Islam’s emphasis on privacy inspired new genre in architecture

House of Suhaymi, Darb al-Asfar, Al-Gamaliyya, Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Nofalovich


Islam on Privacy: Implications for Islamic Housing

Islam is very firm in calling for privacy protection. However, as one is required to safeguard his privacy and that of his family, he is likewise required to respect the privacy of others. Deliberate invasion of one’s privacy by whatever means and degree is deemed a serious offence with far-reaching consequences. It falls under the category of inflicting harm or damage on others, which cannot be tolerated in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has said: “There is no inflicting or returning of harm.”[1]

Rawashin (mashrabiyyahs) on a house in Makkah

In very broad terms and rather indirectly, the Noble Qur’an warns of disrespecting one’s privacy in the following verse: “O you who have believed, avoid much (negative) assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is accepting of repentance and Merciful” (al-Hujurat, 12).

The Noble Qur’an at the same time provides some suggestions as to how to cure such a menace: “O you who have believed, do not enter houses other than your own houses until you ascertain welcome and greet their inhabitants. That is best for you; perhaps you will be reminded. And if you do not find anyone therein, do not enter them until permission has been given you. And if it is said to you: Go back, then go back; it is purer for you. And Allah is knowing of what you do” (al-Nur, 27-28).

The issue of “entering into houses” highlighted in the verse above ought not to be confined solely to conventionally entering through a gateway or a door. It denotes any kind of access to, or penetrative sensory contact with, any division of people’s houses and, from anywhere. “‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, a Companion of the Prophet (pbuh), once said that Allah screens, hides away people’s failings and forgives them, and He loves screen(ing).”[2]

The Prophet (pbuh) also cautioned: “…Do not trouble or gibe your Muslim brothers; do not pursue their faults, for he who pursues his brother’s faults, his faults will be pursued by Allah.”[3]

“He who encroaches on a dwelling without the permission of its occupants, it is allowed to puncture his eye.”[4]

“If someone is peeping (looking secretly) into your house without your permission, and you throw a stone at him and destroy his eyes, there will be no blame on you.”[5]

The house serves as a physical locus of human life. Some activities of the residents of a house can be shared with others, while other activities are meant for the inhabitants of a house alone, and yet many other activities in a house are neatly divided along the lines of gender, age and domestic status of its inhabitants. Thus, each and every house ought to be planned and designed in order to cater for the complex needs of its residents.

Rawashin (mashrabiyyahs) on a house in Jeddah

A home is a microcosm of human culture and civilization many aspects of which are never accessible to the public. Even visitors, despite the Islamic unparalleled emphasis on hospitality, do not enjoy absolute freedom to wander inside their host’s house which the house design and the arrangement inside it emphatically enforce.

House designs must promote protection of human privacy. In the same vein, if people will be aware of the importance of the private parts of their body and their implications, they will certainly care about the restricted and private areas of their houses as well. The house is to be viewed as a means, not an objective or an end in itself, used for the fulfillment of other higher and more dignified objectives.

According to Sayyid Qutb, there are many types of privacy.[6] The privacy of the body is just one of them. There is privacy in food, clothes, furniture, and more. Virtually, all human activities at certain times and under certain conditions contain certain aspects which cannot be freely exposed to the public eye. There is also privacy in human emotions and the conditions of the soul. People certainly do not like themselves and things related to them to be seen by others unless they are clean, beautified and orderly and “prepared” for the public interest.[7]

Sayyid Qutb in his magnum opus, an exegesis of the Quran enttiled Fi Zilal al-Qur’an, also asserted that God made homes as places of rest and quiet. In them, the human mind and soul take refuge from all the troubles and anxieties that may beset humankind not only from outside the house realm but also from any angle or direction of this terrestrial world. A home is capable of all this provided it “becomes a safe haven which cannot be infringed upon except with the knowledge and permission of the house’s family members, and at the times which only they deem appropriate, and under those circumstances which they see as suitable for others to meet them.”[8]

The house and all that is happening inside it is so private that even those who exercise the chore of enjoining good and forbidding evil cannot trespass on its domain by means of spying and without seeking permission. Both Imam al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyah are of the view that prying into the secrets of a sinner is prohibited. One should not enquire into what is occurring in somebody’s home. Only when a sinner’s unlawful acts committed in his home become known should an action based on wisdom and beautiful counsel be taken.[9] This approach is regarded as one of the major principles of the task of enjoining good and forbidding evil. The Prophet (pbuh) warned people not to backbite one another, search for the faults of one another, for if anyone searches for the faults of his fellow Muslims, Allah will search for his fault, and if Allah searches for the fault of anyone, He disgraces him in his house.[10]

Rawashin (mashrabiyyahs) on a house in Jeddah

Certainly, seeing a home as a guarded earthly heaven helps people to disengage from the sins that are committed inside other people’s homes. Only when the effects of such sins become obvious, threatening to transcend the frontiers of the home and have an impact on the outer realm, does it become obligatory upon members of the society to intervene and stop the sins being committed. Members of the society must be extremely wise and understand how damaging the influence of the sins is.

By the same token, seeing a home as a guarded earthly heaven may help its inhabitants to stay away from the impacts of the wrongdoings in the outside world. Its inward-looking form and its blank outer walls with minimal openings symbolically signify the house’s isolation from the outside world, as well as its immunity to all the bad influences that the outside world may contain. It appears as if such houses, with their unique form and function, give a cold shoulder, so to speak, to the negative influences of the outside, vowing that their role as a family can withstand the onslaught and can present their inhabitants with other better alternatives. This is why our understanding of the house is a broad one, making it a family development centre which is capable, alongside other social establishments, of transforming entire communities. Also, if need be, a home can to a large extent function on its own in supplying its occupants with guidance, ability and audacity to act properly and eventually succeed in life.

It is because of this that the Prophet (pbuh) advised that during unprecedented commotion(s) and problems, people keep to their homes.[11]

A home is such a private realm that even Satan who had vowed that he will try everything possible, everywhere and on every occasion to perturb and mislead man, could be kept at bay. Jabir b. ‘Abdullah reported that Allah’s Prophet (pbuh) said: “When a person enters his house and mentions the name of Allah at the time of entering it and while eating the food, Satan says (addressing himself): ‘You have no place to spend the night and no evening meal’; but when he enters without mentioning the name of Allah, the Satan says: ‘You have found a place to spend the night’; and when he does not mention the name of Allah while eating food, he (the Satan) says: ‘You have found a place to spend the night and evening meal’.”[12]

Furthermore, when seeking permission to enter someone’s house, the Prophet (pbuh) did not face the door of the house squarely. He faced its right or left corner saying: “Peace be upon you; peace be upon you!”[13]

This was so because the Prophet (pbuh) did not want to catch sight of the inside of the house once the door was opened as most houses at that time were simple in terms of their form and arrangement of interior decor and space. It has also been suggested that the Prophet (pbuh) did the above because there were no curtains on the doors of many houses at that time.[14]

Before Islam, entrances on many Arabia houses had neither doors nor curtains. They were gaping and fairly exposed. Yet, seeking permission before entering a house was nonexistent. Seldom was somebody concerned about the subject of privacy, as a result of which, running into a husband and wife and finding them indulged in an intimate activity was frequent. The most that one was expected to say upon entering was “I am in,” or “Here I am,” and the like.[15] However, after Islam had introduced the concept of privacy protection, the situation started to change gradually so that the requirements of the new Islamic lifestyles were duly met.

It goes without saying that any type of architecture, which could endanger the privacy of a neighbor, one way or another, was always deemed so offensive that it, as a rule, would not be given a go-ahead until the potential danger was removed and the affected party expressed satisfaction. While discoursing on the rights of neighbors, Imam al-Ghazali stated that one of such rights is: “…Don’t look at the inner side of his house from the top of your roof.”[16]

It has been reported to this effect that a man from al-Fustat in Egypt complained to the Caliph ‘Umar b. al-Khattab that one of his neighbors had erected an (additional) room with such a design and plan that it enabled him to encroach through a window on the privacy of his household. The Caliph then instructed ‘Amr b. al-‘As, his governor in Egypt, to investigate the matter. If the owner really meant to disturb his neighbor by building the room, then it must be demolished. However, if he meant no harm, a bed is to be placed under the window, and if a man of average height standing on the bed could not see through, then the window is to remain as it is. However, if he could see through it, then the window must be shut.[17]

Sahnun, the jurist of Qayrawan in Tunis from 234 AH/848 CE until 240 AH/854 CE, on one occasion was asked about a man who wished to construct a mosque on top of his shops with a terrace from which the surrounding houses could be easily overlooked. Sahnun’s answer was that a screening parapet must be added to the terrace, and unless that was done, no prayer would be allowed to be conducted in the mosque.[18]

When the Umayyad Caliph, Walid b. ‘Abd al-Malik, decided in the year 88 AH/707 CE to rebuild and expand the mosque of the Prophet (pbuh) in Madinah, he introduced the idea of the minaret for the first time to it. Four minarets stood at the mosque’s four corners. One of the minarets was directly and clearly overlooking the house of Marwan b. al-Hakam, one of the late Umayyad caliphs, which was positioned within a short distance of the mosque. When another Umayyad Caliph, Sulayman b. ‘Abd al-Malik, while performing the pilgrimage from Syria, visited the house, it happened that a caller to prayers overlooked the caliph who was somewhere in the house. For obvious reasons, the caliph promptly ordered the minaret to be demolished.[19]

Therefore, the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence always insisted that the platform of minarets, or the roofs of mosques if there are no minarets, be surrounded by adequately high parapets, so that the caller to prayer cannot see into people’s houses. Some go so far as to assert that in order to climb the minaret the caller must be blind. An example is Kufa where its officer in charge of maintaining public law and order once insisted that blindness be added to the list of the necessary conditions for becoming the caller to prayer.[20] The scholars generally do not specify blindness as a condition, but do not view it as a snag either, provided a trustworthy person always notify such a caller of prayer time, as they do with regard to many other chores that an individual or group must discharge on behalf of others. One of the Prophet’s callers to prayer, ‘Abdullah b. Ummi Maktum, was blind.

Also, some scholars suggest that the caller be blindfolded whenever climbing minarets so that he could not see people in nearby houses. Others, however, would just insist that the caller must lower his gaze, as a result of his piety which, among other things, qualified him for this job. The caller is not to allow anybody else to accompany him to the mosque’s minaret.

Screens, ‘Asakir, Ajnihah, Rawashin and Mashrabiyyahs

Indeed, the values and teachings of Islam pertaining to privacy, the inviolability of the family institution, modesty, comprehensive excellence, the relationship between opposite sexes, the rights of neighbors, street users and people in general, justice, righteousness, trust, equality, aesthetics, safety, security, human dignity, hospitality, peaceful coexistence with nature, etc., in addition to the Islamic worldview and its fundamental articles of faith which saturated and bolstered people’s relationships with their Creator and Master, animate and inanimate surroundings, their very selves and the rest of mankind – all these direct and indirect factors and causes were most instrumental in the gradual conception and physical evolution of what later came to be known as Islamic housing, which is so important that it forever stands for a microcosm of Islamic culture and civilization. Furthermore, Islamic housing is exactly at   the epicenter of the rise and fall of Islamic civilization, as it represents the ground for living and practicing some of the most critical segments of human existence and, as such, some of the most critical segments of the Islamic message in its capacity as a total philosophy and a way of life.

An ambiance behind a mashrabiyyah in a house in Cairo

Thus, no sooner had those tenets, teachings and rectitude standards of Islam been actualized and put into practice, than the first manifestations of housing planning and building systems inspired by the former started to materialize. This process began during the time of the Prophet (pbuh) in Madinah when a conceptual framework for Islamic architecture, as well as its first actual signs and expressions that echoed the time-space disposition of the nascent society of Madinah, were inaugurated. Surely, as regards the subject matter of house openings, especially windows, it must have occupied a high level in the hierarchy of prioritized components in housing due to windows’ and other wall openings’ sundry structural and serviceable roles. The matter was further compounded by the fact that Madinah – and indeed all the subsequent Muslim cities – grew at a remarkably fast rate. This in the process brought about closer and more reciprocal interactions between people and buildings. It also created more densely populated neighborhoods that increasingly featured buildings with more than just one floor.

For example, in order to avoid unwanted crowding in the nerve-center of the city of Madinah, which consisted of the Prophet’s mosque and its surrounding residential area, as well as to avoid the development of certain areas at the expense of the others in the city, the Prophet (pbuh) prevented the people of the Banu Salamah clan from moving there. The Banu Salamah clan stayed near the Sal’ hill, which was about one mile from the Prophet’s mosque. On hearing that there still were some empty land lots available in the vicinity of the Prophet’s mosque, they wanted to shift to the place. However, the Prophet (pbuh) politely disapproved of the idea saying to the people concerned: “O Banu Salamah! Don’t you think that for every step of yours (that you take towards the mosque for prayers) there is a reward?”[21]

A companion Khalid b. al-Walid once revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) that his house was too small to accommodate his family. At this, the Prophet (pbuh) asked him to build more rooms on the roof of the existing house and to ask God for abundance.[22]

Some researchers estimated that in the sixth year subsequent to the Hijrah (migration), the houses of Madinah numbered approximately 800, and in the tenth year, the number must have climbed the figure of between 2,000 and 2,500.[23] According to the same estimation, at the time of the Prophet’s death, the size of Madinah population, including its suburbs, was about 30,000.[24]

As a result, with reference to the implications of perforating windows and other openings in walls in such and subsequent more complex urban environments, several simple architectural methods and solutions were more and more resorted to by people, such as raising windows above the eye-level, placing both makeshift and permanent screens and barriers, inward-looking house designs with simple and small loggias, central and side courtyards, and basic light-wells and air-shafts within the volume of buildings for light and air ventilation provision. In his book History of Madinah Munawwarah, Muhammad Ilyas even asserted that each of the Prophet’s houses had a residential part as well as a tiny backyard: “The backyard was enclosed by the branches of palm trees and unbaked bricks. Blankets of hair were thrown on them to ensure privacy in the yard. The door of each Hujrah (apartment) was not built from an expensive wood. Each door had a rough blanket hanging there for privacy. Hence each Hujrah reflected humbleness and modesty. The dimension of each Hujrah was approximately 5 meters by 4 meters and the backyard was 5 meters by 3.5 meters. A person standing in a Hujrah could touch the ceiling with his hand.”[25]

It was not long before the the  whole upper floors, especially those facing the wide streets since they had no option of resorting to other architectural alternatives, such as creating inner courtyards, were perceived by the embryonic Muslim architectural genius as a potential for enhancing the house form and for diversifying its expected performances. That is to say, people’s shared air rights over the wide streets were regarded as a type of development rights aimed to exploit the empty space above them. In fact, all spaces around houses were part of such potential, particularly after most scholars and jurists ruled that, in principle, afniyah (plural of fina’), which means doorways, immediate open areas outside and around houses, or outdoor concourses, belonged to house owners; and inevitably, the same held true for the spaces above them. However, the numerous implications of the general principle of the prohibition of inflicting and reciprocating harm (darar), as well as the implications of the rights of the roads (huquq al-tariq)[26] and its users, and the rights of neighbors about which the Prophet (pbuh) spoke and which he implemented while developing the city-state of Madinah, had to be duly considered and abided by. Hence, the houses adjacent to narrow streets that run through compact neighborhoods, and certain sides of those houses that stood virtually contiguous with one another in such places, were generally prohibited from taking advantage of the said architectural prospect. Indeed, since its earliest days the matter was a double-edged option, as a result of which many subsequent books of Islamic jurisprudence and those dealing with building and urban planning codes were loaded with rules, regulations and guidelines as to how to go about respecting the people’s wish to make the most of the air rights and the empty spaces above the streets, as well as the other spaces around their houses, without causing any harm to anybody.

As the identity of Islamic architecture was progressively developing into an all-around and fairly sophisticated global phenomenon, on account of its incessant give-and-take interactions with other cultures and civilizations, and as the Muslim cities were experiencing an unprecedented urbanization rate, the artistic and architectural promise of the residential upper floors and their openings were explored further -- albeit often on grounds of expediency and necessity rather than of principle and standard. The Muslim architectural willingness and talent were pushed thereby to other levels. Thus, an array of initial simple and straightforward solutions relating to placing improvised or permanent screens, raising windows above the eye-level, and manipulating the sizes, designs and locations of the wall openings, was enriched with the idea of significantly projecting parts of upper walls with or without windows and perforations, and in so doing, opening a whole new world of artistic and architectural possibilities. Those projections rested either on beams that extended from the main body of houses, or on wooden brackets.

The earliest projecting parts of houses with or without windows and other apertures were called ‘asakir (plural of ‘askar). However, so archaic is the word that even classical dictionaries do not refer to it as such. Then the projections were soon called ajnihah (plural of janah), which means house wings or annexes, perhaps after the unique method had become a permanent feature in the evolution of Muslim residential architecture.

Firstly ‘asakir and then ajnihah were common as early as in the 2nd AH/8th CE century, and possibly even earlier around the second half of the 1st AH/late 7th and early 8th CE century. This could be corroborated by the verity that Imam Malik b. Anas who lived and died in Madinah in 179 AH/795 CE is said to have bought a house in Madinah that had an ‘askar.[27] Ibn al-Qasim (d. 191 AH/806 CE), a prominent early jurist from the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence in Egypt, once said while justifying the usage of ‘asakir and ajnihah on houses adjoining wide roads, that they were a widespread custom in Madinah and that nobody was against it.[28] The fact that Ibn al-Qasim said this in Egypt suggests that the same tradition with the same name(s) was well-known in Egypt as well. Consequently, in the 2nd and 3rd AH/8th and 9th CE centuries, a corpus of jurisdictional rulings and verdicts, both real and hypothetical, pertaining to building and using ‘asakir and ajnihah was already accumulated in several Muslim cultural centers. In his seminal treatise on building and urban codes called al-I’lan bi Ahkam al-Bunyan, Ibn al-Rami (d. 734 AH/1334 CE) entitled a section thereof A Discussion on Projecting ‘Asakir and Windows over the Street. However, it has been suggested that Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 205 AH/820 CE) was not in favor of employing such novel architectural innovations.[29]

Regular references to ajnihah as established wall and window projections were made also in the 4th AH/ 10th CE century. An example is a geographer and traveler Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Maqdisi (d. 391 AH/1000 CE) who in his influential book on Muslim geography called Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ma’rifah al-Aqalim (The Best of Classification for the Knowledge of Regions) wrote about the houses of Makkah that they were “built of black, smooth stones and also of white stones; but the upper parts are of brick. Many of them have large projecting windows (ajnihah) of teak-wood and are several stories high, whitewashed and clean.”[30]

Nonetheless, the 4th AH/10th CE century appears to have been a transitional point from the term ajnihah to the term rawashin (plural of rawshan).

The Myth of the Mashrabiyyah

In Muslim literature, the earliest explicit reference to the phenomenon of rawashin[31] in the Muslim world was made either in the late 5th AH/11th CE or in the early 6th AH/12th CE century. The first scholar who did so was Imam al-Ghazali (d. 505 AH/1111 CE) -- arguably one of the most celebrated Muslim theologians and jurists of Persian descent who lived and worked in Iraq and Khorasan -- in his masterpiece Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) when he discussed the obnoxious practices most commonly committed on the narrow roads. Imam al-Ghazali dealt with the matter as part of his discourse concerning the overarching Islamic principle of enjoining good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar). He wrote: “Of the loathsome deeds perpetrated on the (narrow) streets are: erecting pillars, building shops attached to private and occupied buildings, planting trees, projecting rawashin, placing lumber, or wood, and freights of grains and foodstuff on the road. All these are abominable because they lead to (further) narrowing of the roads, and thus endanger their users. However, if those practices did not pose any perils whatsoever, due to the roads being wide, then they are not to be prohibited.”[32]

A few decades after Imam al-Ghazali, Husamuddin al-Bukhari (d. 536 AH/1141 CE), a renowned jurist of Khorasan as well, also made an explicit reference to rawashin in his treatise on building and construction codes called Kitab al-Hitan (The Book of Walls) when he titled a chapter as A Quarrel between two Parties over a Rawshan on a House whose Upper Section Belongs to One of them and the Lower Section to the Other.[33]

Furthermore, in the context of his discussion of the events of the year 441 AH/1049 CE, an Egyptian historian Jamaluddin Ibn Tagribardi (d. 874 AH/1469 CE) wrote in his multi-volume chronicle of Egypt and the Mamluki sultanate called al-Nujum al-Zahirah fi Muluk Misr wa al-Qahirah that in that year, there was a terrifying storm in Baghdad which “darkened the world and ripped off the rawashin of Dar al-Khilafah (the ‘Abbasid Court), Dar al-Mamlakah (Imperial House) and (the rawashin) of people’s houses. It (the storm) also destroyed and flattened many trees and date-palms.”[34]

However, one wonders whether Ibn Tagribardi spoke of an architectural trend of the 5th AH/11th CE century in Iraq in terms of his own epoch, identifying it as it was known in Egypt in the 9th AH/15th CE century when he lived, regardless of how it was called in Iraq; or he styled the trend rather the way it had been styled in Iraq at the time of the reported incident, while the same, perhaps, was not the case in Egypt. The plausible answer, all things considered, is that Ibn Tagribardi used the word rawashin because it was in use both in Egypt and Iraq. The concept of rawashin should have been a well-known occurrence in Iraq, Iran and the majority of Muslim eastern Khorasani territories around the middle of the 5th AH/11th CE century, an inference easily gleaned from the two above accounts in connection with Imam al-Ghazali and Husamuddin al-Bukhari who were born in 450 AH/1058 CE and 483 AH/1090 CE respectively. Evidently, so significant and widespread was the rawashin tradition especially in those countries, and so tightly was it knitted into their cultural fabrics, that even some unethical behavioral patterns associated with rawashin’s ubiquity emerged, so much so that the leading scholars and jurists of the day, such as Imam al-Ghazali and Husamuddin al-Bukhari, needed to confront them in their intellectual writings.

The interior of a mashrabiyyah in a house in Cairo

Moreover, at the same time, Ibn Tagribardi employed the term rawashin because during his time the same must have become a norm in the realm of Islamic architecture in Egypt as well. This is so because he lived long after the zenith of the Mamluki rule, about half a century before its ultimate collapse in 923 AH/1517 CE mainly at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, and it has become an established historical truth that the Mamluki art and architecture regularly featured private residential and institutional lattice screens (rawashin). It goes without saying, therefore, that Ibn Tagribardi articulated the well-established language of Islamic architecture which was consistent between the 5th and 9th AH/11th and 15th CE centuries, and between the Islamic culture in Egypt and that of Iraq.

Ibn Tagribardi did not refer to the concept of mashrabiyyah because the same was non-existent then even in Egypt where it is most widely articulated today.  Indeed, mashrabiyyahs and rawashin were and still are in the eyes of many people and in many Muslim regions two different things. As we shall elaborate later, the purpose and function of rawashin, as well as the name itself, preceded by centuries of architectural utility the introduction of the name of mashrabiyyah, and were widespread throughout the Muslim world before the latter. Rawashin were the earlier – albeit not the earliest, as will also be seen later – concept. Mashrabiyyah became a subsequent, modern linguistic invention – perhaps even a distortion -- for a standard and time-honored artistic and architectural fashion which hitherto was differently identified. It could be seen as yet an offshoot of rawashin. As such, the name mashrabiyyah became prevalent and accepted only in a limited number of Muslim countries. In most places, however, people remained faithful to the historical appellation of rawashin, or to some of its localized derivatives. No classical text or scholar has ever used the term mashrabiyyah, although more than a few have dwelled on the subject matter, directly or indirectly, using instead different terms and expressions for describing the marvel.

Many scholars and researchers believe that in Egypt, the oldest known examples of the mashrabiyyah were institutional rather than residential. The oldest instances were two mashrabiyyahs made for the portico as well as the minbar (pulpit) of al-Salih Tala’i’s mosque in Cairo. The mosque was built towards the end of the Fatimid rule in Egypt in 555 AH/1160 CE by a Fatimid vizier Tala’i b. Ruzzik (d. 556 AH/1161 CE).[35]

Other early examples were mashrabiyyahs found in the Ayyubid cenotaphs in the mosque and funerary complex of Imam Shafi’i (d. 205 AH/820 CE) in Cairo (early 7th AH/ early 13th CE century), and those found in the railings surrounding the tomb of Mamluki Sultan Qalawun (end of 7th AH/ end of 13th CE century). It is also espoused that from the latter period of the Mamluki rule in the late 8th AH/14th CE century, and especially during the Ottoman Empire, the mashrabiyyahs, both as a notion and a definite architectural reality, became ubiquitous in the Muslim world. It became one of the most recognizable features of Islamic architecture.[36]

However, as to the above information pertaining to the earliest known mashrabiyyahs in Egypt, it must be borne in mind that those instances point only to the earliest surviving mashrabiyyahs, not to the first examples of that architectural style in the country. The latter information needs be sought somewhere else. In addition, once discovered and ascertained as the oldest known examples of the mashrabiyyah screens, they were then interpreted along the lines of the cultural and linguistic proclivities of the age in which discoveries had been made. By no means does that mean that the mashrabiyyahs in question, and all the other domestic and institutional mashrabiyyahs designed and built around that period and later, were so called in Egypt. Without doubt, they were called something else. What we hear at present both from experts and ordinary people are no more than the recent understandings and interpretations of a centuries-old salient component of Islamic architecture which, nevertheless, fostered a degree of conceptual misunderstanding and even distortion. So serious is the matter that it could be dubbed a mashrabiyyah myth, which was greatly deepened and perpetuated by a number of recent and contemporary studies. Moreover, as yet another piece of evidence, even ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak (d. 1311 AH/1893 CE), an Egyptian public works and education minister during the second half of the 13th and the early 14th AH/19th CE centuries, while documenting the prominent houses of Cairo in his al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyyah al-Jadidah, a twenty-volume work that contains information on the geography, topography, and history of Egypt, made reference only to rawashin.[37]

The emergence of the mashrabiyyah and rawashin phenomenon – notwithstanding the chronological sequence of the appearances of the two concepts and the timeframe separating them -- was the end result of a set of long socio-cultural and religious processes to which the Muslim society and Islamic civilization were subjected from the very beginning. The processes, in turn, signified a segment of an infinitely dynamic architectural, hence cultural, evolution. Yet, it could be asserted, furthermore, that the mashrabiyyah and rawashin phenomenon was the effect, and a number of religious, social and cultural factors and currents, which were introduced and set in motion as early as when the first seeds of Islamic culture and civilization had been sown in the Prophet’s prototype city-state in Madinah, were the causes. It follows, therefore, that Hassan Fathy’s deduction that the mashrabiyyah, originally, “was a cantilevered space with a lattice opening where small water jars were placed to be cooled by the evaporation effect as air moved through the opening”[38] – is found wanting. At best, it connotes a superficial and one-dimensional interpretation of such a consequential and spellbinding marvel as mashrabiyyahs and rawashin. What follows next is an elaboration on the authentic genesis of the mashrabiyyah and rawashin culture in the realm of Islamic architecture.

In the main, the word rawashin is thought to have Persian origins because in the Persian language the word rawshan means bright, light, transparent, distinct, sunny and serene, the meanings that both explicitly and implicitly suggest the multiple cultural, social and environmental functions and roles of rawashin. There is also a Persian word rawzan which means aperture, window, hole, outlet and eye, which might have likewise, to a degree, influenced the articulation of the term rawashin. The significations of the term unmistakably indicate the fundamental meaning and purpose of rawashin.

Some people were tempted to claim an Indian influence too, due to an Indian word rushandan which means to give light.[39] For the sake of discussion, further, the possibility of a limited Arabic influence could also be brought up owing to a verb rashana which denotes to come uninvited to a feast. In this case, the relationship between rawshan (rawashin) and the verb rashana would revolve around the core function of rawashin, namely to stand between the private realm of a house and the outside world and to function as a filter or a “guard”, that is to say to filter or purify the external elements affecting a house, and to prevent them from penetrating it “unchecked” and “uninvited”. However, when all is said and done, the prospects of the Indian and Arabic linguistic influences bore little weight when compared with those related to the Persian language. A lexicographer Ibn Manzur (d. 711 AH/1311 CE) and the author of a magnum opus Lisan al-‘Arab (the Tongue of the Arabs) only briefly mentioned the word rawshan in the context of the above verb rashana, saying that it means a window or an opening, without giving any hint at the word’s Arabic or otherwise origins.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the word rawashin did indeed originate mainly from the Persian language. This assertion could be further substantiated by the fact that, historically, the 3th and 4th AH/9th and 10th CE centuries were the times when abundant ingredients relating to the authentic Persian cultural identity were more than ever before influencing the orb of the culture and civilization of Islam. Not only linguistically, but also in terms of their architectural designs and structural performances were rawashin to some extent influenced by the rich repertoire of traditional Persian architecture which was renowned worldwide for its penchant for sustainability and at once engineering and ingenious artistic brilliance. Hence, it is said that “closed window screens as well as wind towers were vernacular and sustainable solutions developed by ancient Persian builders”,[40] representing some of the invaluable Persian gifts to the architectural world at large. In addition, the 3th and 4th AH/9th and 10th CE centuries were the epochs when the Persian elements zealously gained control over and dominated a significant portion of the Muslim especially eastern political, military and intellectual landscapes as well. All this, without doubt, considerably reduces the prospects that an almost universal application of the Persian word rawashin in the 4th AH/10th CE century for a then fully evolved architectural component that was set to become enduringly a hallmark of Islamic architecture in general and Islamic domestic architecture in particular, was a sheer coincidence. But, also, to claim that the process of limited Persianisation in Islamic culture and civilization was exclusively responsible for the adoption and wide usage of the term rawashin, would in the same way be inappropriate. Regardless, in the end, the seeming fractional reciprocal and yet, causal relationship between the two issues, which were unfolding around the same time and inside the confines of more than a few shared geographical regions, should not be utterly discounted, even though the full grasping of the exact nature and extent of the conspicuous connections is set to remain a farfetched probability.

From the 4th AH/10th CE century onwards, the term rawashin became an architectural norm in most Muslim, especially middle-eastern and distant-eastern former Persian and Central Asian territories. As a focal point in the well-developed, complex and refined vocabulary of Islamic architecture, it became widely accepted and used, turning into a household name. Such remained the case until today in most of those countries.

However, a few other secondary regional terms subsequently emerged, reflecting their regionalism and relativism, and putting emphasis on specific fundamental functions of original rawashin only. Some of those terms were shanashir, or shanashil, in Persian, and mashrafiyyah in Arabic.

Concerning the latter, it is derived from Arabic verbs sharafa and ashrafa which mean to preside, overlook, tower above, stand out, superintend, supervise and watch. Mashrafiyyah would then be an oriel enclosed-by-wood window that protrudes, sticks out or projects over the street, a courtyard, or any other open space around a house. It also meant a projecting balcony or a gallery. The origin of the mashrafiyyah idiom was the adjective mushrif (mushrifah) which signifies standing out and overlooking. It was recurrently used along with rawashin, or any other housing component that was projecting out from the main façade and was overlooking or fronting directly onto the street. ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak, for instance, used the following expression in the context of describing an old and famous house in Cairo called Dar al-Sadat: “…al-rawashin al-mushrifah ‘ala al-hawsh wa al-shari’” (rawashin that were overlooking the courtyard and the street).[41] Later, the adjective mushrif (mushrifah) evolved into an independent noun mashrafiyyah, standing for a synonym for rawashin. It however failed to really take off and gain wide currency, mainly because its emergence and autonomous use were sandwiched, as it were, between and so, overshadowed by the universal and interminable repute of rawashin and the growing popularity and status of several other secondary and geographically restricted alternatives to rawashin, such as shanashir, or shanashil, and mashrabiyyahs.

The mashrafiyyah appellation makes much sense as there were from the earliest days a few other similar terms in use, such as shurrafat (plural of shurrafah) and shurufat or shuraf (plural of shurfah) which signify apertures in walls and battlements as well as balcony lodges. For example, the word shurrafat were used in connection with the rebuilding of al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah by the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi (d. 169 AH/785 CE). Historians like al-Azraqi (d. 219 AH/834 CE) furnish us with the number of shurrafat in the Holy Mosque following its reconstruction.[42] A similar term was also used by the Prophet (pbuh) himself when he said in a hadith (tradition) that Prophet Yahya once assembled the Children of Israel inside al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem for a special session. When they gathered, he sermonized to them while sitting on a balcony or a gallery (shurf or shuraf). This type of a projecting architectural space used by Prophet Yahya might have been a precursor of the minbar or pulpit from where sermons in mosques -- and even churches -- are delivered globally until now.[43] Besides, it is plausible that one of the technical forerunners of the mashrafiyyah idiom were the words of the celebrated Egyptian medieval historian al-Maqrizi (d. 845 AH/1441 CE) who in his al-Khitat al-Maqriziyyah used the following phrase: “…wa al-shuraf ‘ala hitan al-dar” which means: “…and the projecting windows, or balconies, on the walls of the house.”[44]

Nonetheless, it has been put forward that during the limited period of the use of mashrafiyyah, the name slowly changed into mashrabiyyah due to changing accents and influence of non-Arabs speaking Arabic.[45] In other words, the original designation was distorted. However, the pointed out etymology of the word mashrabiyyah seems too simplistic and straightforward to be truthful and acceptable. There must have been several additional factors with their direct and indirect contributions that made the notion of mashrabiyyah such a widely – albeit not universally -- articulated concept. The pronounciational resemblance between mashrafiyyah and mashrabiyyah was more coincidental than premeditated. At any rate, the likely truth behind the materialization of the mashrabiyyah conception is as follows.

At first, the name mashrabiyyah was just one of those subsequent – albeit somewhat recent -- regional and secondary names for the universal and ubiquitous rawashin phenomenon. The reason for that was the ultimate evolution of rawashin into sophisticated and multipurpose, often immense, projecting house spaces at the heart of which stood windows. In this manner, rawashin significantly enhanced the overall appearances and functions not only of rooms, but also whole houses. In cases of huge and spacious rawashin, there did not exist in their rooms more dominant and imposing constituents than them. Aesthetically, they were most beautiful, most richly ornamented and as such, most appealing to everyone inside as well as outside houses. Structurally, they were most impressive and arresting, considerably increasing the size of rooms. For example, if the breadth of a room’s wall was 70 cm and of its rawshan 80 cm, then the room’s overall size was enlarged by 1.5 meter, which was rather sizeable considering that many rooms were relatively small, because volume-wise many houses were high but narrow. In terms of function, furthermore, some of the most important activities conducted in rooms that had rawashin were carried out right next to them. For example, the wall and a portion of the base of a rawshan served as a sitting place furnished with mattresses and pillows. Rawashin also served as air-conditioners and sources of light, creating favorable microclimates inside houses. They also helped the people inside to stay in perennial touch with nature and the outside space, capitalizing on their advantages and resisting their disadvantages. In their capacities as house extensions into the outer space, filters or sifters, and as climate modifiers, rawashin were bound to increase in their users a sense of both environmental and social awareness and responsibility.

In other words, positively, rawashin became synonymous with those rooms they enlarged and expanded over the streets, whose favorable microclimates they created and sustained, and whose myriad activities they facilitated. As a result, some people started to call rawashin mashrabiyyahs instead -- possibly around the opening of the 14th AH /20th CE century -- so as to bring home to themselves the most profound meanings of the concept. Perhaps, an attempt to arabize the omnipresent Persian term was also meant thereby. Those profound meanings of mashrabiyyah which some people wanted to thus espouse in lieu of rawashin were two-fold.

First, the mashrabiyyah was related to the meaning of an extended, elevated and projecting room (space), since it could be that it is a derivative from the verb ishra’aba which means to raise and elevate. What's more, Ibn Manzur wrote in his Lisan al-‘Arab at the end of his explanation of the verb shariba (to drink) and all its derivatives that the word ishra’aba is derived from the noun mashrabah which means a room.[46] Mashrabiyyah thus meant an elevated and protruding room (substantial space of a house), which signified the pinnacle of the evolution of rawashin.

Second, mashrabiyyah is derived from the verb shariba which means to drink. It was thus a place where people used to sit, socialize and relax, refreshing themselves both with hot and cold drinks. Hence, it was a place of drinking. Since rawashin were meant to control efficiently the air flow and reduce the temperature of the air current, water jars were regularly placed inside rawashin as well to be cooled by the evaporation effect as air moved through them. Moreover, the further correlated words were sharraba and tasharraba, which mean to water, nourish and supply, and to absorb and imbibe respectively. In that case, a mashrabiyyah would be a place where and through which light, controlled view, and fresh as well as cool air and breezes in particular are “imported” and supplied to the interior spaces. It is likewise there and through mashrabiyyahs that a great many social and environmental drawbacks are effectively absorbed, controlled and filtered. Thus, the term mashrabiyyah evoked all the social, cultural, psychological and environmental advantages promoted by rawashin.

Finally, dubbing rawashin mashrabiyyahs might have also been an attempt to linguistically upgrade, so to speak, the full-fledged phenomenon of rawashin, and to bring its significance and functions closer to the minds and souls of certain Arab-speaking countries, because, as seen above, the very name mashrabiyyah entailed some of the most elementary values, meanings and roles of rawashin. Hence, its popularity remained regional with a focal point in Egypt and Egyptian culture.

*This article is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book entitled “Appreciating the Architecture of Shamiyyah”. Writing the book is fully sponsored by Omraniyoun, a leading Saudi architectural design company based in Makkah (

[1] Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Ahkam, Hadith No. 2331.

[2] Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sabuni, Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 2 p. 618.

[3] Al-Tirmidhi, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Birr wa al-Silah, Hadith No. 1955.

[4] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 4016.

[5] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Diyat, Hadith No. 26.

[6] Sayyid Qutb, Fi Zilal al-Qur’an, (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1982), vol. 4, p. 2508

[7] Ibid, vol. 4, p. 2508.

[8] Ibid., vol. 4, p. 2507.

[9] Ibn Taymiya, Al-Amr bi al-Ma’ruf wa al-Nahy ‘an al-Munkar, (Beirut, Dar Ibn Hazm, 2002), p. 26.

[10] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 4862.

[11] Ibid., Kitab al-Malahim, Hadith No. 4329.

[12] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Ashribah, Hadith No. 5006.

[13] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 5167.

[14] Ibid., Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 5167.

[15] Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sabuni, Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 2 p. 597.

[16] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, translated into English by Al-Haj Maulana Fazul-ul-Karim, (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1982), vol. 2 p. 164.

[17] Muhammad Ibn al-Rami, Al-I’lam bi Ahkam al-Bunyan, (Tunis: Markaz al-Nashr al-Jami’i, 1999), p. 67.

[18] ‘Uthman Muhammad ‘Abd al-Sattar, Al-Madinah al-Islamiyyah, (Kuwait: ‘Alam al-Ma’rifah, 1988), p. 335.

[19] Al-Samahudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 2 p. 526.

[20] ‘Uthman Muhammad ‘Abd al-Sattar, Al-Madinah al-Islamiyyah, p. 334.

[21] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Adhan, Hadith No. 625.

[22] ‘Uthman Muhammad ‘Abd al-Sattar, Al-Madinah al-Islamiyyah, p. 333.

[23] ‘Abd al-Basit Badr, Al-Tarikh al-Shamil li al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, (Madinah, n.pp, 1993), vol. 1 p. 251.

[24] Ibid., vol. 1 p. 251.

[25] Muhammad Ilyas ‘Abd al-Ghani, History of Madinah Munawwarah, (Madinah: al-Rasheed Printers, 2003), p. 93.

[26] Drawing attention to the distinctive significance of roads, the Prophet (pbuh) directed his companions to avoid needless sitting on them, lest the projected roles and functions of roads might be contravened, one way or another. The companions, however, replied that such a thing sometimes is difficult to desist. On this, the Prophet (pbuh) said that they in that case must respect the rights of roads, as they belong to the public and everyone is entitled to their free and unobstructed use. Asked about the rights of roads, the Prophet (pbuh) answered: “Avoid staring, do not create harm, salute back those who salute you, and enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil.” (Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Libas wa al-Zinah, Hadith No. 3960)

[27] Muhammad Ibn al-Rami, Al-I’lam bi Ahkam al-Bunyan, p. 148.

[28] Ibid., p. 148.

[29] Ibid., p. 148.

[30] Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ma’rifah al-Aqalim, translated into English by G.S.A. Ranking and R.F. Azoo, (Frankfurt: Institute of History of Arabic-Islamic Sciences, 1989), p.113.

[31] Rawashin and mashrabiyyahs signify projecting windows that are enclosed with carved wood latticework.

[32] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din,, (accessed on April 6, 2016)

[33] Husamuddin al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Hitan, (Jeddah: Jami’ah al-Malik ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, 1996), p. 209.

[34] Jamaluddin Ibn Tagribardi, Al-Nujum al-Zahirah fi Muluk Misr wa al-Qahirah, (Cairo: Wizarah al-Thaqafah, Markaz Tahqiq al-Turath, 1963), vol. 5 p. 47.

[35] Jehan Mohamed, The Traditional Arts and Crafts of Turnery or Mashrabiya, (Master’s Thesis), (Camden, New Jersey: The State University of New Jersey, 2015), p. 8.

[36] Ibid., p. 8.

[37] ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak, Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyyah al-Jadidah, (Cairo: al-Hay’ah al-Masriyyah al-‘Ammah li al-Kitab, 1970), vol. 3 p. 95.

[38] Hassan Fathy, Vernacular Architecture, Principles and Examples with Reference to Hot Arid Climates, edited by Walter Shearer and Abd-el-rahman Ahmed Sultan, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 46-47.

[39] E. Aljofi, The Potentiality of Reflected Sunlight through Rawshan Screens, International Conference on Passive and Low Energy Cooling for the Built Environment, May 2005, Santorini, Greece, p. 817.

[40] Nehal Almerbati, Peter Ford, Ahmad Taki and Lionel Dean, From Vernacular to Personalized and Sustainable, inside: Architectural Research through to Practice, edited by F. Madeo and M.A. Schnabel, 48th International Conference of the Architectural Science Association, 2014, the Architectural Science Association and Genova University Press, p. 481.

[41] ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak, Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyyah al-Jadidah, vol. 3 p. 95.

[42] Muhammad al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makkah, vol. 2 p. 75.

[43] Muhammad al-Sabuni, Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 1 p. 39.

[44] Ahmad b. ‘Ali al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat al-Maqriziyyah, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1998), vol. 3 p. 97.

[45] Mashrabiya,, (accessed on April 11, 2016).

[46] Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-‘Arab,, (accessed on April 12, 2016).

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Great article talking about the importance of personal privacy and respecting other people's privacy. This topic is especially important given the national discussion about privacy and the government's ability to access personal records in the interest of national security.