Islamic architecture exists because of the existence of Islam. Moreover, in many ways it serves the noble goals of Islam. Islamic architecture serves Muslims too, in that it aids them to carry out successfully their vicegerency (khilafah) mission on earth.
Islamic architecture aims to help rather than obstruct Muslims in fulfilling that which they have been created for. Islamic architecture is Islam manifested. Islamic architecture, Islam and Muslims are inseparable.
Islamic architecture originated with the advent of Islam on the world scene. It never existed before, even though the peoples that became instrumental in molding and perpetuating its conspicuous identity lived where they were for centuries before embracing Islam and possessed the cultures and civilizations of their own. Indeed, studying Islamic architecture by no means can be separated from the total framework of Islam: its genesis, history, ethos, worldview, doctrines, laws and practices. Any approach by anybody and at any point of time to disconnect Islamic architecture from that which held sway over its conception and formation would result in failure and, worse yet, may lead to a distortion of the real picture of the entire subject matter and with it the picture of Islam.
While exemplifying Islamic beliefs and teachings through the hierarchy of its diverse roles and functions, Islamic architecture evolved a unique soul. Such a soul is best recognized and appreciated only by those whose own lives are inspired and guided by the same sources as is Islamic architecture. Furthermore, it stands to reason that if one wanted to genuinely understand and value Islamic architecture, one, first and foremost, must possess an intimate knowledge of Islam whose precepts and values it exemplifies. Next, one should disengage himself for a moment and as much as he could from whatever he has formerly perused or has been told about Islamic architecture, exerting himself an effort to experience it in its totality and as if he is one of its users. One is to try hard via one’s hands-on experiences if one wanted to feel the spiritual and sensory aura that Islamic architecture exudes within its realm. Not to one or a few of its aspects, and not to a single and static moment of time, should one’s comprehension and appreciation of Islamic architecture be restricted. Rather, one’s thoughts and interest are to encompass all its aspects and dimensions, honoring in the process its remarkable spiritedness and dynamism which were conditioned by neither the time nor space factors. Finally, whatever one’s approach in studying Islamic architecture might be, one should never try to extricate it from the contexts which governed its commencement, rise, dominance and survival.
Islamic architecture ought to be viewed as a revolutionary world phenomenon as universal, omnipresent, perpetual and revealing as the standards and values that gave rise to it. It was as responsive to the climatic, geographical and cultural requirements as any other architectural tradition, nevertheless, it never treated them apart from the exigencies of a higher order. By means of skills, creativity and imagination, on the one hand, and by its distinctive combination of aesthetic and utilitarian ends, on the other, Islamic architecture never, even by a whisker, separated man’s physical, psychological and spiritual needs, treating then some sets of needs at the expense of the others.
Due to all this, Alfred Frazer, as reported by M. A. J. Beg (1981), said about the fundamental nature of Islamic architecture: “The architecture of Islam is the expression of a religion and its view of the world rather than that of a particular people or political or economic system.”
In the same vein, Titus Burckhardt (1976) also wrote that it is not surprising, nor strange, that the most outward manifestation of Islam as a religion and civilization reflects in its own fashion what is most inward in it. The same author further remarked: “If one were to reply to the question ‘what is Islam?’ by simply pointing to one of the masterpieces of Islamic art such as, for example, the Mosque of Cordova, or that of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, or one of the madrasahs in Samarqand….that reply, summary as it is, would be nonetheless valid, for the art of Islam expresses what its name indicates, and it does so without ambiguity.” (Burckhardt, 1976)
It would also be appropriate to quote Le Corbusier (1989) who was very eloquent about the extent architecture can hold sway over our senses, experiences and thoughts: “The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and shapes he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.”
Although Le Corbusier meant no particular style or school of architectural thought, it is clear he meant that every architectural representation is pervaded with an ideology which through its physical expressions connects with the users and greatly influences their feelings. It is thus expected that there always exists an intimate relationship between people and their architecture. Consequently, it is said and rightly so, as reported by John S. Reynolds (2002), that “when people lose their emotional connection to the buildings they occupy, all architecture ends”.
Islamic architecture means a process that starts from making an intention, continues with the planning, designing and building stages and ends with achieving the net results and how people make use of and benefit from them. Islamic architecture is a fine blend of all these stages which are interlaced with the tread of the same Islamic worldview and Islamic value system. It is almost impossible to single out a tier in the process and regard it more important than the rest. It is because of this conspicuous spiritual character of Islamic architecture, coupled with its both educational and societal roles, that the scholars of Islam never shied away from keenly addressing a number of issues pertaining to various dimensions of residential, mosque and communal architecture within the scope of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh islami). The relevant issues are discussed under different headings such as: legal rulings in connection with neighbours and neighbourhoods (ahkam al-jiwar), reconciliation (al-sulh) between immediate neighbours and all the people in a neighbourhood, people’s individual and collective rights, prohibition of inflicting harm (darar), legal rulings pertaining to building (ahkam al-bina’), and public services and facilities (al-marafiq). All these issues undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the identity of Islamic architecture. They are either directly or indirectly related to conceiving, designing, forming and using Islamic architecture. Since architecture is people’s art greatly influencing their moods and the day-to-day life engagements, the same issues concerning architecture are studied as part of exhaustive encyclopaedic works on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh islami).
The referred to encyclopaedic works on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh islami) discuss virtually everything that Muslims might do, including matters about building, thus giving them a clear life orientation and guidance. This way a powerful message is given, that is, neither from the Islamic spirituality nor from the people’s actual life challenges and problems can Islamic architecture be separated one side existing in a world and the other side existing in another completely different world. What’s more, Islamic architecture is to be alive, real and dynamic playing an active role in overcoming the people’s challenges and solving their problems. Architecture is not to be for society’s elite only serving a limited spectrum of interests. It must belong to all the strata of society attending to their vast and diverse interests and needs. Architects and structural engineers, it goes without saying, are the humble servants of society. They must be completely and exclusively answerable to their people. The people, in turn, are to function as the best judges on weather their architecture is good or bad, effective and conducive to their life activities or not, functional and friendly or otherwise. And architects must listen if they were to hang on to their professional credibility and social standing. Doing otherwise will be tantamount to betraying the profession of architecture as well as people’s trust placed on architects. It follows that a very close and responsible relationship is to exist between architects and the people due to the close relationship between them. This entitles people to play an active and participative, rather than a passive or indifferent or acquiescent, role when it comes to their architecture for they are its immediate customers and clients.
Islamic architecture accepts no rigidity, formalism and literal symbolism, especially in relation to its structural domains. If the religion of Islam presents Muslims with a conceptual framework for architecture, which encompasses the Islamic worldview and Islamic fundamental teachings and principles, such in no way implies that the creativity and design freedom of Muslims are thus killed off, at worst, or stifled, at best. On the contrary, they are very much stirred and encouraged to thrive through the same means, with the only difference that certain divine precepts now preside over their development and use lest some people’s imagination and enthusiasm, at some point, become disoriented and misleading, hence perilous to man’s well-being.
What makes an architecture Islamic are some invisible aspects of buildings, which may or may not completely translate themselves onto the physical plane of built environment. The substance of Islamic architecture is always the same, due to the permanence of the philosophy and cosmic values that gave rise to it. What changes are the ways and means with which people internalize and put into operation such philosophy and values to their own natural and man-generated circumstances. Such changes or developments could simply be regarded as most practical “solutions” to the challenges people face. For example, the mosques that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) built carried the same meaning and essence as the mosques that were built in history and that we build today, despite the major differences in form. The spirit of the housing schemes that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) carried out was likewise the spirit of any other Islamic housing scheme that was implemented at any point of history and in any part of the world, despite their vast differences in terms of sophistication and building technology and engineering. The same can be said about any other aspect of Islamic built environment.
Stefano Bianca (2000) remarked on the extent to which the Islamic spirituality influences Islamic architecture: “Compared with other religious traditions, the distinctive feature of Islam is that it has given birth to a comprehensive and integrated cultural system by totally embedding the religious practice in the daily life of the individual and the society. While Islam did not prescribe formal architectural concepts, it molded the whole way of life by providing a matrix of behavioral archetypes which, by necessity, generated correlated physical patterns. Therefore, the religious and social universe of Islam must be addressed before engaging in the analysis of architectural structures.”
Islamic architecture thus promotes unity in diversity, that is, the unity of message and purpose, and the diversity of styles, methods and solutions. Certainly, this renders Islamic architecture so relevant and dynamic, and so consistent and adaptable. It is such a fascinating subject to study, for doing so is not about sheer art and architecture. It is more than that: it is about beholding the Islamic ideology and creed at work. It is about witnessing a microcosm of Islamic society, civilization and culture. Islamic architecture is about Islam taking up a manifest form.
The identity and vocabulary of Islamic architecture evolved as a means for the fulfilment of the concerns of Muslim societies. Islamic architecture was never an end in itself. It was the container of Islamic culture and civilization reflecting the cultural identity and the level of the creative and aesthetic consciousness of Muslims. Architecture, in general, should always be in service to people. It is never to be the other way round, that is to say that architecture should evolve into a hobby or an adventure in the process imposing itself on society while forsaking, or taking lightly, people’s identities, cultures and the demands of their daily struggles. Architecture, first and foremost, should remain associated with functionality. It should not deviate from its authentic character and stray into the world of excessive invention and abstraction.
Islam is a complete way of life. Its values and teachings, together with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), whose primary task was to explain to mankind and put into practice the precepts of Islam, are universal and timeless. The significance of Islamic architecture is universal and permanent too, in that the philosophy that it embodies is the Islamic one. However, such is the nature of Islamic architecture that it is receptive to both advances in science and technology and the dictates of people’s living conditions. When we talk about the need for restoring the role and status of Islamic architecture in the world today, we must pay attention to the causes that will invariably lead us to the desired effects. One of the most important causes, certainly, will be our proper understanding of Islam: its teachings, history and civilization, coupled with the Islamization of ourselves and our societies.
Central to the understanding of the identity of Islamic architecture, as both a concept and sensory reality, is the understanding of the Islamic concepts of God, man and the natural environment. This is so because it is man -- a creature entrusted with an honorable mission by God -- who perceives, creates and uses architecture. It is man who produces or destroys architecture. It is man who enjoys or suffers from architecture. Furthermore, architecture and the natural environment are inseparable, at both the conceptual and practical planes. The environment holds enormous potential and diversified resources meant only for man, God’s vicegerent on earth. They are to be seen as the facilities which facilitate each and every aspect of man’s fleeting stay on earth. The environment is further to be seen by man as an “ally” or a “partner”, so to speak, in the execution of his earthly mission. After all, in order to create any piece of built environment, man borrows diverse natural ingredients, such as space, water, clay, timber, stone and other minerals, placing the newly created or built element back into the existing natural contexts. Actually, built environment is in many ways the natural environment which has been processed, used and reused, manipulated, and the like. Man himself constitutes a part of the universal natural setting. It follows that some of the most prominent features of Islamic architecture are: it is heavily loaded with the Islamic spirituality; it is users friendly; it is environment friendly; and, it is sustainable.
As a final point, it is the nature of Islam that provides humanity with basic rules of morality and guidelines of proper conduct in those spheres of life which are not related to prescribed ritual worship, such as the spheres of architecture and other built environment disciplines, for example. 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 got to be to some extent different. Their substance, however, due to the uniformity and consistency of the divinely given foundation and sources from which they stem, will always be the same. Islam is based on essential human nature, which is constant and not subject to change according to time and space. It is the outward forms which change while the fundamental principles, the basic values and the essential human nature together with men’s basic needs remain unchanged.
CHECK PREVIOUS EPISODES OF THE SERIES:
- PART I
- PART II
- PART III
By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
Jalan Gombak, 53100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Posted on: April 17, 2012
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