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Foundations of Islamic Architecture

Updated on April 28, 2019

Its not something different

Architecture generally expresses abstract thoughts. Abstract thoughts lie in human soul. As such they are common to all; and are recognized almost by all religious orders. When we say Islamic architecture we don't intend to isolate it from the rest of the global architectural heritage. Its distinction lies in its consolidating and integrating approaches and not in being something different from the global architectural existence. Seyyed Husain Nasr has expressed this concept in following words:

“The unity of Islamic architecture is related of course not only to the unity of cosmos and beyond that realm to the unity of the divine principle itself, but also to the unity of life of the individual and the community which the divine law makes possible. By refusing to distinguish between the sacred and profane, by integrating religion into all facets of life and life itself into the rhythm of rites and patterns of values determined by religion, Islam creates a wholeness, which is reflected in its architecture.”

Meaning, function & people

It is difficult to draw a dividing line between Islamic and non-Islamic architecture. However a building of Masjid (mosque) or an Islamic Madrasah is definitely an example of Islamic architecture. Likewise a building imparting secular education in an Islamic country would too definitely display Islamic features. Again a Muslim architect designing a Christian monument would not be able to keep himself aloof from the characteristic features of Islamic architecture. Just as Islamic architectural components penetrate these areas, architectural features of other religious or ideological domains too have this capacity to penetrate the Islamic monuments.

It seems important to appreciate that when we use the term Islamic Architecture we denote at least one of the following three components:

Distinct meanings are expressed through it.

It has been erected to perform distinct functions.

Distinct people have produced it.

The 'meanings', 'functions' and 'people' in this respect emerge from a single source of ethos and guidance i.e. al Quraan al Karim. The following verses hint towards these three basic components:

“Verily the first house made for mankind is the one at Mecca, blessed and guidance for the world.” III-96

“And when we made the house a resort for men and a sanctuary, and secure the place of Ibrahim as a place for worship.” II-120

“And when We assigned the place of the house to Ibrahim.” XXII-26

“In the houses which Allah has permitted to be raised and His name be mentioned therein.” XXIV-36

“And we revealed unto Musa and his brother ‘assign for your people houses in Misr and make your houses facing and establish worship’.” X-87

“And Allah has made for you of your houses a place of rest, and has made for you out of animal skin the houses.” XVI-80s

Through these and many other verses one may derive meanings and purposes of houses on earth. As has been stated by Seyyed Husain Nasr the consolidating and integrating temperament of Islamic architecture extends the themes of worship, peace, refuge, guidance and shelter to all public and private structures. The divine command to Musa for assigning places for houses of their people tells us that individual houses too must be structured under divine command and that individual houses too, are meant for worship. The theme of worship in every place may be deduced from the Quranic verse: “I have not created men or jinn except for my worship.

Orientation towards the lord

Built structures under divine commands are common to almost all major religious organizations:

Moses commands to build houses properly 'facing' and 'establish worship'.

Christ searches for a 'solid rock' to build his church for God.

Hindu 'man-mandir' recognizes the concrete structure reorienting it to ones soul.

Muhammad adopts the oldest structure on earth for worship and guidance.

Islamic architecture, as envisaged in al Qur'an, puts greater stress on piety while erecting the concrete structures.

It says: "the Masjid (mosque), from the very first day has been founded on 'piety'."

Any social, political or economic motive behind it spoils the entire structure and exerts negative spiritual effects on the peoples associated with it. If one aspires to build such an structure Islam requires from him a 'migration' from the earthly domain towards the divine domain where no earthly stress hinder the process of such an establishment. Such a 'migration' is represented by earthly historical migrations in Islamic architectural endeavors.

The 'builders' of Pyramid migrated from Egypt to Palestine to make a house for their Lord. Abraham migrated from Ur to Palestine and from there to Mecca with his son Ismail to re-build the ancient house of worship there. Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina to establish a place of worship in Quba. Such a migration is necessary for the sake of purity of piety. In quarrelsome atmosphere establishing a place of worship is 'impossibility'.

The idea here is to eliminate every independent human relationship and orient it towards the Lord and then let it extend in every possible direction from the Lord. Such an elimination and reorientation has been witnessed to its greatest extent while reconstructing the traditional structure of worship at Mecca.

Prophetic traditions tell us that the architect of Ka’ba is archangel Jibra`il. Its builder is prophet Ibrahim and helper his son Isma’il. This is blessing of Allah and surely extends to every Islamic structure.


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