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The Relationship Between Spirituality and Sustainability in Islam

Humans are not the only creatures that build. Many a creature that we classify low down the hierarchy of the animal kingdom, such as bees and ants, build elaborate structures.

However, it has been suggested that it is awareness, thinking and imagination that single out humans as superior to other animals in architectural output.

While the rest of creation acts on the environment instinctively with no reasoning or training — as preordained by God, the Creator of the universe — humans do the same willingly and at their own discretion.

Since their actions are preceded by thinking, rationalizing and beliefs, human beings clearly demonstrate through acts of building — and every other engagement of theirs — their philosophy of and outlook on, life and reality.

The relationship between the two, that is, people’s outlook on life and the disposition of their actions, including building, is causal, the former always being the cause of the latter.

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No sooner does a paradigm shift occur in one’s worldview, no matter how (in)significant, a corresponding change accordingly ensues in the very essence and character of one’s performances.

It reveals and immortalizes one’s actual relationship with his own self, his peers, other creatures and, of course, with his Creator and Lord.

Based on his free will, awareness and imagination, man builds edifices in various shapes and sizes and with various function patterns in order to facilitate, nurture and motivate his copious life activities.

The existence of man cannot be imagined without the existence of a built environment. The relationship between the two is a fundamental and intimate one.

Therefore, no phase of man’s presence on earth could be imagined to be devoid of building activities, irrespective of their scale, simplicity and sophistication.

This principle applies to all including the very first man and prophet on earth, Adam, who is said to have built the first House of worship, that is, al-Masjid al-Haram or Baytullah (the House of God).

Exactly forty years following the completion of al-Masjid al-Haram, either Adam himself or some of his descendants were instructed to proceed to a designated location (later Jerusalem or Bayt al-Maqdis) and build there al-Masjid al-Aqsa, the second mosque on earth. (Sahih al-Bukhari)

Ibn Khaldun rightly observed that building is a basis of civilization and is of the most indispensable crafts which man ought to gain knowledge of:

“This (architecture) is the first and oldest craft of sedentary civilization. It is the knowledge of how to go about using houses and mansions for cover and shelter.

This is because man has the natural disposition to reflect upon the outcome of things. Thus, it is unavoidable that he must reflect upon how to avert the harm arising from heat and cold by using houses which have walls and roofs to intervene between him and those things on all sides. This natural disposition to think, which is the real meaning of humanity, exists among (men) in different degrees…”

Le Corbusier also remarked:

Architecture is one of the most urgent needs of man, for the house has always been the indispensable and first tool that he has forged for himself. Man’s stock of tools marks out the stages of civilization, the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. Tools are the result of successive improvement; the effort of all generations is embodied in them. The tool is the direct and immediate expression of progress; it gives man essential assistance and essential freedom also…”

Koca Mimar Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman golden age serving under three sultans and for many one of the greatest architects in Islamic civilization, said:

“It is obvious and proven to men of intelligence and wisdom and persons of understanding and vision that building with water and clay being an auspicious art, the Children of Adam felt an aversion to mountains and caves and from the beginning were inclined to cities and villages. And because human beings are by nature civilized, they invented day-by-day many types of buildings, and refinement increased”.

While erecting buildings for himself, God’s vicegerent on earth in fact creates a wide range of facilities aimed at smoothing the progress of the realization of his heavenly purpose on earth.

Buildings are thus subjected to serve together with their occupants an elevated order of things and meanings. They are the means and ground for worship, which is man’s principal task.

Though serving him and his wants, God’s vicegerent on earth always sees his buildings in an additional light, not seen by those who are bogged down with and blinded by fervently pursuing some lowly material gains. He sees them as an extension of the existing universal setting, God’s physical realm, where all components, irrespective of their sizes, functions or positions, incessantly worship God.

Buildings are thus seen as serving God rather than man. Their services to man even though genuine and real are rather relative.

This is so because the whole universe constitutes a mosque (masjid), so to speak, with everything in it, save a group of men and Jinns, voluntarily singing in unison God’s praises and celebrating His glory with neither fatigue nor boredom ever befalling them, Islamic architecture aspires to add to this exhilarating set-up.

It aspires to endorse the divine spiritual standards and expand them to the spheres of human influences, thus making them more easily approachable and perceptible by more people with different interests and aptitudes.

Hence, Islamic architecture apart from facilitating man’s vicegerency mission also promotes as well as spawns people’s interest in it.

Moreover, when building an edifice, the Muslim architect, designer and structural engineer charged with the vicegerency spirit 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 function and outward appearance: will it complement or contrast with it? Will it go well with it, or will it appear as if something of a misfit, an oddity, or even an offensiveness?

Concerning function, a Muslim architect always exerts himself to ensure that a new structure serves a noble purpose. It does not matter whether it is a mosque, school, dwelling, caravanserai, hospital, fountain and mausoleum. It is only God that is meant to be worshiped and adored.

In this way, every new structure even though man-made, signifies a conformation and even enhancement of the aura generated by the character and role of the natural world.

Instead of standing alone amidst the marvels of God’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. It identifies its status vis-à-vis the other worldliness with that of the natural sensations around it.

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

Although removed from their original contexts, the building materials from nature are still utilized for some other perfectly fitting goals related to man.

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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].