedom of worship and the right to possess a necessary amount of churches to meet their religious requirements.

One of such proposals was al-Walid’s readiness to build for the Christians a new church anywhere in Damascus in return for their half of the Church of St John the Baptist which he had targeted. The proposal, however, was turned down. Another proposal put forward by al-Walid to the Christians was the one to the effect that one of the city churches, the Church of Thomas, which apparently had not been protected by the peace treaty and which was freely and widely in use, be demolished and a mosque to be built at its site. However, the Christians, apparently having examined the situation and having analyzed the implications of each and every possible scenario, readily expressed their preference for the Church of Thomas to remain in their legitimate possession and that their half of the Church of St John the Baptist be taken over by the Muslims, which eventually came to pass.[10] While deliberating a strategy as to how to convince the Christians to give up their half of the Church in question, al-Walid is said to have once expressed his disappointment with the stubborn standpoint of the local Christian population, because he expected more understanding from them in return for the generous financial help and huge land allocations he used to grant them.[11] At any rate, the building of the Great Umayyad Mosque succeeded in asserting in some monumental terms the Islamic ascendancy while at the same time showing total respect for law and the rights of the Christian inhabitants.[12]

The third reason for al-Walid’s decision to amicably strike a deal with the Christians and appropriate their section of the Church of St John the Baptist and then to tear it down and make a mosque where the Church stood, was a pure religious one. It was the Caliph’s natural wish to commemorate the victory of Islam and Muslims over Christianity and all the other religious systems and affiliations in the region. In order to build a principal mosque in Damascus, if truth be told, it was not really necessary for al-Walid to appropriate the total site of the Church of St John the Baptist. The job could be done somewhere else and a few planning maneuvers were certainly possible. But the site in question was the holiest one in Damascus with a long and rich history dominated by several ideologies and their fraternities that succeeded each other in power and influence. That made the temptation of transforming the same site into a symbol of an illustrious Islamic triumph and ascendancy, and of Islam and Muslims as the successors to the once-mighty Romans and Greeks, too great to be discounted and not fully utilized.

Surely, al-Walid was fully aware that the spot where his future Mosque was bound to stand firstly was a temple of Hadadin the Aramaeanera. The site was later a temple of Jupiterin the Roman era then a Christianchurchdedicated to St John the Baptist in the Byzantineera.[13] It was only natural for al-Walid that he preferred the ready-made symbolic value of the huge temple compound for one of Islam’s greatest mosques, rather than some anonymous and less strategic locations with little or no historic or cultural significance, to officially declare the victory of Islam over all religions. As Ross Burns puts it, “already for more than 1,500 years the focus of the city’s religious observance, the attraction of such a gesture, underlining that the Islamic Empire was the true successor to the Romans and Greeks, was just too great to be set aside.”[14]




 In his capacity as the caliph of Muslims, al-Walid viewed his undertaking as a religious duty that he felt honored to carry through. That is why he was the first person to take an axe and aim the first blows at the tabernacle of the Church of St John the Baptist setting off a demolition process. Caliph al-Walid did this because the Christians, in an effort to stifle the plan, fabricated a myth that whoever demolishes the Church will get crazy. On hearing this, al-Walid became all the more enthusiastic to proceed with the job of demolition and to show who is right and who is wrong. Brushing aside the Christian qualms and threats, he proudly said: “I shall be the first person to get crazy for the sake of Allah.”[15]

Apart from declaring the victory of Islam over Christianity and the other religions that were represented in the region, Caliph al-Walid must have felt that the message which the Great Umayyad Mosque was epitomizing also aimed to defend and vindicate those prophets and devout personalities who are venerated by both Muslims and the Christians but whose name and reputation had been tarnished by the latter due to them straying from the right path. Those persons are the prophets ‘Isa (Jesus), Zakariyya (Zachariah) and Yahya (St John the Baptist), as well as Maryam (Marry) the mother of prophet ‘Isa (Jesus) and the one whom Allah had purified and chosen above the women of all nations. As a final and surely one of the most decisive steps towards the fulfillment of his mission, it was perfect for al-Walid to erect a monumental mosque at the site where a church associated with the prophet Jahya or St John the Baptist, who was the son of the prophet Zakariyya (Zachariah)[16] and maternal cousin of the prophet ‘Isa (Jesus), originally stood.

The Mosque thus had a message to convey not only to Muslims but also to non-Muslims, especially the Christians. The mission of the Mosque was oriented as much to the future as to the past. It seems that the Mosque’s future and the future of Islam and the Muslims in the region to a large extent depended on how effectively the region’s ideologically colorful and sensitive past is absorbed and dealt with. The chief message thus conveyed to the Christians was that they were treading an erroneous spiritual path, especially in matters relating to God and His prophets who He had sent to men to guide them to the right path, commencing with Adam and ending with Muhammad (peace be upon them all). Via the presence of the Umayyad Mosque, a perpetual appeal to the Christians was thus made to reassess their religious convictions and practices. The door for joining the new-yet-old religion, i.e., Islam as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) which incorporated the original form of their own, that is to say, the version of Islam as revealed to the Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus), is forever open and everyone, including the Christians, is very much welcome on board.



In other words, firstly the sharing and then the demolition of the Church of St John the Baptist which was followed by building one of the greatest mosques in Islam at the Church’s location symbolized the Muslim view of Christianity as a religion and its followers. Sharing initially the Church and praying in it implied the utmost respect that Islam and Muslims have towards the Christians and their religion. They, together with the Jews, are called by the Qur’an the People of the Book (ahl al-kitÉb). Their religious and civil rights must be honored by Muslims at all times. They must be dealt with in the most polite and constructive way so long as they do not resort to any untoward practices that might jeopardize the very rights and wellbeing of Muslims.

However, the eventual demolition of the Church and then the building of the Mosque implied that in spite of this Islamic tolerant view, the truth must be proclaimed loudly and clearly so that it could be seen and heard by all. The truth in question is that Muslims are those on the right path upon whom Allah has bestowed His Grace, and that the Christians have gone astray betraying the authentic legacy of the prophet ‘Isa (Jesus) and the great many prophets that preceded him. In short, destroying the Church and building the Mosque implied that the victory of the truth over the falsehood had become both complete and apparent. This is in line with a following statement in the Qur’an: “And say: ‘Truth has (now) arrived, and falsehood perished, for falsehood is (by its nature) bound to perish.” (al-Isra’ 81)

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have given an example of the spiritual relationship between Muslims, Jews and Christians as follows. “The example of Muslims, Jews and Christians is like the example of a man who employed laborers (the example of Jews) to work for him from morning till night for specific wages. They worked till midday and then said: “We do not need your money which you have fixed for us and let whatever we have done be annulled.” The man said to them: “Don't quit the work, but complete the rest of it and take your full wages.” But they refused and went away. The man employed another batch after them (the example of Christians) and said to them: “Complete the rest of the day and yours will be the wages I had fixed for the first batch.” So, they worked till the time of 'Asr (afternoon) prayer. Then they said: “Let what we have done be annulled and keep the wages you have promised us for yourself.” The man said to them: “Complete the rest of the work, as only a little of the day remains,” but they refused. Thereafter he employed another batch to work (the example of Muslims) for the rest of the day and they worked for the rest of the day till the sunset, and they received the wages of the two former batches. So, that was the example of those people (Muslims) and the example of this light (guidance) which they have accepted willingly.”[17]

It is believed, furthermore, that one of the motives for building the Great Mosque in Damascus the way and under the circumstances it was eventually built was the caliph al-Walid’s intention to put an end to the Muslims’ high regard of many a church still belonging to the Christians in Syria, some of which were so beautiful and renowned for their splendor that were dazzling the minds of the Muslims.[18] By means of building, the Caliph al-Walid thus wanted to convey to his counterpart in Byzantine that as the Muslims were already standing on an equal footing with their neighboring enemy in many a civilizational aspect — in some even superseding them — so could they comfortably claim that they no longer lagged far behind in terms of art and architecture.

Certainly, this unprecedented dimension of the Umayyad Mosque was taken very seriously when its multifaceted functions and roles, unique and splendid form and decorative styles were designed and planned. Thus, during the planning stages, al-Walid did not hesitate to declare that he will build a mosque the like of which was never built and will never be built again.[19] He was set to spare no financial means in the process.[20] He wanted the Mosque to be a source of pride and confidence to the Muslims.[21] Eventually and exactly as envisaged, so proud did the Muslims become of the Mosque that they called it a wonder of the world.

At the same time, however, the Mosque was a source of anxiety and dejection to the enemies of Islam and Muslims. It has been reported that soon after al-Walid’s death a Byzantine delegation visited Damascus. They were brought to see the Mosque. They were very impressed by what they saw. The delegation’s leader asked the other members: “How long will Islam last?” They replied: “A hundred years.” He said: “Why are you belittling their (Muslims’) condition? To build something like this, one truly must be an extraordinary king.”[22]

Due to all these and many other efforts of his, al-Walid, expectedly, is believed to have made some of the greatest contributions to the evolution of the identity of genuine Islamic architecture. He is likewise credited with the introduction of rich decoration and ornamentation to the language of mosque architecture which after him became almost a norm. Hence, it stands to reason, it was around this time and in the regions of Syria and Palestine that to the evolution of Islamic architecture yet another role was assigned, that is, the role of what could be called a silent da’wah Islamiyyah. Da’wah in architecture connotes the inviting of non-Muslims to study and embrace Islam, and also inviting Muslims to understand and practice Islam better, but through some novel architectural and aesthetic means and ways and not through sheer words or deeds.

Islamic architecture by then was increasingly becoming an inclusive physical locus where Islam as a comprehensive way of life was comprehensively practiced, facilitated and promoted at all possible planes, in the process making full use of the globally available legitimate epistemological, technological and cultural approaches, methods and means. The spirit of Islamic architecture was increasingly typifying the total spirit of the message of Islam as well as the spirit of the heavenly mission and civilizational achievements of the Islamic community. While exuding this spirit both inwardly and outwardly, Islamic architecture, just like Islam itself when presented through either words or deeds, was able to attract and influence the attention, feelings and the state of mind of whoever closely interacted in whatever ways with Islamic buildings. This is so because of Islamic architecture serving as a framework for the implementation of Islam as a way of life. When properly conceptualized and fully realized and made functional, Islamic architecture stands for the religion of Islam with all its characteristics being translated onto a living reality. Hence, Islam which is a religion of actions and deeds based on a sound faith can be observed and studied at four planes: through books or other written materials and documents, through preaching and other oral communicational means, through the conduct of Islam’s true followers each one of them being a “walking Islam” or a “walking Qur’an”, and through Islamic architecture as it exists in order to frame, accommodate, facilitate and promote the whole of the Islamic message.

Lastly, the design and plan of the Great Umayyad Mosque, according to Richard Yeomans, was “that of the classic congregational mosque with a prayer hall and rectangular sahn (courtyard) surrounded on three sides by the riwaqs (cloistered arcades) which form a double-tiered arcade. The arch openings in both tiers are the same size and proportion as those on the façade of the prayer hall on the south side, so that the architectural rhythm of all four sides of the sahn is unbroken. The arches of the lower arcade on the north riwaq are placed on piers broadly echoing those on the prayer hall opposite, whereas the arches on the east and west sides rest on paired columns alternating with piers. Little remains of the original marble lining in the riwaqs, but some splendid examples of richly veined marble panels, similar in quality to those in the Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, can be found in the east vestibule. There are some surviving original marble window grills which superbly demonstrate the emerging geometric language of Islamic art. The use of geometry in Roman mosaic and architectural ornament was well established, but the lightness and elegance of these interlacing marble filigree window panels announces a significant innovation and change of direction. These window grills also provide evidence of what the original windows in the Dome of the Rock looked like. The prayer hall is divided into three equal “naves” by arcades that run parallel to the south qiblah wall. Below three gabled roofs, the arcades support long horizontal beams that span the whole width of the building. The interior arcades echo those of the sahn, with the lower arches springing from Corinthian columns supporting a second tier of smaller paired arches like a lightly constructed Roman aqueduct… The mosque presents a great sense of spatial equilibrium. The light, open, double arcades act as space markers outlining a series of voids through which we perceive a continuity of space. The wall opening on to the sahn is pierced with clear upper windows and the lower arches filled with wooden latticed screens that admit a stream of light that floods over the variegated brilliance of multicolored carpets.”[23]

The Umayyad Mosque had “three minarets; two were simply the corner towers of the ancient Greaco-Roman temenos; the third, erected by al-Walid, rises to the north side of the courtyard, along the axis of the mihrab.”[24] Here the horseshoe arch is also apparent.[25]

The walls of the Mosque were adorned with mosaics, of which only fragments survive. Some mosaics were of gold and precious stones.[26] They bore beautiful inscriptions and represented fantastic towns and palaces, surrounded by flowers and bordered by rivers, all composed with great mastery of design and color, which bears witness to the survival of a school of Byzantine art in the Syria of the Umayyads. “The significance of the mosaics in Damascus is unknown… but one thing is certain: nowhere in these stylized landscapes is there a human or animal figure, which is an indirect proof of the traditional origin of aniconism in Islam.”[27] (To be continued…)



[1] Ross Burns, Damascus, a History, p. 120.

[2] There is some confusion in sources as to which Muslim commander exactly entered by force from the eastern side of the city of Damascus and which one peacefully from the western side: Khalid b. al-Walid or Abu ‘Ubaydah. It is most likely, however, that it was Khalid b. al-Walid who entered from the eastern side by force, whereas Abu Ubaydah entered from the western side peacefully as a result of negotiations. (Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 7 p. 21)

[3] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 7 p. 21.

[4] Ibid., vol. 7 p. 21.

[5] K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, p. 59-65.

[6] Ross Burns, Damascus, a History, p. 104-106.

[7] Georges C. Anawati, Factors and Effects of Arabization and Islamization in Medieval Egypt and Syria, inIslam and Cultural Change in the Middle Ages, edited by Speros Vryonis Jr., p. 17-41.

[8] Ross Burns, Damascus, a History, p. 111.

[9]See their names and locations in: Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 7 p. 21.

[10] Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Madinah Dimashq, vol. 2 p. 253.

[11] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 255.

[12] Ross Burns, Damascus, a History, p. 113.

[13]Umayyad Mosque, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umayyad_Mosque.

[14] Ross Burns, Damascus, a History, p. 111.

[15] Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Madinah Dimashq, vol. 2 p. 254.

[16] The Great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo is believed to contain the shrine of the prophet Zakariyya (Zachariah).

[17] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 3, Book 36, Hadith No. 471.

[18] K. A. C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, p. 20.

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

[20] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 9 p. 154-156. Yaqut al-Hamawi, Mu’jam al-Buldan, vol. 2 p. 466.

[21] Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Madinah Dimashq, vol. 2 p. 269.

[22] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 277.

[23] Yeomans Richard, The Story of Islamic Architecture, (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 35.

[24] Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, p. 23.

[25] Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 267.

[26] Ibid., p. 267.

[27] Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, p. 23.

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