Islamic Architecture vs. Modernist and Postmodern Styles

Chicago urban skyscrapers along the Chicago River with Trump International Hotel and Tower in the background (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

Summary: This article discusses why modernist and postmodern architectural styles are problematic as far as the Islamic message and the Muslim religious consciousness are concerned. This is done against the backdrop of the profound meaning of Islamic architecture, both as an idea and a physical reality. The article concludes that modernist architecture and its postmodern counterpart are nothing but vehicles for embodying and further disseminating sets of canons. They denote the physical manifestations of their dogmatic fidelity, which renders them the servants of those ideas they seek to embody. Simply put, they are merely frameworks for modernist and postmodern lifestyles. However, the theories and values underpinning the architectural dispositions of modernism and postmodernism are not just unfamiliar to those of Islam, but are also dangerous. Some yet stand at the diametrically opposite side of the Islamic pivotal concept of tawhid (God’s Oneness). As such, they can easily poison minds and distort behavioural tendencies.

What is Islamic architecture?

Islamic architecture is a style of architecture that embodies the core of the Islamic ‘aqidah (belief system or articles of faith) and the body of inclusive Islamic standards and behavioural moral values. Islamic architecture does so through its three main dimensions: as a philosophy, process, and a final outcome, and at the planes of the conceptualization, planning, designing, constructing, and the using of the built environment. This is done partly latently and intuitively, as a result of people’s prior personification of the same Islamic beliefs, principles and values, which they then radiate and implement in the various fields of their individual and collective lives - including the realm of the built environment – and partly consciously through a series of premeditated and thought-out methods, steps and even procedural guidelines.

Islamic architecture is a framework of both human lives and the implementation of the Islamic message. This is so because Islam is a comprehensive way of life, and the two are meant for each other: life needs Islam to be inspired, guided and properly lived thereby, while Islam needs life to be exteriorized, actualized and “seen” therein. It is thus often acknowledged that Islam is life and life, in turn, is Islam. Apart from framing and containing human lives and Islam, Islamic architecture, moreover, facilitates, nurtures and further promotes them.

There is no doubt that Islamic architecture reveals a remarkable consistency in content and appearance, no matter when and where it was conceived and produced. This unity does not prevent styles, materials and motifs from changing somewhat from one geographical region or historical period to another. Regardless of his race, colour, language or homeland, a Muslim experiences this architectural identity and unity everywhere he goes. Just as he finds in each land not identical, but similar Islamically-inspired responses to life’s political, economic and social challenges, he also finds not identical, but similar architectural and other aesthetic expressions of the Islamic spirit.

At the heart of this Islamic architectural identity resides the idea of Islamic monotheism or tawhid (Almighty Allah’s Oneness) as a religious philosophy and experience whose core is Allah as the Absolute Creator and Master of the universe, as normativeness, as the final end at which all finalistic nexuses aim and come to rest, and as the ultimate object of all innate hope, craving and desire – as articulated by Isma’il al-Faruqi. Muslims craft their civilization, comprising architecture, based on this principle and belief, leading to a shared identity regardless of temporal and spatial distinctions.

Isma’il al-Faruqi further added that if Islam as a comprehensive religion, worldview and culture neglected to influence the architecture of its peoples, such would be a terrible shortcoming. Like all other fine arts, architecture is an aesthetic expression of Muslims insofar as they have a unique and distinct view of reality and its physical and metaphysical constituents, of space and time, of history, and of the ummah or community and Muslims’ organic relation thereto.

Hence, Islam’s influence is expected to pervade the totality of human life, with architecture and the rest of the built environment receiving much attention on a par with the other most vital life segments. Islam “did determine the style of clothing, of eating, of sleeping, of socializing, of leisure and recreation. How could it omit to determine man’s habitat? Nay, it did; and it even buttressed its influence with the power of law as regards all these. Had Islam not determined anymore than the mosque, its decoration, tile, woodwork, lights and carpets, that would be more than sufficient to establish its relevance, for the mosque is the archetype and paragon of all Islamic architecture” - was Isma’il al-Faruqi’s conclusion.

This identity of Islamic architecture presents a marked contrast to the modernist and postmodern architectural movements entrenched in specific worldviews and intellectual traditions. This point is relevant and must be drawn attention to since the proponents of modernism and postmodernism, and their architectural bequests, inside the Muslim world never tire of campaigning against the continuity of the Islamic architectural traditions in favour of the importation of alien modernist and postmodern alternatives – unfortunately succeeding to a large extent in their unholy struggles.

Muslims should know that the theories and values underpinning the modernist and postmodern architectural styles are not just unfamiliar to those of Islam, but are also dangerous. Some yet stand at the diametrically opposite side of the Islamic pivotal concept of tawhid. As such, they can easily poison minds and distort behavioural tendencies.

Why modernist architecture is problematic 

To start off, modernist architecture - which originated at the end of the 19th century and lasted approximately till 1980 - is anti-traditional and anti-historical. Espousing an evolutionary disposition, modernist architecture regards the past with its wealth of cultures and mores as archaic and defunct. Those are nothing but fleeting moments in the evolutionary trajectory towards the ultimate fulfillment of human destiny. At best, former cultures and traditions are phases in the evolution, constituting a prelude to the exultant end of human history.

Modernist architecture is furthermore scientific and technological, using scientific progress and technological innovations as a frame of reference over the influences of nature, culture, tradition, religion and history. Like so, it is an avid proponent of scientism, which spells an exaggerated trust in the power and efficacy of science to the point that it is believed that science is the only way to present the architectural truth concerning the world and reality.

This way, science and man were deified and heaven (spirituality) either repudiated or objectified. There was no sector of existence that was not desacralized and demoralized in the process. As the repository of man’s pre-modernist life and thought examples, history in the sight of modernism did not entail any authoritative jurisdiction either. Hence, modernism and its architectural type were born out of revolutions in Western science, technology, engineering and building materials, and out of the concomitant restless Western spirit and its desire to break away from monotonously inappropriate historical styles and conceive something that was refreshingly new and dynamically functional.

Modernist architecture is also materialist as well as naturalist, in the sense that it venerates the function and appearance of building materials, remaining faithful to their naturalness and valuing them as much for what they are as for what they can do (i.e., they are as much an object as a means). Both buildings’ functions and their natural, yet brute, appearances are placed on a pedestal. However, overemphasizing the intrinsic naturalness of buildings and the evolutionary naturalness of man in the end led to the misrepresentation both of nature and buildings and to the brutalization and mechanisation of man.

Modernist architecture is likewise aggressively authoritarian, so much so that it adopted what could be called a form of “architectural proselytization.” It regards itself as the only authentic architectural style, the paragon of the existential truth. Modernist architecture thus tends to invade and dominate. For that reason it is often associated with internationalism as an ideology and an architectural style (international style) whereby local and regional influences are not only dwarfed, but also eliminated altogether, by a series of constructed universal values and principles.

Modernist architecture perceives itself as an expression, plus an agent, of the truth of modernism, which is marketed to the world as the only truth. It is no wonder that the expansion of modernist architecture often went hand in hand with the expansion of colonization, westernization and the notion of “mission to civilize.” It became clear that modernist architecture was on a crusade. It served at once as the verification and instrument of imperialism, and also as the measure of its success.

For the colonizers modernist architecture was a sign of victory, but for the colonized it was a sign of defeat. Consequently, modernist architecture is represented as much in the spheres of the Global South as in those of the Global North. This by no means applies exclusively to the physical manifestations of the built environment, but as well to the architectural educational systems and the architectural consciousness both of professionals and common people. Indeed, there is a close relationship between the material side of architecture, on the one hand, and the immaterial side, expressed in education, policies, professional thought and proletarian perceptions, on the other. More often than not, the latter serves as the cause, the former as the effect.

This renders modernist architecture humanistic too, meaning that the sole originator of the claimed modernist truth is man. No aspect of that truth, needed to satisfy human spiritual and emotional needs, is imparted by any supernatural source. The prospect of giving consideration to a religion or a deity is neither legitimate nor deemed necessary. Man and his talents are the measure of all things. They are the source of ultimate value and authority. Architecturally and aesthetically good are only those elements which man, in the light of his constructed reality and value systems, ends up regarding as such.

For obvious reasons, man with his strengths and weaknesses, ambitions and failures, is glorified in modernist architecture. He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. Thus, everything human is to be celebrated, one way or another. Owing to his industrial achievements, which led to the creation of such revolutionary building materials as steel, reinforced concrete and glass, the sky was the limit for demonstrating - and affirming - the potentials of man.

That being so, spurred by the new modernist creativity taste, the new building materials allowed the exterior walls of buildings to be completely covered in glass; they called for open concept interior with few or no interior walls (open floor plan); they facilitated the organization of structures into identical modules scaled without any variation; and they made possible the wide use of rectangular forms with clean straight lines and linear edges, part of which were large and horizontal windows or curtain glass and flat roofs.

If Islamic architecture is sometimes described as a “hidden or introvert architecture”, on account of it being disposed to the veiling, preserving and aiding of the private aspects if a Muslim’s being and life, modernist architecture, contrariwise, can be described as an “unveiled or extrovert architecture” due to its inclination to expose and openly affirm the humanness of man and the humanness of everything he does. Attending to the implications of human privacy and introversion is not modernist architecture’s forte. Its focus lies somewhere else, in challenging the limits of the connectivity between the inside and the outside, and in honouring man as the main protagonist in testing those limits.

It is incumbent upon man – as incited by the humanistic aspect of modernist architecture - to be unencumbered by trepidation, to be heedless of any influence, and to remain unconstrained by any non-human authority. Man has the capacity to be his own most powerful asset and his own greatest adversary. It is all in his hands. He aspires to become the sovereign of himself, his fate and of the whole earth.

Modernist architecture is a striking reminder of this. Its focus on pure and rigid geometric forms, rectilinear shapes, perfectly straight and clean lines, linear contours, right-angle perimeters, plain materials and repetition, are all indicators of the will of modernist architecture to approach the space – which is the infinite ontological domain - with snobbery, harbouring might, self-affirmation and insolence. A portion of the space is intended to be conquered and usurped, and then be used as a means of separation from the rest of it. The modernist man wants to be free, self-regulating and unaccountable. His buildings advertise and facilitate the initiative. However, the separation in question is more spiritual than physical.

Certainly, there is a conspicuous element of the connectivity between the indoor and outdoor in modernist architecture, but such is not on any terms other than those of the modernist man and his self-indulgent worldview. The outdoor is to serve as a motivation – yet an invitation - for further conquests of the space, and to remind man not to slacken in his narcissism and vanity while at the same time persevering in defying whatever forces “out there” might wish to invade his seclusion and to challenge his status quo.

It follows that modernist architecture is the modernist man’s fortified sanctuary. It is his multi-layered temple. Due to this, architecture is often defined as a process of the thoughtful making, designing or framing of space (Louis Kahn), and as the will of an epoch and its people translated into space (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe).

As a small digression, it is an Islamic architectural principle – in contrast to the architecture of modernism - that Muslim architects, designers and structural engineers should strive to exhibit through their creativity and skills, anchored in the power of the Islamic tawhidic worldview, that the buildings designed by them interact with the space, flowing into and becoming part of the general space, instead of separating themselves from it. As the space signifies Almighty Allah’s physical realm where people are to live and operate as mere servants of His, the space is to be approached with reverence, not arrogance, and is to be cut off in humility and with ease, harbouring neither might, nor self-promotion, nor defiance. Muslim buildings thus generally remain connected with the outside space by means of open inner courtyards, light-wells, air shafts, windows and other apertures. Towards the same end, the edges of many Muslim buildings are often crenelated (indented), the skylines multiplied, and the vertical edges recessed or protruded with broken surfaces designed to lessen the impact of the cut-off in the space.

One of the foremost features of modernist architecture is its rejection of ornament and of any form of alleged structural clutter and aesthetic superfluity. This rejection is symptomatic of the modernist uncompromising rejection syndrome, according to which all things traditional, old-school and conventional are spurned in favour of new, innovative and technological alternatives. As a result, every so often something new is good just because it is new and different, and something traditional is inferior only because it is from the past and no different. Both tradition and modernity are berated and lauded respectively on account of them being held as self-contained ends, albeit in two distinct directions, one in the direction of exuberance and ascent, and the other in the direction of inertia and virtual death.

The reason for this rejection syndrome is a modernist proclivity for unregulated freedom of thought, expression and behaviour, and for liquidating the consequence of convention and history, so that a person can completely disengage himself from the loads of the past and in such a state – that is to say, light and free - could travel into the exciting science and technology-dictated future and into the beckoning promised land of modernity.

This modernist architectural philosophy is expressed in the following canons: “less is more” by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “form follows function” by Louis Sullivan, “ornament is crime” by Adolf Loos, and “a house is a machine for living in” by Le Corbusier.

Nevertheless, the structural and functional reductionism enclosed in the charter of modernist architecture may appear at first glance as though an honourable and even defiant gesture, but that is not the case in any way. The modernist philosophy of humanity and life - rooted in predominantly scientific materialism, atheism and hedonism - which invariably manifested itself in the fields of art and architecture, is so one-dimensional, humdrum and off-putting that the same attributes were eventually embedded within the ethos of modernist architecture. This is consistent with the maxim to the effect that the external is a reflection of the internal, or what is within is exhibited without.

So, therefore, modernist architecture is minimalistic – i.e., plain and unadorned - because its life outlook is likewise; it renounced all history and tradition, believing that simplicity, alleged clarity and reduction of subjects to their necessary components will lead to good designs, because it could not offer anything substantial as an alternative; it promulgated the absolute mechanisation of buildings because of the concurrent mechanisation of man and his existence.

To put it another way, modernist architecture is shallow, dull, predictable and doomed because of its correspondingly shallow, dull, predictable and hopeless philosophical background. It renounced all history and tradition, but failed to generate a long-term replacement paradigm – contrary to the forecasts and prophecies of the fathers of modernism and its architecture. “Less is more” and “ornament is crime” stand for the core of the modernist architecture creed due to the fact that the modernist view of life could not be even by artificial means elevated to the point of complex elegance.

Simplicity, plainness and naturalness are embraced because no other better alternatives could be proffered. This creed, instead of championing clarity, precision, scientism and overall configuration - as it is supposed to be the case – in fact advocates, in a roundabout way, inconsequentiality, smallness and unavoidable disillusionment. Indeed, minimalism in thought leads to a minimalism in architecture (the former as the originator precipitating the latter as the eventuality); myopia in thought leads to a myopia in architecture; and finally, dull and mind-numbing thought leads to a dull and mind-numbing architecture. The modernist architecture creed, on second thought, was an inadvertent admission of a paucity and, by extension, of a looming downfall.

Everything about modernist architecture is surely disheartening and anticlimactic. No sooner had it fully asserted itself, than it started hitting cul-de-sacs. All things considered, it is clear to what extent the worldview and principles buttressing the orb of modernist architecture are problematic insofar as the Islamic belief system and its values are concerned. Being poles apart, they are anything but congruent.

Why postmodern architecture is problematic

As an outgrowth of modernist architecture, postmodern architecture – from about late 1960 and early 1970 until now - is equally controversial. Applying the same rationale of modernist architecture, postmodern architecture itself was not the biggest problem; that distinction is bestowed upon the contentious realm of postmodern ideas that gave rise to a specific architecture. As a rule, it is the root cause of a problem that carries the most significant onus of responsibility.

Postmodern architecture is an architectural style that came into being as a reaction against the creed of modernist architecture, abhorring, as a consequence, simplicity, formality and the lack of diversity. The postmodern thought propagated the notion of ubiquitous relativism: “Postmodernists deny that there are aspects of reality that are objective; that there are statements about reality that are objectively true or false; that it is possible to have knowledge of such statements (objective knowledge); that it is possible for human beings to know some things with certainty; and that there are objective, or absolute, moral values. Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them” (Brian Duignan, Postmodernism and Relativism).

Terry Eagleton also wrote in his book “The Illusions of Postmodernism”: “Postmodernity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of scepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms, the givenness of natures and the coherence of identities” (Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism).

In short, postmodernism is associated with scepticism, contrariety and philosophical critiques of the possibilities of absolute truths and objective realities. It breeds uncertainty, diversity, flexibility and perennial change. It yet turned against its precursor: modernism – despite the latter’s equally rebellious mood – for it was based on idealism and glorification of reason and science. As fresh and ground-breaking as those approaches had been, postmodernists felt that not even they can go unchallenged. Against the backdrop of the rigidity and utopia of modernism stands the accommodating principle of postmodernism that essentially everything is possible and no rules apply so long as a degree of demand is there.

That is to say, postmodernism espouses that whoever or whatever may claim to have found the definitive and impartial truth, is to be rejected, for there is no such thing as definitive and impartial truth. All things are contingent solely on personal dispositions combined with socio-cultural norms. The rejection of modernism came to pass due to its assertion of being that absolute and objective truth.

Accordingly, postmodernism celebrates and fosters anarchy, confusion and lethargy, in that everyone who can think by definition is right and every society that agrees on something is also right; beliefs are merely personal and collective opinions; nobody can criticize or persuade anybody concerning anything; and there is no reference frame a person can measure himself and his views against because subjective and socio-cultural preferences are the measuring sticks.

It is easy to discern that postmodernism and Islam have been at odds and had divergent trajectories from the outset. The basis for this is Islam’s assertion that it represents the revealed absolute and objective truth. In Islam, there is only one truth revealed-through-prophets to all people by their Creator. This is so because there is only one God, one objective reality, one existential purpose, and one destiny. Thus, in Islam – contrary to postmodernism - the certitude and objectivity of the truth is a rule, the opposite is an abnormality. Combining Islam and postmodernism is analogous to the impossible task of blending ice and boiling water; they are so disparate that in the end neither will retain its original properties.

When translated into the architecture sphere, the postmodern philosophy of ethical, epistemological, alethic, cultural, aesthetical and religious relativism necessitated the following architectural characteristics: variety of shapes and materials; references to classical motifs; incorporation of historical elements; use of uncommon materials and historical allusions; use of fragmentation and modulations; use of bright colours and patterns; a combination of various architectural styles, often mixed in unconventional ways; placing buildings inside their own contexts; building for people, listening to them and answering their existing needs; display of humour or irony; playfulness; youthful vivacity; fragmentation of forms; deconstructivism and chaos; eccentricity.

In a nutshell, just as there is neither objective truth nor objective falsehood, equally there is neither objective beauty nor objective ugliness. Literally, anything goes. The situation is akin to an unbridled confusion and uncontrolled pandemonium. People possess complete latitude in deciding their next steps and in pursuing any option they choose. Since the truth is in the heart of the believer (rather than in a holy scripture or a place of worship) and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the architectural distinction, by the same token, is in the imaginative mind of the architect. For sure, along these lines the architectural potentials are unbounded and possibilities endless.

There is no doubt that postmodern architecture was still “modern” in the sense that it embraced the latest advancements in building technology, engineering and materials. However, it deviated from modernist architecture on grounds of theoretical dissimilarities, the effects of which were quickly manifested in the field of architectural practices.

The quandary was to figure out how to integrate the postmodern tenet of relativism into the architectural creations, which was solved by unleashing the boundless inventiveness and creativity spirit, leading as a result to what later came to be known as an architectural and artistic relativism. While each and every idea or experience, in history and today, could be seen as a source of fodder for the postmodern architectural creativity, no idea or experience should be allowed to restrict, much less control, that creativity.

Hence, postmodern architecture is in no way a process of affirming and accepting the truth, but rather a process of making a statement to the fact that the truth is neither known nor knowable. The above mentioned characteristics of postmodern architecture are not resorted to because they are the best, most appealing and most practical, but because they are the most suitable for expressing the ideological dimensions of postmodernism whose nucleus is comprised of the twin ideas of truth-relativism and values-relativism.


As a final point, both modernist architecture and its postmodern counterpart are nothing but vehicles for embodying and further disseminating sets of canons. They denote the physical manifestations of their dogmatic fidelity, which renders them the servants of those ideas they seek to embody. They are merely frameworks for modernist and postmodern lifestyles.

That being the case, architecture is often defined as follows: “Architecture is an expression of values - the way we build is a reflection of the way we live” (Norman Foster); “Architecture is not a goal. Architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame, not the picture” (William Wurster); “Architecture is the most obvious flower of a society's culture” (Alan Balfour).

It goes without saying that Islamic architecture, which is a reflection of its underlying Islamic philosophy and Islamic values, is fundamentally distinct from both modernist and postmodern architectural styles. Establishing a state of equilibrium between them is not feasible under any circumstances. Correspondingly unfeasible is to strive for a state of accord between the Muslim mind, heart and behavioural patterns and the universe of either modernist or postmodern architectural legacies. The differences between the two are simply insurmountable. 

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