Islamic architecture owes its emergence to the development of religious practices and the Muslim way of life.
The works of Muslim architects take as much pride of place in the history of world architecture as the celebrated achievements of architects in Christian Europe or Buddhist Asia. Muslim religious buildings, caravanserais, roofed markets, public baths, gardens and parks, palaces, castles and citadels established in the Middle Ages consistently delight with their high level of livability, simplicity and convenience of planning, ingenious engineering solutions.
Course of architectural development
The whole course of architectural development in the bosom of Islamic civilization shows that Islam does not deny building activity. The Muslim Arabs, occupying the ancient cities of the Eastern Mediterranean in the thirties of the seventh century, were undoubtedly guided by a similar idea. Based on the consideration of usefulness, they preserved the traditional urban structure and willingly attracted skilled local masters and craftsmen to create new constructions.
The criterion of usefulness became one of the fundamental principles of Muslim culture and science. In architecture, which the philosopher al-Farabi (872-950) called “the science of arts and crafts”, this principle paved the way for the wide use of the achievements, experience and traditions of conquered civilizations, which contributed to the rapid mastery and successful development of engineering and new construction art that met the ideas of Islam and satisfied the needs of the ever-growing religious community.
Muslim architects developed flexible layouts and universal methods of construction, applicable to the construction of both mighty fortresses and light palace pavilions. Excellent mathematicians, they invented methods of transforming elementary geometric figures (square, triangle, circle) into complex architectural structures and jewel-like woven ornaments, using simple and cheap clay, brick, natural stone, stucco or plaster, and concrete. Artfully combining carving, polishing, painting, mosaics, they turned wood, marble, glass, glazed ceramics into precious finishing materials. Guided by the principles of geometric correspondence and harmony of numbers, similarity and symmetry, they created extraordinarily spectacular compositions from combinations of simple elements.
Numerous variants of lancet, horseshoe, figured arches, ribbed, cellular or openwork vaults and domes, and decorated wooden ceilings became a distinctive feature of Islamic architecture. In no other art of construction do we see so masterfully formed by intertwining arched arches of openwork star-domes and lacy latticework fences. No other architecture knows such imposing, impressively decorative structures of vaults, domes, cornices and belts as stalactites (mukarnas in Arabic), which resemble cut beehives, cave lime scale, or frozen raindrops.
Stalactites-muqarnas, perhaps the most remarkable invention of the Arab Caliphate, became an identifying feature of Islamic architecture along with virtuoso patterned brickwork and polychrome ceramic mosaics.
Islamic architecture itself owes its birth to the development of religious rites and the Muslim way of life. Mosque was the first and the main type of cult building in Islam. It was the space separated from mundane circumstances for recitation of prayers to God, the place for meetings of adherents, their communication or solitude, their acquaintance with religious knowledge. Over time, specific Muslim architectural types emerged, such as madrasah (religious school or theological university), maristan (charity hospital), khanaka, zaviya, takiya-teke (Sufi monasteries, hospice), mazar-mausoleum or a cultic complex over the tomb of a Muslim theologian, teacher, or martyr-shahid, endowed with the halo of holiness. In accordance with the esoteric Muslim concept of the obvious (zahir, accessible) and hidden (batin, inaccessible to the uninitiated) world, Islamic architecture developed the principle of “hidden architecture”: unsightly blank facades protect from prying eyes variously decorated rooms open to the inner yard with a fountain, pond and flowering greenery.
The idea of a building that met the needs of Muslims took architectural form gradually. The early Muslims did not see the need to erect prayer buildings. “The earth,” said the Prophet (peace be upon him), “was created for me as a place of worship (masjid) and a place of purity, and wherever a man of my community has a need to pray, let him pray. In the camp cities founded in the south of Iraq, the first mosques were, in the words of the ninth-century historian al-Balazuri, “painted”. In Basra in 635 the worshippers prayed inside a square plot surrounded by a wattle and daub. In Kufa in 638 they arranged a mosque by sending an arrow from the same point to the north, south, west and east; the resulting square with a side length of two arrow flights was trenched with a moat.
Early religious buildings
The architecture of the early religious buildings was extremely simple and functional. The model for the arrangement of cathedral mosques was the house of Muhammad (PBUH) in Medina whose courtyard during the Prophet’s (PBUH) lifetime was used for collective prayers and after his death was transformed into the Mosque of the Prophet (PBUH). In the stationary Grand Mosques (Jami al-Kabir) erected in the 660s in southern Iraq in Basra and Kufa, the open square courtyard was surrounded by an area of shade – galleries on pillars or columns bearing a flat roof. On the side of the qibla, the sacred orientation to the Ka’bah in Mecca, several rows of columns formed a deep portico-canopy that served as a prayer hall. This type of prayer building, widespread in the Arab countries, was called a columnar mosque.
Since the end of the XII-beginning of the XIII centuries the mihrab, a relief arch or arched niche, ornamented with ornaments and religious inscriptions and the center of holiness, the sanctuary of a Muslim building of prayer, became a distinctive feature of any mosque. Since the Umayyad caliphs (661-750), the cathedral mosques began to have a minbar staircase inside, to the right of the mihrab, where the imam would stand and read the kutba, while outside, on the northern side opposite the mihrab, a minaret tower was erected where the muezzin called the believers for prayer. The first monumental structure of Muslims was erected in Jerusalem in 687-691 over an Islamic shrine, the Rock, revered as the place from which the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was ascended to heaven. This majestic octagonal structure with a huge golden dome, Qubbat al-Sakhra (“Dome of the Rock”), marked the beginning of the era of Islamic architecture.
In the east of the Islamic world in the XI-XII centuries the columnar mosque was superseded by buildings of the Aivan type. In the center of each side of a rectangular courtyard inside such a building there is a deep niche-like vaulted hall, the iwan, flanked by loggias echoing its shape. In the architecture of the Muslim East the vaulted aivan, built into a high rectangular frame, acquired universal significance. In mosques the iwan served as prayer halls, in madrasahs as lecture halls, in maristans as receptive rooms, in khanakas as a gathering place for Sufis, in caravanserais, houses and palaces as terraces for rest and pleasant pastime. The composition of the building with aivans open to the courtyard was adopted by architects of many countries of the Mashreq and Maghreb. Aivan became an integral part of the grand monumental portal peshtak, which since the XIV-XV centuries in the Middle East used to decorate the facades of religious, memorial and public buildings.
In the course of a thousand and a half years of history, Islamic architecture has been enriched by many innovations. It was the first time in the history of Islamic architecture in the Middle East.