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Early Architecture in Islam

The Message of Islam Team
5/26/2009
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Architecture of the early years of Islam (between 622-661 C.E.) was characterized by simplicity and humbleness. The newly born state, with poor resources, was preoccupied in defense against hostile surrounding nations. Moreover, the devotion of the early faithful and their aspiration for the divine made them distant themselves from extravagant and luxurious life. Their efforts were totally consumed by their endeavor to secure the freedom of worship. Furthermore Islam's belief and worship is based on the concept of Al-Tawheed (monotheism). The belief in one God whom "vision comprehends Him not, and He comprehends (all) vision; and He is the Knower of subtleties, the Aware" (Qur'an, 6:103) had no equivalence in any previously common artistic or architectural representation. For example, Islam excluded cults of relics, saintly hierarchies and any inter-mediation of priests between the believer and God.

 

Consequently, there was no need for artistic presentation of these elements. A new approach fitting with the general guidelines of Islam emerged only after an amount of stability and wealth were achieved. Architectural sophistication came about later as intellectual and economic prosperity created a demand for elaborate, but acceptable forms and arts.

 

 

 

 

 

The first Muslim building erected was the Prophet's mosque in Madinah (622). Despite its simplicity, it was the first version of the mosque plan. It comprised a sheltered space (portico), and a low wooden platform for the use of the Prophet (peace be upon him) during religious and judicial ceremonies. This structure remained the centre of social, cultural and political life of the Muslim community for over 30 years.

 

The transfer of the seat of government from Madinah to Kufa by Ali bin Abi Talib (the 4th Caliph) in 657 brought substantial political, social and economic changes and resulted in unprecedented architectural and building activities. Madinah lost its prestigious status, becoming a provincial town, and its role slowly changed into a predominantly religious one. Meanwhile, this transfer had set a precedent that was repeated throughout Muslim history. The change of capital every time a new Caliph came to power slowly led to the diffusion of luxurious and rich tastes and practices. This coincided with a progressive economic and social prosperity and the simple mosque soon became complex with the first modification appearing at the time of the Prophet's companion Sa'd bin Al-Waqqas.

 

Descending from a Makkan aristocratic family, Sa'd built the Kufa Mosque and backed his residence, known as Dar Al-Imara (638), to it toward Makkah. This structure was so elaborate that it was reported the Caliph Omar was unhappy with it and ordered it to be burnt down (Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol.4, pp.29-30).

 

Historic sources established that the only furniture the mosque of this period had was the "Minbar" (pulpit) which was first introduced by the Prophet himself in the form of step ladder (in some sources it was a chair) which he used so that he could be seen and heard by the entire congregation of worshippers. The Minbar is mentioned in a number of the Prophet's sayings, e.g. Abu Hurairah narrated that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "between my house and my pulpit there is a garden from amongst the gardens of Paradise".

 

The transfer of Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty, of the capital city from Kufa to Damascus in 661 was decisive as it marked the first break from the previously austere architectural style and the beginning of luxurious palaces and the construction of the all-time masterpiece: the Dome of the Rock (built by Abdul-Malik between 691-692).

 

In conclusion, the focus of early years of Caliphate concentrated on the establishment of Islam with the focus on defense and economy issues. Architecture of that period aimed to fulfill that purpose leading to limited building activities centered on a few mosques scattered in various regions of the Muslim land. Such buildings were known as the mosques of Amsar, the distant zones.

 

These mosques served as bases for various religious, social and military activities of the community of soldiers, as well as teaching the new converts. The main mosques in early Islam were; the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah (622), Basra Mosque (635) and Kufa mosque (638) both in Iraq, and Amr Mosque in Fustat (641) in Egypt.

 






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