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Islamic architecture

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Architectural history series.
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Architecture of the ancient world
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Islamic architecture
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Islamic architecture is the entire range of architecture that has evolved from Islam as a social, cultural, political and religious phenomenon. Hence the term encompasses religious buildings as well as secular ones, historic as well as modern expressions and the production of all places that have come under the varying levels of Islamic influence.


Classification of Islamic architecture

Islamic architecture can be classified according to

  • Chronology
  • Geography
  • Building Typology

Elements of Islamic style

Islamic architecture may be identified with the following design elements:

  • large domes
  • minarets (towers)
  • large courtyards often merged with a central prayer hall
  • use of geometric and repetitive art (arabesque)
  • extensive use of decorative Arabic calligraphy
  • use of symmetry
  • ablution fountains
  • a mihrab inside mosques indicating the direction to Mecca
  • use of bright color
  • focus on the interior space of a building rather than the exterior


Common interpretations of Islamic architecture include the following:

  • The concept of Allah's infinite power is evoked by designs with repeating themes which suggest infinity.
  • Human and animal forms are rarely depicted in decorative art as Allah's work is matchless. Foliage is a frequent motif but typically stylized or simplified for the same reason.
  • Calligraphy is used to enhance the interior of a building by providing quotations from the Qur'an.
  • Islamic architecture has been called the "architecture of the veil" because the beauty lies in the inner spaces (courtyards and rooms) which are not visible from the outside (street view).
  • Use of impressive forms such as large domes, towering minarets, and large courtyards are intended to convey power.


A specifically Islamic architectural style developed soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in AD 632. From the beginning the style drew from Roman, Egyptian, Persian/Sassanid, and Byzantine styles. An early example may be identified as early as AD 691 with the completion of Qubbat al-Sakhrah (Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem. It featured interior vaulted spaces, a circular dome, and the use of stylized repeating decorative patterns (arabesque).

The Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, completed in AD 847, combined the hypostyle architecture of rows of columns supporting a flat base above which a huge spiralling minaret was constructed.

Moorish Architecture

Construction of the Great Mosque at Cordoba beginning in AD 785 marks the beginning of Islamic architecture in Spain and Northern Africa (see Moors). The mosque is noted for its striking interior arches. Moorish architecture reached its peak with the construction of the Alhambra, the magnificent palace/fortress of Granada, with its open and breezy interior spaces adorned in red, blue, and gold. the walls are decorated with stylize foliage motifs, Arabic inscriptions, and arabesque design work, with walls covered in glazed tiles.

Ottoman Architecture

The architecture of the Ottoman Empire forms a distinctive whole, especially the great mosques by and in the style of Sinan, like the mid-16th century Suleiman Mosque. The 17th-century Sultan Ahmed Mosque shows the brilliant adaptation and development of the forms established at Hagia Sophia a millennium earlier.

Mughal Architecture

Another distinctive sub-style is the architecture of the Mughal Empire in India in the 16th century. Blending Islamic and Hindu elements, the emperor Akbar constructed the royal city of Fatehpur Sikri, located 26 miles west of Agra, in the late 1500s.

The most famous example of Mughal architecture is the Taj Mahal, the "teardrop on eternity", completed in 1648 by the emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died while giving birth to their 14th child. The extensive use of precious and semiprecious stones as inlay and the vast quantity of white marble required nearly bankrupted the empire. The Taj Mahal is completely symmetric other than the sarcophagus of Shah Jahan which is placed off center in the crypt room below the main floor. This symmetry extended to the building of an entire mirror mosque in red sandstone to complement the Mecca-facing mosque place to the west of the main structure.

Persian Architecture

One of the first civilizations that Islam came into contact with during and after its birth was that of Persia. The eastern banks of the Tigris and Euphrates was where the capital of the Persian empire lay during the 7th century. Hence the proximity often led to Islamic architects of early Islam to borrow, but in fact inherit the traditions and ways of the fallen Persian empire.

Islamic architecture in fact borrowed heavily from Persian architecture. Baghdad, for example, was based on Persian precedents such as Firouzabad in Persia. In fact, it is now known that the two designers who were hired by al-Mansur to plan the city's design were Nowbakht, a former Persian Zoroastrian, and Mashallah, a former Jew from Khorasan, Iran. (p 10)

The great mosque of Sammara is another example, where the spiral edifice was based on Persian architecture, such as the spiral tower in the middle of Firouzabad, a former Sassanid capital.

See also: Persian architecture

See also

architecture, madrassa, Aga Khan Award for Architecture

External link

Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12