A Socio-Political Perspective on Islamic 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 I of the essay.

By Zain Mankani

Islamic Architecture is a hitherto elusive idea. It is difficult to define the very term, though several inconclusive definitions have been offered by various scholars of Islamic Arts. None of the definitions, however, prove satisfactory from the perspective of the religious ideology that is encapsulated in the word Islam, and hence there is today a general consensus that what is referred to as “Islamic Architecture” should more accurately be called “Muslim Architecture”, because though it refers to the architectural work produced by those who professed the religion, the work thus produced does not necessarily or always reflect the ideals and values promulgated by Islam.
Some of these definitions have been discussed by Prof. Nasser Rabat in his essay What is Islamic Architecture Anyway? where he states that the definition offered by Oleg Grabar that Islamic Architecture was ‘architecture built by Muslims, for Muslims’ had become ‘the dominant understanding of Islamic Architecture in Western Academia’ 1. Of course, this definition does not, as Prof. Rabat agrees, address the “Islamic” in Islamic Architecture.
This is a key problem with attempts to define Islamic Architecture – that they do not address the issue of religious ideology. The starting point for the investigation into the question of What is Islamic Architecture? is the architecture, rather than the religion, whereas there is evidently no guarantee that a building considered to be an example of “Islamic Architecture” may actually reflect the principles of Islam, just as there is no guarantee that an individual professing to be Muslim may actually represent the Islamic Man or Woman envisaged by the Divine religion. Relying on a study of architecture built by Muslims in order to gain an understanding of Islamic Architecture is hence very much like relying on a study of Muslims in order to gain an understanding of Islam – a common mistake made by western observers.
The root of this problem may lie in the fact that those who set out to understand and to try and define the term are scholars of Architecture and not scholars of Religion. Therefore, they may not have the necessary expertise or even an interest in approaching the subject from the vantage point of religious ideology.
To compound the issue, there is another misconception that is common amongst the scholars and researchers. This is the wholesale adoption of the idea of separation of religious and non-religious functions within society. Ernst Grube also takes this notion as a starting point in a short essay titled What is Islamic Architecture? where he poses the question: ‘Do we mean the architecture produced for and by Muslims to serve Islam as a religion, referring, consequently, only to that architecture which did serve a religious function – the mosque, the tomb, the madrasa? Or do we mean all the architecture produced in Muslim lands?’ 2

Grube is here assuming that the “religious function” in Islam is restricted to only the mosque, the tomb and the madrasa, and does not extend to other functions within a Muslim society. In other words, he subscribes to the idea of Separation of Church and State, or Mosque and State in this case. In fact, there is no such distinction within Islamic ideology, and the whole of human existence is the subject of religion. Therefore, from the ideological perspective, the Muslim house serves as much of a “religious function” as does the congregational mosque.
This misconception is further affirmed when Grube describes the dome as a “general symbol” signifying power or a focal point of assembly and says that ‘it can serve both religious and secular purposes’ 3. This is a reflection of a secular mindset that is anathema to the ideology of Islam. Naturally, one who starts the journey from a predetermined attitude that is contrary to the Islamic attitude, will fail to arrive at a correct understanding of the subject.
However, the author does make some interesting observations about Islamic Architecture which are worth mentioning. The first of these is that ”hidden architecture’ may be considered the main and dominant form of truly Islamic Architecture’ 4. Though he does not offer an ideological basis for this phenomenon (as already stated, the phenomena that forms the basis of research into Islamic Architecture is, in most cases, the built architecture rather than the ideology of Islam), one may venture to state that Islam lays more emphasis on the inner life rather than on external appearances. Hence the Quran criticizes those who stand up for prayer “only to be seen of men” 5 or who “do good to be seen” 6, while it extols the one who “fears the Beneficent God in Secret” 7.
The purpose of religion is the purification of man to become a creature worthy of the high station given to him by God. It is a boundless spiritual advance 8, and this progress naturally is an inner journey that has little to do with outward appearance.
The second point that Grube makes is that ‘a Muslim building serving a specific function can assume a variety of forms.’ 9 In other words, Islamic buildings can assume any form, regardless of function. One may be tempted to conclude from this, as Grube appears to have done, that there is no correlation between form and function and that there is instead an insistence on a ‘preconceived absolute scheme’.
The subordination of form to function is an important concept in Modern architecture and its negation may strike the western academic as illogical and absurd. However, one can understand this insistence on ‘an abstract and perfect scheme’ both from the perspective of the ideological principles of Islam – a point that may be discussed in its proper place – as well as from the perspective of the building’s ‘religious purpose’, which is tied to the ‘purpose of religion’, as discussed above.

The four-Iwan plan, which is the absolute scheme that Grube alludes to, is obviously a mandala, which serves as a temenos or sacred space that protects the visitor. Moreover, since mandalas traditionally contain the deity in the center, they are apt symbols for the House of God. As Jung explains, ‘The mandalas used in ceremonial are of great significance because their centers usually contain one of the highest religious figures…It is not without importance for us to appreciate the high value set upon the mandala, for it accords very well with the paramount significance of individual mandala symbols which are characterized by the same qualities of a – so to speak – “metaphysical” nature. Unless everything deceives us, they signify nothing less than a psychic center of the personality not to be identified with the ego.’ 10.
The “psychic center” referred to by Jung is the Self – that whole personality that must emerge from the union of the conscious and unconscious parts and their subsequent transformation. This alchemical transformation, which is the same purification of man described as the purpose of religion, must take place within ‘the shelter of the temenos as a protection against the splintering of personality’ 11 that is always a danger in the process.
The architecture of Islam can be conceived, from this perspective, as a safe space for the transformation of the individual from a partial to a whole personality.
In any case, the “preconceived absolute scheme” or “abstract and perfect scheme” as Grube calls it is most certainly a true architectural symbol, because it is endowed with multiplicity of meaning. While the form remains the same, the meaning of the space changes according to the function which takes place within it. This is the real nature of the symbol – it means different things to different people, but within loosely fixed parameters.
A third point mentioned by Grube, as a ubiquitous characteristic of “Islamic Architecture”, is the ‘tendency to an infinite repetition of individual units and the continuous merging of spaces’ 12 that also extended into a repetition of geometric or floral designs on the bounding surfaces. Once again, one must ask why this came to be a defining feature of Islamic Architecture. Some historians have suggested that it was due to the relative safety and security of dense urban areas, as opposed to the dangers posed by barren deserts that surrounded the ancient cities in the Middle East. The phenomenon is put down to a kind of psychological condition termed “horror vacui” that developed out of a fear of the desert, which was ‘mostly arid, fearful and hostile to man and…entered only by sheer necessity and otherwise avoided.’ 13.
Needless to say, to suggest that such a dominant and pervasive theme of Islamic Architecture was simply the result of a preference for density brought about by irrational fears is insensitive, if not unjust. But more importantly, such a reading is purely materialistic – aiming to define phenomena exclusively on the basis of physical realities, no matter how untenable the correlation may be.
If, however, one assumes a position where one accepts Islam as a Divine religion, concerned with the needs of the soul, in addition to the needs of the body, then one can better appreciate and comprehend these architectural expressions. Since the soul, more than the body, is the subject of religion, the architecture that gives form to religious ideas often speaks to the soul. We therefore see in Gothic churches, the almost complete de-materialization of the form through an abundance of light and spatial volume. Similarly, the infinite repetition of spatial units and ornamental motifs in Islamic Architecture can be seen as an affirmation of infinity and eternity to the soul, which is itself infinite and eternal (that is, not bound by time and space).
Regardless of the way they are understood, the aforementioned themes in Islamic Architecture are not derived from Islamic ideology. They are themes observed in the architecture itself, which may be seen in the light of a broader religious ideology that may or may not be Islamic. In any case, the starting point of the hypotheses in all the above cases is the architecture and not the religion of Islam, whereas we wish to understand the subject from the perspective of the ideology of Islam.
It is clear that to answer the question: What is Islamic Architecture Anyway? one must first resolve the more fundamental question of What is Islam Anyway? And therein lies the predicament. If one cannot find a definition or exposition of Islamic Architecture that satisfies all the various interest groups, such as students, academics, researchers, professional architects etc., how could one hope to offer an exposition of Islam that would satisfy the various ideological groups that exist within the religion today? And yet, there seems to be no road that leads to a definition of Islamic Architecture, that does not go through this forest.
Therefore, the only option seems to be to venture forth into the woods, but in order to avoid getting lost, to first establish some parameters for inquiry and also determine the area of the inquiry as tightly as possible.
The main parameter for this particular inquiry into What is Islam? is to focus only on the principles (Usul) of religion and the area of inquiry is restricted to the socio-political ideology that may be garnered from those principles since our primary concern is with Architecture, which has an undeniable influence on the social and political structure of society.

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


  1. Rabbat, Nasser. “What is Islamic Architecture Anyway?” Journal Of Art Historiography no. 6 (June 2012), 4.
  2. Grube, Ernst J. “What is Islamic Architecture?” in Architecture of The Islamic World, edited by George Michell, (London: Thames and
    Hudson, Paperback Edition 2002), 10.
  3. Ibid., 11.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The Holy Quran, Ch.4, V.142.
  6. Ibid., Ch.107, V.6.
  7. Ibid., Ch.36, V.11 and Ch.50, V.33.
  8. Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, Islamic Thought in the Quran, English Translation by Prof. Fazlullah Nikayin, Chapter 3, Session 17: The Goals of Prophethood, 245.
  9. 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.
  10. Carl Jung, The Symbolism of the Mandala, in Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works Volume 12 (Bollingen, Revised Paperback Edition 1993), 97-99.
  11. Ibid., 118.
  12. 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.
  13. Ettinghausen, Richard. “The Taming of the Horror Vacui in Islamic Art.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 123, no. 1, 1979, pp. 19. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/986468. Accessed 4 Mar. 2020.
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