Islamic Architecture: Origin, History & Styles

Instructor: Stephen Taul

Stephen has master's degrees in both architecture and city planning and has taught architecture design studios.

Explore the world of Islamic architecture with its unique contribution to the architectural and religious landscape. Understand its origins and history, as well as how it developed into its own style.

Defining Islamic Architecture

What exactly is Islamic architecture? It might at first seem like a simple question, but in fact scholars have debated its meaning until today. Does it refer to specific architectural features such as the dome, arch, or vault? Does it imply that only Muslims design, build and occupy these buildings? Are only religious buildings included in this categorization or does it also include secular buildings used for everyday functions? In this lesson we'll provide a broad overview of historic Islamic architecture, touching on its origin and history, and discuss certain defining styles of buildings and designs commonly associated with it.

History as a Distinct Style

What is often referred to as Islamic architecture stems from Christian, Persian, and Indian roots. More specifically, the architectural forms and styles came largely from the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires.

Tarikhaneh mosque in Damghan, Iran
Damghan

Interestingly, as Muslims conquered different regions once controlled by other cultures, their early buildings were either renovations of existing buildings or new buildings constructed from the ruins of older buildings. Actually, it was common for Islamic architecture to be quite unique to its location while following certain styling common to Islamic art.

Building Types

Islamic architecture can include buildings used by Muslims for religious purposes or secular buildings built in a predominately Islamic region. The most important building type in Islamic architecture is the mosque, which is the center of Islamic culture and society. Not only is it a religious space intended for worship, it is also a place for lively discussion about topics relevant to daily life. The first mosque was the Prophet Muhammad's house, which contained many basic design features that were included in later mosques.

Two types of mosques are the congregational mosque, which is built to accommodate an entire community, and the smaller type that is intended for a particular ethnic group. While there is no overall unifying style for mosques, they can be generally divided into regional categories.

The hypostyle mosque became one of the main styles to emerge. It has a courtyard surrounded by colonnades on three sides. A covered sanctuary at the far end of the courtyard showcases a directional wall that shows a religious practitioner which way to pray.

Historically, the next most significant building after the mosque was the religious school; an educational center separate from the mosque. This architectural type slowly transformed from the houses of teachers to eventually incorporate functions such as lecture halls, libraries, residences, baths and a courtyard. However, there are only a few of these religious school buildings left in existence today.

The Registan Square, from the ancient city of Samarkand (located in present-day Uzbekistan)
Registan Square

Secular buildings historically included mostly residential structures ranging from palaces to simple houses. Architecturally there was much focus placed on the separation between private and public space. Houses were inwardly focused dwellings with the private spaces devoted to family life. Palaces included many public spaces for meetings. Other public buildings included public bathhouses, as well as buildings intended for travelers who wanted to rest.

Defining Characteristics and Styles

While there is much diversity in Islamic architecture, several main design concepts and styles are present in almost all examples of this type of architecture.

Focus on interior

In general, Islamic buildings have limited architectural expression on the exterior; instead the focus is on the interior. Most of the decoration will be on the inside of the building.

Courtyard

Another common characteristic is the courtyard which is both within the walls of the building and open to the sky, providing a private, yet outdoor, space. Not surprisingly, another phrase to describe this architectural idea is 'the architecture of the veil.' It is sometimes also referred to as 'hidden architecture' or 'private,' protecting inhabitants and visitors from the outside world.

Geometric design

The most recognizable characteristic of Islamic architecture is decoration utilizing geometric design and a variety of colors, especially with tiles. Interiors are often adorned with abstract designs of repeating geometric shapes inspired by patterns of the Greeks, Romans and from the Sasanian Empire. While basic shapes were used from existing artwork, these compositions were made more complex and intricate. This was to emphasize harmony and order.

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