Written by : Dr Khaled Azab
This question may come as a surprise to the readers, researchers, and professors specialized in Islamic architecture and Islamic monuments, in specific. However, grasping the Islamic architecture is still a long way ahead, unfortunately. Many have immersed themselves in the orientalist studies revolving around the form rather than the content in the fields of architecture and Islamic monuments. This had an effect that lasted until the 21st century. Not only on the academic curriculum, but also on architectural designs, metaphorically known as Islamic.
Everyone sought form rather than content, which is the essence of Islamic architecture. Moreover, it is this essence that made it eye-catching in terms of the ornamental form. Also, if the design is contemplated, questions with logical answers emerging from architectural engineering will be raised. This is in addition to other questions with no answers residing in the western and cotemporary consciousness as a part of the mysteries and magic of the East linked to the Arabian Nights tales.
The apparent form in these buildings with façades made of Islamic components is a carbon copy of the monumental Islamic buildings, or done in coordination with the contemporary architectural designs.
A case in point, some buildings have Masharbiyas; wooden barriers joined together to form geometric shape in order to disable the neighbors from viewing the inside of the house, provide fresh air, and minimize the heat caused by direct sunlight. This element has been added to modern buildings not for its functions, but in order to make it of Islamic nature.
This phenomenon is due to two reasons:
Firstly, it started when our architects traveled to the West and studied architecture through catalogues listing all the architectural elements with measurements and different forms. All the architect had to do was to coordinate these elements with the available space without contemplating on the design and to what extent it fits our Islamic eastern societies. Thus, they copied the western architecture as it is. Currently, this is still the case. In their attempt to bring back Islamic architectural patterns, architects were influenced by this approach. Therefore, the Islamic architecture is revived in terms of the form rather than the content. As a result, architects turned to be imitators who lacked creativity and innovation.
The second reason is the society that accepted these western designs, believing it to be the source of western progress. Thus, the Masharbiyas on the building façade reflect a society that adheres to Islam as a religion in form rather than content. Architects are following the western footsteps without recognizing that architecture entails civilized approaches, ideas, and values. Thus, Ibn Khaldun’s statement, “Those defeated are fond of imitating those victorious” proved right.
Similarly, those studying architectural monuments are no different. They adopted the descriptive approach that describes the architectural form accurately, without raising any question about these forms and the reasons of the different patterns varying from one facility to another. Moreover, most of the undertaken studies revolved around mosques and Madrasas; institutes for higher education, without paying any attention to other facilities. It is as if Islam is only a religion and its architecture is limited to temples.
In order to put an end to this conflict and overcome these obstacles, and to obtain an architectural science with independent designs and contents, we must grasp Islamic architecture in the same way we grasp Islam.
The approach developed to grasp Islamic architecture is based on a number of pillars. The first focuses on studying its law; the jurisprudence of architecture. It is a set of rules that has been accumulated over the years due to the interaction between the construction process and society, and the emergence of questions answered by scholars.
The accumulation of these questions has led to imposing the rules governing the construction process in Islamic societies. The society, authorities, and architects followed these rules. This has been recorded by the legislative courts in Cairo, Rosetta (Rasheed), and Tunisia, for example. Moreover, it was explained thoroughly in my two books about the jurisprudence of Islamic architecture. The Egyptian Scholar Ibn Abd El Hakam (died in AH 214/CE 829), was the first to record the rules of architecture in his book; “The Structure”. According to scholars, architecture rules were divided into three main sections:
Mandatory Construction: Places of worship; such as mosques where prayers are held, and fortsto defend Muslim land.
Specialized Construction: The minarets where calls for prayers are made, and markets to provide people with goods and make them available. Thus, establishing markets was allowed by religion.
Allowed Construction: Building houses. It is well known that Sharia; the sacred law of Islam, aims at protecting religion, individuals, money, honor and children. God has provided humans with physical methods to achieve that; such as houses where people live and keep their money.
Forbidden Construction: Places for prostitution and drinking liquor, and building on graves as well as on land owned by others. The essence of the jurisprudence of architecture should be taught in schools of architecture in our universities, in order to breed a new generation of architects capable of introducing contemporary Islamic architecture.
The second pillar of grasping architecture is addressing it as belonging to the whole society rather than individuals. Nowadays, an individual builds his house without putting his neighbors into consideration, unaware of their privacy, and not realizing that he communicates with his neighbors through his house. Even though these aspects do not exist today, they did in the past. At these times, no one could open a window that reveals the inside of his neighbors’ houses, as it was considered a violation of architecture law, known as the revealing risk. People living in the same neighborhood used to cooperate in the maintenance of utilities as their authority is derived from that of the Islamic civil society. It is a society stating that a neighborhood is an independent integrated administrative unit. Therefore, the Islamic cities administration did not suffer from any negativity. The neighborhood’s gate was a symbol of the people’s solidarity and cooperation in guarding it, and of their lives within its walls.
Moreover, the third pillar is based on the solidarity among the rich to provide services for the city residents. The rich established Sabils, public drinking water dispensary, to provide water for the poor in the burning heat, and Kuttabs; elementary Quranic schools, to provide them with proper education. Also, they established agencies to fund these facilities. Thus, the Waqf ; a donation system in Islam, provides a crucial perspective of understanding the nature and role played by service and economic facilities in Islamic architecture.
The fourth pillar, however, revolves around understanding the role played by architects in Islamic societies. The Muslim architect used to deal with architecture through the society and the interaction with its users. Thus, his designs satisfied the needs of these users, and they were rarely modified. Nowadays, however, residents carry out endless modifications to their houses because the architect designed them in an air-conditioned office without attempting to understand the needs and traditions of the residents.
The fifth pillar is based on the interaction between the emerging architects and the ancient Islamic architecture. This could be achieved through exploring and explaining this architecture in detail, and sketching its elements and imagining life in these buildings.
As for the sixth pillar, it is acquainting the vocabulary and terminology of Islamic architecture, including the bent entrance, which is an architectural element developed by Muslims in order to prevent those passing across a house, mosque, or Madrasa from viewing what is inside. Therefore, it provides a high degree of privacy, and reduces noise. Thus, it was essential in educational and religious facilities. An exact description of these terms has been acquired, and has enabled us to identify them. These terms include Shadirwan; a localized Persian term referring to a glass slab covered with stalactites which had prominent bumps for water to run through and be served cool to passersby in sabils. In addition, the term
Ablaq refers to the alternating courses of black and white masonry. This is in addition to terms related to and types of arches such as true arches, segmental arches, lancet arches, equilateral arches, flamboyant arches and
Finally, the seventh pillar is based on identifying the types of Islamic monuments; such as the larger Masjid "Jāmi", where the daily five prayers and the Friday congregation sermons are held with a high
volume of attendance, and the smaller Masjid dedicated for the daily five prayers, and the difference between them. In addition to Tikiyyas; Sufi hospices, Sabils; water wheels, tubs of drinking water for animals, and
Rab‘s; housing facilities including vertical units rented for accommodation. Also, it includes water facilities; such as bridges, creeks, and industrial facilities; such as sugar factories, Meccan textile factories, powder laboratories, dyeing halls, and so on. The planning of Islamic cities is an important aspect that should be entailed in this pillar. It resulted from the accumulation of expertise in Islamic civilization, and the western architects were unable to realize it until the recent years.
It is also important to understand that the imitation of Islamic architecture as it was in the past or copying it as it is, is the architecture that we seek to reach. Islamic architecture is based on continuous innovation and renewal throughout its ages, so form and content are dialectical and have no meaning if we did not understand what architecture is and how it expresses its society. The visual image of architecture was kept in the imagination of society more than anything else. If you create an ugly building, it expresses a society that accepts ugliness in his daily life, and if you create a building that does not meet the needs of the user, then you force him either to accept it compulsively or to make adjustments to it. So, there are two important dimensions for the future of architecture from my point of view: The first is the necessity of introducing architectural criticism in our universities like literary criticism, because architecture is an art that accepts criticism and analysis. The second is the architectural culture of the public and their awareness of the importance of architecture and its nature. It is inconceivable that our ancestors had an architectural awareness and we in the twentieth century lacked and missed that.