The Significance of Architecture in Islamic Society

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was the inspiration for central plan mosques.
... Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In every society, architecture in some way reflects the ideals, practices and beliefs of the people who live, work and worship in the buildings of their cities or towns. Islamic architecture is influenced by the Quran and the cultures of Arabia and the Mid-East from which it originated. Both secular and religious Islamic architecture reinforces concepts of unity, impermanence and beauty.

1 Mosques and Unity

There are three basic designs for mosques. The first is a hypostyle hall, or open courtyard surrounded by pillars, with the mihrab niche and qibla wall at the far end from the entrance. The second type is the four-iwan mosque, which has its origins in Persia. Iwans are barrel-vaulted halls with large, arched entrances. In a four-iwan mosque, the iwans face one another from across an open courtyard. The third mosque design is that of the central plan, which became popular under the Ottoman Turks. They have a central space under a large dome. All three mosque plans emphasize the unity of the space and of people under God.

2 Souqs and Impermanence

Souqs are open-air markets, and can be found in nearly every major Middle Eastern city. The design of the souq, with covered streets -- usually by awnings -- and temporary storefronts that are pulled up at the end of the day recall the importance of journeying in both Islam, as seen in the tradition of the hajj, as well as in the Arab culture that gave birth to Islam. The idea of a temporary marketplace as the heart of commerce and culture reflects the idea that all earthly things are impermanent.

3 Private Homes

The Islamic palace most Westerners are familiar with is the Alhambra, which is really a small city-fortress atop a hill overlooking Granada, Spain. Beyond austere walls, the Alhambra is a complex interweaving of pattern, light, sound, water and geometry meant to create Paradise on Earth. On a more average scale, typical homes in the Middle East tend to be plain on the exterior, with no richly decorated interiors, often with a courtyard so people can go outdoors without leaving the home. (See Reference 3).

4 Modern Design

The predominance of Western building styles and the speed and growth of modern cities leave many new constructions lacking the reflection of unity, impermanence and beauty that has been an essential part of Islamic architecture for centuries. Garry Martin in the essay "Building in the Middle East Today -- in Search of a Direction" suggests architects need to understand these ideologies of Islamic architecture while incorporating them with modern materials, instead of trying to use only the old style of architecture.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.