What exactly is Islamic architecture, and is architecture a problematic concept?

By Spahic Omer

Islamic architecture is a very important subject insofar as properly grasping the level of the Muslim religious consciousness, cultural sophistication and civilisational evolution is concerned.  The subject is of no less importance and value to Islamic and global scholarship than, for instance, the subjects of Islamic epistemology, science, law and economics, which, however, have traditionally been receiving more attention and have been regarded as more essential, relevant and so, more impactful sectors than Islamic architecture.

Islamic architecture is an all-embracing field. It comprises both the world of ideas and values and that of practicality and function. The extent of the value and quality of Islamic architecture is attributable to the extent of the health of the relationship between the two worlds.

Islamic architecture serves as a framework of Islam as a complete code of existence and a framework of its eclectic culture and civilisation. It is therefore as comprehensive, profound and dynamic as the latter.

Conceptualising Islamic architecture

Islamic architecture is a style of architecture that embodies the core of the Islamic ‘aqidah (belief system or articles of faith) and the body of inclusive Islamic standards and behavioural moral values. Islamic architecture does so through its three main dimensions: as a philosophy, process, and a final outcome, and at the planes of the conceptualisation, planning, designing, constructing, and the using of the built environment. This is done partly latently and intuitively, as a result of people’s prior embodiment of the same Islamic beliefs, principles and values, which they then radiate and implement in the various fields of their individual and collective lives – including the realm of the built environment – and partly consciously through a series of premeditated and thought-out methods, steps and even procedural guidelines.

Islamic architecture is a framework of both human lives and the implementation of the Islamic message. This is so because Islam is a comprehensive way of life and the two are meant for each other: life needs Islam to be inspired, guided and properly lived thereby, while Islam needs life to be exteriorised, actualised and “seen” therein. It is thus often acknowledged that Islam is life and life, in turn, is Islam. Apart from framing and containing human lives and Islam, Islamic architecture, moreover, facilitates, nurtures and further promotes them.

Herein lies the significance and strength of the universe of Islamic architecture, as it has to cope with and cater to the needs of the vicissitudes of life and their dynamism as well as changeability. As a result, some of the most remarkable characteristics of Islamic architecture revolve around the notions of the profundity and inviolability of its meaning, purpose and wide-ranging functions, on the one hand, and the dynamism, fluidity and open-endedness of its physical and artistic considerations, on the other.

Indeed, Islamic architecture stands for the cultural and civilisational identity of Muslims. Yet, it is their own real-life identity. It is a microcosm of Muslims’ cultural and civilisational awareness and evolution. It is their soul. Ensuring its universal and timeless appeal, Islamic architecture represents the principle of unity in diversity: the unity of vision, purpose and values, and the diversity of methods, forms and styles. Needless to say that the more a style of architecture embodies the faith and tenets of Islam, the more Islamic it becomes.

Islamic architecture: unity in diversity

There is no doubt that Islamic architecture reveals a remarkable consistency in content and appearance, no matter when and where it was conceived and produced. This unity does not prevent styles, materials and motifs from changing somewhat from one geographical region or chronological period to another. Regardless of his race, colour, language or homeland, a Muslim experiences this architectural identity and unity everywhere he goes.

Just as he finds in each land not identical, but similar Islamic inspired responses to life’s political, economic and social challenges, he also finds not identical, but similar architectural and other aesthetic expressions of the Islamic spirit. What is more, the power of the aesthetic values of Islam are such that, even without the conscious awareness and pursuance of those values, the architect, artist, user and the spectator alike have been guided to an architectural and artistic unity in Islam which is unmistakable.

At the heart of this Islamic architectural identity resides the idea of Islamic monotheism or tawhid (Almighty Allah’s Oneness) as a religious philosophy and experience whose core is Allah as the Absolute Creator and Master of the universe, as normativeness, as the final end at which all finalistic nexuses aim and come to rest, and as the ultimate object of all innate hope, craving and desire (Isma’il al-Faruqi). Muslims create their civilisation, including architecture, based on this principle and faith. This translates itself into a common identity regardless of the difference in time and space.

However, on account of the striking positions and roles of creativity and freedom of thought and action that Islam guarantees its followers within the parameters of faith and piety, diversity where diversity was due was fostered to a great extent, enriching the history of Islamic architecture, and with it the world, with evidences that are not copies of each other. Rather, they are integral parts of the same organic whole, sprouting from and complementing each other (Afif Bahnassi).

Predicated on the principles of unity in diversity, qualified flexibility and dynamism of Islamic architecture, Ernst Grube perceives Islamic architecture as “hidden architecture”. That means that Islamic architecture truly exists and can be fully experienced and understood not when seen as monument or symbol visible to all and from all sides, but only when entered, penetrated, interacted with and experienced from within.

That means, furthermore, when we become and behave like Islamic architecture’s immediate users, developing emotional and spiritual relationships with it. That is, ultimately, when we and Islamic architecture identify each other as one; yet, when we become one. “Closely related to the concept of a ‘hidden architecture’ is the striking and almost total absence of a specific architectural form for a specific function. There are very few forms in Islamic architecture that cannot be adapted for a variety of purposes; conversely, a Muslim building serving a specific function can assume a variety of forms” (Ernst Grube).

According to Isma’il al-Faruqi, if Islam as a comprehensive religion, worldview and culture neglected to influence the architecture of its peoples, such would be a terrible shortcoming. Like all other fine arts, architecture is an aesthetic expression of Muslims insofar as they have a unique and distinct view of reality and its physical and metaphysical constituents, of space and time, of history, and of the ummah or community and Muslims’ organic relation thereto.

As such, Islam’s influence is expected to pervade the totality of human life, with architecture and the rest of the built environment receiving much attention on a par with the other most vital life segments. Islam “did determine the style of clothing, of eating, of sleeping, of socialising, of leisure and recreation. How could it omit to determine man’s habitat? Nay, it did; and it even buttressed its influence with the power of law as regards all these. Had Islam not determined anymore than the mosque, its decoration, tile, woodwork, lights and carpets, that would be more than sufficient to establish its relevance, for the mosque is the archetype and paragon of all Islamic architecture” (Isma’il al-Faruqi).

So unified and interrelated are Islam as a way of life and Islamic architecture as a physical manifestation of such a lifestyle, that it is yet affirmed that by simply pointing to a masterpiece of Islamic architecture would be sufficient as an answer to the question of what Islam in reality is. That answer, summary as it is, would be nonetheless valid, in that Islamic architecture expresses what its name indicates, and “it does so without ambiguity”. As a religious and civilisational fundamental rule, the most outward manifestation of a religion or civilisation like Islam – and art and architecture are by definition an exteriorisation – “should reflect in its own fashion what is most inward in that civilisation” (Titus Burckhardt).

Misconceptions about Islamic architecture

Oleg Grabar, a French-born art historian and archaeologist who was a leading authority in the field of Islamic art and architecture in the West, wrote that “with the partial exception of Q27:44, the Qur’an does not contain any statement which may be construed as a description of manufactured things or as a doctrinal guide for making or evaluating visually perceptible forms.” That is so mainly because “the world in which the revelation of the Qur’an was made was not one which knew or particularly prized works of art”.

In the same spirit, K.A.C Creswell, a English architectural historian who penned some of the seminal and most authoritative works on Islamic architecture in the West, called the history of the early Islamic society architecturally primitive in the extreme; that the Prophet (pbuh) was entirely without architectural ambitions; that the first Muslims brought nothing architectural to the conquered countries beyond what would serve their simple ritual requirements; and that especially in Syria in the early days of the Islamic presence, there was no any building activity and the first mosques were churches that had been converted or merely divided.

Many other in particular Western scholars in Islamic architecture followed suit and arrived at similar inferences. Some of them are Alexander Hahn who said that “Muhammad himself had no use for architecture”; Peter Watson who alleged that the Prophet (pbuh) was “hostile to the decoration of mosques”; and Brenda Schildgen who astonishingly contended that the Prophet (pbuh) seemed “to prohibit religious art and architecture”.

To be fair to Oleg Grabar, he later somewhat corrected his position. He wrote in his article “Art and Culture in the Islamic World”, which was contributed to an encyclopaedia of Islamic art and architecture titled “Islam, Art and Architecture”: “But it is possible to argue that Islam’s initial revelation, the Koran, contains passages and points of view on which attitudes to the arts could be, and often were, based. Many of them acquired different interpretations over the centuries and it should someday be possible to sketch out a history of their use.”

Oleg Grabar then proceeded to analyse a number of such Qur’anic passages and the different categories of the arts they deal with, including architecture. He also rightly maintained somewhere else that the Prophet’s hadith or Sunnah contains “theoretical positions and practical opinions on the making of works of art.”

What is common to all the mentioned and many other comparable statements and views is the strongly accentuated message that Islam is irrelevant to architecture. Its concerns should not transcend the ambit of sheer religious rituals and personal relations with God. Architecture is an entirely secular and material domain devoid of any spiritual significance or experience. It should be divested of its right and merit to express the noblest aspirations and ends of man. In contrast, it should be primed only to fulfil the base needs of utility and everyday function, and to be subjected to “correspondence with nature, a sort of pagan neo-Hellenism”.

One wonders why most Western art and architecture historians rarely discussed the works of Islamic architecture with sympathy and understanding, and why not beyond the departments of forms, plans, materials and superficial functions. This is notwithstanding their commendable amount of careful research and documentation across the vast expanse of the Muslim world. Most of the prevalent misinterpretations and outright errors that today surround Islamic art and architecture are due to such people’s intellectual legacies, and the legacies of those who followed in their footsteps in the Muslim world.

That could be the case because of the inherent difficulty of understanding artistic and architectural styles and traditions alien to one’s own, or because of a chauvinistic desire to see one’s own artistic and architectural traditions as prior in importance or superior in skill and beauty to any produced by a foreign society (Lamya al-Faruqi), specifically those societies that at the time of the studies proved politically, economically and militarily substantially despondent and inferior.

Isma’il al-Faruqi wrote about how the Western scholars of Islamic art and architecture have failed in their assessment of the latter’s real value, in spite of their exhausting application to the task of studying, collecting and systematising the same into art schools and styles: “Nobody can survey the field without being struck by the Western scholars’ arduous application to the task, without falling in admiration of and gratitude for their legacy of scholarship and museum-achievements. There is no road to the serious study of Islamic art except through their works; and there is as yet no library of Islamic art in which these works do not constitute the overwhelming majority. And yet, the Western scholars of Islamic art have been unfair in their overall assessment of its real value. For all their self-application, their seriousness and brilliance, their hard work and perseverance, they have failed in the supreme effort of understanding the spirit of that art, of discovering and analysing its Islamicness. For lack of any such understanding, they fell upon the spirit of their own art (i.e. Western art) and, armed with that spirit as absolute norm of all art, they sought to bend Islamic art to its categories. And, when Islamic art naturally refused to be so bent, their misunderstanding of it deepened. The charge they imputed to Islamic art was always the same, namely, that it had failed in that in which their Western art had excelled and almost everyone repeated the charge.”

Similar charges against the Western scholars and Western scholarship of Islamic art and architecture have been levelled by Lamya’ al-Faruqi who affirmed: “In almost every case, however, these non-Muslim scholars mastered an exterior knowledge of the Muslim artistic tradition but failed to penetrate beyond the outer veil to the heart of the Islamic aesthetic norms and standards. Because of their alien background and sometimes even an apparent antagonism to the materials, they were doomed to view Islamic artistic creations as misconceived and unsuccessful attempts to match the glories of Western art works. They have been unable to escape the blinding cultural pull to judge every artistic creation of Islamic culture by criteria which are valid for their own art, but not necessarily valid in any other culture. These art historians failed to realise that the Islamic artist, whether consciously or unconsciously, had his own criteria for the beautiful and for the artistic expression of his world God view.”

Islamic, or Muslim, or…. architecture

As a matter of semantics, the suitable architectural styles of Muslims throughout history can be called either “Islamic” or “Muslim”. In English, both approximately denote the same thing – which however is not entirely the case with the Arabic language.

The adjective “Islamic” means “relating to Islam”, or “connected with Islam, or with people or countries who follow it.” Correspondingly, the adjective “Muslim” implies “relating to Islam or Muslims”, or “relating to the religion, law or civilisation of Islam.” While the latter (“Muslim”) seems to be more inclusive than the former (“Islamic”), the former, obviously, is a more delicate attribute.

The adjective “Islamic” takes its meaning from the fact that it reflects some characteristics of Islam, and does so in varying degrees. It can be used in two contexts. First, it describes things, ideas and events whose origins are in Islam. Second, it can be used to describe things that are present in Islamic societies and cultures, even if their origins are not rooted entirely in Islam or produced exclusively by Muslim peoples.

Islamic civilisation came to existence because Muslims’ ideas and standards were dominant, but they were not the sole engines that produced its rich legacy (Ahmed Souaiaia). A great many non-Muslim internal and external factors played a part. Hence, “Islamic” and “Muslim” are almost identical and can be used interchangeably, especially with regard to architecture as a main dimension of culture and civilisation.

However, it should be borne in mind that any of the designations commonly attached to the architectural legacies of Muslims might in principle be espoused, provided they are all properly comprehended and contextualized, and that the one using them is fully cognizant of their meanings and implications. There is certainly nothing dogmatic, nor sacrosanct, in the whole issue. The matter can continuously be revisited, re-evaluated and, if necessary, modified, on condition that such is done open-mindedly, scientifically and in the spirit of the whole of Islamic scholarship.

Thus, the architecture of Muslims can be both “Islamic” and “Muslim”. Even to give no adjectives or appellations whatsoever would be utterly correct, in particular when it is recalled that early Muslims never called their architecture, art, urbanism, countries, governments and lifestyles in general, “Islamic” or “Muslim”. They knew that those were, chiefly, their own legacies spontaneously generated and imbued with the impetus of their perceptions of reality and the world, of life and death, and of space and time, and which were part of their larger civilisational vision and drive. Giving designations under the circumstances was superfluous, as the things were instinctively implied and understood by everyone, and the culture of giving precedence to substance over the form largely prevailed.

However, when mere names, titles and descriptions became an obsession, such denoted a sign of civilisational weaknesses and decline. It meant desperate clinging to something that was gradually fading away and was hard to keep. The efforts in due course turned into sheer reminiscing about things that were lost and became difficult to bring back. Hence, reminiscing became nostalgia, and the latter soon morphed into individual and collective acts of desperation.

Perhaps the first person who officially used the term “Islamic” in Islamic scholarship was Ibn al-Tiqtaqa (d. 1310 AC). He did so in the context of Islamic history as well as polity. He wrote a well-known compendium of Islamic history called “al-Fakhri fi al-Adab al-Sultaniyyah wa al-Duwal al-Islamiyyah”. This was the first time that someone formally spoke about an aspect of Islamic civilisation, calling it “Islamic”. The author spoke about “Islamic dynasties or countries”.

About four centuries earlier, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari used the word “al-islamiyy”, albeit not as an adjective “Islamic”, but as a noun, meaning “a proponent of Islam”. He titled one of his main works in the fields of heresiography and theology as “the Discourses of the Proponents of Islam (Islamiyyin) and the Differences Among the Worshippers”.   

A personal experience

Parenthetically, in my own writings, I sometimes deliberately use the term “Islamic architecture” and sometimes “Muslim architecture”. Yet, at other times I even try to circumnavigate the issue of semantics altogether, employing simply such terms as the “architecture”, “buildings” or “built environment” of Muslims. The word “Muslims” is used and interpreted either generically or in relation to specific regions and times, depending on the contexts and objectives.

I do that with the aim of bringing home the message that the subjects of sheer naming and branding are relative and minor ones. They also tend to be fairly subjective, causing disagreements and divisions. As such, they should be accorded a degree of flexibility and open-mindedness, while people should focus on understanding the root cause of the problem – and each other. They should foster an ethics of disagreement and just move on.

More fundamental matters are to be addressed and meticulously attended to. What is critical should be perceived and treated as such, and what is secondary should also be perceived and treated only as such. Priorities are by no means to be haggled and swapped.

The architecture, or built environment, of Muslims worldwide cries for quality and improvements along the lines of the Islamic worldview, values and ethics. The matter is so distressing and urgent that nobody should waste time on trivial concerns, such as the one of mere names and labels. Call it whatever you want, but much needs to be done in real life, sooner rather than later, in order to start off improving the quality of people’s lives. Wasting time, energy and resources on what is uncalled-for is a transgression against the religion of Islam, good sense and, of course, Islamic architecture.

The conundrum is a Western import

Besides, it was in fact non-Muslim scholars and researchers who especially during the colonisation era first coined and imposed on the world those artificial appellations as regards Islamic civilisational legacies, including architecture. It was also them first who in the process loaded the terms with some erroneous, or questionable at best, connotations.

That was part of the modern Western man’s culture of labelling, stereotyping and scorning all “others”, who to him were less enlightened and less cultured and civilised. It was his obsession, while conquering, colonising and controlling “others”, to set permanent cultural and civilisational barriers between himself and his presumably superior world, and “them” and whatever inferior, or outright backward and barbaric, legacies they possessed.

One of the ways of doing so was excessive conceptual and intellectual labelling and tagging, loading the new expressions with the targeted flawed meanings and interpretations. Thus, such expressions as “Ishmailities (as early as the 8th century by Joannis Damasceni, a Syrian monk and Doctor of the Church in his ‘Heresy of Ishmailities’)”, “the Saracens (as early as the 13th century during the Fifth Crusade by Francesco d’Assisi, an Italian saint)”, ‘Mohammedanism (from the early 19th century)”, “Mohammedan dynasties, law, jurisprudence, dogmas and beliefs”, “primitive, medieval, modern and liberal Islam”, “orientalism”, “Islamic fundamentalism”, “Islamic, Muslim, Saracenic and Mohammedan culture, civilisation, art, architecture, cities, urbanism, etc.” – were created and widely articulated.

For instance, Merriam-Webster Dictionary renders “Saracenic architecture” as “Islamic architecture consisting chiefly of mosques and tombs and characterised by decorated surfaces, bulbous domes, and horseshoe, pointed, and multifoil arches.” It then instructs the readers to “compare Moorish architecture” as another expression of Islamic architecture.

Moreover, a book titled “Architecture, Classic and Early Christian” written by T. Roger Smith and published in 1882 in London, contains a chapter (Chapter XV) on “Mohammedan architecture”. Also, in 1930 a book titled “A Handbook of Mohammedan Decorative Arts” was published. It was written by Dimand M.S. and was “the first history of Mohammedan decorative arts to appear in English, highlighting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (New York) strong Islamic art collection with over 170 works discussed.” And in 1910, the exhibition “Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art” was held on the Theresienhöhe in Munich. “With almost 3,600 exhibits, it was the largest display of art from the Islamic cultural sphere ever shown, even to this day.”

Or “Islamicate” architecture

The situation got so convoluted that Bernard Lewis went so far as to suggest that the adjective “Islamic” be used in the cultural sense, where Islam is seen as either an idealised or a historical cumulative tradition of faith, and the adjective “Muslim” in the religious sense, pertaining to the Muslims insofar as they accept and practice that faith.

However, it will ever remain unclear as to where exactly the jurisdictions of the two adjectives meet, interact and possibly overlap, and where they separate. Some people may yet propose the opposite arrangement of meanings and construals.

All this prompted Marshal Hodgson, an influential American historian of Islam (d. 1968), to propose in the first volume of his magnum opus “the Venture of Islam” yet a new term and adjective: Islamicate. He did that in response to the confusion surrounding the conception and usages of the terms “Islamic” and “Muslim” when they are used “to describe aspects of society and culture that are found throughout the Muslim world.”

According to Marshal Hodgson, it has been all too common in modern scholarship to use the terms in question too casually both for what is called religion and for the overall society, culture and people associated historically with the religion (Islam). He believed that the term “Islamicate” is most comprehensive and has “a double adjectival ending”. It refers not directly to the religion of Islam itself, “but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims.”

Accordingly, it should be neither “Islamic” nor “Muslim”, but “Islamicate” architecture.

A word of caution   

As part of the Western socio-political, economic, cultural and educational systems that dominated the Muslim world for much of the last two centuries, those ideas were imposed on the Muslim intellectual consciousness, dictating his cultural reality and forming his identity. In the name of progress and development, a great many Muslims, unfortunately, fell victims to the ploy. They not only adopted the initiative, but also became its ambassadors and fiercest proponents.

So, therefore, while it is possible to use any of the existing designations often attached to the historical and current architectural (built environment) realities of Muslims, Muslims, at the same time, should be watchful on the implications each and every designation entails, so that the most appropriate terms, those closest in describing an intended matter, are selected and articulated. Numerous fallacies and misconceptions, old and new, are also to be scientifically and thoroughly unravelled and repudiated.

But these ought to be no more than interim and short-term strategies. They by no means are to be regarded as ends in themselves, as they cannot offer permanent answers and solutions to the pressing dilemmas.

Rather, those and other similar intellectual efforts must represent – or at least be precursors to — a gradual fashioning of a new and unified scholarly culture among Muslims, which will be closest to reverberating the authentic philosophy of Islam and the soul of its teachings and values, paying no or very little attention to the often meaningless and worthless labels and descriptions.

The new comprehensive intellectual culture will need to skilfully amalgamate the fundamental nature of the Islamic message with the spirit and exigencies of modern times, dispensing generally with religious, cultural and intellectual mediocrity, prejudices, formalism and apathy, which can seriously damage the prospects of reviving not only Islamic/Muslim architecture, but also all the other aspects of Islamic eclectic culture and civilisation.

For Muslims, it follows, the notions of freedom, independence and community-building need to assume an extra meaning and consequence. In fact, colonialism as an ideology and colonisation as a process never stopped. They only modified their respective scopes and modi operandi, while the intentions and objectives remained the same.

How serious Islam is against literal symbolism and deadening formalism, above all when they work against substance and real class, verify these verses of the Qur’an: “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but (true) righteousness is (in) one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, those who ask (for help), and for freeing slaves; (and who) establishes prayer and gives zakah; (those who) fulfil their promise when they promise; and (those who) are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous” (al-Baqarah, 177).

“And they say: ‘None will enter Paradise except one who is a Jew or a Christian.’ That is (merely) their wishful thinking, Say: ‘Produce your proof, if you should be truthful.’ Yes (on the contrary), whoever submits his face in Islam to Allah while being a doer of good will have his reward with his Lord. And no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve” (al-Baqarah, 111-112).

Islam’s insistence that mere compliance with external forms and superficial symbols does not fulfil the requirements of piety and righteousness, should also extend to the ways people perceive, appreciate and practice Islamic architecture.

When prophets Ibrahim (Abraham) and Isma’il (Ishmael) prayed to God to make “from our descendants a Muslim nation (ummah muslimah)” (al-Baqarah, 128), they meant a nation, people or progeny that will follow only the true Islam by completely submitting themselves to and worshipping Almighty God alone.

Architecture and proselytisation

As a small digression, an additional illustration of how challenging the times are, is modernist architecture which was always projecting itself as universal and self-righteous. It exuded a sense of superiority that was reminiscent of Western colonialism. It possessed a missionary or proselytising attitude, and its architects’ personal visions were infused with a sense of moral superiority.

They believed that the modern architect’s mission was to redesign the whole world in his own modernist image, and his modernist values applied to all. Less “civilised” people could only profit from adopting modern Western architects’ way(s) of life. So important were the precepts and mottos of modernist architecture that they were regarded as articles of faith. They were “rhetorical statements whose moral overtones made them as unquestionable as Divine Law” (Brent Brolin).

Moreover, modernist architecture developed its own universe, oblivious to myriads of other universes around it. Such could be dubbed haughtiness, self-centredness and obstinacy. Satiated with a deep sense of exclusiveness and superiority, modernist architecture looked down on any other style and school of thought, including the architectural realms of “others”. It tolerated neither competition nor peaceful coexistence. It was a destructive force, so to speak. The past, old, traditional and metaphysical ideas and looks were the bane of its revolutionary existence.

As part of its precarious character, modernist architecture was proselytised globally. In terms of intensity and range, the proselytisation of modernist architecture was just about on a par with Christianisation. Little wonder that both of them existed and were popularised globally for and in the name of the absolute truth.

Is architecture as a concept problematic?

As absurd as it may seem, this question ought to be asked. Architecture is generally defined as the art and science of planning, designing and constructing buildings and other structures, comprising both the process and the product.

However, the matter is not as simple as it looks. Becky Quintal at archdaily.com gave 121 definitions of architecture, commenting: “There are at least as many definitions of architecture as there are architects or people who comment on the practice of it. While some embrace it as art, others defend architecture’s seminal social responsibility as its most definitive attribute. To begin a sentence with ‘Architecture is’ is a bold step into treacherous territory.”

Certainly, architecture as a concept, theory, art, science and procedure is multidimensional. It is an extremely complex multi-tiered orb. It fulfils numerous practical and expressive requirements, and serves as many functional, aesthetic and intellectual ends. Even ideologies and socio-politics are built into the realm of architecture. Yet, architecture itself is an ideology. Its philosophy as a sub-discipline is considerably profound and is set but to flourish.

However, it likewise must be underlined that the concept “architecture” originated from Middle French architecture, from Latin architectura, from architectus “master builder, chief workman”. It was first used as such in mid-16th century (etymonline.com).

Architecture is also from the Greek architecton: archi (first or lead) and tecton (builder, originally carpenter). Architecton (master-builder) is used once in the Greek New Testament (1 Cor. 3:10), where Paul allegorically thought of himself as a director of works, a chief builder and a foreman.

Prior to the idea of architecture in the 16th century and onwards, there were only particular “arts” and “styles” of building, particular construction processes, builders, master builders, master masons, carpenters, craftsmen, workmen, and application of various traditional rules of good and functional construction to the materials at hand. There was no architecture as an art and science in the contemporary sense of the word; there were only “arts”, “patterns” and expertise of building as an everyday individual and social necessity. Similarly, there were no architects as professionals in the contemporary sense of the word either; there were only builders as naturally gifted and trained experts and many other related craftsmen.

When Vitruvius – a Roman author, “architect” and military engineer during the first century BC – composed his celebrated multi-volume “De Architectura” – widely regarded as the first treatise on “architecture” written as a handbook for Roman “architects” – he did so more in accordance with the above-explained pre-16th century meaning and substance of construction and built environment, rather than in accordance with what was understood by the terms of “architecture” and “architect” from the 16th century onwards. At most, he and his book could be regarded as precursors to architecture, especially in terms of its theoretical or philosophical dimensions.

When architecture started as an art and science approximately in the 16th century – subsequently evolving into modernist and post-modernist architecture – it did so as part of Renaissance humanism.

According to the latter, “man is the measure of all things” and “mankind is at the centre of the universe”. As a product of Renaissance humanism, the “enlightened” Western man constantly pretended to be in control of his own destiny. He, rather than God, was the source of all value and legitimacy. Human reason and talents, rather than any metaphysical entity or source, were placed on a pedestal.

On account of the Scientific Revolution, which took place towards the end of the Renaissance period, giving birth to the intellectual and social movement in the 18th century known as the “Enlightenment,” and serving as a harbinger of the subsequent modern and post-modern eons, this anthropocentric view was propelled to unprecedented heights.

Man started at once to believe and behave as though he was in control of the whole earth. The whole universe became the target of his exploration and conquest ambitions. The modern Western man believed that he had the whole world at his feet, both literally and metaphorically. For him, God was dead, so to speak, and Heaven a fiction. It was only man and his talents, together with his endless hopes and desires, that could be deified. They were solely to be lived for.

The birth of “architecture”

It was primarily the spirit of this milieu that instigated and shaped all architectural – and artistic – movements and styles in the West from the Renaissance to modern times. Admittedly, though, the Renaissance man was not a non-believer per se. Christianity still held considerable sway over his life, but he was increasingly sceptical, unconvinced and restless. He ever more craved for separation from Heaven, and for nonconformity, freedom and authority. He wanted to rule, rather than being ruled. He wanted to live and express himself freely, rather than being dictated what to do and how to behave.

The Renaissance man’s seminal ideas, thoughts and actions represented seeds that subsequently grew into basically everything the modern (and post-modern) man treasures most, such as democracy, liberty, secularism, science, progress, power, audacity and perennial optimism. Man became elevated and sanctified thereby, while God became either humanised and degraded, or completely abandoned and forgotten.

The ideal of “Renaissance Man” or “Universal Man” (Uomo Universale) was thus created. According to one of its most accomplished advocates in Italy, Leon Battista Albert (d. 1472 AC), such Man was able to do all things, if he so willed and if his endeavours were appropriately facilitated. His capacities were limitless, rendering him equipped to stand up to and defy Heaven.

Architecture – together with art – soon became one of the most powerful media for expressing and promoting those ideals. It became their voice and emissary. Yet, it became their incarnation and epitome, oozing and communicating their unique spirit to the outside world. Architecture was finding itself universal, as it were, typifying “Universal Man” and his universal point of view.

Norman Foster, in consequence, defined architecture as “an expression of values – the way we build is a reflection of the way we live.” Bernard Rudofsky, similarly, said that “architecture is not just a matter of technology and aesthetics but the frame for a way of life. And to Stanley Tigerman, “architecture is supposed to be about a higher purpose.”

Those developments gave birth to “architecture” as we know it today as an art, science, ideology, profession, career, and a way as well as standard of life. For the first time in history, the processes of planning, designing, constructing and using buildings became standardised, homogenised and professionalized. They were yet proselytised as a gospel of humanism, enlightenment, naturalism, materialism, and later modernism and post-modernism. They stood at the core of Western civilisation, becoming its face.

For the first time in history, moreover, the skills and ability of construction (now architecture) became exclusively human-centric. Theretofore construction was generally either Heaven or divinity-centric, or was meant to meet a combination of the concerns of Heaven and those of human societies on earth.

From merely behaving and performing in space, architecture evolved into appropriating, gaining mastery over and manipulating space. And from serving and conforming, generally embracing humility and respect, architecture evolved into controlling and dominating, embracing might and defiance.

It is therefore said that architecture is all about enclosing and shaping spaces, and creating spatial relations. Space is that immaterial essence that the painter suggests, the sculptor fills and the architect envelops, “creating a wholly human and finite environment within the infinite environment of nature” (britannica.com).

An architectural design is created by carving a space out of space, by creating a space out of the carved space, and by designing spaces by dividing the created space using various tools, such as geometry, colours, shapes and light (Ungur).

It stands to reason that there is architecture only when and where there is man who idolises and exalts himself, with his architecture exemplifying his ostentatious ambitions and dreams. Through architecture, he seeks that which he cannot find within himself and within his personal life compass: longevity, perfection, certitude and peace. His architecture is shaped in his own real and coveted image.

Architecture furthermore is a mask behind which disoriented, doubting and over-ambitious man intends to hide his intrinsic weaknesses and faults. Through architecture, he seeks solace and self-assurance. He also seeks immortality thereby, transforming his architecture into a form of creed and self-concocted faith. Architecture is a seventh heaven, antidote and cure.

Hence, there was no architecture as such before the Renaissance. There were only construction processes and people’s simple, albeit occasionally very exquisite, built environments. Such was the case owing to the fact that architecture is human and self-centric, whereas mere construction and mere built environments, by and large, are Heaven and human innocent interests-centric.

Architecture before the Renaissance

Before the Renaissance, there were only erratic architectural attempts and, at most, intermittent architectural accomplishments. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that those efforts and accomplishments proved viable only after certain people perverted the interests of both Heaven and man – either individually or institutionally – and made them subservient to their own self-centred pursuits. In other words, their actions became self-absorbed and egocentric, projecting themselves as objects of collective exaltation instead.

Those people thus generated more than a few causes whose inevitable outcomes were elements of architecture. What they did became an end in itself, instead of being a means to reach out to a higher order of things. It became an asset for the fulfilment of their personal and societal missions, justifying their very visions and intents as well. Their architectural flashes turned into privatised and manipulative enterprises, so to speak.

This explains the “greatness” and durability of, for example, some remnants of the architecture of Mesopotamia (ziggurats and royal palaces), ancient Egyptian architecture (pyramids, temples and royal palaces), Persian architecture (temples and royal palaces), and the architecture and urbanism of the Greeks and Romans (temples and colosseums).

It also explains why the architecture of the Renaissance period – including some of its succeeding derivatives – was able to demonstrate a conscious revival and development of a number of components of ancient Greek and Roman thought and material culture. The latter formed the ideological base for the former.

At any rate, on closer inspection, the entire story and its manner do not tell us how things are to be done, but rather how and why they are not to be done. The architectural legacies in question serve as signs of spiritual and moral bankruptcies and failures. In actual fact, they are not to be admired, but pitied and learned from. The same mistakes should not be repeated by the current and future generations.

As the Qur’an reminds us: “Do they not travel in the land, and see what was the end of those before them? They were superior to them in strength, and they tilled the earth and populated it (and built upon it) in greater numbers than these (pagans) have done, and there came to them their Messengers with clear proofs. Surely, Allah wronged them not, but they used to wrong themselves. Then evil was the end of those who did evil, because they belied the signs of Allah and used to mock them” (al-Rum, 9).

Through the same prism, by analogy, all architectural – and artistic – legacies of the “rebellious” Western man, from the Renaissance until today, ought to be observed and dealt with.

Islam and its built environment predate “architecture” by about nine centuries 

Based on the above, “architecture” and pure spirituality are hardly compatible. When paired together, one is expected to give way, which is normally spirituality. The reason for that is that architecture was born and evolved in part as a response against spirituality. At first, their relationship was an uneasy one, progressing gradually – and rather quickly – towards separation.

The problems lay in the domains of architecture, rather than the domains of spirituality. While spirituality contains inherently nothing against construction and built environment as life’s essentials, affording thereby a platform for possible confluence and cooperation, architecture, on the other hand, even though outwardly willing to lend a hand to spirituality, sincerely always aspired to carve out its own independent universe and to operate freely therein. Cooperation was still possible, though, but on condition that the provisions of spirituality played second fiddle to those of architecture.

Accordingly, it is expected that Islam should harbour scores of objections concerning the humanistic and materialistic tendencies of architecture. One would also expect Islam to be inclined either to sail around the whole thing if possible, or to inevitably Islamise its problematic aspects and features – due to architecture’s ubiquitous presence and strong universal appeal – and to then integrate it as such into the dominion of its own extensive cultures and civilisation. Without doubt, Islam is against the principle whereby the more there is architecture the less there is spirituality, and vice versa. Instead, the two should promote and aid each other.

Islam and Muslims could cultivate this attitude on account of the verity that Islam with its culture and civilisation, including its outstanding construction styles and built environments, predates “architecture” by approximately nine centuries.

Islam with its fundamental sources: the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah, dealt extensively with the issues of planning and building. The Prophet (pbuh) himself was a planner and builder. All generations of Muslims were great builders, producing extraordinary built environment legacies in the process.

However, their outputs were not “architecture”, but the Islamic ways of planning and building. They were purely the Islamic built environment varieties. They also signified the Islamic ways of dealing with Heaven and earth, and were manifestations of relationships between people and God, people and their overall Islamic worldview, values and ethics, people and the natural world, and people among themselves.

Doing so was a religious (spiritual) injunction, for the Qur’an affirms that man was created as khalifah on earth (vicegerent, viceroy and successive authority) (al-Baqarah, 30), and that he was assigned to perform the ‘imarah of the earth (Hud, 61), that is, to settle or establish residence therein, to populate, develop and sustain it.

The Qur’an likewise clearly suggests that it is at once natural and prerequisite for man to populate (colonise) the earth and to build over it (‘amara, ‘umran, ‘imarah) (al-Rum, 9). The extent and quality of man’s doing so is a testimony whether he succeeded or failed in his worldly assignments. His built environment – as part of his civilisational consciousness and growth – is an oblique inventory of his deeds and misdeeds.

Built environments were needed as frameworks, means and facilities for the realisation of man’s honourable purpose on earth. In Islam – generally speaking – cultural and civilisational sophistication, progress, science, technology, socio-politico-economic development, etc. are all indispensable for man’s successful completion of his earthly mission. As an innately religious and social being, man cannot succeed in isolation and in states of utter plainness and primitiveness without abundantly taking from and giving back to the world.  However, all those sectors and undertakings must be cast in Islamic moulds.

Towards an Islamic terminology

That is why in Islam and its civilisation, such terms as ‘umran, ‘imarah or ‘imarah al-ard should be nurtured and promoted as substitutes for the Western concept of architecture. Efforts should also be made towards the prospect of their Englishisation Those terms are more meaningful, more consequential and more value-loaded, since their origin is the Qur’an as Almighty God’s Holy Word. They are closer and more acceptable to the Muslim mind and soul. They are his. They belong to him and he belongs to them.

Even the words bina’ and bunyan could be utilised for the purpose. They both mean “building”, “construction” and “act or manner of establishing and building”. They are widely used in the Qur’an as well. They are used 22 times in seven different forms.

It was on account of this that some visionary Muslim scholars called for what could be dubbed an “Islamisation of English”. The reason is that a great many key concepts and ideas of Islam, when arbitrarily and inaccurately translated into English, are rendered imprecise. The same holds true as regards inadequately translating, or adopting, into Arabic – or other major Muslim languages – some key English concepts and words.

That contributes to the misrepresentation of the image of Islam and Muslims in the eyes of the world. It also makes the prospect of teaching the pure and authentic Islam, both to Muslims and non-Muslims, all the more difficult. It makes everybody confused.

One of those visionary scholars was Isma’il al-Faruqi, who wrote a book titled “Toward Islamic English”. The book represents a segment of the author’s profound philosophy of “Islamisation of knowledge”.

The real problems in the realm of the Islamic built environment did not start until some subsequent Muslim generations started displaying more penchant for “architecture” than for the Islamic ways of doing similar things. Just as it might have been expected, importing “architecture” meant diminishing Islamic spirituality and its built environment ambits.

It is no wonder that we are still unsure as to which adjective: “Islamic”, or “Muslim”, or something else, to use before architecture. As if we sense that there is something deeply amiss. Clearly, the dialectic is more complicated than it seems, extending beyond the level of semantics. There is more to the problem than meets the eye. Relating the Western humanistic and materialistic understanding of architecture to Islam and Muslims is almost akin to trying to relate – for instance – liberalism, secularism, materialism, modernism, etc. to them. They are anything but matches made in heaven. 

The issue of genesis

Be that as it may, authentic Islamic architecture (Islamic built environment) commenced as soon as its discernible soul, ontological personality, causes and aims were introduced, irrespective of the level of sophistication and elegance in its first built environment manifestations. That time was the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and the first and most exemplary generation of Muslims, who lived in the first and archetypal Islamic urban environment: Madinah as the city of the Prophet (pbuh).

It was then that the realm of Islamic architecture – as an expression of a worldview and its values, and as a reflection of the way the people lived their lives – was formed and its first physical articulations came to pass. As simple and unassuming as they were, the first Madinah private and religious buildings were meant to reflect, improve and facilitate the people’s new Islamic lifestyle. And they did so at once dramatically and emphatically. Just as the Prophet’s life and the lives of the first Muslims were the symbols and paragons of piety and virtue, so did their houses and mosques, yet the whole built environment of the city of Madinah, stand as the signs and models of a Muslim collective integrity and spiritual triumph.

Both the first Muslims under the leadership of their Prophet (pbuh) and their built environment succeeded almost miraculously in performing their respective missions. Hence, the first Muslims were the most outstanding generation in Islam, and Madinah with its built environment the most excellent city whose essence was attempted to be emulated ever since in every upcoming Islamic urban environment. That was an evidence of the undisputed excellence of the earliest architecture of Muslims.

Afterwards, Muslims were only trying to keep up the high architectural standards set by the Prophet (pbuh) and the first Muslims, while facing as part of natural processes the challenges imposed by the vicissitudes of everyday life and its time and space factors. Doing so enriched significantly the secondary and less significant physical properties of Islamic architecture and its vocabulary. However, it did nothing to its substance and truth, which are permanent and abiding. Islamic architecture’s alterable and evolving physical properties are the receptacle, or a bearer, so to speak, of the former. They are their physical locus.

Thus, the genesis of Islamic architecture coincided with the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and the creation of the Madinah city. At the same time, that was the golden age of Islamic architecture, in that the first Muslims were most successful in each and every department of civilisation-building procedures. Their time and efforts constituted standard-setting processes. All subsequent contributions to the subordinate artistic, functional and expressive dimensions of Islamic architecture served as supplements and performance-enhancers, nothing less, nothing more. Their mere existence was due to the earliest times and the legacies of the protagonists of those times. Yet, the legitimacy of future contributions was always to be assessed against the backdrop of such legacies. It follows that each successful future of Islamic architecture will stand on the shoulders of the earliest “giants”.

Mosques as an example

For example, regardless of the simplicity of the form of the Prophet’s Mosque, the Mosque made a powerful and perennially valid architectural statement about the following: the institution of the mosque as a community development centre; human resources and community-building processes; the meaning of life and its relationship with the metaphysical dominion; respect for and peaceful coexistence with the order of nature (sustainable development); the relationship between man and God, man and man, and man and his surroundings; form-function relationship; encouraging and aiding people’s equality, justice and other human rights; professional ethics; authentic hygiene; and grand Heaven-oriented aesthetics.

In short, there was nothing architecturally positive, nor wholesome and productive for human life, which the Prophet’s Mosque did not exemplify. How could there be, then, a better and more beautiful and functional mosque at any stage in Muslim history than the Prophet’s Mosque? Or how could someone ever claim that there was no architecture during the Prophet’s time, and that his epoch was architecturally primitive in the extreme?

Surely, everything the Prophet (pbuh) did was trustworthy and authoritative. His divinely administered personal infallibility and perfection were exclusive and they extended into the compass of everything he did. In actual fact, the Prophet’s Mosque, the Prophet’s dealings generally with mosques, and his numerous statements directly and indirectly concerning them, served as the core, source of inspiration and guidance, and a point of reference for the comprehensive vocabulary of mosque architecture then and now.

Each subsequent mosque that was good, beautiful and functional was so only because it stayed faithful to the paradigm and criteria set by the Prophet (pbuh) and his Mosque, impressing the effects of the circumstances of different eras and geographical locations upon them. No mosque could be ever dubbed good, beautiful and functional if it violated primarily the conceptual, ethical and functional architectural benchmarks set by the Prophet (pbuh) and his Mosque. The more a mosque did so, the more it drifted away from the value of beauty, appropriateness and functionality, and towards the abyss of repugnance, unseemliness and inconsequentiality.

Mosque architecture in particular, and Islamic architecture in general, cannot be based on a spiritual and ethical ugliness, nor defiance. This is a universal principle. Nothing can be exempted from it, including the corollaries of human scientific and technological development.

Housing as another example

Another example was the Prophet’s and his companions’ houses. Regardless of the minimalism of their form, they nonetheless made a powerful and enduringly binding architectural statement about the following: the institution of the house as a family development centre; the family institution as the fundamental and most critical component in society and civilisation-building; the meaning and significance of life at large and its relationship with the metaphysical province; respect for and peaceful coexistence with the order of nature (sustainable development); the relationship between man and God, man and man, and man and his surroundings; form-function relationship; reassuring and facilitating egalitarianism and justice among people; authentic hygiene and aesthetics; the true import of well-being, contentment, self-fulfilment and happiness.

In a nutshell, those houses symbolised and embodied everything that was architecturally affirmative and beneficial for human life. One can then wonder how there could be a better and more comprehensively valuable brand of residential architecture, or how someone could argue that there was no architecture whatsoever during the Prophet’s time, and that his epoch generally was architecturally primitive in the extreme.

Definitely, the Prophet’s and his companions’ houses, their relationships with and abundant reports concerning building and using them, combined with myriads of Islamic general teachings and values which directly and indirectly influenced Islamic residential architecture, served as the crux, source of inspiration and guidance, and a point of reference for the shaping of the easily recognisable identity of Islamic residential architecture and its wide-ranging vocabulary, then and now.

Each subsequent Muslim housing type, which proved excellent and functional, was so only because it adhered to the architectural philosophy and behavioural criteria instituted by the Prophet (pbuh), and which were implemented by the Prophet’s houses and the houses of his companions in the socio-economic, religious, cultural and environmental context of Madinah. There is no housing type that can be dubbed excellent and effective if it breached especially the theoretical, ethical and functional architectural benchmarks set by the Prophet (pbuh) and the houses of Madinah. The more a housing type did so, the more it deviated from the true spirit of Islam and its perceptions of success, good life and happiness.

Because those ostensibly simple houses satisfied the modest needs of their occupants, facilitated all the individual and family-oriented functions, fulfilled the spiritual and ethical requirements of the Islamic message, and produced the lowest possible ecological footprint – they were outstanding and exemplary houses. They were an example of brilliant domestic lifestyle and its architecture. They thus set a high standard for other successful Islamic housing styles in the future.

Good domestic architecture is not about having lofty buildings with lofty facilities and majestic decoration. Rather, it is about fully comprehending the meaning of life and one’s personal together with family roles, rights and responsibilities in it, and how the physical loci of housing personify, contain, facilitate and advance such a profound realisation and ontological commitment.

Good architecture, on the whole, is only that which impeccably amalgamates the two poles of life’s reality under the sway of different natural and man-generated contexts. Good architecture, in addition, is about actualising and living the permanent and unchangeable in the throes of the temporary and changeable. It is about giving the former a current and up-to-date display within the moulds, methods and conventions of the latter. It would be an architectural offence to give precedence to either of the two orbits at the expense of the other. ***

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *