Islamic Art And Architecture


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Article on Islamic Art and Architecture. A terminology issue.

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Islamic Art And Architecture

  1. 1. What particular features of Islamic art and architecture identify them as being “Islamic”? Introduction: 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 1
  2. 2. Section One: Islamic Values: 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: 1- Privacy 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. 2- Simplicity 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. 2
  3. 3. Simplicity also encouraged cost effective solutions in buildings. Such approach could have been achieved by utilizing the available materials, skills, construction methods and style. 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 stucco works. 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. Section Two 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 3
  4. 4. “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 works. Section Three 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 Quibla. 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 4
  5. 5. 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. Conclusion 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. References: 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, 1996. 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. 5