What particular features of Islamic art and architecture identify them
as being “Islamic”?
Islamic Art and Architecture, the expression:
The Expression: Islamic Art and Architecture has been subject to a long term debate on
different levels; intellectual, academic, professional and public for the very fact that there
has been no agreed definition of this expression as such. Consequently, Critics suggested
other terms such as: Art and architecture by (of) Moslems, Art and Architecture in the
Islamic World, and so on in order to get to a more accurate definition for the works of art
and architecture in the Islamic World after the rise of Islam.
This subject may comprise several sub-titles that can be claimed as independent fields,
these are: Painting, ornaments, calligraphy, ceramic, sculpture, glass, etc. under “Art”,
and, Architecture, Landscape design, Interior Design, Urban design, Town Planning and
others under “Architecture”. While the distinguish between these elements, is legitimate
and justified, this paper will not discuss them independently for the sake of capitalizing
and identifying the common features that may make what is known as Islamic art and
architecture in concept.
The holy book of Muslims, the Quran together with the Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH)
have provided the main sources of values and legislation for Muslims as a society and
individuals at the same time. In their seek to achieve and live the values of Islam,
Muslims have introduced new building typology, elements and techniques. On the other
hand, Muslims used the available construction methods, skills and art materials that were
locally available to build their cities and perform their art.
This paper will try to cover this subject through the following 3 sections:
1- Islamic Values influence on Art and Architecture
2- Techniques and elements adopted by Muslims
3- Buildings of Islam
There are common features that can be observed in Islamic art and architecture that are
outcomes of the Islamic Values. The following are the main values that have influenced
Islamic Art and Architecture:
Islam introduced a strong base of family privacy, which has had a direct effect on
home designs. The entrance hall became indirectly accessible through a non-straight
gallery that opens to public spaces. The bedrooms and family quarter became the
deepest part of the home.
Add to that, the typical Muslim home comprised a central courtyard that provided
several vital functions to the residents. Privacy is one main goal that could be
achieved using the courtyard concept by emphasizing on the introversion concept vs.
extroversion. Being surrounded by different rooms, the courtyard provided a visually
and physically protected outdoor environment where residents enjoyed their full
freedom without being seen, and at the same time, their rooms gained large openings
on an outdoor and yet private space.
The Mashrabiya is another privacy element that has been used when there was a need
for an outside window or balcony that over look the street. It is composed of dense
lattice timber screen elements that allow natural air and light to penetrate through the
small holes but doesn’t reveal the indoor. The word “Mashrabiya” was borrowed
from the Arabic word: Mashrab, means drinking place, because in old times, people
used to place the water jars on the Mashrabiya window to get cooler.
In Ottoman architecture, more elements can be considered under the privacy subject,
such as the male and female quarters called: “Salamlec” for the first and “Haramlek”
for the latter.
Simplicity is one of the Islamic concepts that encourage Muslims to respect others
and to show unpretentiousness. This concept is also applicable on home design.
Simplicity could have been achieved by the use of the courtyard concept. This tool
gathers the main rooms with their openings and decorations around its colonnades
and arcades that free the outside street walls from decorative elements. The house
then looks more humble and simple from outside.
Humbleness also implied a simple and human scale structure and to avoid the
grandiose look to emphasize on the belief in the Muslim’s ultimate goal to achieve
the eternal reward in Heavens rather than the current short life.
Simplicity also encouraged cost effective solutions in buildings. Such approach could
have been achieved by utilizing the available materials, skills, construction methods
3- Abstract elements for Ornamentation.
Islam strictly prohibited embodiment in Arts. Therefore, Muslims seek abstract
elements in their art works to decorate their architecture, pottery, mosaic, fresco, and
To a far extent, sculptures as well as painters avoided the use of human figures and
animals in their art works. Plant leaves and branches together with Arabic calligraphy
became the main elements of ornaments in Mosques, Palaces and public buildings.
Moreover, Geometrical ornamentation has also flourished in the Islamic art and
provided an extra tool for decorating walls, ceilings and floors.
Techniques and elements adopted by Muslims
1- Comfort and Climatic Adaptation
Muslims have adopted and yet developed climatic solutions that have made it
comfortable for people to live in harsh climate areas, especially when knowing that
most of the Muslim countries are within the arid hot climate zone.
Cooling the micro-climate within the home spaces, blocking dust and providing
extensive shading have been among the techniques. The courtyard has provided
negative pressure element that worked with the wind catchers to create an
aerodynamic system within the house. Moving the air within the built environment,
and attracting the breeze has effectively provided a comfortable living space.
The first Muslims were Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula, a place where Bedouins
form the major inhabitants. The Bedouins or Arab nomads have been living in very
harsh climate conditions. The only friendly natural element around was the sky, with
its magnificent world of stars and galaxies. Sky provided guidance to the travelers
and light for their nights. Therefore, open sky spaces such as the courtyard became a
nostalgic element that resembles their past.
2- Architectural Elements
As discussed before, Islamic Art and architecture can be described as regional, yet
vernacular; local techniques and materials have influenced Islamic Art in the different
regions. However, Muslims architecture is “Space Architecture”. Muslims build
“spaces for living” as their main goal. Walls, circulation elements, services, etc would
become the complimentary building elements. This approach can be comparable with
the other famous schools in history such as the Baroque and the Gothic in Europe.
While it has been widely perceived that domes and arches are “Islamic” elements of
architecture, in fact these elements have been inherited by the local builders from
their Byzantine legacy during the Umayyad and Abbasids Dynasties, in addition to
Ottoman Mosque architecture.
For planning purpose, Muslim architects introduced the four “Ewans” around the
main court (Sahn) which became a planning formula in many Mamlouk buildings in
the Levant region.
Other elements can be described as Islamic such as: the Muqarnas- decorated
squinches. They are structural elements that transform a square into a circle. Muslims
architects also introduced new proportions to the pointed arches such as (the
Makhmous) that distinguish the Mamluk architecture in Egypt and Palestine. Other
elements such as “Al Shukshika” over the main hall and “Al Mishkah” for lighting
fixtures. We can also talk about decorative elements such as the “Mafrouka” in timber
Buildings of Islam
Muslims built new types of buildings to serve the new religion. The Mosque (Masjid,
Jame’a, Mosalla) is the symbol of Islam. In contrast to the basilica and the church, the
classical mosque presented a lateral oblong in order to achieve more people in the
first row behind the Imam.
The Mosque included elements such as the Mihrab, central court (Sahn) and its four
sides “Ewans”, ablution quarter and the minaret. The mosque is usually expected to
have a dome which is historically not a genuine part of the mosque. On the other
hand, the mosque dome traditionally was a small feature above the Mihrab rather than
a central large element.
The mosque shall face Mecca for prayer. Therefore, the central dome does not
contribute to this concept by focusing on the mosque central form rather than the
Muslim Sufis introduced “Takiyya” for their meditation, together with new tombs
styles (Mausoleums or shrines) which became new buildings types. Some Muslim
sects introduced other buildings such as “Husainiya”.
Muslims also developed new styles of gardens. Two Landscape architecture schools
have been developed in Andalusia and Persia. Muslims were interested in developing
the outdoor as a resemblance of the Paradise (Heavens), even some of the landscape
features resemble the Quran description of the Paradise, such as the four rivers.
While Islamic Values are assumed to be the intellectual base for Islamic Art and
Architecture, they are not dominating the scene in the Islamic World. The values of
Privacy, Simplicity, the use of abstraction and others are not driving design decisions.
People rather copy some forms that have either some old structural functions such as
domes and arches, old functions such as the wind catchers (Barjeels) or material
techniques such as mud architecture vocabulary, with no contemporary need for such
functions or techniques. Therefore, the argument about the suitability of the term
“Islamic Art and Architecture” becomes valid. In other words, what became symbols
of Islamic Art and Architecture are not genuinely Islamic.
Eventually, we can conclude that most of the examples of Islamic Art and
Architecture are in fact old archeological pottery, buildings or gardens that are either
displayed in museums or preserved for researchers and visitors.
1. Rice, David Talbot, “Islamic Art”, Thames and Hudson, 1984.
2. Stierlin, Henry, Taschen’s World architecture: Islam, Volume 1, “Early
Architecture from Baghdad to Cordoba”, Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH press,
3. Stierlin, Henry, “Encyclopedia of World Architecture”. Macmillan Press 1983.
4. Several editions of the” Architectural bulletin”, Jordan included several writings
of “Hassan Fathi”, 1992-1994.