Islamic architecture is a type of 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 ‘ibadah (worship) activities of Muslims, and these in turn account for every moment of their lives. Islamic architecture can only come into existence under the aegis of the Islamic perceptions of God, man, nature, life, death and the Hereafter. Thus, Islamic architecture enshrines the facilities and, at the same time, a physical locus of the actualization of the Islamic message. Practically speaking, Islamic architecture represents the religion of Islam that has been translated into reality at the hands of Muslims. It also represents the identity of Islamic culture and civilization.
Central to Islamic architecture is its functionality with all of its dimensions — corporeal, cerebral and spiritual. A form divorced from function is inconsequential. This, however, by no means implies that the form plays no role in Islamic architecture. It does play a prominent role, but its relevance is a supportive one, supplementing and enhancing its function. In terms of value and substance, the form always comes second to function and its wide scope. There must be the closest relationship between the ideals that underpin the form of buildings and the ideals that underpin their functions, one with which the users of buildings must be at ease. A conflict between the two is bound to lead to a conflict of far-reaching psychological proportions among the users of buildings.
Islamic architecture exists because of the existence of Islam. Moreover, in so 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 extricated from the total framework of Islam: its genesis, history, ethos, worldview, doctrines, laws and practices. While exemplifying Islamic beliefs and teachings through the hierarchy of its diverse roles and functions, Islamic architecture evolved a unique soul. That soul is best recognized and appreciated by those whose own lives are inspired and guided by the same sources that inspire and guide Islamic architecture.
Islamic architecture signifies 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 neighbors and neighborhoods (ahkam al-jiwar), reconciliation (al-sulh) between immediate neighbors and all the people in a neighborhood, 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 encyclopedic works on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh islami).
Islamic architecture accepts no rigidity, formalism and literal symbolism, especially in relation to its structural domains. 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.
Islamic architecture thus promotes unity in diversity, that is, the unity of message and purpose, and the diversity of styles, methods and solutions. The identity and vocabulary of Islamic architecture evolved as a means for the fulfillment 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.
It stands to reason, therefore, that if one genuinely wants to appreciate Islamic architecture, one must, first and foremost, possess an intimate knowledge of Islam whose precepts and values it exemplifies. Next, one should disengage oneself for a moment and as much as one can from whatever one has formerly perused or has been told about Islamic architecture and make an earnest effort to experience it in its totality as if one were among its users. One should try hard through one’s hands-on experience if one wants to feel the spiritual and sensory aura that Islamic architecture exudes. One’s comprehension and appreciation of Islamic architecture should not be restricted to just one or a few of its aspects, nor to a single and static moment of time. Rather, one’s thoughts and interests should encompass all its aspects and dimensions, showing due respect in the process to its remarkable spirit and dynamism which are conditioned by neither time nor space. Finally, whatever one’s approach in studying Islamic architecture might be, one should never try to disentangle it from the contexts which governed its commencement, rise, dominance and survival. Islamic architecture should be viewed as a revolutionary phenomenon, as universal, abiding and revealing as the standards and values that gave rise to it. True, Islamic architecture was as responsive to the climatic, geographical, cultural, economic and technological requirements as any other architectural tradition. Nevertheless, it never treated them away 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 drew a wedge between man’s physical, psychological and spiritual needs.
Finally, 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 art and architecture, for example. Upon such general principles and guidelines people can establish systems, regulations, views and attitudes in order to comprehend and regulate their worldly lives 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 man’s basic needs remain unchanged.
This article is an excerpt from the author’s recent book “Islamic Architecture: Its Philosophy, Spiritual Significance and Some Early Developments”:
Dr. Spahic Omer, a Bosnian currently residing in Malaysia, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design, International Islamic University Malaysia. He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and philosophy of the Islamic built environment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; his blog is at www.medinanet.org.