Origin of Islamic art
The Muslim religion originated in the 6th century in the Arabian Peninsula, when the prophet Muhammad, to whom God had revealed a new monotheism, went into exile in Medina in 622. This Hijrah (Arabic for exile) marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. By the time of the Prophet’s death in 632, the religion of Islam had taken hold in Arabia. (1) This dynamic of Islamization continued throughout the first century of the Hegira, with not only territorial conquests by the caliphs (successors to the Prophet), but also thanks to the desire to integrate elites from other cultures who embraced Islam’s reform of monotheism and adopted the political model proposed to them. By the 12th century AD, the Islamic area extended over a vast territory from Spain to Mongolia. (2)
Since the first caliphates, the Islamic world has been a linguistic and cultural mosaic. The culture of the holders of political power does not necessarily reflect the cultural and religious multiplicity of many Islamic countries. Often, non-Muslims share the culture of Islam, from the first Islamic state through the Nasrid period in 15th century Spain, through to the period of Mamluk hegemony between the 13th and 16th century.
As far as Islamic art, this includes both works made by “non-believers” for Muslims, as well as works made by Muslims for non-Muslims. This testifies in particular to the links and exchanges that exist between the Christian Western world and the Islamic world. For example, in the 11th century, Roger II of Sicily commissioned from the Arab scholar al-Idrîsî a Universal Geography, which was published in Arabic in Rome and later translated into Latin. (3) Further evidence of these links can be found in the shroud of St. Josse reported by Étienne de Blois on his return from the Crusades. This silk samit made by Muslims, was used to envelop the bones of the Breton saint. (4)
Initially, the Byzantine and Sassanid (Persian) empires were the principal reservoirs of the developing Islamic world, according to art historian Giovanni Curatola. (5) Works from the first Islamic dynasty of the Umayyads bear witness to this continuity of style in artistic production. For example, the iconography of the coins initially follows the ancient model. Muslim artists also adopted the molded and painted plaster technique from the Sassanid era to create bas-reliefs and wall decorations. The ornamentation of sculpted objects made abundant use of ancient oriental vocabulary: foliate scrolls laden with rinceaux leaves loaded with fruit and palmettes among others. (6) The best-known and perhaps most striking example of this continuity in the history of art during this pivotal period of the Umayyad Empire is the decoration in mosaics adorning the Great Mosque of Damascus, whose technique and style of representation come from Byzantine civilization. However, these frescoes differ from their Byzantine counterparts in that they feature no human representations, which already foreshadows a characteristic of Islamic religious art. (7)
The art of early Islam is therefore a hybrid, cosmopolitan art, which does not yet have a “personality”, and which cannot yet be identified as a unique art in its own right. (8)
First of all, we need to return to what lies at the root of this new civilization: the founding texts of the Muslim religion, namely the Koran and the hadiths. These sacred texts do not explicitly pronounce on art. They do, however, warn against overly luxurious architecture, forbid idolatry and invite distrust of sculpted representations. (9)
The notion of Islamic architecture
The notion of Islamic architecture refers to the artistic production developed under Muslim rule between the 7th and 19th centuries. (10) The rich and diverse range of buildings (houses, palaces, caravanserais, khans, medersas, hospitals, baths, etc.) illustrating Islamic architecture has attracted the attention of travelers, archaeologists, architects and historians alike. (11)
As such, Dusan Nikolic defines Islamic architecture in the following terms: (12)
‘’Islamic architecture is a term used for the building traditions of multiple states since the 7th century, where Islam was the main religion or a major cultural influence. Though usually associated with religious buildings, Islamic architecture encompasses fortresses, palaces, tombs, public buildings such as schools, and smaller structures such as fountains, public baths, and domestic architecture. Together with the religion of Islam, it spread from the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East throughout the world, incorporating and influencing various cultures. With its towering minarets, horseshoe and pointed arches, muqarnas vaulting, and ornamental details, Islamic architecture brought unique contributions to the history of architecture. Following the examples of the Dome of the Rock, Taj Mahal, and Alhambra, its tradition continues today.’’
Historical studies, presented in the form of monographs, syntheses and essays, were aimed at understanding the formal, ornamental, constructive and symbolic dimensions of Islamic art in general. They have evolved from the definition of stylistic variations and regional specificities to the reconstitution of building production and management processes. The historiography produced over time goes far beyond knowledge of the reality of this architectural production to focus on Islamic heritage and architectural practices. (13)
Islamic architecture is distinguished by its sophisticated design, exquisite craft, and world-wide adaptability. The Islamic architecture is usually studied from the year 639 to 1850.
To the question what is Islamic architecture, Kristin Hohenadel writes: (14)
‘’Islamic architecture is a centuries-old category of architecture that is rooted in the principles of Islam. The striking sculptural forms and often dazzling ornamental detail that characterize Islamic buildings include some of the most awe-inspiring built structures on Earth.’’
In the 19th century, political, social and economic conditions in certain countries influenced architectural forms. Western awareness of architectural traditions and the erasure of particularities led to a reinterpretation of local heritage and a renewal of the production process. Between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a renewed interest in this category of architecture is increasingly evident in the construction of emblematic buildings. The appropriation of local heritage references is akin to a reconstruction of identity. (15) The question of identity, which has become a major preoccupation in some countries, is reflected in architecture. A number of architects are strongly encouraged to use Islamic architecture in the design of new buildings. Their contributions extend thoughts on sustainability through constructive practice, and the intelligent management of environmental factors. (16)
In relation to the question of Identity, Zeid writes: (17)
‘’The identity of cities depends greatly on the vocabularies that it embodies through its architecture and arts, as they are the platforms of cultural, traditional and historical aspects. Lately, governments focused greatly on maintaining and fixing buildings in order to save their heritage. Investigating these approaches, the paper serves this discourse by using digital software to aid in providing a freedom of expression and to lay down the foundations to applying parametric and generative design to preserve the architectural elements which represent the vocabularies that give cities their identity and heritage, and to further apply innovative transformations to these elements while still respecting the historical, cultural and traditional aspects by which these elements were constructed. The paper forays into the study of historic ornamental details of Islamic architecture with a structure that exhibits the mediating relationship between the motifs’ distinguishable geometric patterns and cosmological renditions through the Muqarnas. It signifies as one of the most original inventions of Islamic architecture, and with its construction and form being of complicated application, it inspired the paper’s aim to investigate and introduce a new means of generating Muqarnas in the modern era. Parametric and generative design using Grasshopper, in the paper’s context, help bring about a reformulated preservation of the historic architectural element Muqarnas. To achieve this, the paper studies the historical background of Muqarnas and its construction, to be of aid in the process of reformulating a parametric generative process for a new Muqarnas by using the hypothesis of the relationship between intricate geometrical and cosmological implications.’’
What is Islamic architecture?
The Arabs did not wait until the Islamic period to start constructing monumental buildings. The ancient cities of Arabia and the Near East bear witness to complex architectural practices, whether in temples or civil monuments. But the expansion of Islam and the Arabs into a world formerly dominated by the Roman Empire led to a proliferation of large-scale constructions, particularly from the 8th century onwards. These could be religious, civil or funerary. (18)
Islamic buildings have witnessed significant qualitative development since the first emergence of Islamic architectural elements in the form of the first mosque of Islam, the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi) in Madinah. (19) When the Islamic territories were expanded, nations and peoples of ancient and great civilizations came to be under Islam’s banner. This resulted in an influx of new elements into Islamic architecture, with the result that over time the Islamic world has come to encompass a wealth of aesthetic and technical expertise in the architectural arts.
Mosques are emblematic of Islamic architecture. A distinction is generally drawn between neighborhood mosques and large mosques, with their minarets, where preaching and Friday prayers take place. Large mosques usually comprise a courtyard, where the faithful can perform their ablutions at the fountain, and a prayer hall facing Mecca. A niche, called a mihrâb, is placed on the wall indicating this orientation, and to its right is a preaching pulpit, the minbar. (20) The plan of the first mosques, sometimes called the “Arab plan” or “hypostyle”, is said to be based on a mythical model: that of Muhammad’s house in Medina. However, there were also significant pre-Islamic influences, and regional differences soon became apparent. For example, the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the one in Cordoba, Spain, both follow a similar plan, but their materials, forms and decorations differ.
For Mohd Zafrullah Mohd Taib and Mohamad Tajuddin Rasdi, the mosque is: (21)
‘’The building of a mosque in this day and age is a great achievement of the Muslim community, particularly if the community is living in a non-Muslim country. Technology has been the drive to improve construction method of early Muslim community that influence of values and perception towards Islam in the whole world until today. While appreciating the quantitative increase and aesthetic embellishments of many new urban mosques, several Muslim scholars, intellectuals and activists have expressed their concern and reservation regarding the function of these mosques in light of pristine world-view of Islam.’’
Apart from mosques, other architectural structures have a religious or funerary function. Muslims are usually buried in the ground; however, monumental tombs were erected throughout much of Islamic territory to celebrate princes and holy figures. A commemorative element, the cenotaph, is placed in the center of a room under a dome, a type of covering very widespread in the world of Islam, which lends majesty to the space.
To the question what is Islamic architecture? Justin van Huyssteen writes: (22)
‘’Muslim architecture testifies to the Muslim community’s high degree of power and intellect during a period when Europe was in the medieval era. Whether it was the mosque, the palace, or the common home, Muslim masons, architects, and artists brilliantly communicated Islam’s profound dedication to the community. Early Muslim architects are responsible for most of the world’s architectural progress. It is now widely acknowledged that European Gothic architecture owed a significant debt to Islamic precedents, many of which were recognizable to Crusaders in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria.’’
Compared to religious architecture, fewer elements of civil and palatial architecture have survived in the Islamic world; many of the buildings have been destroyed by time, nature or man. Nevertheless, palatial structures were often built in cities and on their outskirts. Palaces are organized into several courtyards and pavilions, progressing from the most accessible to the most private spaces. They include audience rooms, private apartments, a hammam and a mosque. The rulers of the Islamic world sometimes went so far as to build veritable palatial cities, such as Samarra in Iraq, Cairo in Egypt, or Madinat al-Zahra in Spain. Utilitarian buildings such as hospitals, public fountains and baths complete the architectural landscape of Arab cities. In desert or semi-desert areas, commercial structures – caravanserais – are designed to accommodate travelers, their goods and their mounts.
The choice of materials is closely linked to local traditions, but also to the possibilities of sourcing or importing. For the most prestigious architecture, sovereigns did not hesitate to bring in precious materials from faraway lands: rare woods, colored marble, Byzantine mosaics with gold backgrounds, etc. Although wood has been little preserved in architecture, it was probably widely used in structures and carpentry. Other common materials include adobe, mainly for housing, mud brick, baked brick, rubble and stone.
The use of materials with contrasting colors, for the columns of a prayer room or to form an arch, is very common, as it allows the decoration to be integrated into the architectural structure. However, many decorative elements are often attached to the architecture for purely ornamental purposes. These include mosaics, moulded and sculpted stucco and marble slabs. Sculpture and painting are also present, but the architecture of the Islamic world is best known for its numerous ceramic decorations that occupy walls and floors, inside and out. These tiles come in a wide variety of shapes, colors and patterns.
The art of building (al-binâ’) developed in a region stretching from Spain to India between 622 and the 19th century, the Dâr-al-Islâm, is known as Islamic architecture.
Materials: The choice of a material depends on many factors: the region where the building is to be constructed, the accessibility of the material, its cost, its purpose… There are five types of material used in Islamic construction, not including wood, which is found everywhere, particularly in roofing structures.
- Pisé (tabya): This is a mixture of earth, lime and chamotte (crushed baked clay) or small stones. Pressed between two wooden planks (cribbing), this material is mainly used for housing.
- Banco, a mixture of raw earth and straw. The Djingareyber Mosque in Timbuktu is made of banco.
- Raw brick (tawb): This has the advantage of being easy to find and use, and inexpensive. Its main drawback is that it does not keep well: water is fatal.
- Baked brick (âjûr): Widely used from Iraq to India, it was also the material of choice in Egypt until the 12th-13th centuries. It is used for all types of monuments, from the simplest to the most important (mosques, madrasahs, tombs…). Inexpensive, it keeps well.
- Rubble stone: This is made up of rough-hewn stones held together by a mortar of lime and sand, to which charcoal and grog have sometimes been added.
- Stone: used from Spain to Iraq. The type of stone used varies from region to region. In general, marble is used for its decorative properties (colors).
Arches: Arches are a major feature of both Islamic and Western architecture. Some are common in both the East and the West: round arches, pointed arches, but others are more specific to the Islamic world, such as the Persian arch, with its carinated profile, the polylobed arch, the mantling arch or the horseshoe arch, all three of which are widely used in Spain and the Maghreb. (23)
Supports: Islamic architects used two types of support: pillars and columns.The column is a cylindrical support. In the first centuries of Islam, the columns used were often taken from ancient buildings, but after a while, as ancient materials became scarce, Islamic workers learned to carve them themselves.A pillar is a masonry element, usually square, rectangular or cruciform.
Cupolas: A dome is a hemispherical type of roofing, resting on an octagonal transition zone (most often) which itself rests on four pillars. The transition zone is a major problem for Islamic architects. They can make use of pendentives, i.e., convex triangles placed on the point, as in the Byzantine world, or of small niches, which originated in the Iranian world.The ribs and muqarnas (24) that often fill domes in the Islamic world generally have no real architectural function.From the 15th century onwards, domes were very often doubled, i.e., there was more or less space between the inner and outer shells. This technique made it possible to build taller monuments.
Iwâns: Iwâns originated in Iran long before the arrival of Islam, probably under the Sassanid dynasty. They consist of a vaulted hall with a rectangular façade opened by a large arch.Another element from Iran is a pishtak. It’s an arched portal projecting from the façade on which it stands. It is usually flanked by two minarets, but this is not always the case.
Musharabyahs and jalousie windows: The enclosure of windows and other openings is an element treated in different ways in the Islamic world. Musharabyahs, a kind of latticework made of turned wood (or other materials, such as marble in India), are frequently used. Sometimes, musharabyah barriers are even created, as in Mamluk complexes and mosques.
There are a thousand and one ways to decorate a building in Islamic lands. Ceramics, sculpture, painting and mosaics are just some of the techniques most commonly used. Some architectural elements also have an ornamental vocation.
Contrary to popular belief, architectural decoration, like Islamic art in general, is often figurative. An important exception, however, is religious buildings, which theoretically cannot feature human or animal representations.
Of course, a building’s decoration begins with its architectural components. It’s not for nothing that the Great Mosque of Cordoba features blue-and-white marble columns, arches with alternating-colored keystones, sometimes multi-lobed, and mouldings in its domes! When designing a building, the architect takes at least as much account of the purely architectural aspects as he does of the decorative ones.
A typical feature of the Islamic world illustrates the importance of decorative architectural elements: muqarnas, also known as “muqarbas” in Western Muslim countries, or simply “stalactites”. In fact, they are small niches geometrically associated to form a three-dimensional composition. They are frequently found in domes and transition zones, but also on certain capitals, in vaults, etc. The origins of this element are obscure: it is often thought to have originated in Eastern Iran around the 10th century, but other hypotheses circulate (Egypt, the West, Baghdad…). Whatever the case, it is widespread throughout the Islamic world, and the splendid muqarnas vaults of Granada’s Alhambra are no match for those of the Timurids. Different materials are used to create them, depending on the region and period: stucco and earthenware in Iran, stone in Egypt and Syria.
Ablaq is another Islamic technique, mainly found in Syria and Egypt, but also occasionally in Anatolia. It involves inlaying different-colored stones (usually marble) into the wall. The masterpiece of this technique is the mihrâb of the Firdaws madrasah in Aleppo, dating from the Ayyubid period, but the Mamluks also used this technique extensively.
Mosaics were used in several periods: the Umayyad Caliphate, the Spanish Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate and the Mamluk Sultanate. In the first three cases, there is a strong antique and Byzantine influence (gold mosaics). Byzantine artists are known to have worked in the early Islamic world. Mamluk mosaics, on the other hand, were a little different, as this time they were a return to their roots. They are therefore strongly influenced by the gold-backed mosaics of the Dome of the Rock and the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
Terracotta: Terracotta is widely used to decorate all types of buildings, particularly in Iran, but also throughout the rest of the Islamic world. Two types of elements can be used: structural elements, i.e., bricks, glazed or decorated in any way, and purely decorative elements, i.e., ceramic facing tiles.
The main techniques used are as follows:
With bricks: Playing with patterns in unglazed bricks, as at Bab Mardum in Toledo. Hazerbaf, which means “a thousand weavings” in Persian: work on the contrast between glazed and unglazed bricks. This technique is mainly used in Il-Khanid and Timurid architecture. Sometimes, the bricks draw words in Kufic calligraphy (repeating the name of Allah, for example).
With decorative ceramics: Depending on the period, they can be star-shaped, triangular, octagonal or interlocking, or more wisely square, forming panels. Decorative techniques are varied: molded tiles under monochrome glaze, lajvardina, cuerda seca, etc.Ceramic mosaics are quite specific to Timurid art. It consists of shapes cut from ceramic tiles of various colors. This extremely delicate technique was replaced under the Safavids by the less complex and less costly cuerda seca technique, which produced similar effects.
Buildings can have multiple functions (mosques and madrasahs, for example). Archaeologists are often unable to identify exactly which building they are dealing with, as identical plans may be used for different types of building.
Mosques and places of worship: The mosque is the place of prayer (salât in Arabic) for Muslims. According to the Koran, prayer can be performed anywhere, for every place is holy, since it was created by Allah. The Prophet himself considered architecture to be costly and useless: quite a feat, when you think of the thousands of architectural achievements in the Islamic world! In fact, it wasn’t long before Muslims began to build places where they could gather to pray. These buildings served not only to bring together a minority community (the Islamic world only became majority Muslim in the course of the 13th century) in need of landmarks, but also to mark places dominated by Islam. In Arabic, mosque is called “masjid“, from the word sajada, to prostrate oneself.
In presenting the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque, Omer Spahic wrote in Muslim heritage: (25)
‘’When Prophet Muhammad migrated from Makkah to Madinah, the first and immediate task relating to his community-building mission was constructing the city’s principal mosque. Every other undertaking, including building houses for the migrants a majority of whom were poor and practically homeless, had to be deferred till after the Prophet’s Mosques was completed. When completed, the form of the Prophet’s Mosque was extremely simple. Its unpretentious form notwithstanding, the Mosque since its inception served as a genuine community development centre, quickly evolving into a multifunctional complex. The Mosque was meant not only for performing prayers at formally appointed times, but also for many other religious, social, political, administrative and cultural functions. It became a catalyst and standard-setter for civilization-building undertakings across the Muslim territories.’’
Types of mosques and similar places of worship: There are many different types of mosques. The simplest is the neighborhood mosque, where worshippers can come and pray whenever they like.More important is the Friday Mosque, also known as a congregational mosque or Grand Mosque. As its name suggests, it’s mainly used for Friday prayers, the Muslim holy day. Normally, there is only one such mosque in each city, but Cairo boasts a dozen.Finally, the musallah is an open-air prayer area, generally located outside cities, used for major religious festivals.
Components of a mosque
Enclosure: The mosque is always separated from the outside world by an enclosure. Sometimes it even has a ziyyâdah, i.e., an empty space enclosed by two enclosures that surrounds the mosque and is used for the purification of believers.
The prayer room or Haram: this is where Muslims pray. It is always covered with carpets to purify the place.
The fountain: Indispensable in a mosque, it enables believers to perform their ritual ablutions before prayer.
The minaret: a tall tower from which the muezzin calls for prayer. The minaret is mainly used to mark the location of a sanctuary, as it can be seen from afar. Its shape varies from region to region and from period to period.
The mihrâb: the most important element of the building, as it indicates the qiblah, the direction of Mecca, towards which Muslims pray. The mihrâb is placed on the qiblah wall. The mihrâb generally takes the form of a niche of varying depth and size. There may be several in a single mosque.
Minbar: pulpit for preaching. Made of wood or any other material (stone, marble, etc.), it is always located right next to the mihrâb.
The dikkah: a podium used to broadcast the muezzin’s sermon to the prayer hall. Only found in large mosques.
Maqsûrah: an enclosed area near the mihrâb, reserved for the ruler to protect him from attack. The maqsûrah is not found in all mosques, as it runs counter to the Muslim ideal of equality.
Mosque floor plans
Arab plan: This was the first plan devised. It is based on a more or less mythical model: the Prophet’s house in Medina, which is said to be located beneath the Great Mosque of Medina. The Arab plan, or hypostyle plan, consists of a porticoed courtyard and a columned prayer hall, with the naves running parallel or perpendicular (for the Maghreb and certain exceptions) to the qiblah. Found throughout the Islamic world, from Syria (Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, for example) to the Maghreb, Spain and Iraq.
Iranian plan: As its name suggests, this plan is found almost exclusively in Greater Iran, i.e., a region comprising Iran, parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and parts of Iraq. However, it was also used in India before the Mughal dynasty. It appeared in the 10th century with the Seljuk dynasty and is characterized by the use of iwâns, a pishtak and a domed prayer hall. An iwân is a vaulted room opened on one side by a large arch set within a rectangular frame. Mosque courtyards generally feature four iwâns arranged crosswise. A pishtak is a portal forming an overhang, often surmounted by two minarets and opened by a large arch. The Shah Mosque in Isfahan is one of the finest examples of Iranian design known.
Mogul plan: This plan is found exclusively in India from the 16th century onwards, and is influenced by the Iranian plan. It features a huge courtyard with four iwâns, one of which opens onto a narrow, rectangular prayer hall crowned by three or five bulbous domes. The great mosques of Delhi and Bidar use this type of layout.
Ottoman plan: Found mainly in (present-day) Turkey, this plan was developed after the capture of Constantinople in 1453 by the architect Sinan; however, its beginnings can be traced back to the 13th century in early Ottoman art. It consists of a prayer hall beneath a huge dome flanked by half-domes and cupolas. Ottoman-style mosques are often part of large complexes. Byzantine influence can be seen (notably in Saint Sophia).
A madrasah is generally regarded as a Koranic school, but it is primarily a place where law is studied. Admittedly, this is based on Shari’a law, the Islamic law as explained in the Koran, but in the Islamic world, you have to realize that the Koran governs most aspects of daily life. Madrasahs teach one or more of the four orthodox rites (Hanafite, Shafiite, Malekite and Hanbalite), which correspond to four different schools of law. Madrasahs also teach philology, Arabic linguistics, science (except medicine, which is taught in specialized schools). Often, the madrasah serves as the neighborhood mosque, and vice versa. They are always administered as (pious foundations).
On the nature of the madrasah, Reza Arjmand, Masoumeh Mirsafa and Zeinab Talebi write: (27)
‘’The mosque (both as masjid or jāmiʿ) is recognized as the first Muslim educational space for formal and informal learnings, for children and adults alike. Although the mosque remained as one of the primary centers of Islamic studies in various disciplines to this day, the Muslim cities from the Middle Ages onward have witnessed the emergence of specific institutions for Islamic education. Kuttābs or maktabs were primary education institutions often small scale but, in some instances, housed in a specific building consisted of a large, domed, unadorned hall in which all the pupils sat cross-legged on mattresses in a rough semicircle, usually next to low desks. Such buildings were generally erected by philanthropists and informed by the traditional architecture in form and structure. The first turn in formation of a specific Islamic higher education space was the majid-khan complex in which hujrahs (dormitories) and madras (study spaces) were built adjacent to the mosques. Madrasah buildings were formed in eastern lands of the Muslim World inspired by Khurāsāni vernecular architecture. With the selection of Isfahan as the capital of Ṣafavīd in 1722, the city was labeled Dār al-‘Ilm (The House of Knowledge) and reached fame in the Islamic world for its educational institutions. Among other achievements, Isfahan is credited for the innovation and design of an Islamic educational space. Isfahani architects utilized classic Persian architecture with its internal garden, formerly used extensively in Persian style mosques, to madrasah buildings. The model spread later to most of the Muslim world as the classic model of madrasah building.
The design of the madrasahs like any other architectural structure of the Islamic world was informed by Islamic rules and principles and reflects the social, political, and economic values of the Muslim society. Despite the diversity of the architectural typologies among various Islamic societies, such principles have resulted in formation of common spatial qualities in Islamic educational spaces.’’
Origins: The concept of the madrasah originated in Iran in the 11th century, thanks to the famous vizier Nizam al-Mulk, although none of his “nizamiyya” are currently known. On the other hand, this Iranian origin can be seen in the architectural unity that characterizes madrasahs: the cruciform plan, with four iwâns, seems to be a hallmark.
Developments: Madrasahs were built in Anatolia under the Seljuks and Ottomans, in Syria and Egypt under the Ayyubids and Mamluks, and in Iran and the Maghreb from the Marinids onwards.Anatolian madrasahs of the Seljuk period are characterized by their stone material, and by their narrow courtyards, which may be non-existent due to the region’s cold climate. The portal is generally the pretext for a profusion of sculpted decoration. The madrasah tradition continued in Anatolia in the 14th and 15th centuries, and under the Ottomans, these buildings became part of huge complexes.
The Ayyubids founded numerous madrasahs to extirpate Shi’ism after the demise of the Fatimids in Egypt. Salah al-Din, in particular, had numerous madrasahs built in Cairo and Syria, including the Firdaws madrasah in Aleppo (1243). Anatolian influences may still be present in these buildings.
It was undoubtedly during the Mamluk period that the concept of one iwân per rite was born, as explained in the waqf deed for the Sultan Hasan complex. In those days, madrasas were obviously linked to the great sultanic and emirati complexes. The first well-preserved mamluke madrasah can be found in the Qala’un complex, but the one in the Sultan Hasan complex is undoubtedly the finest.
Isfahan is home to the oldest preserved madrasah, Shah-i Mashhad, dated 1175. Numerous madrasahs were built throughout Iran and India, until at least the 17th century. In these particularly troubled regions, they served better than anywhere else to disseminate propaganda. We know of both Sunni and Shi’ite madrasahs.
The appearance of the madrasah in the Maghreb was late (not before the Marinid dynasty), and took place against a backdrop of lively Sufism. Primarily of Malikite rite, these establishments served mainly to extend Sufism to nomadic populations, often still un-Islamized. There are many magnificent examples in Fez, such as the Attarine madrasah and the Bu’ Inaniyya madrasah.
In Spain, teaching took place mainly in mosques. Only one madrasah is known in this region, with a strong Marinid influence: the Madrasa Yusuf I in Granada, decorated with magnificent painted stucco.
Places of retreat
There are three main types of retreat: Ribât, Khanqah and Zâwiyyah.
Ribât: A ribât is both a religious and military edifice, usually built in a border zone or on a major communication route (coastline, road…). It is home to soldiers dedicated to the faith, i.e., fighting essentially for Jihad, the holy war. It usually contains a mosque, and can be used as a guesthouse, notably to accommodate a governor or ruler, but it is above all a stronghold, a fortified place. Architectural variations vary widely, depending on the period and region. The ribât at Sousse in Tunisia is one of the best-known and oldest. (28)
Khanqah or Khanâqah: A khanqah is the living quarters of Muslim mystics, but also a temporary retreat for “civilian” characters. It can be located in the city or the countryside, depending on the order living there, and generally comprises one or more mosques and cells. It may also house a school and often serves as a burial place for its founder.
Zâwiyyah: A zâwiyyah, like a khanqah, is a building housing Sufis and a tomb (usually that of the founder). It differs from the khanqah in its larger size and teaching role.
In the Islamic world, Muslims are normally buried on the ground, in a shroud, without a coffin or grave. However, several types of funerary architecture were soon developed for high-ranking personalities and, above all, for saints. This architecture originated in the east of the Islamic area, i.e., in Iran, where many religions were involved, treating their deceased in different ways, and where Shi’ism dominated. Because of its martyrdom dimension, Shiism favored the appearance of mausoleums, which serve as places of prayer and invocation of saints, as is the case in Mashhad with the tomb of Imam Reza. The tombs of saints are called imamzadeh. Two forms in particular emerge: the domed mausoleum and the funerary tower, but the typology varies from place to place and from period to period.
Domed mausoleums: A domed mausoleum is, as the name suggests, a polygonal building topped by a dome. This type of mausoleum has existed since at least the 10th century, as witnessed by the Samanid mausoleum in Bukhara (now Uzbekistan). The most diverse shapes exist: square, octagonal, circular, on arches, etc., and sizes vary widely. For example, the Samanid mausoleum is only a few meters wide, but the Oldjaïtou Mausoleum in Sultaniya is a huge octagon, over 38 meters in diameter and some 77 meters high!
Funerary towers: It seems that the type of funerary tower derives from Zoroastrian rites: corpses were exposed at the top of high towers. The Gonbad-e Qabus, one of the earliest funerary towers (1007), is still linked to this tradition, even though it was commissioned by a Muslim. Later, burial chambers were placed under the tower, in a crypt, and then at its base. Like domed mausoleums, towers can take many different forms: polygonal, star-shaped, circular, etc. Often, the interior plan is simplified in relation to the exterior: for example, the visitor sees a star-shaped tower, but enters a circular room.While the funerary tower type has remained fairly Persian, that of the under the dome room has spread throughout the Arab world, and can be found in Egypt and Anatolia. In these regions, as in Persia from the Il-Khanid period onwards, the tomb is often part of a funerary complex.
Complexes are groupings of several buildings. A complex usually includes a mosque and/or one or more madrasahs, the tomb of the founder and his family, and charitable (soup kitchens, hospices) and/or medical (maristân, asylum, medical school) institutions. A complex is generally administered as a waqf, i.e., the income from stores and rented accommodation is paid to it for its operation. These may or may not be located within the complex itself. Artists’ studios can also be found within the complex, particularly for Sultanian foundations.
The Mamluks built a number of complexes, but the most impressive were built by the Ottomans.
Civil and palatial architecture
Palaces: Unlike their Western counterparts, palaces in Islamic lands take the form of small, scattered entities, often set in gardens that structure the space. Islamic palaces feature several elements almost systematically: the audience hall (diwân, which is also the name of the council of ministers), the harem, which is not a place reserved for women, but simply the inhabitant’s private apartments, and finally pleasure pavilions.
The walls of Granada’s Alhambra enclose several palaces. Istanbul’s Topkapi Saray is a particularly famous example, and Cairo also boasts a number of Mamluk palaces. However, most ancient palaces have been destroyed, either by conquerors wishing to erase the traces of previous dynasties, or by the passage of time, when they were built from perishable materials such as mud brick and wood.
Maristân and medical facilities: A maristân (or bimaristân) is a hospital. Almost always administered as a waqf, it often belongs to a complex, given its charitable vocation. Indeed, a maristân must welcome all Muslims and offer them free medical care. On the contrary, this does not mean that the staff is under-qualified: some of the world’s greatest physicians worked there. For example, al-Razi, whose treatise on smallpox and measles was used in the West and East until the 19th century, spent many years running the Baghdad maristân in the 10th century.
The main architectural features of such structures are a large number of rooms and particular attention paid to water, through fountains, basins, canals…
Maristâns were present in all major cities, from Granada to Mashhad, and were often coupled with a medical school. Asylums for the insane were also numerous, as were imarets (soup kitchens).
The best-preserved building today is undoubtedly the Nur al-Din maristan in Aleppo, and the most remarkable is that of the Qala’un funerary complex, unfortunately in poor condition, but whose surviving stucco carvings prove its magnifiscence. Nearly 70 meters long, it covered an immense surface and was organized around a courtyard with four unequal iwâns. In this courtyard, a fountain flowed from four canals that supplied certain rooms.
Two types of building help to improve urban hygiene: the sabîl and the hammâm.
A sabîl is a public fountain from which anyone can draw water free of charge. Generally built with the help of donations from the powerful, they were a common sight in towns. From the end of the Mamluk period (reign of Qaytbay), the sabîl is associated with a kuttâb, an elementary school, which is generally located above it.
Hammâms are baths, mostly organized on the model of Roman baths (cold, warm and hot rooms). They play an important role in the Islamic world, where cleanliness of the body is considered essential.
Caravanserais: A caravanserai is a building that welcomes merchants and pilgrims along roads and in towns. The name varies from place to place: in the Iranian world, it’s called a khân, while in the Maghreb, the word funduq is more commonly used. A caravanserai is always fortified, with stables (or pens) for mounts and beasts of burden, warehouses for merchandise and rooms for visitors. Stores are often located on the first floor, with bedrooms on the second floor.
Wakâla are urban buildings where merchants store and sell their wares to wholesalers. One of the most important is the al-Ghuri wakala in Cairo.
Markets: In cities, markets are important places. They are called souks in Arabic and bazaars in Persian. (29) They are generally organized by guild. Stalls and storerooms are located on the first floor, while the second floor houses the merchants’ lodgings, and sometimes their workshops if they sell their own produce. However, trades with undesirable odors (tanneries) and fire hazards are relegated to the far ends of the market or outside the city. In the souks, you’ll often find lodgings for rent.
The effect of Islamic architecture on Western architecture
Architecture, as it was once called, is the mother of the arts, since it includes the art of construction, sculpture, painting, calligraphy and decoration. (30) As the arts take from each other, at first Islamic architecture took its inspiration from the Hellenistic civilization that prevailed before Islam in the countries of Western Europe, even in the eastern Mediterranean and in all the places that were under the supremacy of the Roman Empire. Then Islamic architecture developed and left a special mark that reflects the essence of Islamic reason.
Over time, Islamic architecture was able to pay off the debts of previous civilizations. New architectural styles had a great effect in the Middle Ages. Islamic civilization fascinated Western rulers and artists who were influenced by its architecture and decoration. This type of artistic exchange is not strange; the Islamic East communicated with Europe in the Middle Ages via the Islamic civilization, established in Andalusia and the island of صقلية, i.e., Sicily and its lights (31) which had a great favor on Europe in the various aspects of art and also via trade and thanks to the Christian pilgrims to the sacred lands, then the crusades and as well as the communication of Europeans by the Ottoman state. (32)
In architecture, Westerners took on some of Iraq’s architectural styles. For example, the emperor Teophelus sent an emissary to Baghdad to study Islamic architecture. In 835 A.D. A palace near the portals of Canstantipole had been built on the Baghdad model.
In this regard, Rabah Saoud writes: (33)
‘’Muslim architecture attests to the high level of power and sophistication that the Muslim community had reached at a time when Europe was living through the dark ages. Whether in the mosque, the palace or in the ordinary house, Muslim mason, architect and artist remarkably transmitted the profound devotion of Islam to community. The world owes much of its architectural development to early Muslim architects. Europe in particular built its architectural renaissance on the advances made by Muslim architects; a fact acknowledged at least in Gothic by a number of Western scholars including Fletcher (1961) who stated: “It is now generally admitted that European Gothic architecture owes a substantial debt to Islamic prototypes, many of which became familiar to the Crusaders in Egypt, Palestine and Syria.”’’
In the Sarakasta church, built during the Mudéjar period (a group of Muslims who worked under Christian rule after the fall of Andalusia) in the sixteenth century, traces of Islamic architecture are clearly visible. This church was built of brick, its holes are knotted and its tower is reminiscent of the minaret of the Quairawan mosque, as well as the use of brick in the decoration of the church tower.
In Spain, Islamic styles remain in some regions to this day, especially in the south. The architect Antoni Gaudí (34) took different artistic elements and used them in his first buildings, notably in the decoration of the interior rooms.
From Italian architecture, we can see the Islamic influence in the arches that join the sides of the dome of Mount Saint Angelo and in the palace of Rowffelo built in the eleventh century in the city of Raffilio.
In the south of Italy, Arab influences can be seen. In addition, the bell towers of Renaissance Italy are in the style of North African minarets. The Islamic element maintained its architectural effect in Sicily, especially in a few small palaces that had small, high rooms arranged around a central square inspired by Islam. Among these palaces, there is a very famous one, the Al-Aziziya palace in Bali Omo.
In the citadels built to house Sicilians, you can see the effect of Arab architecture. The design, bows and arrow holes are all Arabic, alongside the squared-off walls. From Sicily, this Arabic style of fortresses and citadels spread. The Sicilian king Fréderic II (1272-1337), during his campaign on Jerusalem/al -Quds, brought this style to European countries.
In Brittany, an entry dating back to 1150 in the town of Kenilworth shows that its designated architect visited Spain and designed an arch in a rectangle. It is certain that the origin of English Theo Doric vaults is Islamic.
Russian architecture borrowed heavily from Islamic art, which is clearly evident in its churches with elliptical domes.
These eternal examples cite that there is a modern heritage in architecture and indicate the genius of architects and men of art who lived under the Islamic state in East and West. This state contributed, by a large part, to develop the styles of architecture and universal arts by inventing pretty picturesque models of which the historians of art and architecture are proud.
These borrowings and inspirations from Islamic architecture were called by Nabila Oulebsir and Mercedes Volait ‘’Architectural Orientalism’’: (35)
‘’ Architectural Orientalism didn’t just spread exotic decorations, faithful or allusive almost to the entire planet in the 19th century; it is also a form of “constructed knowledge”, through which a wide range of knowledge can be examined. First and foremost, there is the archaeological materiality and anthropological realities of the sites of inspiration, and which has endeavoured to produce images, nomenclatures and interpretative grids. There are also the more doctrinal companies, which have used Eastern aesthetics and situations for the purposes of theory of art and architecture, to defend polychromy or structural rationalism, debate the origins of the Gothic, or promote “industrial art”. Finally, we can think of applied operations that have delivered codifications or repertoires and purified repertoires of models, and enabled the Orientalist imagination in stone – and even more so in iron! More generally, Orientalist production is a good indicator of the status of non-Western worlds and international exchanges in the arts, and its historiography can also help to shed light on the place of distant lands in the field of vision and the history of art, architecture and heritage. It proves to be an instrument for questioning the academic divisions and mental geographies between the study of artistic creation and Orientalist erudition of the past two centuries, in Europe and elsewhere.’’
For Diana Darke, the truth of the matter is that the Westerners did not actually get influenced by Islamic architecture but on the contrary, they stole concepts violating brazenly universal intellectual property. (36) In her lavishly illustrated work aptly entitled: Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, Diana Darke attempts to redress the balance by revealing the Arab and Islamic roots of Europe’s architectural heritage. The book traces the transmission of the main innovations from the great capitals of the first Islamic empires, Damascus and Baghdad, to Europe, via Muslim Spain and Sicily.
She, thus, argues in this regard: (37)
‘’Drawing on ideas and styles passed from vibrant Middle East trading cities into the West, the architectural heritage of Europe — and America — owes an important debt to the Arab and Islamic world, as I lay out in my new book, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe. England’s greatest architect, Sir Christopher Wren, wrote that what we call “the Gothic style should more rightly be called the Saracen style.” Americans, it seems, are especially fond of Gothic. Across the continent are spectacular Gothic Revival structures, many modelled on the medieval cathedrals of England and France, such as St. John the Divine and St. Patrick’s in New York City, Washington National Cathedral, and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, GA. On top of that, America boasts the world’s biggest collection of neo-Gothic architecture in its universities, colleges, and schools. What accounts for that popularity?’’
As each civilization develops its own culture and art forms, it also establishes its own specific vocabulary. Most of the time, it’s possible to translate these words into any other language, as equivalents or similarities can be found; but sometimes the translation loses part of the meaning, or is even impossible, because the term is so specific. (38) This is the case for a number of architectural terms in the Islamic domain, which are preserved in Arabic, and which it’s best to know in order to better understand the monuments and their symbolism. (39)
In Arabic, there are two terms for “mosque”: jâmi’ and masjid, the latter apparently being the older term. There is, however, a nuance:
– the term masjid refers in principle to a neighborhood mosque used for daily prayers, of more or less modest dimensions;
– jâmi’ refers to what is often translated as a “Grand Mosque”, and which the Anglo-Saxons call a “Friday Mosque”, used for Friday prayers and of considerable size.
We could also add a 3rd type, the ‘îdgâh, literally “prayer square”, which consists of a vast open-air space enclosed only by a qiblah wall with its mihrâb; it is used for major ceremonies.
– birkah: ablutions fountain in a religious building. Also known as fisqîyah or hanafiyyah. The ablutions fountain placed in the center of the courtyard in a special aedicula is called a hawd.
– dikkah: masonry or wooden platform placed in the middle or at the back of the prayer hall, used by the person responsible for relaying the imâm’s words to the faithful at the back during the main prayers; it was also used for teaching.
– iwân: space opening onto the central courtyard not by a portico but by a large arch; this motif is of Persian origin.
– kursî: lectern, in general. The kursî as-Sûra is reserved for reading the Koran.
– manârah: minaret.
– mashhad: mosque that is the object of pilgrimage due to the presence of a holy tomb.
– mihrâb: niche in the qibla wall, used both to indicate the direction of Mecca and as a sounding board for the voice of the imâm leading the prayer.
– minbar: large pulpit from which the imâm delivers the sermon; usually placed to the left of the mihrâb.
– mu’allaq: literally “suspended”; this is a specific type of mosque that rises above a first floor occupied by civic spaces, such as stores.
– riwâq: portico usually located on the sides of a mosque’s courtyard.
– sahn: inner courtyard of a mosque.
– qiblah: wall that serves as orientation for the entire mosque, since it is perpendicular to the direction in which prayer is performed.
In addition to mosques, there are other religious buildings that are often referred to as “monasteries”, even though the term is somewhat of a misnomer as it does not correspond to the Western notion of a monastery. For this reason, it is often preferable to retain the Arabic term. It was the Sufi in particular who met in such buildings.
– hujrah: cell, room in one of these monasteries.
– khânaqâh: a type of monastery, a pious foundation used to train Sufi brothers; it usually included the founder’s mausoleum, which was also served by the Sufi living there.
– ribât: fortified monastery.
– takkiyya: monastery also serving as a hospice.
– zâwiyyah: small monastery.
Diversity and richness of form and decoration
The diversity and richness of forms and decorations of architectural and architectonic elements in Islamic architecture are at the origin of the unity and harmony characterizing the Islamic cultural and civilizational heritage. However, the choice of using certain architectural aspects that characterize Muslim architecture, such as the arch, the vault and the dome, must be highlighted. (40)
The design, construction and use of these elements seem to be generated by imperatives that are linked on the one hand to the structure and stability of the building, and on the other to the quality of the building’s thermal comfort. These aspects are characterized by the impact of the execution techniques employed (to span large spans and produce open spaces) and also by the use of proportions and shapes adopted at roof level (vault, dome and parabola). (41)
The Muslims inherited the use of geometric motifs in building decoration from classical architecture, but perfected it to a hitherto unknown level of complexity and development, turning geometric decoration into a first-rate art form. Although geometric motifs appear on all materials used for architectural ornamentation (stucco, wood, bricks…), it is on wall coverings with ceramic pieces (azulejos or alicatados) that they have their main place. (42)
One of the most representative configurations, known as the “parajita” (cocotte), can be found on the base of the Patio de los Arrayanes, among other places. The space is structured using equal equilateral triangles, modified to form three circular segments. These segments are organized in such a way as to preserve the surface area of the original triangle. In the center of these triangles, a six-pointed star or a hexagon is arranged in alternating rows, completing the configuration. (43)
Another of the most common shapes is the star, found in a multitude of combinations and originating in the rotation of squares. Let’s take the example of an eight-pointed star created by rotating a square at an angle of 45 to its initial state. The grid of small squares into which each of the two original squares is divided serves as a guide for tracing the figures that make up the star and the nodes of the design. The final composition may combine stars with varying numbers of points, joined together to form a network in which the nodes are the decorative motifs that unite and run through the entire design. The final impression given is that of an endless labyrinth, composed of multiple-colored shapes, which, seen together, express another perspective of the geometric landscape.
Geometric interlacing and plant arabesques are the two most emblematic ornamental techniques of Islamic art. (44) In illuminations, interlacing is formed by doubling the lines that form the polygons. The result is a two-dimensional geometric composition: a first plane with the network of intertwined ribbons and a second with the polygons. The question arises as to whether these geometric interlacing patterns, which can be found as drawings in the illuminations, might not have the technical constraints of other materials used in Islamic art.
The magazine Invaluable writes on Islamic floral patterns: (45)
‘’Because of the belief in Islamic aniconism, flower designs were used by artists in the place of human or animal forms as Islamic art patterns. These floral motifs seen in Islamic ceramics, carpets, tiles and more avoid a focus on concepts of realism, like growth or life. Certain types of flowers or plants can have theological meanings; the cypress, for example, often represents humility before God.
According to the Museum of Islamic Art Doha, four- or five-petal flowers are typically shown in Timurid manuscripts, Ottomon tiles, Safavid carpets and more. In many types of Islamic artworks like these, we also find what is called arabesque or interlacing, rhythmic, and scrolling floral patterns.
Arabesque surface decoration became widely popular on objects and buildings, and other plant-based designs continued to form complex, scrolling patterns. The V&A Museum notes that techniques for mastering floral patterns and motifs in Islamic art included the use of “grids, reflective and rotational symmetry, and freehand design.”’’
The decorative motifs adorning the Alhambra’s alicatados conceal geometric regularities, based on repeating figures and colors that feed a pattern of geometric designs and transformations such as symmetries, rotations and translations. The geometry of decoration helps to achieve a wide range of perceptions. The repetition of motifs expands space to infinity. The different ways in which we perceive the configurations of figures, depending on how we freeze our view, invite us to look again and again, to surprise ourselves with new images of the same alicatado every time. Symmetry of form can be perceived as order and harmony. Color and well-articulated geometry encourage imagination and appreciation of aesthetics. Underlying these techniques is always an answer to a classic problem in geometry: what geometric figures can cover an area in rows, without leaving gaps or overlapping?
It was in the traditions of late Greco-Roman antiquity, those of the Byzantines and Sassanids, that the first Muslim artists drew inspiration. Taking up traditional decorative motifs such as palmette, acanthus leaf and vine tendrils, they transformed, stylized and combined them to produce a specific art form; geometric interlacing and arabesque, once secondary, now constitute the organizing principle and give it its aesthetic unity.
Speaking of geometric patterns in Islamic architecture Saied Shakouri writes: (46)
‘’Frequently described by a certain stylistic character, Islamic geometric patterns art is not confined to the artistic presentation of spiritual worship. It includes all art shapes common in Muslim civilization, both inside and beyond the Middle East. While unique elements of Islamic art manage to show provincial impacts and junctions with the art of other civilizations, they often depict notions and emotions rather than tangible material objects. It is infrequent to see images of individuals in Islamic art, as some regard it as a condition of idols, which is not allowed in Islam. Considering that, Islamic art over time has mainly concentrated on line drawing and geometric design as opposed to statues and drawing.‘’
And on the meaning of these patterns, he goes on to say:
‘’Geometric patterns are believed to reflect the unlimited character of God in various forms. For instance, circles contain no start and end. The complicated and duplicative geometric motifs in Islamic art create the belief that even the most miniature part of the pattern plays a role in the limitless duplication of the total. In addition to Muslims who use geometric forms and script in their art, the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Sasanians also utilized identical designs. But in Islamic cultures, mathematicians and scientists had an important role in creating the complex structures of Islamic geometric art that we notice currently. The four main classes of shapes in geometric Islamic techniques are circles, squares, quadrilaterals, six-pointed stars, and other polygons.’’
Inspired by the compartmentalization of certain ancient decorations, the geometric construction of decorations developed in a context where interest in mathematics was widespread. Taking up and completing the translations made from Greek and Indian as early as the 8th century, numerous works were devoted to geometry and its practical applications. The figures that cover the “carpet pages” of manuscripts or adorn wall ceramics, wood, stucco or marble decorations, follow a rigorous construction based on the use of ruler and compass. From an original circle divided into equal segments, vertical, horizontal and oblique axes emerge to form polygons. Hexagons and star octagons, the basic figures, are formed respectively by two equilateral triangles and two squares nested within each other. (47)
Another organizing principle of Muslim art, the arabesque often refers to an ornamental element covering the entire available space. Strictly speaking, it’s a motif made up of stylized plant elements, blossoming and bifurcating from a continuous, undulating line. Stems, leaves and flowers emerge from these volutes, which, although inspired by nature, have little to do with it.
The arabesque found its classic expression under the Abbasids, both in the East and in the Muslim West. Enriched by influences from Central Asia, this decorative vocabulary underwent new interpretations in the 16th century: under the Safavids, Ottomans and Mughals, flower seedlings invaded the illumination space.
Influence of Islamic architecture on Western architecture
Islamic influences on Western art refers to the influence of Islamic art, artistic production in the Islamic world from the 8th to the 19th century, on Christian art. During this period, the boundary between Christianity and the Islamic world varied greatly, in some cases leading to exchanges of populations and corresponding artistic practices and techniques. In addition, the two civilizations maintained regular relations through diplomacy and trade, facilitating cultural exchanges. Islamic art covers a wide variety of media, including calligraphy, illustrated manuscripts, textiles, ceramics, metal and glass. It refers to the art of the Muslim countries of the Near East, Islamic Spain and North Africa. Glass production, for example, remained a Jewish specialty throughout the period, and Christian art, as in Coptic Egypt, continued, especially in earlier centuries, to maintain certain contacts with Europe. (48)
Islamic decorative arts were popular imports to Europe throughout the Middle Ages; largely due to unsuspected accidents of survival, the majority of surviving examples are those in the possession of the church. Early textiles were particularly important, used for church vestments, shrouds, hangings and garments for the elite. Islamic pottery of everyday quality was always preferred to European goods. Because decoration was mainly ornamental, or small hunting scenes and the like, and inscriptions were not understood, Islamic objects did not offend Christian sensibilities.
In the early centuries of Islam, the most important points of contact between the Latin West and the Islamic world from an artistic point of view were Southern Italy and Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, both of which held large Muslim populations. Later, the Italian maritime republics played an important role in the art trade. During the Crusades, Islamic art seems to have had relatively little influence even on the Crusader art of the Crusader kingdoms, although it may have stimulated a desire for Islamic imports among Crusaders returning to Europe.
Many Islamic art techniques formed the basis of art in the Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture of Norman Sicily, much of which used Muslim artists and craftsmen working in the style of their own tradition. Techniques included inlays in mosaics or metals, carving on ivory or porphyry, hard stone carving and bronze foundries. In Iberia, the Mozarabic art and architecture of the Christian population living under Muslim rule remained very Christian in many respects, but showed Islamic influences in others; much of what has been described as this is now called Repoblación art and architecture. After the Reconquista Mudéjar styles were produced by Muslim or Morisco artists under Christian rule, and, consequently, Islamic influence was evident in many respects. (49)
On the Influence of Islamic architecture on Western architecture, Jonathan Morrisson argues: (50)
‘’Architecture relies on cross-pollination — few arts synthesise quite as many ideas, cultures, tastes, styles and techniques. What’s surprising is just how much of what we consider to be quintessentially western — not least in our cathedrals and grand civic buildings — comes from the East, carried back by merchants and crusaders, then travellers, historians and aristocratic admirers.
From the elaborate domes of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice to the gothic and neo-gothic turrets that we have come to consider our northern European vernacular, the influence of Islamic craft on our buildings is writ large. Belltowers owe much to square minarets, such as the one at the Great Mosque of Aleppo in Syria, while pointed and trefoil arches are derived from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Even ribbed vaults were first seen in Europe at the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba in Spain, then the capital of an emirate. As Sir Christopher Wren wrote in the 1700s: “Modern gothic . . . is distinguished by the lightness of its work, by the excessive boldness of its elevations . . . it can only be attributed to the Moors; or what is the same thing, to the Arabians or Saracens.”’’
Middle Ages: Islamic art was widely imported and admired by European elites in the Middle Ages. There was an early formative stage from 600-900 and the development of regional styles from 900 onwards. Early Islamic art employed mosaicists and sculptors trained in Byzantine and Coptic traditions. Instead of murals, Islamic art used painted tiles, as early as 862-3 (at the Great Mosque of Kairouan in modern Tunisia), which also spread to Europe.
Islamic rulers variously controlled parts of southern Italy and most of modern Spain and Portugal, as well as the Balkans, which maintained large Christian populations. Christian Crusaders also ruled Islamic populations. Crusader art is mainly a hybrid of Catholic and Byzantine style, with little Islamic influence, but the Mozarabic art of the Christians of al-Andalus seems to show considerable influence from Islamic art, although the results are somewhat like contemporary Islamic works.
Islamic influence can also be traced in the mainstream of Western medieval art, for example in the Romanesque portal at Moissac, in southern France, where decorative elements, such as the scalloped edges at the door, and also having Christ in Majesty surrounded by musicians, were to become a common feature of Western celestial scenes, and probably derived from images of Islamic kings in their diwân. Calligraphy, ornamentation and decorative arts were generally more important than in the West.
Hispano-Moorish pottery from Spain was first produced in al-Andalus, but Muslim potters seem to have migrated to the Christian Valencia region, where they produced work exported to Christian elites across Europe. Other types of Islamic luxury goods, notably silk textiles and carpets, came from the generally wealthier Eastern Islamic world (the Islamic canals to Europe west of the Nile were no richer, however), many via Venice. However, most of the luxury products of court culture, such as silk, ivory, precious stones and jewels, were imported to Europe only in unfinished form and transformed into finished products labeled “oriental” by local medieval craftsmen. They were devoid of depictions of religious scenes and normally decorated with ornaments, which made them easy to accept in the West. Indeed, in the late Middle Ages, there was a fashion for pseudo-kufic imitations of Arabic script used in Western art. (51)
On this particular topic, Lynne Rutter writes: (52)
‘’ Influenced by exotic artifacts brought back from the Middle East through both conflict and trade with the Ottoman Empire. Early Renaissance painters embellished their work with complicated patterns and eastern-style scripts in an effort to create an “oriental” atmosphere, especially with regard to persons or scenes from the Holy Land. Eastern Kufic script was a particularly ornamental style of calligraphy dating from the 11th century, whose design lent itself well to borders.’’
Decorative art: A wide variety of portable objects of various decorative arts were imported from the Islamic world to Europe in the Middle Ages, mainly through Italy and especially Venice. In many areas, European-made products were unable to match the quality of Islamic or Byzantine work until the late Middle Ages. Luxury textiles were widely used for clothing and hangings and, fortunately for art history, also often as shrouds for the burials of important figures, which has enabled most surviving examples to be preserved. In this area, Byzantine silk was influenced by Sassanid textiles and Islamic silk by both. It is therefore difficult to say which textiles had the greatest influence on the fabric of Saint-Géréon, a large tapestry that is the first and most important Oriental work. European fabrics, especially Italian, gradually caught up with the quality of Oriental imports and adopted many elements of their designs.
Byzantine pottery was not produced in high-quality types, as the Byzantine elite used silver instead. Islam has numerous hadith injunctions against the consumption of precious metals, and so developed many varieties of fine pottery, often influenced by Chinese porcelain, which had the highest status among the Islamic elites themselves. Much Islamic pottery was imported to Europe, from dishes (“bacini”) even to Islamic al-Andalus in the 13th century, to Granada and Malaga, where much of the production was already being exported to Christian countries. Many potters emigrated to the Valencia region, long reconquered by the Christians, and production surpassed that of al-Andalus. Decorative styles gradually became more influenced by Europe, and by the 15th century, Italians were also producing lustre wares, sometimes using Islamic forms such as albarello. Ironwork such as zoomorphic jugs called aquamanile and bronze mortar were also introduced into the Islamic world.
Mudejar art in Spain: Mudejar art (and architecture) (53) is a style influenced by Islamic art that developed from the 12th to the 16th century in the Christian kingdoms of Iberia. It is the result of the Convivencia (54) between Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations in medieval Spain. The elaborate decoration typical of the Mudejar style fueled the development of the later Plateresque style of Spanish architecture, combining with late Gothic and early Renaissance elements.
Pseudo-Kufic: Arabic kufic script was often imitated in the West during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, to produce what is known as pseudo-kufic. Imitations of Arabic in European art are often described as pseudo-kufic, borrowing the term from Arabic script which emphasizes straight, angular strokes, and is most commonly used in Islamic architectural decoration. Numerous cases of pseudo-kufic are known in European religious art from the 10th to the 15th century. Pseudo-kufic would be used as writing or as a decorative element in textiles, religious halos or picture frames. Many can be seen in Giotto’s paintings. (55)
Known examples of the incorporation of kufic script include the 13th ciborium by French master Alpais in the Louvre Museum. The Santo Domingo de Silos chalice is another Christian liturgical object with imitation kufic characters; its decoration also includes Islamic-inspired horseshoe arches.
Arab-Norman culture in Sicily: Christian buildings such as the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Sicily, incorporated Islamic elements, probably created usually by local Muslim craftsmen working in their own traditions. The ceiling of the Cappella, with its wooden vaults and gilded figures, has close parallels with Islamic buildings in Fez and Fustat, and reflects the muqarnas (stalactite) technique of highlighting three-dimensional elements.
The diaphragm arch, of late origin, was widely used in Islamic architecture, and may have spread from Spain to France.
Saracen style: Scholars of the 18th-19th century, who generally preferred classical art, detested what they saw as the “disorder” of Gothic art and the perceived similarities between Gothic and Islamic architecture. They often overestimated the fact that Gothic art had its origins in Islamic Mosque art, to the point of calling it “Saracen”.
Pointed arch: The pointed arch originated in the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, where it appears mainly in early Christian church buildings, although engineering works such as the Byzantine Karamagara bridge also showed it to be fully developed at an early stage. Byzantine priority in its use is also evidenced by slightly pointed examples at Sant Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, and Hagia Irene, Constantinople. The pointed arch was subsequently adopted and widely used by Muslim architects, becoming the characteristic arch of Islamic architecture. It spread from Islamic lands, probably through Sicily, then under Islamic rule, and from there to Amalfi in Italy, before the end of the 11th century. The pointed arch reduces architectural thrust by around 20%, and therefore offers practical advantages over the semicircular Romanesque arch for the construction of large structures.
Furthermore, the visual and aesthetic similarities between the ornamental values of flamboyant vaults and Islamic architectural decoration suggest that it is unlikely that a direct impact of one on the other can be demonstrated, and we are certainly dealing with a parallel growth.
In addition to Islamic architecture, the Gothic style was also influenced by Roman architecture
Templar churches: In 1119, the Knights Templar were given as their headquarters part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, considered by the Crusaders to be Solomon’s temple, from which the order took its common name. The typical round churches built by the Knights across Western Europe, such as London’s Temple Church, are probably inspired by the shape of Al-Aqsa or its neighbor, the Dome of the Rock.
Islamic elements in Renaissance art
Pseudo-Kufic: Pseudo-Kufic is a decorative motif that resembles kufic script and can be found in many Italian Renaissance paintings. Exactly why pseudo-kufic was incorporated into Renaissance works is unclear. It seems that Westerners mistakenly associated Middle Eastern manuscripts from the 13th-14th centuries as being identical to present-day scripts from the time of Jesus, and therefore found it natural to depict early Christians in association with them
Oriental carpets: Carpets of Middle Eastern origin, from the Ottoman Empire, the Levant or the Mamluk state of Egypt or North Africa, were used as important decorative elements in 13th century paintings and especially in religious painting from the Middle Ages onwards. and continuing into the Renaissance period.
These carpets were often incorporated into Christian imagery as symbols of luxury and status of Middle Eastern origin, and together with pseudo-Kufic script offer an interesting example of the integration of oriental elements into European painting.
Anatolian carpets were used in Transylvania as decoration in evangelical churches.
Islamic costumes: Islamic individuals and costumes often provide the contextual backdrop for depicting an evangelical scene. This was particularly apparent in a set of Venetian paintings in which contemporary Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and especially Mamluk figures are used anachronistically in paintings depicting biblical situations. One example is the 15th century ‘’The Arrest of Saint Mark‘’ from the Synagogue by Giovanni di Niccolò Mansueti, which accurately depicts contemporary (15th century) Alexandrian Mamelukes arresting Saint Mark in a historical scene from the 1st century CE. Another case in point is Gentile Bellini’s preaching of Saint Mark in Alexandria.
Ornamentation: A Western style of ornament based on Islamic arabesque developed, from the late 15th century onwards in Venice; it has been called more or less Western arabesque (a term with a complicated history). It was used in a wide variety of decorative arts, but was particularly long-lived in book design and binding, where small motifs in this style have continued to be used by conservative book designers right up to the present day. It is seen in gold tooling on covers, borders for illustrations, and printer’s ornaments for decorating empty spaces on the page. In this field, the technique of gold tooling had also arrived in the 15th century in the Islamic world, and indeed much of the leather itself was imported from there.
Like other Renaissance ornamental styles, it was disseminated by ornamental reproductions that were purchased as models by craftsmen in a variety of trades. The ornament known as moresque in the 15th and 16th centuries (but now more commonly called arabesque) is characterized by bifurcated scrolls composed of branches forming intertwined foliage patterns. These basic motifs gave rise to numerous variants, for example, where the branches, generally linear in character, were transformed into straps or bands. It is characteristic of moresque, which is essentially a surface ornament, that it is impossible to locate the beginning or end of the motif. Originating in the Middle East, they were introduced to continental Europe via Italy and Spain. Italian examples of this ornament, often used for bookbinding and embroidery, are known as early as the end of the 15th century.
On the consistency and variety of Islamic ornamental style, David Wade writes: (56)
‘’Much of the art of Islam, whether in architecture, ceramics, textiles or books, is the art of decoration – which is to say, of transformation. The aim, however, is never merely to ornament, but rather to transfigure. Essentially, this is a reflection of the Islamic preoccupation with the transitory nature of being. Substantial structures and objects are made to appear less substantial; materials are de-materialised. The vast edifices of mosques are transformed into lightness and pattern; the decorated pages of a Qur’an can become windows onto the infinite. Perhaps most importantly, the Word, expressed in endless calligraphic variations, always conveys the impression that it is more enduring than the objects on which it is inscribed.’’
Elaborate bookbindings with Islamic designs can be seen in religious paintings. In Andrea Mantegna and Zeno’s Saint John the Baptist, Saint John and Zeno hold exquisite books with covers showing Mamluk-style centerpieces, a type also used in contemporary Italian bookbinding.
Conclusion: Islamic architecture in the world
Islamic civilization developed in part around the Mediterranean basin, the cradle of Judeo-Christian civilization, which thus became an important zone of contact and exchange between Mediterranean Europe, and certain countries of Islamic culture.
The frontier of the area of Islamic influence has long been at the gateway to France, in Spain. From the very beginning of the expansion of Islam in the 7th century, the Umayyad Arab Empire conquered the Iberian Peninsula. The Moorish presence in Europe did not end until 1492, when the Spanish sovereigns overrun last Muslim stronghold in Spain. (57)
Further east, the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) enjoyed a golden age in the 16th century, its territories stretched as far as Austria. Today, Islamic culture in Europe, the legacy of this Ottoman presence, is carried on by the Bosnian people in the in the Balkans.
The Greco-Roman tradition: In particular, the newly conquered regions of the Byzantine Empire (southwestern Anatolia, Syria, Egypt and the Maghreb) supplied architects, masons, mosaicists and other craftsmen to the new Islamic rulers. These craftsmen were trained in Byzantine architecture and decorative arts, and continued to build and decorate in the Byzantine style, which had developed from Hellenistic and ancient Roman architecture.
Mesopotamia and Persia, despite adopting elements of representative Hellenistic and Roman style, retained their independent architectural traditions, derived from Sassanid architecture and its predecessors.
The process of transition from Late Antiquity, or Post-Classical, to Islamic architecture is illustrated by archaeological discoveries in Northern Syria and Palestine, the Bilad al-Sham of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. In this region, Late Antique or Christian architectural traditions merged with the pre-Islamic Arab heritage of the conquerors. Recent research into the history of Islamic art and architecture has revised a number of colonialist ideas.
Islam has left its mark on world architecture, with splendid monuments erected in Iran and Central Asia, Spain and North Africa, Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Turkey and as far afield as India. The exquisite delicacy and refinement of its miniatures, carpets and fabrics, woodwork and ivory, ceramics, glass and metalwork are all part of its heritage.
Answering the question: How Islamic architecture can inspire modern architecture? ARCH20 writes: (58)
‘’Contemporary architecture is all about ‘newness’. That is what the word ‘contemporary’ implies, doesn’t it? So, it is mainly about creating new forms that have nothing to do with historical context or influence. In fact, both modern and contemporary architectural movements mostly tried to break away from the “primitive” past. Post-Modernists tried something different but ended up with pastiches that had no original meaning.
Islamic Architecture, on the other hand, represents a whole new way of thinking and expression. Of course, the style originates from the teachings of Islam itself. You probably caught The Essence of Islamic Architecture Through The Renown Moorish Architecture Doors – but it’s not just that. Now, the interesting thing about Islam is that it is not limited to a certain time or place. Rather, it claims to be an eternal way of life that can meet the needs of human beings at any given time.
And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the universes – Quran 21:107
Due to this universal nature of Islam, Islamic architecture is quite diverse even though it’s based on common principles. Let us now look at some of these common principles and see what they can offer us today.’’
Islamic architecture encompasses a wide range of secular and religious styles from the beginnings of Islam to the present day. What today is known as Islamic architecture was influenced by Roman, Byzantine, Persian and all the other lands conquered by Muslims in the 7th and 8th centuries. Further east, it was also influenced by Chinese and Indian architecture as Islam spread to Southeast Asia. It developed distinct characteristics in the form of buildings, and surface decoration with Islamic calligraphy and ornament in geometric and interlaced patterns. The main Islamic architectural types for large public buildings are: the mosque, the tomb, the palace and the fort. From these four types, the vocabulary of Islamic architecture is derived and used for other buildings such as public baths, fountains and domestic architecture.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
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- Muqarnas : Muqarnas (Persian: مقرنس moqarnas; Arabic: مقرنص muqarnaṣ; Spanish: mocárabes) have been ornamental motifs in Islamic architecture since medieval times. They are stalactite- or honeycomb-shaped elements, originally designed to distribute the thrust of the vaults and change from the square plan of the hall to the circular plan of the dome.
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- Mudéjar architecture was developed on the Iberian Peninsula between the 11th and 16th centuries in regions conquered by Christian kingdoms, and is the result of the application of Muslim influences, techniques and materials to Christian (or Jewish) buildings. The Mudéjars were Muslims who became subjects of the Christian kingdoms of León, Castile, Aragon and Portugal as these kingdoms expanded southwards during the Reconquista. In the regions reconquered by the Christian kingdoms, Mudejar architects and craftsmen contributed to the construction of numerous Christian and Jewish buildings, both religious and civil. These Mudejar architects and craftsmen brought to these buildings their techniques, materials (brick, azulejos) and ornamental and architectural traditions, inherited from the four great Muslim architectural styles characterizing the Iberian Peninsula.vCf. Lugares mudéjares, lunes, 29 de septiembre de 2014. http://estampasdelallanura.blogspot.com/
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- Giotto di Bondone or Ambrogiotto di Bondone, also known as Giotto, born 1266 or 12671 in Vespignano or Romignano and died January 8, 1337 in Florence, was a Florentine painter, sculptor and architect of the Trecento period, whose works were at the origin of the revival of Western painting. It was the influence of Giotto’s painting that would give rise to the Renaissance movement of the following century. Giotto belonged to the Pre-Renaissance artistic movement, of which he was one of the masters, which emerged in Italy at the beginning of the 14th century. At the end of the Middle Ages, Giotto was the first artist whose thinking and new vision of the world helped build this movement, Renaissance humanism, which placed man at the center of the universe and made him master of his own destiny. Cf. Crowe, Joseph A. A history of painting in Italy: Umbria, Florence and Siena from the second to the sixteenth century, vol. 2: Giotto and the giottesques. London: J. Murray, 1903.
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