Environment and Islamic Architecture as Research Paper

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An important influence on Renaissance architecture was the Dome of the Rock, famous for its spatial harmony, balance and overall perfection. . . . The Dome of the Rock is basically a Byzantine building [with] classical columns, topped by arches in alternating black and white marble, the dome, and the gold and semi-precious mosaics that decorate the walls all speak of Byzantine heritage" (p. 119).

Some scholars, though, have argued that authentic Islamic architecture essentially ended in 900 C.E., with the sole exception of Egypt, and even in this venue Islamic architectural development all but ceased for a period of four centuries until the middle of the Bahri Mamluk period (Blair & Bloom, 2003). It is important to note, though, that the Mamluk sequence of sultans continued until 1517 and there was ample evidence for a comparable tradition of Islamic architecture in a number of countries besides Egypt (Blair & Bloom, 2003). According to these authorities, "While architecture is as important in Islamic culture as it was in Western Europe or East Asia, visual representation, which plays such an enormous role in the artistic traditions of Europe and Asia, is a relatively minor and limited component of Islamic culture, and sculpture is virtually unknown" (Blair & Bloom, 2003, p. 19). These traditions are also based on scriptural references from the Koran. For example, in Al-Noor Sura, verses 27-8, it is stated that: "O Ye believers, do not enter houses other than yours unless you ask for permission and say the word of peace to the occupants. This is better for you so that you may remember. If you did not find any inside, do not enter until you are permitted to, and if you are told 'Go back', go back; it is better for you for God knows what you do." According to Farmer and Louw (1999), these scriptural references demonstrate the salience of privacy in Islamic architecture, especially in personal residences. For example, Farmer and Louw explain that, "This means that to enter a house one should seek permission, and keep away from the private areas inside the house. This should be realized by providing a right-angled corridor so that the guest may pass through before entering the sitting room, which gives notice to those inside, especially women, to be able to leave without being seen by such a guest" (p. 451). In response to these proscriptions, Islamic architects introduced specific design elements to accommodate the need for two separate entrances. In this regard, Farmer and Louw note that, "At Najd, in the central region of Saudi Arabia, an architectural element called Al-Tarma was introduced. This is an opening through which the occupants can look to identify the visitor; next to it is a corridor which leads to the interior of the house and which is angled at 90 degrees so that entrance will not be direct in a way that may surprise the occupants" (1993, p. 451). These design elements were specifically introduced in order to provide distinct approaches to Islamic homes. Although the scriptural references are silent with respect to precise locations, traditional interpretations have resulted in private entrances being situated at the back of Islamic residences so that honored visitors can be received at the residence's front door (Farmer & Louw, 1993). Therefore, this feature of Islamic architecture has been followed into modern times. For instance, Farmer and Louw add that, "In Islamic architecture, houses have two entrances, one at the back and the other at the front. It is regarded as good to enter the house from the front entrance because doing so from the back entrance will breach the privacy of the occupants, since the private elements are always located near the private back entrance" (p. 451). Despite these similarities, though, there are also some different uses made of these different entrances depending on the Islamic country that is involved. For example, Farmer and Louw point out that, "Some houses dedicate this back entrance to women, while visitors are received at the front one, where the sitting room for men is located. The concept of 'back' is an important addition to the privacy of the house; it is something about which pre-Islamic people did not know, nor Arabs before Islam. It is the main factor which secures privacy for some places inside the house, the places about which strangers should not know" (1993, p. 451). The features that typify and which serve to characterize Islamic architecture, then, are varied but share some commonalities that help to define them in this category. Another feature that is common the Islamic architecture is the need to take the environment in which they buildings are constructed into account in both design and function, and these issues are discussed further below.

Environment and Islam

Like a chameleon that assumes the primary features of its environment, Islamic architecture has frequently integrated elements from the environment in which they are created. For instance, according to Ahmed-Ullah (1998), "Islamic architecture has always taken on influences of wherever Islam has spread and has [always] been rooted in geometry" (p. 8). This foundation and reliance of geometrical patterns is also a reflection of the environment that is based on an Islamic natural vision of God. In this regard, Tillinghast reports that, "The emphasis on pattern derives from a vision of the nature of God" (2007, p. 37). The natural connection between geometric shapes and patterns used in Islamic architecture also extends to the use of algebra, a very Islamic tradition indeed. As Tillinghast points out,"Every novice etymologist knows that our word algebra derives from Arabic al-jebr, which roughly translates as 'reunification.' One can see how this notion relates to solving an equation; but it also points to one of the essentials of Islamic theology" (2007, p. 37). Likewise, the geometric muqarnas, the stalactite-like decorative architectural elements, are also frequently characterized as the distinctive creation of Islamic architecture (Saliba, 1999). It should be noted, though, that Saliba (1999) also emphasizes that the origins of these design elements remains unclear and no architectural plans have been located to date, but the relationship between Islamic architecture and the natural environment is a recurring theme in Islamic literature. For example, Saliba reports that, "As expounded by the great Andalusian mystic Ibn 'Arabi, whose writing spanned the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the world God created remains a part of God, and so when man sets out to know the nature of the divinity, this means that one part of God - a separated or estranged part - is attempting to know another part" (p. 37). Similarly, there are references to the natural environment and Islamic architecture found in work of the Turkish mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi, whose long poem, the Mesnevi, reflects "the multiplicity of natural forms evidence of God's infinitude" (Tillinghast, 2007, p. 37). Not surprisingly, then, Islamic architects are faced with some profound challenges in promoting excellence in their work on the one hand and avoid extravagant excesses that would detract from the glorification of God on the other, all the while balancing the needs of the buildings' occupants, and these issues are discussed further below.

The Reflection of Islam in Architecture

As noted in the introductory section, there is no universally agreed upon definition of Islamic architecture and how religion is reflected in building design and function. In this regard, Omer emphasizes that, "Much has been written and said about the meaning of Islamic architecture. Nonetheless, scholars have considerably differed - and they still do - in their views as to whether there is an architecture that can be called 'Islamic,' and if there is, what are its meanings and main characteristics" (2008, p. 37). In fact, some authorities have even argued that there is a disconnect between religion and architecture that Islam does not need to bridge. For instance, Omer also emphasizes that, "To a number of people, Islam as a religion seems irrelevant to architecture. Though it is one of life's biggest necessities, architecture is seen by some not in need of any religion as a point of reference" (2008, p. 37). Despite these assertions to the contrary, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Islamic architecture does not contain religiously inspired elements or designs that are intended to facilitate the administration of the Islamic faith. As Omer points out, "Islamic architecture as a concept as well as a sensory reality already exists. Saying otherwise would do great injustice to both the religion of Islam and its followers who have striven hard for centuries to realize it in their thought, deeds and words" (2008, p. 37). Therefore, in order to be classified as "Islamic architecture" in the first place, the architectural structure must embody some aspect of the Islamic faith because these issues are specifically addressed in the body of Islamic religion. According to Omer, "Islam is a comprehensive worldview and a way of life which has neglected no segment of existence.…[continue]

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