architecture, architecture of the veil, calligraphy, courtyards, cupola, domes, forts, fountains, Islam, Islamic architecture, iwan, main hall, male guest room, minarets, Mohammad, mosques, musalla, Muslim, Muslim houses, palaces, prayer halls, qibla wall, tombs
Here is the first of four articles on Islam I wrote some time ago and published to the Helium writing site (now gone). Islam is a religion of peace and it seems that the views and actions of the terrorists are the complete opposite of this. I’m an atheist, by the way …
Islamic architecture can be seen most prominently in mosques, tombs, palaces and forts. It is also seen in subordinate structures like dwellings, fountains and public baths. The use of large domes, minarets and courtyards convey power. A feature of Islamic architecture is that the interior space of buildings is more impressive than the outside, and for this reason it is sometimes called the “architecture of the veil”.
The features of Islamic architecture stem from the first mosque, which was built by Mohammad. The original mosques were built on the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century and were open at one end. As Islam spread across much of Europe and Asia, mosques became more elaborate and took on elements of design that were influenced by the architecture and culture of those who built them, but always maintaining the broad basis of the original form.
Most mosques have minarets, domes and prayer halls. The most visible part of a mosque is its minarets. These are tall, slender spires with a hemisphere or onion-shaped crown and are generally about twice as high as the dome. The number of minarets per mosque varies from one to about six. They are often regarded as the gate from heaven to earth and are used to call Muslims to prayer. Minarets were first built in the seventh century and were based on the bell towers of Christian churches, also used as a call to prayer.
A mosque’s dome is built directly above the prayer hall and represents heaven and sky. Domes are large and usually cover the whole of the prayer hall. Some mosques will have one or more smaller domes too. A cupola, which is a much smaller ornamental piece, sits on top of the dome. It too is usually dome-shaped but can be quadrilateral-shaped.
The prayer hall, or musalla, is a large room where Muslims gather to pray. Unlike the places of worship of most other religions, the prayer hall contains no pews, chairs or other furniture. This enables as many people as possible to pray at once. Verses from the Qur’an and Arabic calligraphy line the walls. Calligraphy is used rather than pictures, which are forbidden in mosques. Also used are series of repetitive artwork and geometric shapes. Bright colours are a feature. Images of people, animals and plants are rare in decorative art as the work of Allah is considered to be superior.
A qibla wall is situated opposite the prayer hall’s entrance, indicating the direction to face during prayer. This wall is set perpendicular to the holy city of Mecca. At the center of the wall is a niche or alcove called the mihrab, a special room that also has no furniture and was originally used as a prayer room by a king or the prophet. This is now where the imam conducts prayers.
Mosques may also contain several subordinate halls. A mosque with a main hall and two smaller ones is known as a three-iwan plan, iwan meaning hall or space. In modern times, these halls might provide various services to Islamic communities, including libraries, gymnasiums and health clinics. Mosques also include fountains, which are used by worshippers to wash before praying.
The emphasis on interior space rather than the facade is also seen in Muslim houses. The outsides are nondescript with no windows and just one small door. Inside, the central feature is a courtyard, and it is from here that light and air enters the living areas. Courtyard houses are often large and accommodate an extended family. As the family grows, extensions are built upwards, maintaining the courtyard.
An important room in the house is the one set aside for the males to entertain themselves and their male guests. It is located near the external door, so that the guests don’t see or associate with the females of the house. The male guest room defines the household’s economic status and is usually full of family possessions and highly decorated.
In summary, Islamic architecture emphasises the inside of buildings rather than the outside. The most important building is the mosque with its minarets, domes, and prayer halls. Houses often have no external windows and only one outside door.