The Case of Architecture in Surah al-Shu’ara’ (the Poets)

By Spahic Omer

Since surah al-Shu’ara’ is about the meaning and spirit of prophethood and spiritual light, and about their perennial conflict with the forces of falsehood and darkness, it dwells extensively on various life patterns that the latter may adopt. Those patterns are correlated with the critical life sectors of political leadership and authority, economy and commerce, faith and morality, social structure, entertainment, art and architecture. The story of every prophet and his community featured in the surah corresponds to one or more of such life sectors.

As far as the subject of architecture is concerned, it is brought up in connection with the stories of prophets Hud, Salih and Musa. The stories highlight different dimensions of architecture. When put together, they exhibit what could be described as the foundation and nucleus of the Islamic worldview for architecture and Islamic architectural ethics. This shows that Islam regards the built environment as indispensable to life. It finds it critical to man’s cultural awareness and civilisational progression. In terms of importance and value, it is on a par with any other foremost segment of civilisation.

Prophet Hud and his people ‘Ad

Firstly, as part of the story about prophet Hud and his rebellious people ‘Ad, the surah reveals that Hud reproached his people for their constructing of landmarks, monuments and high palaces (ayah) on every high place for vain delight and just to amuse themselves (verse 128). They did not need those structures. They signified a means for showing off and demonstrating their might and worldly riches which God had bestowed on them in abundance.

Similarly, they wanted everyone from their enemies, competitors and neighbours to hold them and their material strength and development in awe. Instead of being grateful for the blessings, their transgression and misbehaviour were aggravated thereby. That seems to have been part of their total behavioural mould as tyrants, for in verse 130, a hint is given to their typical behaviour with their adversaries: “And will you (always), whenever you lay hand (on others), lay hand (on them) cruelly, without any restraint?” (al-Shu’ara’, 130).

Hud also admonished his people for building fine and strong buildings, castles or fortresses (masani’) in the hope of becoming immortal and living in them forever (verse 129). This shows that ‘Ad’s mischief knew no bounds. It originated in a faulty worldview and clearly manifested itself in architecture as a framework and physical locus of all human consequential pursuits.

Their main problem concerned as much fundamental ideas, beliefs and standards, as the absence – or non-application — of appropriate architectural moral principles and codes of conduct. Their built environment was their raison d’etre and it epitomised their existential ethos. Their non-belief was hard-core. As a finished product, it crept into and dominated all sides and features of their civilisational consciousness and presence. Architecture is singled out in the story owing to its extraordinary deep-rooted import and position.

Hud knew the crux of the problem. Thus, he repeats to his people that they should be God-conscious and fear Him (verses 124, 126, 131-132), in that God-consciousness (taqwa) is the cause of all goodness, while the lack of it and espousing other things and ideas as forged alternatives, denote the cause of all wrongdoing. He insists that as a trustworthy messenger of God, they should obey and follow him (verse 126). Only that way will their initiatives and creations — including such as within the realm of architecture — attain legitimacy and acceptability. Only that way, furthermore, will the identities and functions of their architectural creations be compatible with other more consequential life dimensions and goals for which they were supposed to exist and which they were supposed to serve.

Architecture, both as a theory and standard of living, is so intense and overwhelming that a person lacking the right orientation and goal may easily get lost inside its infinite expanse and depth. He may yet be consumed by it. Underscoring this point – parenthetically — Koca Mimar Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman golden age, called architecture an “estimable calling” and said that whoever wanted to practice it correctly must be, first of all, righteous and pious.

Hud moreover pleaded with his people to keep their duty to their Creator and Lord. He asks them not to be arrogant, heedless and to be grateful for all the good things with which God had aided them and which they were fully aware of. Their architectural talent and creativity were also a divine gift and grace. They needed to reciprocate by subjecting the gifts and flairs only to the aims consistent with the metaphysical ends. 

If not, Hud feared for his people the torment of a great day when they will lose everything and perish (verses 131-135), when their material progress might be used against them and their fine and monumental architecture as their necropolis. It will be then that they will understand where the truth and where falsehood laid, and who was who in the entire scheme of things and events. They will understand the real meanings of prosperity, success and happiness as well. Such dawning realisations will be coupled with the senses of guilt and bitter regret, but at that point, it will be too little too late. By then, they will have exhausted all the afforded options, munificence and sympathy.

‘Ad’s architecture symptomatic of terminal spiritual and moral disorders

The gravity of the architectural reality of prophet Hud’s people can additionally be established by the following. When Hud refers to his people’s erected landmarks, monuments and high palaces in verse 128, he calls them signs (ayah). To make a reference to that particular point in surah al-Shu’ara’, whose gist and central idea pertain to the affirmation and exhibition of signs (ayat) throughout the multidimensionality of creation and human behaviour, takes on extra significance.

It shows that ‘Ad’s conduct was a grim syndrome of epidemic proportions. It morphed into a complete way of life that was firmly implanted in a philosophy and coherent set of values. As such, it not only opposed, but also challenged epistemologically as well as conceptually the articles of faith and value system preached by prophet Hud. They saw in Hud and his mission nothing superior to them and what they concocted and blindly followed. Hence, they replied to him: “It is the same to us whether you admonish us or be not among (our) admonishers. This is no other than a customary device (fable or myth) of the ancients. And we are not going to be punished” (al-Shu’ara’, 136-138)

Besides, another perspective can be offered here. According to it, firstly the verb “tabnun”, which means “you are building or erecting”, is used in the couple of the verses of the story which explicitly deals with ‘Ad’s architecture. The verb connotes a means for achieving something extra. That something is mentioned at the end of the same verse – verse 128 – namely the verb “ta’bathun”, which means “for vain delight and to amuse yourselves”. However, the latter is not an end par excellence. Rather, it is a yet more complex and intense means which is used at yet a higher level of meaning and operation.

That higher level is indicated in the subsequent verse – verse 129. In it, the first two words suggest the transformation of the means and channels into an all-out strategy and outlook, namely “tattakhidhuna masani’”, which means “you get for yourselves strong buildings, castles or fortresses”. The first word of the two is “you get, embrace or champion for yourselves”, rather than “you build for yourselves”. While the latter signifies a sheer method and course of action, the former denotes a fully developed culture, ethos and identity.

That implies that Hud’s people’s building philosophy, style and culture became deeply embedded in their minds and souls. There was no turning back. They were identifiable with their built environment. It became them, and they became it. And the last two words in the pair of the verses on ‘Ad’s architecture are “la’allakum takhludun”, which mean “in the hope of becoming immortal and living in them forever”.

With this, the whole process of ‘Ad’s architectural deviation was completed. It started with building for wrong objectives and by resorting to unethical norms. It eventually evolved into a sophisticated life model that became so extreme that it contradicted not merely the spiritual and ethical systems brought by prophet Hud, but also the fundamental laws of nature.

Thereafter, ‘Ad’s architecture became entangled in a vicious circle. Its outcomes were iniquitous because they fed on the commensurately iniquitous principles and actions associated with the builders, patrons and users; while the norms and attitudes associated with the integrity of the stakeholders’ character were iniquitous because the outcomes, due to their deficiencies and long-term uncertainties, lacked legitimacy, inspiration and authority.

Prophet Salih and his people Thamud

Second is the case of prophet Salih and his people, Thamud. According to surah al-Shu’ara’, while preaching to his disobedient people, Salih said to them that they were carving out or hewing dwellings out of the rocky mountains with great skill (al-Shu’ara’, 149). He did so in order to remind his people of all the great blessings that God had granted them. They should have been more grateful and humble, using the heavenly blessings and gifts aright. They should have employed them as a means for worshipping and serving God, rather than for disobeying Him and mistreating other people. Furthermore, they should have used them for creating such a built environment as could exemplify the truth and aid its application.

Muhammad Asad explains that the rock-houses or abodes mentioned in verse 149 correspond to “the elaborate rock-dwellings or tombs — to be seen to this day — which the Thamud carved out of the cliffs west of Hijr, in northern Hijaz, and embellished with sculptures of animals as well as many inscriptions attesting to the comparatively high degree of their civilisation and power. In popular Arabian parlance, these rock-dwellings are nowadays called Mada’in Salih (The Towns of Salih).”

Thamud were told to fear God, be God-conscious, keep their duty to Him and obey their prophet (verse 150). They were told to wake up and open their eyes and minds and not to lose themselves in the worship of insincere power, wealth and the prevailing fashions of erroneous thought. Otherwise, their might and worldly prosperity — including the remarkable architectural achievements — will in the end count for naught.

As stated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Thamud were told: “All your skill is very well; but cultivate virtue and do not follow the ways of those who put forward extravagant claims for men’s powers and material resources, or who lead lives of extravagance in luxury and self-indulgence.”

Like any other act of transitory immoral extravagance, Thamud’s architectural greatness was an instrument of self-deception. It maintained and worked for an intellectual and spiritual mirage. However, it was set to expire soon, just like their very selves and their false hopes and dreams. Hence, they were explicitly warned not to subscribe to, nor practice, extravagance and mischief. They were not to spread corruption in the land (verses 151-152). Rather, tapping into their divine gifts and talents, they were asked to reform their ways and set things right. In other words, they, together with their civilisational output, were asked to become assets on earth, instead of liabilities.

Thus awaken, Thamud were meant to be enabled to see that they and their especially architectural accomplishments depended entirely on God’s grace and His bounties spread throughout His creation. They were reminded of the boons of security, gardens, springs, green crops, fields and date-palms with soft spadix, which they enjoyed (verses 146-148). They overlooked the verity that they needed nature and the benefit of its total subjection to man’s use by God in order to perform. They needed to cooperate with nature and harmoniously borrow and process its raw materials so that their architectural feats could be completed. They also took for granted their intellectual and creative abilities.

Accordingly, if they were given, they also needed to give. If they were taken care of, they also needed to take care of. They were not bequeathed with extraordinary gifts because they utterly deserved them, or because God preferred them over other tribes and communities, but because God wanted to test them thereby. God as well intended to make them the instruments of devoutness and reform, but they refused to comply and meet the terms.

Thamud were thus presented with a blueprint for the true sustainable development. They were advised how to make sure that their amazing built environment and civilisation as a whole will become physically and spiritually compatible with the forces and ontological laws of the natural environment. They were also taught how to make sure that the legacy of their built environment could live on and contribute to the wellbeing of the future generations and their own civilisational quests.

However, if they turned against their prophet and, by extension, their Creator and their intrinsic natural disposition, the edifice of their civilisation will be in danger of collapsing and getting wiped out (verses 146-148). Everything they had will be used against them. The act of divine punishment, when happens, will be tantamount to an act of self-destruction preceded by various acts of self-betrayal. Their ruins will then become a sign of how unsustainable their civilisation – including architecture – was. It will become a sign of how things are not to be done.

At long last, since Thamud did not heed their prophet’s counsels and admonitions, what they had been warned about came to pass. The Qur’an elaborates on the fall of Thamud as follows in surah Hud: “So when Our decree came to pass, We delivered Salih and those who believed with him by mercy from Us, and (We saved them) from the disgrace of that day; surely your Lord is the Strong, the Mighty. And the rumbling overtook those who were unjust, so they became motionless bodies in their homes, as though they had never dwelt in them; now surely did Thamud disbelieve in their Lord; now surely, away with Thamud” (Hud, 66-68).

In their immoral attitudes and practices, Thamud did not differ much from their predecessors, the ‘Ad people. They followed a similar mode of mischief-making and waywardness. Architecture was an effective means of communication and a canvas for expressing convictions and articulating preferences.

Thamud were also cousins to ‘Ad, perhaps a younger branch of the same race. While ‘Ad resided in the southern part of Arabia, Thamud did in the northern part. Consequently, prophet Salih said to Thamud, as disclosed in surah al-A’raf: “Remember how you were made the heirs (inheritors) of ‘Ad and settled in the land, capable of building mansions in the valleys and carving out homes in the mountains. Therefore, remember the favours of Allah and do not spread mischief in the land” (al-A’raf, 74).

It follows that Thamud were so blind and engrossed in worship of the false glitter of the power and wealth of this world that they did not learn anything from the fate of their ancestors. Rather than learning, they became yet another historical lesson to be learnt from. Rather than becoming a symbol of success, they became a symbol of failure. They became a bad example to posterity.

Some vestiges of the houses of the Thamud people were still in existence during the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He wanted his companions — and everyone else after them — to learn from what had befallen those people. Once when he and his companions were passing by Hijr — the homeland of Thamud — the Prophet (pbuh) told his companions: “Do not enter the dwellings of these tormented people except in the state of weeping. If you do not weep, do not enter, lest what had befallen them should befall you too” (Sahih al-Bukhari).

Architecture as a proof of man’s smallness, rather than greatness 

Third is the case of prophet Musa and Pharaoh, which is the first in surah al-Shu’ara’. Towards the end of the story where it is alluded to the end of Pharaoh and his party, God says: “So, We expelled them from gardens and springs, treasures and every kind of honourable place (sumptuous dwellings). Thus (were those things taken from them) and We caused the Children of Israel to inherit them” (al-Shu’ara’, 57-59).

The message of these verses resonates throughout the stories of the ‘Ad and Thamud peoples as well. The message brings home that when a man pits himself against God and the established spiritual and moral laws, he is bound to lose. The same applies to groups, and entire nations, and their endeavours.

This is so because Almighty God as the Creator and Master of all creation is ceaselessly glorified and worshipped by every animate and inanimate, spiritual and physical, being in the heavens and on the earth, except certain factions of defiant and wayward humans and Jinns. This is a truth so compellingly expounded by the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah. Hence, submitting to Almighty God is a rule, rejecting and disobeying Him an exception. Worshipping Him is an ontological standard, while denying Him is an invented anomaly.

With that said, man was created but in full agreement with the existing spiritual mould of life. He was decreed and guided to fit into it and was given all the necessary means and facilities to do so. His life mission is all about recognising God, believing in Him and fulfilling the authority of His divine Will and revealed Word.

Man alone is an inept, vulnerable and indigent creature, notwithstanding his remarkable intellectual prowess which, when all’s said and done, is nothing but a gift from the Creator. The gift is intended to be used correctly and for the right ends, not misused or abused. It is intriguing that man is fully aware of his weaknesses. He therefore tries to hide, or mitigate, them, focusing on and making the most of his limited strengths instead.

Nonetheless, man’s true character in the end always comes to the fore, for it is impossible to hide the obvious and compulsive. As a result, his longing for eternity and perfection incessantly rages and is insatiable. It became a hallmark of each and every human civilisational phase. Some of the greatest cultural and civilisational undertakings of man throughout history reflect such an arduous quest of his. They reflect his yearning for his other and supernatural self to be elevated to another and supernatural realm. His accomplishments cry for eternity and impeccability, every so often morphing into acts of desperation.

On account of its inherent position and value, architecture proved one of the most fertile grounds for the purpose. Superhuman greatness and immortality are often sought through it. Ironically, however, via architecture, human fragility, flaws and vulnerability are not only exposed, but as well exacerbated.

That is the case because under normal circumstances, architecture survives its architects, engineers, patrons and generations of users. It highlights their transience and evidences their mortality and failure in pursuing false dreams and hopes. That becomes all the more manifest and severer in impact when juxtaposed with enduring architecture which, too, is transient, but outlives its stakeholders by eons and generations. It seems as though it calls cynically: Where are my creators and cohorts of owners and users? Needless to say that even in the realm of impermanence and transience, let alone infinity and constancy, man fares poorly and cannot survive on his own.

Man’s power, lifecycle and influence on the realities of life come into view as marginal – virtually non-existent – if meticulously studied and compared with myriads of physical and metaphysical actualities. Architectural remnants offer that learning opportunity better than a great many other segments of civilisation. Instead of proving man’s superhuman importance and greatness — as originally planned – architecture, in fact, proves his inconsequentiality and smallness.

Thus, in this surah, in the context of the conflict between Musa and Pharaoh, God underlines the nature and scope of Pharaoh’s and his party’s failure and demise. Such manifested itself in the fact that they were all defeated by God’s direct intervention. They all vanished, leaving everything they owned behind. They neither carried anything along, nor could their pomp and riches avail them of any respite or sympathy. What accompanied them to the Hereafter were only their (mis)deeds.

Moreover, what they accumulated and delighted in – including sumptuous private and public buildings — passed into the hands of others, in this case their adversaries. The episode became a sign for posterity, attesting to Pharaoh’s and his party’s spiritual and moral bankruptcy and ultimate ruin.

It follows that if a community with its generated legacy really wants to live on and write genuinely successful chapters in history, what Pharaoh – as well as the ‘Ad and Thamud peoples – did, certainly is not the way to follow. In the same vein, the way they all conceived, fashioned and used their architecture – so as to personify, facilitate and advertise their materialistic and hedonistic lifestyles – is not the way to go about either.***

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