Allah In My Art: Islamic Architecture Part 2

by Farida Haji

The Series Allah In My Art is a humble effort to explore elements of the Islamic arts through a perspective of faith and understanding of Allah through the eyes of an artist.

The Inspiration

وَلِلَّهِ ٱلْمَشْرِقُ وَٱلْمَغْرِبُ ۚ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا۟ فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ ٱللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ وَٰسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah. Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.

[Surah Al-Baqarah 2:115]

Islamic art has given the world some of the most beautiful creations in geometry, poetry, art and architecture. Throughout history, flourishing Islamic art and architecture have become visible and tangible entities that radiate Allah’s existence in everything constructed by humankind.

Let your eyes peek, your minds grasp and your hearts replenish the power of faith in splendid creations glorifying Allah.

The House of Allah

The most important structure in Islam is Bayt Allah or The Kaaba. It has been modified extensively throughout history. It is a cubical structure, unlike any other religious structure. The Kaaba stands 15 meters tall and 10.5 meters on each side. Its corners roughly align with the cardinal directions. The door is made of solid gold. Muslims are among the blessed who may visit the holy cities of Mecca and Madina.

Elements of Islamic Architecture

1. Domes

Domes appear as a part of roofs and ceilings, and are hemispherical structures. The apex of the dome may feature an oculus to permit natural light inside. It is built over the prayer hall. The Dome of Rock is a magnificent example.

2. Minaret

A minaret is a spire or tower-like structure featuring small windows and an enclosed staircase. It is one of the oldest elements of Islamic architecture and is found in most mosques. The primary function of the minaret is to allow the muezzin to call worshippers to prayer from an elevated point.

However, thanks to audio technology, speakers have adequately taken over. Qutub Minar in India and the Spiral Minaret of Samarra in Iraq are famous Minarets in Islamic architecture.

3. Muqarnas

Muqarnas is an ornamentation of intricate work applied to Islamic Architecture. The shapes and effects of light cause muqarnas to create a three-dimensional perception. The Muqarnas form an integral part of Islamic Architecture as it symbolizes the vastness and complexity of Islamic arts.

4. Arches

Another outstanding element prominent at entrances and interiors are arches. The are four main types of Islamic arches:

 

Pointed Arch, Ogee Arch, Horseshoe Arch, Multifoil Arch

  • Pointed arches: It features a rounded design with a tapered apex.

  • Ogee arches: These are similar to pointed arches but have curved sides.

  • Horseshoe arches: Also known as a keyhole arch is either rounded or pointed. This type of structure is defined by the histrionic widening and narrowing of its sides.

  • Multifoil: The arch is characterized by multiple circular or leaf-shaped cuts into its interior profile resulting in a scalloped design.

5. Decorative Details

The diverse biomorphic patterns and calligraphy unite Islamic structures from east to west, creating similar yet distinctive architectural ornaments.  

Forms of Islamic Architecture

1. Monuments

Dome Of Rock

The Dome of Rock is considered the first Islamic monument. Though its exact function remains unknown, it was not planned as a mosque initially. However, it is of unique political, religious and emotional importance to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.    

2. Mosques

Different mosques worldwide represent unique structural insights. Revealing various styles, structural variations and elements from their respective builders. A unique mosque worthy of mention is the Great Mosque of Xian in China. Over 700 years old, it is carved completely out of wood. The panels in the Mosque have the entire Quran inscribed on them along with Chinese translations.  

3. Madrasahs

Courtyard of Madrasah el-Attarin, Fez, Morocco

A classic madrasah comprises a prayer hall, library, washrooms, classrooms and occasionally the tomb of the founder. The Madrasah el -Attarin in Fez, Morocco is a magnificent example of a traditional structure.

4. Mausoleums and Tombs

One of the greatest Islamic structures is also a Mausoleum called the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra in India. Built by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz, the mausoleum is constructed entirely of white marble and includes Indian, Arabic and Persian designs. The marvelous understanding of how marble subtly works with the power of light brings the witnessing individual into a dimension of spirituality.

5. Hospitals

The first known Islamic care center was set up in a tent by Rufaydah al-Aslamiyah, the first Muslim nurse during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

The first Muslim hospital was a leprosarium constructed in the early 8th century in Damascus.

6. Palaces and Forts

A Muslim house is a guardian of its most precious feature: the family. The Alhambra, an astonishing example, is a palace that was built in the 14th century. A princely residence, a cluster of pavilions and gardens. The courtyards with a fountain and rooms are exquisitely decorated with colored tiles, carved stucco and wood, and calligraphy. Palaces and forts made it clear with their dwellings. The house was considered sacred, a harem for the women. Thus domestic spaces were created in the image of paradise.

Works of Art

 

1. Fatimid Panel With Horses

Fatimid Panel with Horses

Mariyam Hussein is an artist based in Cairo. She shares, “Art is an important part of my life. Art is for everyone and art is everywhere. It is a medium that connects the collective history of humankind. The act of making art is an act of recording history. The art, artist and audience are all part of a single entity.”

Her artwork, Fatimid Panel with Horses replicates a wooden carved panel from the 11th century. The original panel was once embedded in one of the doors of the Fatimid Palaces in Qahera. Today the wooden panel is preserved at the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo and an identical panel is at the MET museum in New York.

What makes this panel unique is the two carved horses and biomorphic patterns. One side mirrors the other. Unlike most Islamic architectural designs, this does not have geometric designs or Quranic inscriptions. However, what makes this panel special is that it takes us to the core of Islamic philosophy, the tawheed of Allah.

2.   Panoramic View of Mecca, 1845

Panoramic View of Mecca
Panoramic View of Mecca
(Source,  Khalili Collections)

The view of Mecca is remarkable for its comprehensiveness and accuracy and, in the manner of contemporary topographers, brilliantly combines a plan of the city with a bird’s eye view from about 60 degrees. Muhammad ‘Abdallah, whose grandfather Mazar ‘Ali Khan was court painter to the Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah II, was commissioned by the Sharif of Mecca to depict the sacred monuments of his realm in the second quarter of the 19th century.

3. Al Salaam Mosque, Dubai

Al Salaam Mosque, Dubai

Al Salaam Mosque, Dubai

Illustrator Mariam Abbas creates magnificent miniature drawings, which convey the intricate domes and minarets of islamic structures. Her renditions of mosques located in the United Arab Emirates are rich with detail and sketched painstakingly. The works illustrate remarkable diversity in the patterns and shapes of the constructions.

Understanding Art

Despite common elements and features, diverse regional styles display differences in the colors, materials and overall beautification of various Islamic structures. Numerous changes to sacred structures due to damage or changing needs of the community remind us of the short extent of our existence on earth.

Next week we shall explore another wonderful element of Islamic Art – Calligraphy!