Architecture Myths #1: “Islamic Architecture”
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.
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.
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.
Funny that. If you look at the surroundings of the mosque, you can see that some people have “moved on”. While others, haven’t.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.