True Islamic Architecture: An authentic minimalist expression and the House & Mosque of the Prophet, Madinah AH1-10
The topic of Islamic Architecture is a fascinating one indeed. True Islamic architecture is based on an ultimately refined minimalism that seeks to use financial resources for more important issues such as feeding the poor and strengthening the Ummah (community of believers), not wasting money on buildings on areas such as decoration and beauty. This is surprising because universally when one thinks of
Islamic architecture, it is the ostentatious buildings such as the Taj Mahal in Agra India, the Alhambra complex in Spain and Friday Mosque + square in Isfahan, Iran for example that first generally come to our mind. These buildings paradoxically express the decoration and beauty which leads us to a dilemma when we begin to understand Islamic architecture.
When one then begins to ask the question and research the subject what is Islamic architecture it then becomes clearer. The search is for true Islamic architecture as it was originally intended as opposed to the phenomenal architectural legacies we have today which I will label innovated Islamic architecture. This article will touch on this so that readers may gain this insight and develop a basic understanding of this aspect of architecture; True Islamic Architecture: An authentic minimalist expression. It is recognized that Jorn Utzon was fascinated with Islamic architecture and his own house he built whilst in Kuwait has been considered a model for modern residential Islamic architecture for some time now although he was nor is a Muslim himself. The Sydney Opera house tile system was derived from Islamic surface systems at the majestic Isfahan mosques. This should at the least give some weight to the architectural system (not style) of Islamic architecture in today’s architectural discourse.
So what is Islamic architecture and what is true Islamic architecture?
Islamic architecture is the entire range of architecture that has evolved from Islam as a social, cultural, political and religious life-system. Hence the term encompasses religious buildings as well as the secular historic and modern expressions as the production of all places that have come under the varying levels of Islamic influence. The term is taken today to mean the architecture built by or for Muslims, or that built in Islamic lands or under Islamic government.
The earliest example of true Islamic architecture we have today is the Kaaba in the sacred Masjid-Al Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This building was reportedly originally built by Abraham and his son Ishmael and has been rebuilt many times over the years, the most recent rebuilding by Prophet Muhammad. This also building reportedly stands on the site of the first temple erected for the worship of One God (monotheism) by Adam.
This article will deal with the Islamic architecture built after Prophet Muhammad which historically is the after the year 622AD. The source of Islamic architecture originally and correctly came from two sources of reverence in Islam: (1) The divine revelation of the Qur’an and (2) the authentically and historically documented life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Hadith). Buildings, typically Mosques built shortly after the reign of Prophet Muhammad and his Caliphate can be termed those adhering to true Islamic architectural principles where as after about 150 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, innovation began to occur within the Islamic architectural discipline, coinciding with the rapid increase in the wealth and power of the Islamic empire. It appeared that the Muslim architects began to forget the eternal wise words of their master Prophet Muhammad who strictly stipulated that buildings should be simple as possible: The barest austere livable; The cheapest and most temporary; The smallest and most undistinguished. This indeed defines true Islamic architecture; Allah (Arabic for Almighty God) states in the divine revelation the Qur’an;
“Do ye build a landmark
on every high place to amuse yourselves?
And do ye get for yourselves
fine buildings in the hope of
living therein (forever)?”
Here, along with many verses, He (Almighty God), is asking the question about the shortness of this life and futility of building large ostentatious buildings. For He asks whether we will live in them for ever, which of course the answer is no. We all know that life indeed is short and we will not live in our buildings forever. This is firmly supported by the many documented sayings of the Prophet Muhammad where he asked his community of believers (Muslims) in regards to building to build simply and humbly; To spend the money instead on feeding the orphan, the wayfarer, the needy, the hungry. When he came to build his own house, he openly stated that he had ‘no architectural ambitions’ and that,”..‘the biggest waste of a believers money is on his building…” When commencing his house in Medina after fleeing Mecca, he was documented in saying to his closest companions (sahaba);
”Build for me a room like the roomof Moses, thumamat and dry branches, and a covering like the covering of Moses because the affair (Judgement Day) will happen sooner than that…”When he was asked “ ..What is the covering of Moses ?..”Muhammad (SAW) replied, “…When Moses stood up, his head touched the ceiling…”
This shows us the humbleness of the man himself as well as the example he sets for us believers. He was at that time a powerful ruler comparable to Khosroes of Persia or Heracules in Rome or Negus in Abyssinia, yet he chose to sleep and sit on the floor, mend his own clothes, live in a small room 10 steps x 10 steps and you could touch the ceiling and he gave all of his food and money to the needy.
This is the true Islamic architecture we seek.
The built example of this was his house, the house and mosque of the Prophet, in Medina Saudi Arabia, built in 622 AD in the first year Hijra. This building was a courtyard design approx 50 x 50m with rooms arranged to the outside forbuilding. The proof of the success of the original building is that the design amply proved it’s worth during Muhammad’s own lifetime and , so long as the mosque remained not only a place of worship but also focal point of Muslim community, there was no need for any fundamental reshaping of a plan already hallowed by the Prophet’s use of it. The striking feature of the house and mosque was the courtyard which took up 75% of the available space even after the final expansion of the building in 628 AD/ 7AH. It was the
absolute humility that is the most important element of the building and the Prophet’s lifestyle and advice. The Shariah forbids extravagance in all matters of living. An authentic tradition related by Abu Haraira (a close companion) reported that Allah’s Messenger SAW said that,
“Verily Allah swt likes three things for you and He disapproves three things for you; He is pleased with you that worship him and associate not anything with Him, that you hold tight to the rope of Allah, and be not scattered, and He disapproves for you irrelevant talk, persistent questioning and the wasting of wealth.” He SAW, also stated on a separate occasion, “every spending is for the sake of Allah, except spending on a building, there is no good (reward) in it.”
The Prophet Muhammad warned against infatuation with this life and required Muslims to challenge themselves by doing good deeds and avoiding conflicts. Such a warning is essential for social justice and
solidarity. Indulgence in a luxurious lifestyle undoubtedly has serious effects on the morals and behaviour of individuals and on society as a whole. Excessive spending is viewed by Islam as an expression of an individual’s preoccupation with form rather than substance, with materials rather than spirit. The dilemma presented here is that the question is asked,”..What about the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, Isfahan,..these buildings don’t seem to comply with these principles?…” The answer is simple; That is correct, they do not follow true Islamic rules of simplicity and austerity. That is why they are more appropriately termed innovated Islamic architecture. The Taj Mahal for example, is basically a big tomb and the Prophet Muhammad warned us about constructing ‘places of worship over our graves” and the construction of tombs and monuments to the deceased was and still-is strictly forbidden under the shariah (Islamic law).
The proposal here is that the best example of true Islamic architecture was the house and mosque of the Prophet and that the later larger iconic buildings were mere deviations to the strict mandate of Islam.
Islam seeks to reduce life to the bare essentials to ensure the person understand that this life is temporary and the next life (akhira) is enduring. Thus True Islamic architecture is indeed an authentic minimalist expression. It seeks to simplify life to the bare essentials. To spend money on helping the poor, proving a role in truly helping humanity not building large expensive buildings. This is the true Islamic architecture preached and indeed practised by the Prophet Muhammad. This is what Islam is: A religion of humanity that seeks to look to the good of the next life (akhira) while reminding man of the shortness of this life.
It asks man to do good deeds and take accountability of his own wrongdoings. Most importantly it strictly upholds the monotheistic code: The worship of One God only; Allah. One becomes a Muslim when he believes in his or her heart that there is only One God and Muhammad is the final messenger of Almighty God. So next time you see an example of Islamic architecture or one claiming to be, submit it to this test; Is it a simple building, as simple as it possibly can be? Or is it decorated, ostentatious, a clear example of wasting money for no reason other than showing off or the show of status. It should be austere; simple; refined; minimalist. If so then you may well be looking at an authentic piece of Islamic architecture; the way that Prophet Muhammad intended it to be, not the way that we may generally consider Islamic architecture to be.
True Islamic architecture should be the ultimate refined minimalist expression
IBRAHIM CONLON ARCHITECT
M.Arch(UTS) BA.Arch(UTS) ADAD(CIT) ARB NSW #10042
Ibrahim is a registered Architect in NSW Australia #10042 and Master of Architecture (M.Arch) graduate from University of Technology, Sydney (UTS 2008) and has his own architecture practise based in Sydney, Australia specialising in Islamic architecture (research & application).
Previous to this he completed a Bachelor of Arts Architecture (B.A.Arch) from University of Technology, Sydney (UTS 2003). Previous to this Ibrahim was a qualified & experienced Architectural Draftsperson after he completed an Associate Diploma in Applied Science-Architectural Drafting (ADAD) from the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) in 1996. Ibrahim is a convert to Islam since the year 2000 and deeply interested in the study & application of Islamic architecture.
He has over 20 years in the Architectural Design, Documentation, Representation & Administration industry and worked for and in association with many of Australia’s leading Architects, Engineers, Landscape Architects, Designers and Builders, on all types of projects from simple, small-scale residential to large-scale complex commercial, in almost all of Sydney metropolitan & regional councils as well as with private certifiers.