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Islamic Architecture - An Appreciation
- By Sakar Datoo
Whether in colour, or clay, or stone,
Whether by the harp, or a letter or sound,
The true miracle of art is shown when
nourished by the heart’s blood."Allama IqbalSince the establishment of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture some two
decades ago as an endeavour of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, there has
been increasing awareness and appreciation of Islamic Art and
As is known to most of us, the winners of the Seventh Cycle of the Aga
Khan Award for Architecture were announced at the ceremony held on 9th
October,l998 in the gardens of Alhambra, itself one of famous monuments
of Islamic Architecture in the West.
As the event dominates the news at this time, I am prompted to share my
perceptions and appreciation, amateur albeit, on the subject of Islamic
In the year 622 AD, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) migrated (Hijrat) to the city
of Yatrib(which later became Medina). There, a community of believers
who had accepted Islam prayed in the compound of the Holy
Prophet(SAW)’s house. The congregational prayers of this new community
in this simple setting - "an enclosed oblong courtyard with huts…along
one side wall and a rough portico(the zulla, originally for shade) at
one end for the followers" - established the mosque form. This
repetition of the plan of the Prophet (SAW)’s house features in almost
all mosques, comprising essentially of an enclosed courtyard, a building
at one end for prayer, and arcades on the sides.
It is observed that the first followers of the Holy Prophet(SAW), that
is, the Arabs as such, had no native artistic traditions. As Islam
spread, its art forms developed and were modified by the different
climatic conditions and materials that were available in the lands where
Islam spread, and adapting indigenous art styles.
Actually, Islamic Art developed from many sources. Roman, then Early
Christian, and Byzantine styles were taken over in early Islamic
architecture. The influence of Sassanian art - the architectural and
decorative styles of pre-Islamic Persia - became prominent. The Turks
and the Mongols brought in Central Asian influences on styles. Thus,
motifs from one area soon became universal in the vast Islamic world.
The development of Islamic art began in the 7th century, having started
with the early leaders of Islam, the Ummayad Caliphs(661-750) who spread
Islam from Syria to Spain.Then came the Abbasid Caliphs (750-1258) who
became well-known for their promotion of learning and culture. Art also
flourished under Ottoman Turks, Seljuk Turks who ruled Iran in the 11th
and 12th centuries. Earlier in Egypt and Syria, distinctive styles were
associated with the Fatimid reign(909-1171)
To be sure, when we speak of Islamic Art, we do not simply mean
Architecture, for Islamic Art encompasses architecture, decorative art,
pottery, glass, calligraphy, painting, textiles,etc. However, this essay
is an attempt to look at religious and secular architecture in Islam
from a layman’s eye.
In Spain, at Alhambra, at the ceremony held to announce the winners of
the Aga Khan Award for Architecture - 1998, His Highness the Aga Khan
explained how "skill, knowledge and vision in the realms of architecture
were once a hall-mark of Islamic civilizations, and central to the
identity of their peoples."
Islam moulded the dominant character of its art in two respects, at
least. First, it taught man that he was the highest form of creation in
all the world - ‘Ashraful Makhluqat’. This meant that he was to aspire
to lofty heights, and not to the conditions of lower objects:
"Do you not see that Allah has made what is
in the heavens and what is in the earth subservient
to you, and made complete to you His favours
outwardly and inwardly?" (31:20)
Secondly, man was taught to avoid "exalting the physical fact above the
spiritual." He was not to focus attention on his bodily aspect but to
point to "some universal idea beyond himself," and to remember that this
life after all was transitory. This philosophy translated into the works
of the architects of Islam who could weave "such strange enchantment
through domes and minars." They could "suggest the cool splendour of
moonlight by means of columns and arcades," and over and above that, it
was to "delight the heart with laughing water,…to keep the vision agog
with racing surface lines, or to sober it with broad sweeps of gently
graded masses." Indeed, Islamic architecture was a reflection of Islam:
"the sacred message of Allah was inscribed upon its walls, in the very
shape of the arch was the Peace prescribed by Islam."
Islamic architecture can be divided in religious and secular
structures. As already stated earlier, the relatively simple rituals of
Islam gave rise to a unique religious architecture in the forms of the
mosque(masjid) and the madressah or religious school, and then the
mausoleum which served a dual purpose - as a tomb for a ruler or a holy
man and as a symbol of political power. In the realm of secular
architecture come the palaces, caravansaries and cities.
To begin with, the mosque - a place of community gathering and prayer,
was "the stronghold of the spirit, the refreshment of the tired body,
and the confirmation of the doubting mind. In the courtyard of the
mosque circumscribed by aisles, the believer could always glimpse the
silent serenity of the sky and remain in complete oblivion to the
humdrum world outside."
This unique religious edifice had various prominent features - the
‘Mihrab’ which identifies the Qibla within the mosque; enclosed
‘Courtyard’ with arcades at the side, and as already mentioned earlier,
containing all the basic features of the Prophet(SAW)’s house at Medina.
And then, there is the ‘Minaret.’ During the time of the Holy
Prophet(SAW), the call to prayer was made from the rooftop, following
the Jewish practice of blowing the ram’s horn or the early Christian use
of a clapper to summon the worshippers. It is believed that a Syrian
tradition of marking the corners of a building by four short towers was
the beginning of the ‘Minaret’ from which the muezzin gave the call to
prayer. The best preserved example of an early courtyard mosque with a
minaret is the Great Mosque at Damascus(Syria).
An outstandingly prominent feature of the mosque is the ‘Dome.’ Dome of
the Rock at Jerussalem is considered to be a great religious structure
of the world as it marks the spot where, according to tradition, the
Holy Prophet(SAW) embarked upon Meraj. Then, there is the ‘Mimbar’
(pulpit) the first use of which was in the mosque of Medina, generally
used for preaching and addressing the congregation present in the
Under the Abbasids, a new kind of religious building , the
‘Madressah’(religious seminary) came into being in eastern Iran. The
Madressah have eyvans or halls on four sides(with a larger one in front
of the Qibla), connected by two-story arcades which lead to dormitories.
The 11th century Friday Mosque at Isphahan in Iran, is an early great
example of madressah-mosque.
In spite of the Islamic restrictions on the construction of elaborate
mausoleums, tombs, erected as the symbols of the power of departed
leaders, became important structures of Islamic architecture. The most
outstanding example of this form is the Taj Mahal at Agra in India which
"as formal composition is the living fulfilment of Classicism with its
well-mannered grace and its mature restraint," an everlasting reminder
of the "grandest alliance between man and nature…pregnant with the drama
of love and death, those twin accompaniments of greatness in art."
In secular architecture, true to the spirit of Hadith: "God is beautiful
and He loves beauty," the Ummayad, Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphs and their
families built magnificent palaces. During Ummayad and early Abbasid
eras, the caliphs’ families built desert palaces in Syria and Iraq some
of which had hunting parks - like those of the Sassanian kings - or they
had domed baths, derived from late Roman types of buildings. These
palaces demonstrate the Western and Eastern artistic influences which
characterized Islamic art.
Under the Abbasids, an entire city, Samarra, was started - though not
finished- near Baghdad in Iraq. Planned cities such as Samarra and
Fustat(in Egypt) are notable for their "efficiently designed aqueducts
and sewers," and sanitary facilities.
Palace complexes resembling Samarra, were also built at Cairo, Spain,
North Africa, and in Istanbul, Turkey. The tradition continued in the
14th century which produced a marvellous edifice, the Alhambra Palace of
the Moorish kings at Granada, Spain. An outstanding feature of this
palace is the Court of the Lions with a fountain surrounded by stone
lions from which water spouts.
The last great buildings were those erected by the Safavids in Iran.
Their contributions to secular architecture included bridges, polo
grounds and palaces. And then, there were the caravansaries or rest
houses which were contributed by the Seljuks. These rest houses were for
travellers, built along the caravan routes. Other examples associated
with the history of Islamic architecture were public baths, bazaars and
gardens as well as garden pavillions.
As far as the architectural decoration was concerned in Islamic
architecture, plaster, patterned brickwork and tile were used as
"decorative media." Splendid molded mihrab facings, composed of
"columnar bands of Quranic inscriptions" were used for tiles. Tiles in
various shapes were fitted together into wall panels. "Timurid
architecture featured mihrab coverings of brilliant tile mosaic, in
which the individual colours were fired separately to achieve their
fullest intensity." Tiles became so prominent an element of decoration
in the Islamic architecture that tile industry was established in Turkey
and Iran in the 15th century, and while new buildings received elegant
tile settings, even the older buildings were redecorated with tiles.
These tiles were in gold and green, and different colours were blended
together in patterns.
Other examples of decoration in Islamic architecture comprised wood
carving used on mimbars, doors and windows. Stone reliefs and marble
inlays could be found in Spain, Turkey and Egypt.
In addition to the numerous variety of forms - the arches, domes and
vaults that were prominent features of Islamic architecture, the Iranian
architects were the first to use colour with great boldness and taste on
the exteriors of the buildings.
One superb aspect of architectural splendour was the use of
gold-plating. Gold was used profusely for ornamenting buildings both
religious as well as secular. Gold-plating was seen mainly in Syria, in
Palestine, in Iran, in Byzantine Rome and in India. Islam also applied
this medium in palaces and sanctuaries. The belief was that gold had a
kinship with the colour of the sun and it was with the help of the sun
that the effect of gold was enhanced. Obviously therefore, the aim was
"to dazzle the eye of the beholder" in awe and splendour!
At this juncture now, let us also look at the accounts of "portable
palaces" in Islam! Accustomed to the comforts of the Court, the Muslim
kings on the march created improvised moving palaces.
One of the first accounts of such a palace dates back to the 11th
century. "It was a large house of silver…composed of collapsible
sections which could be ‘folded up or expanded, let down or raised with
ease.’" This house was later captured by Mahmud of Ghazni.
Kublai Khan is known to have built his moveable palace of Shangtu in
1264. In 1405, the Emperor Timur had a portable wooden mosque in
Samarkand which he carried about in his travels. In India, when Muhammad
Tughluk went out hunting, he had "four wooden houses of two stories
carried in his train by 200 camels." Humayun, the Mughal Emperor, had "a
three storeyed palace with fitted timber walls and a golden dome." And
then there was the "colossal portable palace camp of Akbar, the
‘Gulalbar’ which required 400 carts to transport it!"
Finally, the Muslim builders exercised vigorous"creative vitality" in
the designing of princely palaces and prayer houses which have outlasted
the centuries. The "happy marriage of form and colour" which was such
that half a millenium of wear and tear has not succeeded in ageing or
eroding the edifices, is a permanent reminder that the Muslim architects
and artists achieved supreme glories under the aegis of Islam which
inspired them to express their finest sentiments! And as we enter the
new millenium, it is hoped these sentiments and the traditions would
continue to whet their appetite to conceive and produce masterpieces of
lasting beauty and majesty - no doubt, with "contemporary edge."
Art and Cities of Islam - R.A. Jairazbhoy
Traditions of Respect - A British Council Publication
The Holy Quran
Aga Khan Award for Architecture Website
Islamic Art & Architecture - Deborah Thompson
Mowlana Hazar Imam Interviewed about the Architecture Award
An Islamic Reminder of the Sacred in Design
Press Release from Aiglemont
Aga Khan Award for Architecture Website 1998
Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture Website
Aga Khan Architecture Award 1998 Ceremony BBC News
History of the Imams Over 1400 Glorious years!
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