The House: Dar, Bayt, Manzil and Maskan

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

A courtyard house in Fez, Morocco

A courtyard house in Fez, Morocco.

 

Islamic housing is a symbiosis of heavenly and terrestrial dimensions. Both sides are extremely important, playing their respective roles. They finely complement and add to each other’s strength and operation. Neglecting either of the two poles in Islamic housing inevitably leads to a serious damage in the latter’s fundamental nature, either at a conceptual or a practical plane.

The significance of a house in Islam can easily be discerned from the Arabic words used for it that are dar, bayt, manzil and maskan. 

 Dar

The term dar is derived from an Arabic verb dara which means, among other things, to circulate, to take place, to go on, to be held, and to centre on or around. The house is called dar because it is the physical locus of the family institution and its manifold activities. An Islamic house is seldom devoid of family activities which include promoting and upholding the family unit as well as educating and preparing individuals for the challenges of the world. The author of an Arabic lexicon Lisan al-‘Arab (The Language of the Arabs), Ibn Manzur stated that the word dar is drawn from the verb dara/yaduru (see the translations given above), because of the numerous human activities that take place therein.

The Islamic home is a framework whose plan, spatial arrangement, and form facilitate and further encourage worship practices that are expected of its inhabitants. The entire life of a believer is a form of total submission and service to the Creator and Lord of the universe. As such, an Islamic home can also be described as a place of worship (mosque). If a mosque serves as a community development centre, then a home, certainly, plays the role of a family development centre. The two roles complement and support one another.

Due to the significance that Islam attaches to the social and educational role of a home, Muslims plan an interesting and highly effective spatial distribution within their residence, concentrating on accommodating guests, visitors, children and adults (male and female).

An Islamic home should have a designated space, irrespective of its form and size, to function as a mosque or musalla (a place where prayers are performed). In it the daily prayers, collective study of the Qur’an, meditation, religious discussions, study circles, and spirituality enhancement sessions should be conducted individually and collectively among family members or with relatives and neighbours.

The Prophet (sa) is reported to have directed his Companions to have mosques in their quarters; to cleanse and deodorise them on special religious occasions. (Recorded by Tirmidhi)

Also, he consented to the idea of his Companions earmarking spaces for worship in their private dwellings. He is said to have graced some dwellings by personally praying in them. (Recorded by Ibn Majah)

The Prophet (sa) encouraged his Companions to perform their voluntary prayers at home so as to reinforce the honourable role the latter plays in their religious development. He said that mosques are only for obligatory prayers. (Recorded by Muslim)

In one of his statements, the Prophet (sa) went so far as to say that the prayer which a man offers in his home is superior to that offered in the Prophet’s mosque, except the obligatory prayers. (Recorded by Abu Dawud)

For Muslim women, however, performing even mandatory prayers at home, along with the voluntary ones, is more auspicious. The enormity and significance of a woman’s role in enlivening and utilizing the house, as advocated by Islam, is illumined here because women also procure all the rewards which men obtain for performing collective prayers in mosques, but on account of their staying behind at home and attending to the matters they have been requested to.

According to a hadith of the Prophet (sa), while men are guardians of their families in general terms and are responsible for them, women are guardians of their husbands’ houses and children, and are responsible for them. (Recorded by Bukhari)

Indeed, women have a variety of roles to play both outside and inside the house; yet their role inside the house remains a paramount priority. If, for any reason, a woman’s household responsibilities are affected negatively due to her role outside the house, her duties at home take precedence.

In a hadith, the Prophet (sa) explicitly encouraged women to participate in good deeds as well as the religious gatherings/activities of the Muslims. (Recorded by Muslim)

This remains the case so long as the prescribed rules and regulations are observed and their fundamental roles as mothers, wives, and household and family guardians are not neglected.

The Prophet (sa) likewise stated that homes, where the inhabitants neither pray nor read the Qur’an [devoid of good deeds], are like graves and Satan loves to patronize them. (Recorded by Muslim)

A traditional courtyard house in Cairo, Egypt.

A traditional courtyard house in Cairo, Egypt.

 

A typical Yemeni house

A typical Yemeni house.

Bayt

The term bayt is derived from an Arabic verb bata which means, among other things, to spend, pass the night, or to stay overnight. A house is called bayt because when the bustle of the day starts fading away with the arrival of the night, humans, just like most terrestrial creatures, hasten to withdraw to their sanctuary to take rest, enjoy tranquillity and seek refuge from the disadvantages, and even perils associated with the night.

In the Noble Qur’an, Allah (st) refers to night as sakan (Qur’an 6: 96), which means rest and tranquillity; libas (Qur’an 25: 47), which means robe, and subat, which means repose and tranquillity.

In order to explicate the major natural laws that govern human existence, Allah refers to the day as nushur, which means resurrection. The relationship between house, on the one hand, and night and sakan, or rest and tranquillity, on the other becomes clearer if we recall that one of the Arabic expressions for the house is maskan, which is derived from sakan, as is explained later on.

However, the significance of the word bayt must be viewed from a much wider perspective. Bayt does not just refer to a place where one takes refuge overnight. Rather, it implies a place where, whenever necessary, one takes refuge from all the hazards of the outside world. The word ‘night’ in the connotation of ‘bayt’ is rather symbolic. A home can be seen as a retreat or a safe haven that offers total and endless warmth, privacy, refuge, security and protection at all times. It is a sanctuary where one can live and enjoy without being affected by a great many rules and regulations, except for those set by its inhabitants.

Since it is a refuge from the discomfort of life outside it, an Islamic house with its plan, design and form, lays great emphasis on a definite separation between the inner and outer realms. So important is such a separation in Islam that the same has been buttressed even with the power of law. As a result, an Islamic home, by and large, appears to be an inward-looking structure with minimum openings in the walls which divide the private and public domains. Likewise, beautifying houses, in Islamic domestic architecture, focuses on the enclosed interior space as opposed to the general exterior of a building. By its blank facade with minimal openings, an Islamic house signals to the outsiders that unless invited or given permission, they have no access to it. They have no business to be even in close proximity to it, let alone inside it. Furthermore, curious strangers and passers-by are thus discouraged from stopping, gazing and exploring the home. This way, accidental intrusion is easily warded off and unnecessary security concerns are mitigated. Hence in its outward appearance, an Islamic home signals the unwillingness of its occupants to interact freely with the life outside.

The interior of an Islamic home is designed according to Islamic values and principles. It is planned and designed to give the utmost required attention and hospitality to all its guests and visitors. This is, in fact, a religious requirement derived from several of the Prophet’s traditions. (Recorded by Bukhari)

It is for this reason that the guest room, in many Islamic homes, is highly decorated as compared to other rooms and is typically located adjacent to the entrance lobby, away from the main sitting area to make it directly accessible.This is, of course, only possible where there is a separate guest room in a home; however, if a household is unable to afford one, then the men’s sitting room, study or grandparent’s room (in certain cultures parents live with their son and his family after his marriage) likewise located near the entrance, is chosen to serve the same purpose. Most of the time, the guest room has a separate lavatory either en suite or immediately outside it.

Taking into account a host’s privacy, a guest would not be at liberty to wander around the house unaccompanied. Guests and visitors are thus bidden, so to speak, to enjoy without undue reservation all the attention and kindness given to them by the host, and at the same time, to exercise maximum self-restraint, thoughtfulness, politeness and timidity if they have to deal with the rest of the house interior. 

Entrances to an Islamic home serve as a transit point between the private and public realms. Therefore, a full view of the home from the main door is purposely restricted. This type of entrance is called a ‘side entrance’. Quite often, the entrance door does not give immediate access to the domestic spaces.

Another option is to have a small entrance into the house constricting view of the interior, or, a large main entrance, and then a small entrance leading into the main part of the house.

Leaving the comfort zone of one’s house can be stressful as the world within and that outside it is very different. Hence, having a transit point between the two worlds in the form of distinct entrances helps the users to prepare for what lies beyond. Furthermore, the Prophet (sa) taught a supplication to recite while entering or leaving a house that helps in facing the awaiting changes and challenges.

The same rationale underlines the existence of having few windows that are fitted with lattice screens called mashrabiyah made of small wooden bars. Mashrabiyah offers effective lighting, ventilation, shading and visual privacy. It symbolizes a reluctant and intensely monitored interaction between the private and public spheres in Islam.

Since an Islamic house is a sanctuary, it is obligatory to seek permission from its inhabitants three times before entering, as taught by the Prophet Muhammad (sa). If, after the third time, permission is not granted, the visitor should leave, even if he knows that the occupants are inside. Allah (st) mentions:

{O you, who have believed, do not enter houses other than your own houses until you ascertain welcome and greet their inhabitants. That is best for you; perhaps you will be reminded. ۞ And if you do not find anyone therein, do not enter them until permission has been given you. And if it is said to you: Go back, then go back; it is purer for you. AndAllahis Knowing of what you do.} (Qur’an 24: 27-28)

Before the advent of Islam, in the whole region of Arabia, house entrances often had no doors. There were only curtains hanging in the doorway to mark the entrance. Seeking permission prior to entering a house was nonexistent in the culture of the ignorant Arabs. Seldom was somebody seriously concerned about the subject of privacy. Running into a husband and wife, and finding them indulged in some intimate affair may have been an occasional consequence. The most that one was expected to say upon entering was, “I am in,” or “Here I am,” and similar phrases. Following the advent of Islam, which lays special emphasis on honouring human privacy, appropriate entrance screen was soon put in practice. Even Satan is not granted access to a house if its inhabitants forbid it, as reported in many traditions of the Prophet (sa). (Recorded by Muslim)

Islam is so concerned about the subject of privacy that according to it, a house plan and design must not lead to, or encourage, intrusion of privacy even among family members. Allah mentions in the Qur’an:

{O you who have believed, let those whom your right hands possess and those who have not [yet] reached puberty among you ask permission of you [before entering] at three times: before the dawn prayer and when you put aside your clothing [for rest] at noon and after the night prayer. [These are] three times of privacy for you. There is no blame upon you nor upon them beyond these [periods], for they continually circulate among you – some of you, among others. Thus does Allah make clear to you the verses; and Allah is Knowing and Wise. ۞ And when the children among you reach puberty, let them ask permission [at all times] as those before them have done. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses; and Allah is Knowing and Wise.} (Qur’an 24: 58-59)

 This is one of the reasons behind assigning separate rooms to children when they come of age if they are of different genders.

An ambience behind a screened window in a traditional house in Cairo, Egypt

An ambience behind a screened window in a traditional house in Cairo, Egypt.

 

House of Author damaged by flood

A house in the village of Spahici, near Zenica, Bosnia. The house belongs to the family of the author of this paper and was badly damaged and rendered uninhabitable by massive floods and landslides that have recently struck Bosnia.

Manzil

The word manzil is derived from an Arabic verb nazala which means, among other things, to come down; to disembark; to make a stop at; to camp at; to stay at; to lodge at; to settle down in, and to inhabit. A house is called manzil because it shows that one has started to or has already settled down in a community. It also symbolizes the fact that one has full comprehension of his/ her role, orientation and life goals. A house is a station or a centre from which one ventures out and to which one returns, having successfully dealt with the challenges of the outside world or after taking a break before finally prevailing over them. That is why in many cultures across the globe we hear people saying, “No matter where and how far one goes, to his home is his ultimate return.”

On the other hand, homelessness is one of the most devastating problems that individuals and societies face. Due to it, individuals might suffer from anxiety, stigma, apathy, emotional instability, and similar conditions. As far as societies are concerned, homelessness contributes to delinquency, insecurity, disorder, decline in morality, slow economic growth, and so forth.

Being central to a person’s existence and identity, home is the only space in the entire universe that one can regard as his/her own. Through self-expression and personalization, a home represents its dwellers and signifies continuity of life.

house in khartoum

A house in Khartoum, Sudan.

house in ghadamis libya

A house in Ghadamis, Libya.

Maskan

The term maskan is derived from an Arabic verb sakana which means, among other things, to calm down; to repose; to rest; to become quiet and tranquil, and to feel at ease with. Hence, the words sukun and sakinah mean calmness, tranquillity, peacefulness, serenity, and peace of mind.

A home is called maskan or maskin because it offers its inhabitants a chance to take a break from the demands and pressures of the outside world, and concentrate on their physical, mental and even spiritual recuperation. An Islamic home is a retreat, sanctuary and a source of rest and leisure. Whoever has the privilege of living in a home that fulfils all the aforementioned characteristics does not need to take holidays frequently in order to escape from the strain and pressure of work and everyday life. The blessing of a blissful home and a deep affection for it causes travellers to keenly look forward to their return. Holidays can sometimes be disappointing and not up to the traveller’s expectations. A home, on the other hand, is built around its inhabitants’ preferences. It keeps at bay anything displeasing to them hence the maxim, “My house is my paradise.” It is also often stated that there is no place like home, reinforcing the fact that one’s home is the best place to be.

Due to the presence of one’s closest family members with whom one shares the same vision and life objectives, and the way an edifice has been designed and planned to ensure comfort and privacy, an Islamic house enables its users to unwind and relax. Its dwellers rarely have to show any serious worry or concern about their peace, serenity and privacy being jeopardized, intentionally or otherwise, by neighbours, passers-by and uninvited visitors. This way, an Islamic house helps its dwellers safeguard their spirituality, mental strength, self and family. Hence it is a fortified, private paradise on earth, the best and the most valuable gift granted by Allah in which joys and pleasures of this life can be enjoyed. Allah (st) mentions in the Noble Qur’an:

{AndAllahhas made for you from your homes a place of rest…} (Qur’an 16: 80)

Allah also mentions:

{Say: Who has forbidden the adornment of Allahwhich He has produced for His servants and the good [lawful] things of provision? Say: They are for those who believe during the worldly life [but] exclusively for them on the Day of Resurrection. Thus do We detail the verses for a people who know.} (Qur’an 7: 32)

ghardaya image in algeria

A residential area in Ghardaia, Algeria.

 

Serajevo city in bosnia

A traditional house in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

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