Towards Understanding Islamic Architecture

By Omer, Spahic | Islamic Studies, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Towards Understanding Islamic Architecture


Omer, Spahic, Islamic Studies


Abstract

This article aims to discuss the meaning, functions and salient characteristics of Islamic architecture. The discussion will be divided into the following sections: (1) the meaning of Islamic architecture; (2) the object that Islamic architecture seeks to achieve; (3) the house and the mosque as examples of Islamic architecture; (4) pragmatism and Islamic architecture; (5) Islamic versus Muslim architecture; (6) the significance of Qusayr 'Amrah as an example of early Muslim architecture. The article seeks to enhance the awareness, both of the professionals and general readership, as to the importance of correctly conceptualizing the theme of Islamic architecture, especially at the present when the signs of a Muslim cultural and civilizational reawakening are becoming increasingly evident. The nature of the article, along with its content, methodology and conclusions, is conceptual and philosophical, rather than empirical.

The Meaning of Islamic Architecture

Much has been written and said about the meaning of Islamic architecture.1 Nonetheless, scholars have considerably differed - and they still do - in their views as to whether there is an architecture that can be called "Islamic," and if there is, what are its meanings and main characteristics. To a number of people, Islam as a religion seems irrelevant to architecture. Though it is one of life's biggest necessities, architecture is seen by some not in need of any religion as a point of reference.

The answer to the above quandary is that Islamic architecture as a concept as well as a sensory reality already exists. Saying otherwise would do great injustice to both the religion of Islam and its followers who have striven hard for centuries to realize it in their thought, deeds and words. Islam is a comprehensive worldview and a way of life which has neglected no segment of existence. Practicing Islam inevitably means the creation of a comprehensive culture and civilization which bear the imprints of Islamic values, teachings and principles, more in some aspects than in others, yet covering all. Islam signifies not only a set of prescribed rituals, but also comprehensive articles of faith, philosophy, ideology, culture, civilization and the totality of life's systems: personal, family and societal. The subject of architecture is no exception to this. Islamic beliefs shape the ways in which the Muslims build.

However, it must be borne in mind that it is the nature of Islam that provides humanity with the basic rules of morality and guidelines of proper conduct in those spheres of life which are not related to prescribed rituals of worship such as the spheres of art and architecture. Upon such general principles and guidelines people can establish systems, regulations, views and attitudes in order to comprehend and regulate their worldly life in accordance with their time, region and needs. Since every age has its own problems and challenges, the solutions and perceptions deduced from the fundamental principles and permanent values of life have to vary to some extent. Their substance, however, will always be the same. This because of the uniformity and consistency of the foundation and sources which are of Divine provenance. Islam is based on man's essential nature, which is constant and is essentially not subject to change according to time and space. It is the outward forms which change whereas the fundamental principles, and basic values do not change and so does the essential human nature together with man's basic needs.

So what would be the most proper understanding of Islamic architecture? Islamic architecture is an architecture whose functions, and to a lesser extent, forms, are inspired primarily by Islam. Islamic architecture is a framework for the implementation of Islam. It facilitates, fosters and stimulates the Muslims' 'ibadah (worship) activities, and these in turn account for every moment of their lives. …

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