The Qur'an highlights that the house is a shelter or a private sanctuary to its residents. Allah says: "It is Allah who made your habitations homes of rest and quiet for you..." (al-Nahl, 26:80) The word used for the house in this verse is "bayt" (min buyutikum sakanan) which is derived from an Arabic verb "bata" which means, among other things, to spend or pass the night, to stay overnight, etc. The house is called "bayt" because when the bustle of the day starts fading away with the arrival of the night, man, just like most of the earthly creatures, hasten to withdraw to his sanctuary or shelter (the house) so as to take rest, enjoy tranquility and seek refuge from the disadvantages, and even perils, associated with the night and its drawbacks.
Allah the Creator of the night and day refers in the Qur'an to the night as "sakan" (al-An'am, 6:96), which means "rest and tranquility", and as "libas" (al-Furqan, 25:47), which means "robe". In the verse wherein the night is called "libas or robe", the sleep phenomenon, which is central to night activities, is called "subat", which means "repose and tranquility". In opposition to the night, and in order to wrap up a set of the major natural laws that govern human existence, Allah calls in the same verse the day as "nushur", which means "resurrection". The relationship between the house (bayt), on the one hand, and night and "sakan or rest and tranquility", on the other, appears clearer and stronger if we recall that one of the Arabic expressions for the house is "maskan", which is derived from "sakan". Even in the Qur'anic verse mentioned above, according to which human habitations have been made as shelters or the homes of rest and quiet for them, the word "sakan" has also been employed as a foremost description of what the house (bayt) is to man.
However, the significations of the word "bayt" (the house) must be viewed from a much wider perspective. "Bayt" does not imply just a place where one takes refuge overnight. Rather, it implies a place where one takes refuge whenever necessary from all the hazards of the outside world. The word "night", as in the connotations of "bayt", is rather symbolic. The house phenomenon, thus, ought to be read as a retreat, a shelter or a safe haven for all times if need be, rather than for certain periods only. To the Muslim, the house is a haven that offers him total and endless warmth, privacy, refuge, security and protection. The house is a shelter or a sanctuary where one can live and enjoy himself without being affected by much of the laws, rules and regulations which regulate the outside world. The house is a place where the inhabitants -- and nobody else -- pass a great many laws, rules and regulations with regard to their routine doings within the boundaries of their house.
It follows that homelessness is one of the most harmful occurrences. It accounts for one of the most dangerous ailments and biggest obstacles on the way to the progress of a community. Homeless people and their lives are defenseless, vulnerable, open to the elements, indifferent and bleak. In the same vein, furthermore, forcing somebody out from his house, the Qur'an, while frequently referring to it, regards as an extremely serious crime against humanity. The victims of such a crime are promised Allah's unreserved help, protection and abundant reward, while the perpetrators are assured of His wrath and retribution. Says Allah, for example: "So their Lord accepted their prayer: That I will not waste the work of a worker among you, whether male or female, the one of you being from the other; they, therefore, who fled and were turned out of their homes and persecuted in My way and who fought and were slain, I will most certainly cover their evil deeds, and I will most certainly make them enter gardens beneath which rivers flow; a reward from Allah, and with Allah is yet better reward." (Alu 'Imran, 3:195)
Because the house is the safest shelter and the most private sanctuary to its residents, one of the miracles of Prophet Isa (Jesus) has been associated with it. As one of the signs of him being a prophet of Allah, Prophet Isa told the children of Israel, to whom he had been sent: "...and I inform you of what you eat and what you store up in your houses; most surely there is a sign in this for you, if you are believers." (Alu 'Imran, 3:49) The message of this Qur'anic verse is that unless he was a prophet of Allah from whom he used to receive the revealed knowledge, by no means was Prophet Isa able to know on his own what he had informed his people about. The houses and what transpires inside them denote one of the greatest secrets of men, which one easily conceals from all except from Allah who alone knows the secret of the heavens and the earth, and who alone knows that which people disclose and which they hide. (al-Baqarah, 2:33)
The house is a symbol of man's noble status on earth, relative liberty and independence. It affords him the necessary comfort, retreat, security and safety, functioning as his shelter and safest haven on earth. People's houses stand for their very identity and the identity of their culture. If they signify how far a people have moved ahead in terms of culture and civilization, then likewise, in the opposite scenario, houses unmistakably exemplify how low a people have sunk in the same regard. Allah thus sees it apt to use the notion of ruined, abandoned, worthless and unutilized houses for projecting an image of the failure and downfall of a people or a civilization. One of the foremost messages thus meant to be conveyed is that the wrongdoers cannot hide away or escape from Allah's wrath and decrees, especially those decrees which concern the appointed times of such persons' demise and the destruction of their boastful civilizational achievements. They cannot find refuge even inside the most clandestine and safeguarded sections of their houses. The dismal and horrid sites of the abandoned and destroyed houses of the wrongdoers, which once functioned as their shelters, categorically testify to that.
Hence, when Allah wants us to derive some lessons from the fates of the selected past rebellious nations, He draws our attention towards the ruins of their houses, thus implying that their inhabitants have vanished long ago, succumbing to their mortality and the mortality and relativity of their material legacies. They were easily overtaken by Allah's will and judgments. Their ways and standards of living availed them of nothing after Allah's final verdicts concerning them had been pronounced. And finally, their ostensible luxury, contentment and security that they apparently possessed and enjoyed were, in actual fact, a grave deception and a root cause of their waywardness.
Allah says, for example, about Thamud, the mischievous people of Prophet Salih: "And they planned a plan, and We planned a plan while they perceived not. See, then, how was the end of their plan that We destroyed them and their people, all (of them). So those are their houses fallen down because they were unjust, most surely there is a sign in this for a people who know." (al-Naml, 27:50-52)
In the Qur'anic chapter al-'Ankabut (the Spider), in three consecutive verses, Allah summarizes the agonizing fates of three mischievous nations: Madyan, the people of Prophet Shu'ayb, 'Ad and Thamud. Underscored in those verses is the role of the remnants of their ruined and deserted houses as a manifestation of what had befallen them as a result of their abuse of their position, intelligence, talent and skill. They utterly betrayed the trust with which Allah had entrusted them. Instead of gratefully striving towards contributing some goodness to the interests of mankind, having been assigned a massive civilizational enterprise with their prophets in control, they, instead, en masse failed, giving in to the advances of Satan and their own selfish interests. They thus presented Satan with a license to hoodwink them into skepticism, non-belief and rejection of prophets, self-centeredness and pleasure-seeking, who then easily manipulated them keeping them back from the rays of the truth and the right path. The materialistic lifestyles of Madyan, 'Ad and Thamud, which their dwelling places personified, proved of no use whatsoever in holding back Allah's punishments for them once they had been decreed.
"And to Madyan (We sent) their brother Shu'ayb, so he said: 'O my people, serve Allah and fear the latter day and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief.' But they rejected him, so a severe earthquake overtook them, and they became motionless bodies in their homes. And (We destroyed) 'Ad and Thamud, and from their (ruined and deserted) dwellings (this) is apparent to you indeed; and the Satan made their deeds fair-seeming to them, so he kept them back from the path, though they were endowed with intelligence and skill." (al-'Ankabut, 29:36-38)
Finally, in yet another context, Allah says about those past nations or communities which did injustice to themselves by rebelling against Allah and His messengers, and thus brought the inevitable upon themselves: "And how many towns have We destroyed which exulted in its means of subsistence, so these are their houses, they have not been dwelt in after them except a little, and We are the inheritors." (al-Qasas, 28:58)
This article is an excerpt from the author's book "Islam and Housing":
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 spahicoyahoo.com; his blog is at www.medinanet.org.