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Islamic Architecture: Between Culture and Faith

When building an edifice, the Muslim architect and structural engineer worthy of their respective professions are, first and foremost, concerned about how the end result of their efforts will stand out when juxtaposed with the existing universal setting – a result of heavenly artistry – in terms of both function and outward appearance:

Will it complement or contrast with it; will it go well with it, or will it appear as a misfit, oddity, or even an offensiveness?

The Purpose of Islamic Architecture

Concerning function, the Muslim builder always exerts himself to ensure that a new structure serves a noble purpose, that is, where only Allah is worshiped, regardless of whether it is a mosque, school, home, caravanserai, hospital, fountain, and the like.

In this way, every new structure, even though human-made, signifies, as it were, a conformation and even enhancement of the aura spawned by the character and role of the natural world.

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Harmony between Islamic Architecture and the Paradigms of Life


Instead of standing alone amidst the marvels of Allah’s creation, quite alien to them, a structure rather integrates itself with them as much as its plan, design and utility are able to suggest, identifying its status in relation to the otherworldliness of the natural sensations around it.

The Islamic Architecture and Nature

Building materials and substances used in the building processes are normally taken or ‘borrowed’ from nature. The same materials until now belonged to the flawlessly executed universal web singing Allah’s praises and celebrating His glory.

Although they have been removed from their original contexts, the building materials from nature are still utilized for some other perfectly fitting goals related to humankind, thereby causing their intrinsic ‘holy pursuit’ to remain unaffected or unperturbed.

As a result of the Muslim’s restricted and controlled intervention in nature, only the original condition and context of natural building materials and substances change, which is nevertheless expected, needed, and in full accordance with Allah’s universal will and plan:

{And He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth – all from Him. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.} (45: 13)

Islamic Architecture: Between Culture and Faith - About Islam


Before they are used in buildings, building materials from nature, worship Allah in unison with the rest of nature’s components. It is thus only fair that they are used in those buildings where Allah is worshipped as well, so that their unremitting acts are still performed in peace and without interruption.

It sounds strange, but it would be an act of injustice towards nature if some of its ingredients were used for erecting buildings wherein the authority of Allah is disrespected and His words contravened. Besides, such a deed would also denote that a contribution toward upsetting the fine equilibrium in nature has been made.

Certainly, when the Prophet Muhammad declared that there should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm, he had in mind not only human beings, but also the natural world with all its components.

Surely, it stands to reason that as humankind is very much capable of perturbing the physical laws of nature by their actions, so are they in a position to get in the way of the covert aspects of nature’s existence, as much as Allah allows it.

Therefore, while creating buildings, that is to say, while creating frameworks and fields for their activities, the Muslims wish not to contravene any of the universe’s spiritual laws and patterns. On the contrary, they wish to enhance them, forever remaining on ‘friendly’ terms with them.

To this end, the Prophet has said that when an infidel or a profligate servant of Allah passes away, human beings, land, animals and trees get a moment of respite from them and their actions. In other words, the whole earth, with all its key elements, is aware of an evil person’s death, which makes it ‘glad’ as his death spells an end to his evil acts which had an effect on the earth and everything on it.

About this, Allah also mentions:

{And they say: The most Merciful has taken [for Himself] a son. You have done an atrocious thing. The heavens almost rupture therefrom and the earth splits open and the mountains collapse in devastation. That they attribute to the most Merciful a son.} (19:8891)

The Prophet is reported to have said that for every servant of Allah there are two doors in the heavens: a door from which his/her sustenance comes out and a door through which his/her deeds and words enter. When a (good and obedient) servant of Allah dies, these two doors grieve for them and cry. However, in the case of an infidel or a wicked servant of Allah, neither the heavens nor the earth sheds a tear over them when they die, as no good deeds or words were coming from them.

As such, no worthy traces or effects could they possibly leave behind on earth, and no good deeds were going through their personal gate in the heavens. For a good and believing person, on the other hand, both the heavens and earth cry for him/her when they die because they used to inhabit the earth with prayers, prostration, remembering Allah, reading the Quran, and performing all other types of worship, while the heavens used to resound with their prayers and declaration of the praises and glory of Allah.

According to some early commentators of the Quran, the heavens and earth cry for believers forty days following their departure from this world. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

Islamic Architecture: Between Culture and Faith - About Islam


As regards the form of erected structures, the Muslim builder, powered with the spirit of Islamic monotheism and a desire to fulfill the will of a higher order or cause, always tries his best to make his edifices come into sight adhering to the existing spiritual paradigms of the natural environment. Nature is the perceptible sign of the Creator’s will and presence, which is as evident in the most trivial as in the most splendid.

Hence, every new component of the built environment ought to become, in a way, a ‘sign’ itself, lest they become irreconcilable with both nature and the spiritual and psychological disposition of their users.

Humans must live on friendly terms with nature, as much as such an arrangement is possible, beneficial and needed. Under no circumstances can people in any endeavor of theirs declare a war on the natural environment, because, on account of many a physical, mental and emotional weakness of theirs and their actual total dependence on the environment, humankind, and nobody else, is bound to emerge at all times as a dire loser.

The natural environment is simultaneously an obstruction and help, and architects seek both to invite its aid and to drive back its attacks. If rightly conceived and seriously pondered, the placement and form of edifices in relation to their sites with arrangement of their axes and spaces may well be turned into a device for controlling natural light, ventilation, heating, cooling, insulation, acoustics, and so on.

The same philosophy is to be attached – perhaps in a more forceful and compelling mode – to the spiritual dimension of the relationship between the built and natural environment, as it concerns one’s well-being in both this world and in the hereafter. As it goes along with the objectives of the Islamic law – that is, preserving the religion, self, psychological and intellectual strength, progeny and wealth (individual, societal and natural) – peaceful and harmonious coexistence with nature, in the spiritual sense of the term, is, furthermore, at the core of the Muslim’s religious existence.

As a result of such a powerful religious consciousness and zeal, the Muslims developed in the field of architecture a culture of covering all surfaces with certain designs aimed at drawing the attention from the upshots of human endeavors to a higher order of expression and meaning.

The Muslim builder, thus, intends to humbly demonstrate that he harbors no might, defiance or self assertion when it comes to appropriating of and acting in space that does not belong to him; it belongs to Allah the Almighty, the rightful owner of all creation.

The Muslim builder, furthermore, tends thus to depict himself – as do the users of buildings – as a servant rather than a ‘master’, as a trustee rather than an owner, and, last but not least, as a modest mortal rather than a pretentious ‘creator’.

Decoration in Islamic Architecture

In Muslim buildings, therefore, mass – time and again – is literally made invisible. This is achieved by covering it with stucco, tile, wood and other materials that transfigure the mass into something radically and totally new and different.

Buildings simply appear as though enveloped within dissimilar pleasing, dynamic and contemplation-provoking webs of colored decoration. Sometimes when no rich decoration with plentiful motifs and themes is used on a building’s surfaces, due to the lack of, say, materials, expertise, resources, or even interest, other practical alternatives are then conceived instead, so as to satisfy the same Islamic aesthetic taste.

Some of such alternatives are wide-ranging brick patterning, when brick is a major building material; the clever use of marble and stone in bands of contrasting colors, when stone is a major building material; laying emphasis on ingenious symmetry in design as well as in organization of inner spaces and architectural motifs, and so on.

When touching on the subject of decoration in Islamic architecture, its techniques, language and materials, Ibn Khaldun naturally concluded: “Thus, the walls come to look like colorful flower beds.”

Islamic Architecture: Between Culture and Faith - About Islam


Islamic buildings thus serve as an augmentation and intensification of the spiritual paradigm of the existing natural setting. One of the primary goals of such buildings is that they meet and facilitate the spiritual exigencies of humankind, thus functioning as spiritual centers with diverse types of activities that are focused on a unified objective.

Via erecting buildings, the Muslims acknowledge Allah alone, not themselves. Via subjecting their buildings to the requirements of divinity, the Muslims verify that serving Allah and realizing the noble purpose of existence He has set for them is all that matters to them in life.

Everything else is secondary and its significance in the hierarchy of human interests is viewed through the prism of the former. It follows that if the whole earth is categorized as a place of worship, and if the Islamic built environment is meant to signify a divinely guided human-made extension of the spiritual patterns of nature, Allah’s physical realm, then the Islamic built environment, which lives up to its mark, can to some extent be depicted as a place of worship as well.

Nature and Human-Made Environment

Buildings are not an actual creation, in the sense that they are perceived and brought into existence out of nothing – as mentioned earlier in a different context. Buildings are but the result of processing certain dimensions of the natural world. Even this could never be possible if human beings do not avail themselves of various physical, intellectual and psychological abilities which Allah has bestowed upon them.

Hence, the human-made environment, in fact, consists of the natural elements that have been used, reused, manipulated and processed.

Human beings are just customers, ‘manipulators’ and ‘processors’, so to speak. The built environment is not a product or creation of people, in the real sense of the word, nor are the people the real ‘creators’ and owners of their built environment.

Both the natural ingredients and humankind’s abilities and talents, which are exploited for creating a built environment, are completely Allah’s. They are seen as a divine loan to humankind. The loan can be settled only when it is subjected for the goals sanctioned by the loan-giver, that is, Allah.

It is thus only natural that Islamic buildings are intended to be compatible with the natural world from which they originated and within which they operate. They intend to neither cause any harm to nature’s flawless equilibrium, always trying to sustain it, nor to over-impose themselves on the existing natural landscapes.

The presence of Islamic buildings in nature is neither seen as abrupt, disruptive or detrimental an experience. They strive to integrate themselves with the surrounding natural laws and patterns, rather than be an alien addition to the existing surroundings, defying its laws and qualities.

Moreover, Islamic buildings are executed in such a way as to endorse the spiritual patterns and scheme of life. They are made as beautiful, but at the core of their beauty is the embodiment of the Islamic message. Furthermore, they reflect, invite and lead to the contemplation of the infinite beauty of Allah, the source and sustainer of all other forms of beauty.

Such is the power of the beauty of Islamic buildings that it helps one distinguish the real forms of beauty from the counterfeit ones. In the long run, one is helped in distinguishing the real and most productive of life’s concerns and pursuits from the phony and deceptive ones.

Islamic Architecture: Between Culture and Faith - About Islam


Finally, if one successfully grasps the spirit of Islamic beauty typified in Islamic art and architecture, one is thus greatly aided while trying to put their own spiritual and physical beauty into its proper perspective, seeing it in its most proper light vis-à-vis the beauty of other people, nature, the whole universe and Allah. As a result, one’s relations with fellow humans, nature and Allah will become friendly, sound and productive.

Owing to this spiritual component that underpins the Islamic built environment, Islamic buildings possess a remarkable and powerful spirit. If one thoroughly observes a building in Islam one can identify the major spiritual forces that permeate and administrate the phenomenon of life taken as a whole. Every aspect of a building suggests the infinite presence, greatness and compassion of Allah, inviting and leading to Him by means of following His flawless words and treading the path He has charted for humankind.

The feeling that overwhelms the vigilant observer of an authentic building in Islam is, as a matter of fact, a voice coming from their natural disposition that always reacts in this manner when no barrier stands between it and an authentic sign, voice or testimony of the divine. This is so because more than a few paradigms that dominate the spiritual well-being of the natural kingdoms have been integrated into the quintessence of the Islamic build environment, the latter functioning as an endorsement and intensification of the former.

Thus, the spiritual paradigms of human beings are easily compatible with those of the rest of creation: some paradigms are identical, the rest are dissimilar but complementary to one other. No discrepancy of any nature can be found between the three namely, the natural world, the Islamic built environment and the faithful servants of Allah.

Via its form and function, Islamic architecture promotes all the virtues with which one is expected to adorn oneself. In the forefront of these virtues stand humbleness, environmental protection, generosity towards others and having the highest respect for Allah, the source of all beauty and good.

In the same vein, Islamic architecture does its best to stifle and weed out some of the most spiteful vices such as, haughtiness, selfishness, profligacy, disobedience, environmental destruction and discrimination between people. Buildings are thus transformed into the instruments of promoting good and suppressing evil and all its corresponding agents.

In the manners in which such buildings are designed, planned and their spaces arranged and made use of, they will become pertinent to life rather than being useless and obsolete.

This makes it easier for the users to connect with the values and ideals associated with the building, and hence – if the users are Muslim – these incorporated values and ideals will serve as a constant reminder to the teachings and principals of Islam.

The Muslims’ strong bond between the powerful Islamic spirit of the building and their own souls, will thus enable them to benefit from such an affable, productive and consequential relationship, particularly if the process of building and the attention to detail are thorough and based on the principles and values of Islam.

Islamic Architecture Promoting the Islamic Values

Islamic buildings are richly decorated in order to suggest and, as much as possible, contribute to the negation of the repugnant side of humans and life.

A building suggests infinity rather than the temporal, and the divine rather than the terrestrial. It promotes the values and standards for which the function of a building has been perceived, and for which, in turn, erecting a building has been undertaken.

In Islamic buildings, Allah is to be worshipped and glorified, and humankind is to be enlightened, contained, demystified and brought down to earth, yet never belittled and disrespected.

Islamic buildings do not promote their architects, planners and structural engineers. Nor do they promote the social status and wealth of their users, for all these are rendered irrelevant when juxtaposed with the highest meaning of things and events. This contributes to creating an unparalleled environment of excellence, benevolence, equality and equity inside the parameters of the genuine Islamic built environment where the poor, disabled and unfortunate ones have little to worry about.

Apart from satisfying the basic needs of the poor and underprivileged ones, the authentic Islamic built environment with the religious and socio-economic climate that pervades it also makes it difficult for them to develop an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the other sections of society.

While transforming Islamic buildings into the means of promoting the values of Islam, everyone is thus invited to share the spiritual and psychological benefits generated by the upshots of the strength of Islamic art and architecture.

Nobody is deliberately either favored or neglected. This is readily apparent not only in Islamic public buildings but also in private ones. For instance, being inspired by the Prophet’s words that true believers are those who display maximum hospitality to their guests, the Muslims are keen to generously share in their houses, through the appealing means of art and architecture, Allah’s blessings and gifts with their visitors. It is for no other reason than for this that the guest room in the houses of most Islamic regions is generally the most decorated room in the house.

The most fundamental element for the realization of equilibrium between buildings and nature is a building’s function, which is the real ornament in buildings, just as good character and good deeds are the real and best ornament of a person.

Central to Islamic architecture is function and serviceability. The overall physical appearance is secondary in value.

Literal symbolism, as found in many cultures where a complex vocabulary of representational art that is mainly symbolic and narrative in nature has been evolved, has no place in authentic Islamic art and architecture. In fact, it has no place in Islam taken as a whole.

However, if, after all, something can be singled out as a symbol of the Islamic message then it is beautiful character and excellent actions. By analogy, the overriding symbol of Islamic architecture can only be the function, overall performance and serviceability that are in full accordance with the spirit of Islam.

It follows that central to the Islamic ethos is a principle according to which those who are most righteous are the best persons in the sight of Allah.

About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].