Islamic Housing between Yesterday and Today

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer

Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design

International Islamic University Malaysia


(A residential area in the old city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)

The importance of studying history

The Islamic house is a microcosm of Islamic culture and civilization. Achievements and successes in both Islamic housing and Islamic culture and civilization are interrelated, one leading to, or originating from, the other, irrespective of which one exactly is the cause and which one is the effect. Islam is a total life-style. The house phenomenon, and all the sectors related, directly or indirectly, to it, is the ground for living and practicing the most essential segments of human existence on earth, and, as such, the ground for living the most essential segments of the Islamic worldview, shari’ah (law) and ethics.


The house dominion is where people rise and fall, that is to say, where people either succeed or fail in managing and conducting the most crucial aspects of their lives. Housing is where the epicenter of the rise and fall of cultures and civilizations lies. Thus, some of the chief causes of the decline of Islamic culture and civilization, if properly examined, could be related, one way or another, to the complex subject of housing and its own decline and its causes. Likewise, some of the main cures and catalysts for the revival of Islamic culture and civilization could be found right in the ambit of the subject of reviving a genuine Islamic housing. Indeed, Islamizing housing today could be a turning point, as well as an engine of growth, insofar as a total recovery and revival of Muslim cultural and civilizational consciousness and involvement at a world stage is concerned.

While calling for a revival in contemporary Islamic housing, Muslims often cast a glance towards history and how the Muslims of some past generations had handled the same issue. It is therefore of a paramount importance that today’s Muslims view and assess correctly the achievements of their predecessors in the field of architecture, in general, and housing, in particular. Understanding the present predicaments of Muslims with regard to housing depends very much on this first step. This is a normal and desired course of action. However, some cautionary steps ought to be taken.

It must be immediately stated that this scenario will not be feasible at all if Muslims remain either ignorant about their own history and civilization, or are relatively acquainted with the same but with a knowledge which is often served in so many forms, often distorted ones, by their former colonial masters. Ignorance, it follows, is one thing, but a distorted knowledge is totally something else. Both are appalling, but the latter, surely, is worse than the former. They both mislead and ruin a person, however, while ignorance sometimes needs no more than a spark to make a person come to terms with his dismal condition, and to swiftly embark on filling up that glaring cavity inside his self, a distorted or a corrupted knowledge, on the other hand, having left no glaring intellectual cavity inside a person, blinds, deafens and deceives him, so he becomes blindly contented and proud, hence receptive neither to criticism and reassessment of his precarious position, nor to new vistas of knowledge and new ideas.

Regarding the second state of affairs where some Muslims possess some knowledge about the history of their cultures and civilization, most of such knowledge, however, had been misconstrued and, in some instances, even corrupted by the interferences of the colonial masters and their allies, and in such a state had been served to the Muslim minds, both young and old, in schools, colleges and universities. Those colonial masters, it stands to reason, must have often had a number of covert goals and agendas behind the dissemination of such a knowledge. Even if they had none, and were somewhat sincere in their undertakings, they, in the final analysis, rarely could remain completely neutral and unprejudiced, something which is quite natural and expected if we consider the nature of humans, as well as the nature of the colonizer-colonized relationship. In the best scenario, the colonial masters, despite their intermittent somewhat sincere efforts, still remained short of grasping the essence and spirit of Islam, as well as the nature and profundity of its imprints on history and life in general. Still however, this is sufficiently a bad situation that inevitably leads to equally bad results.

However, Muslims must not blame anyone but themselves for their present unenviable situation. At the same time, they must not play blame or finger-pointing games. There is no time or reason for that, because such a thing is uncalled for and is a serious spiritual failing. It brings more harm than benefit, recklessly consuming the restricted time, energy, resources, willpower and zeal of people. Muslims must pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and as a unit and in a confident mode start moving forward. They must accept that their fate lies in their own hands, not in the hands of others, whoever they may be. Allah says that He will never change the condition of a people unless they change what is inside their selves, or hearts, first. (al-Ra’d, 11) That means that people are the architects of their own (mis)fortune, as well as that they are to worry, and busy themselves, only about those things that are within their own spheres of influence; what lies beyond, Allah will take care of it. The true independence, freedom, cultural and civilizational creativity, productivity and contentment of Muslims, it follows, can come about only as a result of a fusion of faith, right education, hard work and perseverance, which will be woven with the threads of a comprehensive excellence culture.

In doing so, Muslims must remember an underlying rule which both the Holy Qur’an and history clearly bring to light. That rule is: in order for one to know and diagnose one’s present state, one must know his past; and for one to be able to chart his future course, one must know both his past and present conditions. This applies to the fates of societies more than anything else. Indeed, any other approach is a flawed and misleading one. It denotes one of the plainest paradoxes that one can adopt. It is a self-deception and self-hypocrisy. The disposition of a present condition, in a person or a society, owes much to the past conditions that preceded it. Also, the disposition of future conditions will always owe much to both the present and past ones and how people handled them. People who are ignorant about, and indifferent towards, their history are people with a fake identity. They possess no real life orientation and mission, and they regularly waver in some of the most important things in life. Their civilizational undertakings, at best, are shortsighted, myopic and superficial, often serving not their own interests, but the interests of those parties and groups to the rhythm of whose political or economic currents they swing.

This situation is similar to a seriously sick person who went to see a doctor. Indeed, the only way for the person’s illness to be properly and quickly cured is that he informs the doctor about what had transpired earlier: what he had eaten, or what unusual he had done or had happened to him, for example. The doctor will ask if the person had similar, or some other serious, illnesses in the past and how he handled them. He will ask, furthermore, whether the person is allergic to certain medications. Knowing the medical history of the person’s immediate family members will also be crucial to the doctor. Only when the doctor is well acquainted with all these matters, he will be able to correctly diagnose the illness and proceed with an effective and beneficial therapy for the ill person. Any failure in properly diagnosing the person, either due to the doctor’s ignorance of the person’s present and past conditions, or due to some misleading information given to the doctor, will inevitably lead to a failure in curing the person from his decease. As a result of this failure, sometimes a wrong therapy may lead not only to the prolonged suffering of a patient, but also to a deterioration in his condition. It may even lead to his death.

As far as the subject matter of housing in Islam is concerned, studying its history will bring multiple benefits. They will all revolve around discovering how and why the early Muslims were able to evolve such astonishing and sophisticated housing systems and designs that effortlessly integrated into their fold the worldview, values and teachings of Islam together with the many requirements of the climate, environment, culture, technology and engineering of the day – such is exactly what Islam as a comprehensive worldview and an all-encompassing code and way of life preaches, and what a genuine Islamic culture and civilization are all about. Islamic housing was a source of pride to Muslims. It was a testimony that they lived up to the requirements of the vicegerency mission placed on their shoulders. It will not be an exaggeration to even say that Islamic housing was a testimony of the success of Muslims in this world, which is a prelude to a success in the world to come. Islamic housing was always the best source of the legitimate worldly pleasures to Muslims too. It was arguably the greatest gift and blessing provided for them in this world, which was capable of endlessly giving most. Thus, a genuine Islamic house is described by many, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as a paradise on earth.

Titus Burckhardt, for example, wrote that the inner courtyard of an Islamic house “is an image of paradise; when it contains a fountain and watercourses which gush forth to water trees and flowers, it does in effect recall the descriptions in the Qur’an of the abode of the blessed.”[1] It should be noted that inner courtyards in Islamic residential architecture and planning always featured prominently, perhaps more than any other component of the house. This was so because of the multiple functions and benefits that domestic courtyards offered, such as, manipulating weather conditions and getting the best out of them, privacy protection, constant interaction with environment and space, entertainment and recreation.

Hassan Fathy, as cited by Gianni Scudo, went so far as to say that the Islamic (Arab) courtyard house was “a microcosm linking, in space and time, land and sky through the symbolic meaning of its components”.[2] He said: “The four walls of the courtyard represented the four columns carrying the dome of the sky. The sky is then drawn down into intimate contact with the living rooms by reflecting it in a basin which has the form of a dome on squinches. Thus, nature and space are brought into the town-house by their transportation into architectural forms and by symbolism.”[3]

When Isma’il al-Faruqi spoke of the arresting preference of Many Muslims in the past for an extended family, as well as about the life in Muslim houses where such a phenomenon was enclosed and facilitated, he inferred that the reasons for that were purely educational, psychological, recreational and spiritual, clearly spelling out the nature and dynamism of the roles and functions of the house institution in Islam. Al-Faruqi concluded that those Muslim houses which facilitated and promoted the notion of an extended family ensured, among other things, the proper and uninterrupted upbringing, education, socialization and acculturation of the young. And it is not a secret that the lack of a proper upbringing, education and acculturation of many young Muslims is one of the main problems faced by the Muslim community today, and one of the main obstacles on the way of a Muslim cultural and civilizational awakening.

Al-Faruqi wrote: “The Muslim family suffers from no generation gap as three generations live together. Thus, the socialization and acculturation of the young is always complete, guaranteeing the transmission of tradition and culture with as littler adulteration as possible. Here, the past is genuinely in touch with the present and the future. Another crucial advantage of the extended family is that it provides its members with instant company whenever he desires it. And there are usually enough to choose from, according to the prevailing mood. There is always somebody ready to play with, to joke with, to discuss with, to contemplate with, to cry with, and to hope with. This is a crucial prerequisite for mental health. The extended family never lacks a child element, an adult element, a feminine element, a masculine element, an elderly element wiser and more experienced than all others.”[4]

While the Islamic housing of the past filled Muslims with pride and happiness, it was filling many non-Muslims with awe and admiration. For example, following the return of the crusaders from Palestine and Syria, who interacted more closely than ever before with the cultures and civilization of Muslims, many spread tales of the refreshing gardens, private and public, of the holy land. It was then and through the returning crusaders that the concept of the domestic courtyard, or the outdoor room in the house, came to the European culture. The Islamic domestic courtyard, together with the concept of the Islamic garden, was thought to be “a literal evocation of the joys that await the pious in the afterlife”.[5]


[1]Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam,(London: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976),p. 191.

[2]Gianni Scudo, “Climatic Design in the Arab Courtyard House”, in Environmental Design: Journal of the Islamic Environmental Research Centre 1-2, (1988), 82-91.


[4]Isma’ilRaji Al-Faruqi, Al-Tawhid: its Implications for Thought and Life, (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1995), p.137.

[5]Susan Zevon, Outside Architecture, (Gloucester: Rockport Publishers, 1999), see Introduction by Walter Chatham, p. 10.



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