Research Paper: Environment and Islamic Architecture

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Environment and Islamic Architecture

As the term implies, "Islamic architecture" is an architectural style that is characterized by functional elements and forms that are inspired by the Islamic religion, and which serves as a framework in which Islamic tenets can be implemented, celebrated and sustained over time. Graceful arabesques, Romanesque horseshoe arches and domes all typify many Islamic architectural styles, but the range and types of buildings that have been included under the umbrella term Islamic architecture in recent years also includes some nontraditional and neo-Islamic architecture as well. Beyond these trends, there has also been a move towards incorporating environmentally friendly elements into Islamic architecture in recent years as well, making a review of these issues a timely and valuable enterprise. To this end, this paper provides the history and an overview of Islamic architecture, the environment and Islam, and the reflection of Islam in architecture. An examination of the reflection of the environment in Islamic architecture is followed by an analysis of salient elements and details of Islamic architecture that are especially useful for Islamic eco-friendly construction. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings concerning these issues and Islamic architecture are provided in the paper's conclusion.

Review and Analysis

History and Overview of Islamic Architecture

Although no universal definition exists for the term, many authorities agree that Islamic architecture can be identified by certain design and construction elements. For instance, according to Omer (2008), "Islamic architecture is an architecture whose functions, and to a lesser extent, forms, are inspired primarily by Islam. Islamic architecture is a framework for the implementation of Islam. It facilitates, fosters and stimulates the Muslims' 'ibadah (worship) activities, and these in turn account for every moment of their lives" (p. 123). In reality, what has been termed "Islamic architecture" has included a disparate group of styles that include secular as well as and religious themes dating to the founding of Islam to the current era (Islamic architecture, 2008). According to contemporary architects, "The principle architectural types of Islamic architecture are; the Mosque, the Tomb, the Palace and the Fort. From these four types, the vocabulary of Islamic architecture is derived and used for buildings of lesser importance such as public baths, fountains and domestic architecture" (Islamic architecture, 2008, p. 2). In Iran, there are two types of buildings, mosques and tombs, that are especially representative of Islamic architecture. According to Peterson, though, "Unfortunately very little survives of Iran's Islamic architecture from before the Seljuk period so that it is difficult to trace the origin of particular building types and their relationship to Islamic architecture elsewhere" (Petersen, 1999, p. 122).

While Islamic architecture has numerous social, religious and environmental influence, the discipline is typically associated with several design elements that have been influenced by the first mosque constructed by Muhammad in Medina, as well as from other pre-Islamic aspects that were modified from churches, temples and synagogues (Islamic architecture, 2008). In addition, Byzantine architecture was highly influential on early Islamic architecture based on the use of round arches, vaults and domes (Islamic architecture, 2008). Other features that typify Islamic architecture include the following:

1. Large courtyards often merged with a central prayer hall (originally a feature of the Masjid al-Nabawi).

2. Minarets or towers (these were originally used as torch-lit watchtowers, as seen in the Great Mosque of Damascus; hence the derivation of the word from the Arabic nur, meaning "light").

3. A four-iwan plan, with three subordinate halls and one principal one that faces toward Mecca

4. Mihrab or prayer niche on an inside wall indicating the direction to Mecca. This may have been derived from previous uses of niches for the setting of the torah scrolls in Jewish synagogues or the haikal of Coptic churches.

5. Domes and Cupolas.

6. Iwans to intermediate between different sections.

7. The use of geometric shapes and repetitive art (arabesque).

8. The use of decorative Islamic calligraphy instead of pictures which were haram (forbidden) in mosque architecture); in secular architecture, human and animal representation was commonplace.

9. Central fountains used for ablutions (once used as a wudu area for Muslims).

10. The use of bright color.

11. Focus both on the interior space of a building and the exterior (Islamic architecture, 2008).

Irrespective of its precise influences from place to place and time to time, the essential element of Islamic architecture is its relationship to the Islamic perceptions of God, man, nature, life, death and life after death (Omer, 2008). As a result, Islamic architecture encapsulates the material aspects of life providing a concomitant physical place where the Islamic message can be actualized (Omer, 2008). According to Omer, "Practically speaking, Islamic architecture represents the religion of Islam that has been translated into reality at the hands of the Muslims. It also represents the identity of Islamic culture and civilization" (2008, p. 37). This representation of Islamic culture and civilization is based on the words of the Prophet Mohammed as enshrined in the Koran which cautions against extravagance in building construction. In this regard, the Prophet said, "Every spending is for the sake of Allah, except spending on building, there is no good [or reward] in it'. Abdul Aziz Aba Al-Khail, a well-known and religiously informed Saudi architectural theorist, explains this adith in his study of the interpretation of Islamic architecture in accordance with the Qur'an and sunnah by saying that spending on building is not rewarded if the building is unnecessarily built or exceeds the need of its owner" (Mortada, 2003, p. 17).

In fact, it is contrary to the tenets of Islam to build beyond the needs of the occupants since this would detract from the structure's primary purpose. In this regard, Mortada emphasizes that, "The Islamic prohibition of self-advocating or conceit via exaggerated spending on the house is also driven from the Islamic point-of-view on the purpose of housing. To Islam, the house is to provide shelter from the climate and to secure the necessary privacy and safety. This purpose does not mean that the Muslim should spend large amounts of money on building beautiful houses, concerning himself with matters of secondary importance, such as ornamentation and unnecessary rooms" (2003, p. 17). This dual requirement to glorify the Almighty by promoting excellence in everything, including architectural design, balanced by the need to remain humble and pious, has created a challenge of Islamic architects who want to satisfy both requirements. Despite the challenges that are involved, the payoffs are deemed well worthwhile. As Mortada points out, "Humility in the house is also a manifestation of the Islamic prohibition of indulgence in a luxurious life. The Prophet 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" (p. 17). Consequently, Muslims that spend too much on their houses are viewed as being violative of Islamic proscriptions against worldly desires and manifestations. In this regard, Mortada adds that, "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 material rather than with spirit" (2003, p. 17).

Notwithstanding these constraints, Islamic architecture has managed to express both the beauty of the environment in which it exists as well as capturing themes that are reflective of the Islamic conceptualizations of religious glory and wonder. It is therefore not surprising that Islamic architecture has been enormously influential in shaping the architecture of Europe, Asia, northern Africa and beyond, but the influential has been mutual. According to Tillinghast, "There is much continuity between Islamic architecture and that of the Christian Middle Ages. Romanesque arches traveled both to the eastern Mediterranean and northwest into pre-Gothic Europe. The great imperial mosques built by the architect Mimar Sinan in Istanbul were modeled on Haghia Sophia, itself a bridge between classical antiquity and medieval Byzantium" (2007, p. 37). In reciprocating the influence, Islamic architectural elements have been incorporated into some of the great buildings of the West. For instance, Tillinghast emphasizes that, "In turn Islamic architecture provided models for the Gothic architecture of late medieval Europe, which began by imitating the Islamic styles traders and crusaders would have seen in Moorish Spain and in the Holy Land" (2007, p. 37).

As noted in the introduction, although all Islamic architecture is unique in some fashion, the genre is characterized by certain architectural elements, including arches and domes. According to Ahmed-Ullah (1998), "Domes play an important role in Islamic architecture" (p. 37). This importance can be discerned from a number of ancient as well as contemporary buildings. For instance, Paquini (2009) reports that, "In Spain, the double radius of the horseshoe arch became one of the recognizable trademarks of Islamic architecture" (p. 119). The influence of Islamic architecture on the Europe of the Middle Ages is especially pronounced. In this regard, Paquini adds that, "Along with… [END OF PREVIEW]

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