The Use of Light in Islamic Architecture

Light is a pivotal design element of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock.
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The great French architect Le Corbusier once said: "Architecture is the learning game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light." In Islamic architecture, light plays a significant role in shaping the interiors of mosques and other buildings. Magnificent domes, windows and delicately carved screens recast light in new ways that not only decorate surfaces, but extend structural lines and illuminate specific parts of the interior facade.

1 Religious Significance

According to the Quran, light was one of God's first creations. For Muslims, light represents the divinity of God, so natural light is an integral design element in Islamic architecture. Islamic buildings such as mosques have traditionally incorporated minimal furniture in order to emphasize the enclosure of this divine space, which is defined by the building's structural design -- its facade, materiality, vertical and horizontal lines -- and the ways that light addresses the structure.

2 Jali

An ornamental screen, or jali, is a prominent feature of Islamic architecture and mediates the amount of sunlight that enters a space. Jali is a delicately carved latticed screen that also exemplifies the use of the ornament in Islamic art and architecture. The ornamental designs of these screens strike similar patterns as calligraphy, one of the chief features of Islamic sacred decoration. Jalis are important on a practical level, as they filter out strong sunlight and keep spaces cool, which is ever important in the Middle East's harsh sun.

3 Surface Decoration

The use of light in Islamic architecture creates a play at light and shadow that shapes the interiors of buildings. For example, screens not only act as ornamental decorations and keep spaces cool, but the shadows created by a jali weave intricate patterns through rooms and corridors. The materiality of a building comes to life more vividly: carved stucco, stonework and brickwork are illuminated and emphasized by natural light.

4 Domes

In Islamic architecture, light also plays a critical role in creating balance and harmony in mosques and other buildings. In particular, the use of circular domes, prominent in mosques, transformed more cramped, dimly lit religious chambers into vast interiors that have a weightless quality. This weightlessness is enhanced by the use of numerous windows on domes, which allow natural light to pour through and create lighting effects on the dome ceilings, as well as accent and emphasize different parts of the interior surfaces.

Jason Cristiano Ramon holds a doctorate in political science and a master's degree in philosophy. He has taught political science in China.