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

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


Second Example: the Persian Iwan (Hall) in al-Mada’in or Ctesiphon 

 The other example where the early Muslims fully availed themselves of, or even shared, an existing architectural legacy that belonged to the non-Muslim local population of a territory newly opened to Islam is as follows. When in the year 637 AC/16 H the Muslims opened to Islam (fath) the Persian capital al-Mada’in, or Ctesiphon, in Iraq, they used without much repugnance its great Iwan (Hall), which was part of a royal White Palace, as their mosque in spite of some paintings and statues decorating it.[1] The paintings and statues, which included men and horses,[2] were done away with much later. According to K.A.C. Creswell, the decorative paintings were still there in 897 AC/284 H.[3] It was in this Iwan-turned-mosque that the first Jumu’ah or Friday Prayer was performed in Iraq.[4] In it, a pulpit or a minbar was erected for delivering sermons (khutbah) during Friday Prayers and for other communication purposes. The Muslims were requested to perform their Friday Prayers in congregation in the Iwan even if they happened to be as far as in the very centers of their villages.[5]

            Although Islam prohibits statues and certain kinds of painting, in this particular situation no immediate change to the existing setting in the Iwan was needed, although it functioned as a communal mosque. Several reasons could be given for this.

            To begin with, the Muslims who had just opened al-Mada’in to Islam could not instantly lay down their weapons and start permanently settling down and engaging themselves in a process of comprehensive Islamization of the conquered territories because there existed then some other far more pressing assignments awaiting them, such as the continuation of jihad and fath, defense, security, the welfare of the army as well as the local population, etc.[6] First things and the most urgent ones, thus, were to come first. In the meantime, however, the Muslims needed a place for their collective prayers and the other acts of collective worship while staying at al-Mada’in.[7] The Iwan was chosen for the purpose, in all probability, due to its size, former reputation as part of a royal White Palace, strategic location and, having been abandoned, complete emptiness and idleness.

            In Islam, by and large, to pray in places with statues and paintings is objectionable (makruh) but not prohibited (haram), especially in cases of emergency.[8] This is so because, normally, no direct contact was made between the statues and images and those who performed their prayers. Moreover, the statues and pictures always remained loathed and drew no reverence whatsoever from the Muslims who were somewhat forced to worship their God where the statues and pictures stood. Whereas fashioning statues and making proscribed paintings is a thing clearly prohibited by Islam, praying as a matter of necessity and emergency where somebody else had created them is a different thing altogether, especially in places where the culprits had been comprehensively defeated and their sway and the sway of their actions had been purged, as in the instance of al-Mada’in and the whole of the Persian territories. Thus, a majority of Muslim scholars were inclined to allow performing prayers in churches, synagogues and temples, particularly under special circumstances.

The far-reaching idea which the Muslims put forth in the incident of al-Mada’in is that leaving the great Iwan intact, which together with the royal White Palace symbolized the Persian polytheistic presence and rule, for as long a period of time as was necessary, yet converting it into a communal mosque, was bound to make the lessons desired to be learned from the fall of Persia far more numerous and valuable, not only for the Muslim army but also for those Muslims who would come afterwards to the place for whatever socio-political, economic or religious reasons. This intent was manifest in the instantaneous reaction of the commander of the Muslim army, Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas, a prominent companion of the Prophet (pbuh), after he had entered the royal White Palace and its Iwan. He had no other words for what had come to pass except the following Qur’anic verses: “How many were the gardens and springs they left behind, and corn-fields and noble buildings, and pleasant things wherein they had taken such delight! Thus (was their end)! And We made other people inherit (those things)!” (al-Dukhkhan, 25-28)

Certainly, Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas had many other Qur’anic verses with similar messages to choose from in order to express his emotions and describe what had happened, but by no accident did he choose the quoted verses. The cited Qur’anic verses refer to Pharaoh, the sworn enemy of God, the truth and Prophet Musa (Moses), and the catastrophic end of his cruel reign of which Allah wanted to make a lasting lesson and a tangible reminder to all by saving his body, i.e., not to let it be lost forever in the sea: “This day shall We save you in your body, that you may be a Sign to those who come after you! But verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our Signs.” (Yunus, 92)

The fall of mighty Persia, its stands to reason, was in so many ways as important for the future of Islam and Muslims as the fall of Pharaoh and his rule for the future of the Children of Israel. The fall of mighty but polytheistic Persia meant that one of the greatest obstacles on the way to freely spreading the truth to mankind has been removed and its abundant resources, including the human resources after the Persians had embraced Islam, were used and employed for the realization of Islam’s universal goals. The great Iwan with all its features stood both as a living testimony and a powerful sign of the triumph of the truth over the falsehood, of monotheism over polytheism. It embodied, furthermore, a historical fact that the Muslims always held in utter contempt those foreign civilizational accomplishments which were founded upon and were imbued with the outright falsehood and non-belief, no matter how outwardly splendid and dazzling they might have been. Such things never appealed not only to the first and most exemplary generations of Muslims who set the highest standards of devoutness and morality, but also to whoever exemplified and lived for the tawhidic (monotheistic) ideals and goals no matter where and in which subsequent era.

This applies to the realm of architecture as well, which Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas and other Muslims were fully aware of. The grandeur of an architectural scheme that is devoid of an appropriate spiritual value and direction will never truly impress a believer who is charged with the same spiritual value and who possesses the same spiritual direction. Just like every other cultural and civilization constituent that clearly opposes the notion of tawhid and the vast body of Islam’s beliefs and practices, a believer will despise such an architecture seeing it as no more than an ostentatious, hollow, profane and deceptive enterprise that needs to be corrected, even if its structural and engineering aspects appear to be at a first glance awe-inspiring. That is why the first Muslims while spreading Islam through the territories of both the Persian and Byzantine empires are not reported to have been really fazed and overwhelmed by what they had come into contact with, particularly in the spheres of art and architecture, never coveting to blindly emulate and walk in the steps of the vanquished adversaries. Having said all this, it must me reiterated yet again that if the first Muslims seldom hesitated to avail themselves of a great many aspects of the architectural legacies of the non-Muslims in the newly conquered regions, that in no way denotes that they genuinely admired those legacies taking them to their heart and subscribing themselves to the ideological coloring that saturated them. They did what they did because such a thing proved the most viable option then. They did it as a matter of necessity and as a part of a carefully devised Islamization strategy.

Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas’s reaction upon setting his foot inside the White Palace and its Iwan could be summed up to have meant, firstly, that he was overwhelmed by how clearly and perfectly Allah’s laws for men function and yet there were still people who were heedless of them; secondly, that he actually somewhat pitied the Persians and their enormous civilizational efforts, which covered the fields of art and architecture too, but which proved futile as they failed to attain the real objectives of life; and thirdly, that he was glad that the Muslims were made to inherit the Persians and their worldly riches, and the truth to inherit the falsehood, setting thus the things in al-Mada’in and in the rest of the Persian territories right once and for all. The Muslims’ using of the great Iwan as their mosque and their instant utilization of some suitable Persian civilizational achievements, but for some different spiritual purposes, were the first steps in that process of setting the things right. Those first steps that deliberately lacked rigidity, prejudice and fanaticism, while displaying simplicity, forbearance and open-mindedness, entailed some of the strongest and easy for non-Muslims to understand lessons about the character of the Islamic call, about the reasons for the Muslim emergence on the world scene, and about the Muslim civilizational aspirations. There was a profound lesson on how Islam views the phenomenon of built environment too, that is, a view which integrates the simplicity, intensity and profundity of the Islamic worship with the sophistication of human instinctive and cultural needs and aspirations, which integrates the comprehensive and universal Islamic outlook with the localism of indigenous cultures, geographies and environments, and which integrates the exigencies of man’s heavenly assignments on earth with those of his worldly interests and wellbeing.

Finally, because they remained short of grasping the essence of Islamic art and architecture, in general, and because they remained short of grasping the essence of the incident in al-Mada’in where the Muslims used the Iwan with its statues and pictures as a mosque, in particular, some scholars used the latter episode as an underlying case in point while irresponsibly deducing that Islam unreservedly allows painting, including the representations of humans.[9]


[1] Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, The History, vol. 13 p. 23.

[2] Ibid., vol. 13 p. 23.

[3] K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, p. 115.

[4] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 7 p. 68. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, The History, vol. 13 p. 23.

[5] Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, The History, vol. 13 p. 30, 31.

[6] Al-Baladhuri, al-Buldan wa Futuhuha wa Ahkamuha, p. 305-318.

[7] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 7 p. 68. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, The History, vol. 13 p. 23.

[8] Muhammad Abu Laylah, Sharing a Prayer Room with Non-Muslims, www.islamonline.net.

[9]K.A.C. Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, p. 115.

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