A Socio-Political Perspective on Islamic Architecture

(PART III: NABUWWAH & Architecture)

This essay is an attempt to arrive at a definition of Islamic Architecture on the basis of Islamic Ideology. It takes as a starting point, the fact that Islam is a “way of life” and hence it has a sociological aspect. Architecture also has a sociological aspect, because it is an art form that addresses the basic needs of individuals and collective units of human beings. Islam, therefore, has a direct relationship to architecture and when it manifests itself in built form, this form becomes “Islamic Architecture”. The essay is in five parts. Part I is a critical review of the prevalent understanding of Islamic Architecture today. Part II is a discussion of the sociological aspect of the Islamic principle of Tawheed or Oneness of God, and its implications for architecture within an Islamic society. Part III is a similar discussion from the perspective of the Islamic principle of Nabuwwah or Prophethood. Part IV is again a similar discourse from the standpoint of the Islamic principle of Qiyamah or Resurrection. Lastly, Part V concludes the essay with a discussion on the idea of paradise in Islam and, in relation to this, the sociological implications of practicing ideologically Islamic Architecture. This is Part III of the essay.

islamic architecture

Naqsh-e-Jahan (Image of the World) Square in Isfahan, Iran. [Photo by the Author]

By Zain Mankani

Nabuwwah or the principle of Prophethood is an essential component of the ideology of Islam. Like Tawheed, it too represents a way of life and is not simply a notion that requires mere verbal acceptance. Nabuwwah must be affirmed by action. It must be reflected in everyday life and in all human endeavors, including Architecture.
To understand the ideological aspect of Nabuwwah, we must begin by understanding the role of the prophet in society. What role do prophets play in a society? What is the mission of divine messengers? What specific tasks do they perform?
As the Quran says, ‘He it is Who raised among the inhabitants of Mecca an Apostle from among themselves, who recites to them His communications and purifies them, and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom, although they were before certainly in clear error.’ 1
The primary task of the prophet is the purification (tazkiya) of the people through the recitation of the communications of Allah.
Allama Tabatabi says, ‘(at-tazkiyah = to purify) is to remove dirt, filth and blemish. The Prophet cleansed them thoroughly – from wrong beliefs like polytheism and rejection of true faith, from vile and base character like pride and avarice, and from evil and immoral actions and things like murder, fornication and intoxicants.’ 2
Ayatullah Syed Ali Khamenei says, ‘The prophets come to purify man’s soul; you do not witness any sign of evil and wild behavior in a prophetic environment. Around prophets of God you only find purity, humane behavior and illumination. Of course some miracles have also been witnessed in the work of God’s prophets, but their most important mission was to purify humans and produce most elevated virtues and values in their souls. This is indeed the greatest miracle by them.’ 3
Purification is a necessary step to turn people towards the truth, or the Divine law (al-Haqq) which is related to and underlies the movement of the entire universe (including man) towards God or perfection. Aside from man, all other existents in the universe are moving in the direction ordained for them by the Divine Being. But man has the will to choose the path he takes.
‘Now, exactly because man has this great potential and free will, the necessity of some laws to direct him becomes obvious; laws to show him the true direction of this universal movement and tell him that if you choose to transgress, then you have stepped out of the truthfully orchestrated harmony of the universe. What is the title of this law so necessary for humanity? We may call it ‘the law of the Truth’ (al-Haqq). Why is it Truth? Because it conforms to the nature and truth of the universe and conforms with the nature of man, as a part of this immense, universal order; it does him good because it conforms with his own nature.’ 4

islamic architecture
The divine revelations that are communicated by Allah to the people, through the intermediary of the Prophet, are meant to turn them towards the truth and away from devotion to idols and other mortals, which throws them off the path of perfection. Polytheism, superstition and ignorance are burdens and shackles that hold people back from actualizing their potential. The prophetic mission is aimed at removing these burdens 5 so that people are free to walk the path of God that leads to individuation.
For example, the magicians in the court of the pharaoh who saw the miracle of Prophet Moses (A.S.) realized the truth and turned away from the slavery of the Pharaoh. Kings, feudal lords (or the corporate heads of modern day), and even priests and clergymen more often than not restrict the thinking capacity and range of their followers and underlings to that which serves their own personal interests, and give no regard to the development and perfection of the people under their charge. But God invites to ponder over the limitless universe within and without man.
‘We will soon show them Our signs in the Universe and in their own souls, until it will become quite clear to them that it is the truth…’6
When Rabi bin Aamir, the Muslim envoy, goes to the court of the Sasanian king, Yazdegerd, the king asks him, “Why have you come?” The envoy interprets this question to mean why has the Muslim army, representing the continuing mission of the Prophet of Allah, come to Persia, and hence his response is the mission statement of one who is living his life according to the ideology that is “Prophethood”.
He says, ‘we have come to take people away from worshipping men and into worshipping God the One, from the narrowness of their world into the vastness of this world and the next world’ 7.
The second part of the statement is of particular importance with reference to the role of architecture in an Islamic society. Architecture that is ideologically Islamic – that represents the ideology of Prophethood – will direct the attention of the beholder and the user to “the vastness of this world and the next world” and bring him out of the limited scope of the physical and temporal world.
In other words, it should connect to that aspect of the human being that is meant for the hereafter, as opposed to that which is meant to remain in this limited world. What remains in the world is the material body, while what transcends is the soul. When man’s brief tenure on this Earth is over, the angels ‘spread forth their hands (saying): Give up your souls’8. Sleep, which is called the sister (or brother) of death 9, also offers a glimpse into “the vastness of this world and the next world”. In sleep we can experience a state wherein the physical limitations are suspended, and we are able to experience events that are separated from us by time or space10.
The proximity of the two states (of sleep and death) is attested to by the Holy Quran:
‘Allah takes the souls at the time of their death, and those that die not during their sleep; then He withholds those on whom He has passed the decree of death and sends the others back till an appointed term; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.’ 11
As per the Quran, the human being is a composite of body and soul, and the soul is that which is drawn out of the body or withdrawn from it at the time of death or during sleep. This soul is eternal and infinite – that is, unbound by time and space. The souls of the righteous abide forever or “as long as the heavens and the earth endure”12 in “gardens whose expanse is as wide as the heavens and the earth”13.
That which resonates with the soul is the encounter with the infinite and eternal. That is why people find comfort in looking up at the sky, because the view of the heavens, which extend infinitely (we do not yet know of any boundary of the universe) resonates with the nature of the soul.
Similarly, people find solace in gazing out at the sea or observing the seemingly endless view from a mountain top. These experiences connect our consciousness with the infinite soul, of which we are largely unconscious. It “reminds” us of that aspect of our being which transcends the temporal world and which is therefore the foundation stone of the entire edifice of morality. For if this transcendental aspect did not exist, there would be no substance to any talk of social responsibility and accountability. In fact, there would be no substance to religion itself.
Therefore, this “reminder” is important for the establishment of religious responsibility and accountability in society. Man needs to turn his attention or have it turned again and again towards the eternal and infinite aspect of his being, which is its more valuable component (in view of its transcendence and eternity) and which is being driven towards perfection through substantial motion (harkate jauhari). The existence of the body, and by extension the material world, is in order to facilitate this transformation and perfection in the soul.
God’s laws are for the soul, which achieves perfection through submission to the laws and through performance of the obligatory acts by the body at its disposal.
Prophets are sent to remind people of this hidden, but more valuable, aspect of their being which needs to be perfected by actions in this world and prepared for transcendence to the next. Through the reminder they take people away “from the narrowness of their world into the vastness of this world and the next world” Hence the world that appears before the believer is no longer the limited physical and temporal world, but it is his own soul, which is infinite and eternal.
In this sense, the Prophets act as mediators or Waseela, that connects the temporal with the eternal; the finite with the infinite; consciousness with the Unconscious and man with the Divine within man.
Architecture in an Islamic society can perform the same function of consistently reminding the believer of his hidden (batin) self. This is the Nabuwwah / Prophethood aspect of Islamic Architecture. By turning his attention towards his infinite and eternal soul, the Islamic building takes the user out of the narrow limitations of the world.
But how exactly does a building remind the user of the infinite and eternal within himself? How does it transcend the limitations of the physical world?
Here we must understand that our perception of space, and the world around us is in large part a product of our own psychic projections. These projections fill the gaps in our knowledge to present to us a more or less complete picture of our environment. Wherever there are gaps in perception, psychic projections step in to complete the picture.
Projection or imagination is put to good use in film architecture, where much of the space is left outside the frame (or the scope of the lens) for the viewer to build up in his mind. Hence it is possible to create infinite space in film. But the same is also possible to suggest in built architecture through the use of limiting frames of views.
For example, if the physical boundary of a space is not visible, even for a short span of time, then during that short span and until the boundary becomes visible that space is potentially infinite in the viewer’s perception. This is because within the time frame of our encountering the space and our visually or sensibly determining its limits, we cannot perceive its limits. It is hence boundless.
To understand this phenomenon better we can imagine walking into a narrow street that curves and meanders so that the end of the street is concealed from view by the buildings on either side. During the time that we are walking down this street and until the time that we go around the last bend and see the end of the street, this street can be infinite in our imagination. This experience of the infinite makes an immediate connection with our soul, and is probably the reason why it is so much more delightful walking down the narrow lanes of an organically developed old town than it is to walk the wide and orthogonally planned streets of a modern city.
A similar example is a recess in a wall where the end plane of the recess is not visible from the approach. Until such time as the observer positions himself favorably enough to see the end plane, this wall recess may be infinite.
There are many ways in which infinity may be implied in built architecture. One interesting way to do so is to multiply the possible narratives or experiences of the space by providing the user with choice. When a user is confronted with a choice in terms of how to navigate through a building – such as two doors to go through – the path that is not taken represents an alternative experience of the building. Each subsequent choice down the path multiplies the possible narratives until one can imagine an infinite number of ways to experience the building.
Another means of implying infinity is to multiply the possible “meanings” of a space. Meaning, in architectural terms, is the function of a space – the reason for its existence. A space can have a clearly defined function and meaning, or it may have a loosely defined function. The latter is a functionally more inclusive space, with the ability to accommodate more layers of meaning and hence more levels of interpretation by the user.
The four-Iwan type plan of Persian Islamic Architecture is just such an example of inclusive space. As Ernest Grube14 points out, the four-Iwan type plan was a “perfect” scheme that could be applied to several functional building types. Hence a four-Iwan type building presents itself to the user as several buildings rolled into one. It could be a mosque, or madressah, caravanserai or even a residential palace. It has multiple meanings, and therefore a symbolic quality. But more importantly, by multiplying space it leans towards the infinite and forms a connection with the soul.
Courtyards in general have this quality because of their functional ambiguity. Functionally, a courtyard can be a number of things, and practically it often serves more than one function. Hence, a courtyard has a symbolic value and can be interpreted or experienced in a multitude of ways.
Surface ornamentation in Islamic Architecture may also serve to reinforce the idea of infinite space, as it does in Muslim Architecture, where ‘if a definite spatial limit is reached, such as a terminal wall, the surface that should stop the progress of anyone moving through the building will be decorated with patterns that repeat themselves, leading on visually beyond the given limit of the wall surface, vault or dome.’15
Of course all these devices that add layers of experience and meaning to space must have a unity of purpose in Islamic Architecture. That purpose must be to take people out of the narrow limitations of the world and to expand their horizons by reverting their vision towards their own souls so that they can reach the truth (al-Haqq).
The recognition of truth by society as a whole is the prime mission of the Prophet and this is possible only through self-awareness, as is also attested by the prophetic saying: ‘He who knows himself, knows his Lord’.16 Conversely, forgetting God results in loss of self-awareness, as stated in the Holy Quran, ‘Do not be like those who forget Allah, and so He caused them to forget themselves’17. So there is a very strenuous relationship between self-knowledge and knowledge of God.
Moreover, it is obvious that this awareness of the self cannot progress without awareness of the soul, which is an integral part, rather the essential part, of our being. Hence reverting the vision towards the soul is necessary for acquiring knowledge of God and this can be done through architecture. Architecture can build the necessary bridge to the human soul by resonating the attributes of the soul (infinity and timelessness), thereby initiating the process of introspection that leads to self-awareness and eventually to awareness of God. This is the Prophethood / Nabuwwah aspect of Islamic Architecture.

The author is an architect. He can be reached at zain.mankani@gmail.com


  1. The Holy Quran, Ch.62, V.2.
  2. Allama Muhammad Hussein Tabatabai, Tafsir Al-Mizan, commentary of verse 2.152.
  3. Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, Islamic Thought in the Quran, English Translation by Prof. Fazlullah Nikayin, Chapter 3, Session 17: The Goals of Prophethood, 243.
  4. Ibid., Chapter 3, Session 16: The Social Uprising of Prophethood, 234.
  5. The Holy Quran, Ch.7, V.157.
  6. Ibid., Ch.41, V.53.
  7. Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, Islamic Thought in the Quran, English Translation by Prof. Fazlullah Nikayin, Chapter 3, Session 17: The Goals of Prophethood, 136-138.
  8. The Holy Quran, Ch.6, V.93.
  9. Based on a tradition of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), reported by Jabir ibn Abdullah (and other similar traditions), al-Mu’jam al-Awsat?, 938.
  10. For more on this phenomenon, see Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle (1960).
  11. The Holy Quran, Ch.39, V.42
  12. Ibid., Ch.11, V.108.
  13. Ibid., Ch.3, V.133.
  14. Grube, Ernst J. “What is Islamic Architecture?” in Architecture of the Islamic World, edited by George Michell, (London: Thames and Hudson, Paperback Edition 2002), 12.
  15. Grube, Ernst J. “What is Islamic Architecture?” in Architecture of the Islamic World, edited by George Michell, (London: Thames and Hudson, Paperback Edition 2002), 14.
  16. Cited by Shaikh Murtadha Mutahhari in Man and Universe, Chapter 23: Human Knowledge.
  17. The Holy Quran, Ch.50, V.19.

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