DR. KHALED AZAB: HOW TO GRASP THE ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE?
This question may come as a surprise to the readers, researchers, and professors specialized in Islamic architecture and Islamic monuments, in specific. However, grasping Islamic architecture is still a long way ahead, unfortunately. Many have immersed themselves in the orientalist studies revolving around the form rather than the content in the fields of architecture and Islamic monuments. This had an effect that lasted until the 21st century. Not only on the academic curriculum, but also on architectural designs, metaphorically known as Islamic.
Everyone sought form rather than content, which is the essence of Islamic architecture. Moreover, it is this essence that made it eye-catching in terms of the ornamental form. Also, if the design is contemplated questions with logical answers emerging from architectural engineering will be raised. This is in addition to other questions with no answers residing in the western and contemporary consciousness as a part of the mysteries and magic of the East linked to the Arabian Nights tales.
The apparent form in these buildings with façades made of Islamic components is a carbon copy of the monumental Islamic buildings or done in coordination with the contemporary architectural designs.
A case in point, some buildings have Masharbiyas; wooden barriers joined together to form geometric shapes in order to disable the neighbors from viewing the inside of the house, provide fresh air, and minimize the heat caused by direct sunlight. This element has been added to modern buildings, not for their functions, but
in order to make them of Islamic nature.
This phenomenon is due to two reasons:
Firstly, it started when our architects traveled to the West and studied architecture through catalogs listing all the architectural elements with measurements and different forms. All the architect had to do was to coordinate these elements with the available space without contemplating on the design and to what extent it fits our Islamic eastern societies. Thus, they copied western architecture as is. Currently, this is still the case. In their attempt to bring back Islamic architectural patterns, architects were influenced by this approach. Therefore, Islamic architecture is revived in terms of form rather than content. As a result, architects turned to imitators who lacked creativity and innovation.
The second reason is the society that accepted these western designs, believing them to be the source of western progress. Thus, the Masharbiyas on the building façade reflects a society that adheres to Islam as a religion in form rather than content. Architects are following the western footsteps without recognizing that architecture entails civilized approaches, ideas, and values. Thus, Ibn Khaldun’s statement, “Those defeated are fond of imitating those victorious” proved right.
Similarly, those studying architectural monuments are no different. They adopted the descriptive approach that describes the architectural form accurately. without raising any question about these forms and the reasons of the different patterns varying from one facility to another. Moreover, most of the undertaken studies revolved around mosques and Madrasas; institutes for higher education, without paying any attention to other facilities. It
is as if Islam is only a religion and its architecture is limited to temples.
In order to put an end to this conflict and overcome these obstacles, and obtain an architectural science with independent designs and contents, we must grasp Islamic architecture in the same way we grasp Islam.
The approach developed to grasp Islamic architecture is based on a number of pillars. The first focuses on studying its law; the jurisprudence of architecture. It is a set of rules that have accumulated over the years due to
the interaction between the construction process and society, and the emergence of questions answered by scholars. The accumulation of these questions has to lead to imposing the rules governing the construction process in Islamic societies. Society, authorities, and architects followed these rules. This has been recorded
by the legislative courts in Cairo, Rasheed, and Tunisia, for example. Moreover, it was explained thoroughly in my two books about the jurisprudence of Islamic architecture. The Egyptian Scholar Ibn Abd ElHakam (who died in AH 214/CE 829), was the first to record the rules of architecture in his book: “The Structure. According to scholars, architecture rules were divided into three main sections:
- Mandatory Construction: Places of worship; such as mosques where prayers are held, and forts to defend Muslim land.
- Specialized Construction: The minarets where calls for prayers are made, and markets to provide people with goods and make them available. Thus, establishing markets was allowed by religion.
- Allowed Construction: Building houses. It is well known that Sharia; the sacred law of Islam, aims at protecting religion, individuals, money, honor and children. God has provided humans with physical methods to achieve that; such as houses where people live and keep their money.
- Forbidden Construction: Places for prostitution and drinking liquor, and building on graves as well as on land owned by others. The essence of the jurisprudence of architecture should be taught in schools of architecture in our universities, in order to breed a new generation of architects capable of introducing contemporary Islamic architecture.
The second pillar of grasping architecture is addressing it as belonging to the whole society rather than individuals. Nowadays, an individual builds his house without putting his neighbors into consideration,
unaware of their privacy, and not realizing that he communicates with his neighbors
through his house. Even though these aspects do not exist today, they did in the past. At these times, no one could open a window that reveals the inside of his neighbors’ houses, as it was considered a violation of architecture law, known as the revealing risk.