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Architectural Myths #1: “Islamic Architecture”

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The term “Islamic Architecture” is seen by many scholars and architects as a certain architectural style that most of the buildings in the Islamic World and others are still designed according to. They tend to believe, and make others believe too, that in order for a building to be of an “Islamic Style” it has to have certain physical components thought to have been created by Muslims, present in that building. However, many buildings that have all of those components are not called “Islamic Architecture”. These buildings did not try to be Islamic in style.  Most of these were built in ancient times and, although they have all the components of an Islamic Architecture building, those components were used to make the building stand using whatever building technology that was available at the time and this is the only reason why they have them. On the other hand, many buildings that do not have any of these component are still religious Islamic buildings that serve the Muslim communities in many parts of the world. Still others have none of these components but are still considered to be of Islamic style.

Take, for example, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. The Hagia Sophia was first constructed in the year 360. Since then, it has been used as a Cathedral for Constantinople first, a Cathedral of the Latin Empire second, a Mosque under the rule of Ottomans third, and a museum for tourists today. Hagia Sophia was first designed to be a church in Constantinople and according to A) whatever materials, building techniques, workmanship, and climate they had in Byzantium, and B) whatever opportunity there was for some “Byzantine”, “Christian”, etc. decoration or ornamentation as statements to be made by the rulers of Constantinople who wanted to show-off their power at that time. Most of what is standing today was completed in the year 537, which is 73 years before the rise of Islam, and was designed by two non Muslim people – the physicist Isidore of Miletus and the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles. The final outcome was a building that: has one huge and very significant dome, with many smaller domes surrounding it, a large number of arches both inside and outside of the building, was symmetrical on at least one of it’s axises, and finally had many ornate columns inside as well as outside. At the time, The Hagia Sophia had most of the physical characteristics required for a building to be Islamic (by today’s standards) although it was built years before the rise of Islam. This leads to the conclusion that the core physical components of an “Islamic Architecture” building, were actually created and invented by non Muslim architects, not while under Muslim rule, and before the rise of Islam anyway. The Hagia Sophia is seen by many historians, architects, and theorists as the symbol for “Islamic Architecture”, and many architects are use it as an example of a Mosque or building that represents the “greatness” of the Islamic Architecture. This is all despite it being designed to be a cathedral and not a mosque, it not being designed under Muslim rule, and not even designed by Muslim architects which would have been be impossible 73 years before the first Muslims.

A section of the original architecture of Hagia Sophia (source: Wikipedia)

Following on from this, we can see that there are now plenty of mosques and other types of buildings that took the Hagia Sophia as a symbol and example to follow when it comes to design something in an Islamic style. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo is a good example to begin with. The mosque, as ordered by Muhammad Ali, was designed according to the “Ottoman” style, which is said to be one of the forms of Islamic Architecture. Looking at the building, we can see that it looks much like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It has a large dome surrounded by smaller domes below it, it is symmetrical on at least one of its axes, it has many columns, both necessary and unnecessary on its interior and exterior, and those columns are connected to each other by very ornate arches.

Mohamad Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.

Following the same sequence, Al Noor Mosque in Sharjah has been designed in exactly same way. It was designed to have the same “Ottoman” style that Hagia Sophia in Turkey was said to have.

Al Noor Mosque, Sharjah, UAE.

Funny that. If you look at the surroundings of the mosque, you can see that some people have “moved on”. While others, haven’t.

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Al Andalus – the pride of Muslim engineering and design. One can clearly see that it is very different from the previous examples of the Islamic architectural style. This would be sufficient to destroy the whole theory that Islamic Architecture exists as a distinct style. But for the time being, let’s assume that it doesn’t.

According to most historians, Abd-ar-Rahman I was the only surviving Ummayad prince who survived from the Abbasids, and later on established his own capital in Cordoba. It is also known that he brought the architecture style at Damascus during the Ummayad dynasty there, which was not much different from the Byzantine Architecture in Syria before the Muslims took over it in 635. One of the most famous monuments built in Cordoba at the time was Cordoba Grand Mosque.

Great Mosque in Cordoba

Great Mosque in Cordoba from a different angle.

Ummayad Mosque in Damascus

The mosque was originally the other half of the Christian Visigothic church of St. Vincent that Abd-ur-Rahman purchased when he became ruler of Cordoba. Since 784, it underwent many alterations and modifications to remake it as a mosque and, over that time, it borrowed some local  architectural elements such as the horseshoe arch. The 856 columns that the mosque had, were salvaged from the Roman temple that had occupied the site previously. The colored vissoirs of the arches were inspired by the Dome of The Rock in Jerusalem. Also, one can clearly notice that the Great Mosque in Cordoba and the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus are not that different. This is because Abd-ar-Rahman I who ordered the building of the Cordoba Mosque, wanted it to be like the Ummayad mosque in Damascus in some way. And so it was, which is fine.

Speaking of that, the architecture of the Al Hambra, which many Muslims look at as their pride, and the most amazing thing ever built, was not much different from anything that had been built before.

Al Hambra

A paranomic view of Granada.

doesn’t look that much different from the buildings surrounding it. The greatest differences are for the decoration of the interior, as is often typical when clients have a lot of money to spend. This means that might be an “Islamic Art” since we’re talking about the interior decoration here, but that will bring up the question of what is Art, and what is Architecture. I don’t think they’re different really, in that most of the time, both exist to suck up people’s money when they have too much of it.

So we conclude from all this, that Islamic Architecture, wherever it was, was not much different from anything else at the time. As rulers, Muslims wanted to display their power, money, and fame, and hired architects to do this for them. After all, this is what architects mostly do.

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If Islamic Architecture is a myth in terms of its architectural means, then someone might still say “But what about Islam as a religion? Didn’t it affect buildings that were built under Muslim rule?” The answer is “No, it didnt.” In fact, Islam as a religion is against all what we see in “Islamic Architecture” buildings.

Many of the mosques, and many of the new ones have elements that Islam either disproves of or forbids. There are many verses in the Holy Quran that forbid opulence in general and consider it a very un-Islamic thing. Opulence in mosques that have been built before and still get built till today can be clearly seen in the fancy, unneeded and very expensive ornamentation that covers the walls, domes, and columns. This opulence may extend to include the very pricey and luxurious carpets and marble usually used to cover the floors of mosques. In fact, adding all these things to a place of worship may, and probably will, distract Muslims from their one and only focus, Allah. That is why there were many sayings by the Prophet Muhammad warning people from ornamenting their houses of prayer. Moreover, when the 2nd Caliph, Umar ibn Al Khattab, wanted to rebuild the Prophet’s Mosque in Al Madina, he ordered who ever was responsible for doing the job to “cover the people from the rain, and to not make red nor make blue” as a sign for not adding anything unnecessary to the mosque. So, from this, we can see that the so called “Islamic Architecture” not only has nothing to do with Islam as a religion but is, in fact, completely and entirely against it.

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There are many mosques and buildings in the Islamic World that serve the Muslim community but do not have any of these so-called Islamic Architecture components. The Great Mosque in Mali was first constructed in 1280. It was built on a raised plinth platform of rectangular sun-dried mud bricks that are held together by mud mortar and plastered over with mud. Its walls vary in thickness between sixteen and twenty four inches. Basically, it had been built according to whatever technology and building materials were available at that time and the people who built it certainly did not think much about making it look “Islamic”.  There are plenty of buildings serving Muslim all over the world and that do not have any traditional “Islamic” components in them. There are mosques in China that one can’t even tell that they are even mosques when they actually are. We decide that one building represents Islamic Architecture just because it is more “beautiful” and the other one does not because “it doesn’t look so good”, even whilst knowing that both buildings serve the Muslims community equally well.

The Great Mosque in Mali

Finally, if buildings like these are to be called “Islamic Architecture” then many buildings in the world can also be called Islamic Architecture for the same reasons. The Pyramids are Islamic Architecture because they are “amazing” and symmetrical. The Pantheon is Islamic Architecture because it has one big fancy dome that lets light come through and “light + feelings + worship = sacred = Islamic”. The Paris L’arc de Triumph is Islamic Architecture as well, since it is one big ornamented arch, which is a major component of Islamic Architecture. The Parthenon in Athens is Islamic Architecture because it has many fancy columns all over it. Following the same logic, anything with a dome, arches, and fancy columns can be said to be Islamic Architecture.

Saying that we have to make a mosque in a certain way, so that the prayers will have a spiritual feeling inside is wrong since you can feel whatever you want to feel if you have conviction in your heart. Early Muslims used to pray under palm trees and they were much better Muslims that we will ever be even though they didn’t have any sort of ornamentation in their “mosques”.

Bashar Al Shawa

6 thoughts on “Architectural Myths #1: “Islamic Architecture”

  1. Bashar Al Shawa Post author

    As I wrote in my post, the only way that Islam could possibly affect a building is either in the interior planning or by NOT making it decorative and ornamental like many of the buildings that are considered to be ‘Islamic Architecture’. Buildings have many other things (such as technology, climate, local materials, local culture, economics, statements to be made) that affect the final shape of the building more than Islam could and so it would be wrong to call them Islamic.

    Even if the two things I mentioned were the biggest contributor to the final shape of the building, the first one (interior planning) is not how the term Islamic Architecture is being used. And the second one (ornamentation) is something not recommended by Islam anyway. What happens is that people look at a building with columns and domes and unthinkingly call it “Islamic Architecture” and that’s what I find irritating.

    Reply
  2. Pika-Pi

    Well I have a lot of time :D better spend it doing something useful than sleeping ~

    I don’t agree, Ottomans didn’t just build their Mosques this way because it’s the best way structurally at that time in that region. I simply think they wanted to make a pattern in their Mosques similar to Hagia Sofia’s to show their dominance in that region after they took control over the land, and how they transferred that huge cathedral to a mosque… There are many improvements structurally in their mosques, but they are very similar in appearance to Hagia Sofia.

    Nope, I meant the high point of Umayyads in Andalusia, and I totally agree with you on everything else you’ve said.

    Reply
  3. Bashar Al Shawa Post author

    Thank you Pika-Pi for taking the time to write such a long comment. I hope my response will make things clearer.

    I didn’t say that Hagia Sophia is Islamic Architecture, but it has all the elements that people think are an invention of Muslims, as well as all the characteristics that people think differentiates Islamic Architecture buildings from others. The non-muslim people who built Hagia Sophia, probably built it like that because it was the best way to build such big structures at the time. And the people after them who wanted to have their own big structures to show their importance there, also used the techniques known to be useful in that part of the world. I don’t see it as the result of artistic ‘influence’. For example, these days, most buildings are built with columns and slabs – it’s just a good way to build buildings.

    It’s the people who believe in Islamic Architecture as a distinct style who are the ones that are separating styles, not me. Like you, I also think that there was a two-way exchange between European and Arab builders.

    I almost agree on your third point. But if by ‘certain time’ you mean the ‘high point’ of the Muslim Empire, then even then there were many different buildings and styles and not one single style that we can call ‘Islamic’. For example, Al Hambra has no domes whilst many others have, even though all were built by Muslims. If this proves anything, then it is that their religion did not affect the way they built it. It might be more correctly called Architectures of the Muslim Empire.

    Regarding Al Hambra, there are some things about it that are very amazing to me, and I will be writing about those in a future post.

    Reply
  4. Pika-Pi

    1) Hagia Sofia isn’t considered as an example of Islamic Architecture but it was a big influence on Ottoman Architecture, and yes they tried as hard as they could to mimic Hagia Sofia, and they actually managed to innovate a lot of architectural elements, some of the ottoman buildings surpassed the greatness of Hagia Sofia in my opinion like Selimiye mosque for example, there is a much lighter feeling to this building.

    2) One thing that I didn’t like in your writing is how you try to separate the elements of each style architecture, in fact they all have a connection somehow and they all have some effects on the other types, some Islamic techniques were created by them but then they were developed by Christians in Europe, and some techniques were created by Christians in Europe and then developed by Muslims.

    3) We have to keep in my mind that Islam is a religion, and in each part of the Islamic country, there are people with different backgrounds and different building techniques. For example, Islamic architecture in India was highly affected by Hinduism and it’s so obvious in some buildings, too. and each dynasty or region of the Islamic empire had its own characteristics, Islamic architecture is a term for buildings that were built in a certain period of time by Muslims, and there are some certain elements that are shown repetitively in the buildings of this era.

    lastly, I am very displeased with this statement “Speaking of that, the architecture of the Al Hambra, which many Muslims look at as their pride, and the most amazing thing ever built, was not much different from anything that had been built before.” – Qasr Al-Hambra to me is an amazing example of merging cultures, it is to me a connection between all the cultures surrounding Andalusia. It shows the greatness of the Ummayyad empire in Andalusia in that time. It is influenced by Byzantine, Abbasid, Ummayyad and many other styles of architecture. So YES It is different from everything that had been built before. Besides, It has my favorite interior decoration for a dome ever! – in the hall of the Abencerrajes.

    Reply

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