What do we actually mean with Islamic Architecture?

Considering that one of the subjects I will be focusing on quite a lot is Islamic architecture, I think it would be worth delving into how we should relate to this term and how to use it correctly. After all, while the adjective “Islamic” refers to something religious and architecture is something built, we would think that it would be clear that whenever using “Islamic architecture”, we are talking about some building or structure with a religious purpose. Or are we?

Generally, when we are talking about architecture, we are talking about different styles of building design, which are easily recognized (more for some people than others, and some styles more easily recognizable than others) having buildings portray certain specific similar elements as long as they are designed according to the same style. For example, gothic churches are easily recognized with their pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, and traceries (to mention some elements). Or buildings built according to the Brutalist simplistic, honest, and anti-nostalgic designs, particularly in the use of concrete.

Understanding what Islamic in Islamic Architecture refers to

However, I often see people use the term “Islamic architecture” as a descriptor of design elements, rather than functionality. For example, when people are referring to domes, arches, etc, this makes them think “Islamic”. However, these elements are not specifically Islamic, they are rather based on specific cultures and their use of architectural elements, which – however similar they might be – differ between the various cultures. For example, if we look at the minarets in the Haram al-Sharif, structures which themselves might be described as “Islamic” based on their function, we see different architectural styles, for example, the Mamluk Minaret al-Fakhariyya and the Osman Al-Asbat. They each have clear design elements which distinguish the one from the other, but they are both Islamic structures. Hence these Islamic structures are found built according to Mamluk architectural design or Osman architectural design. We might as well have a Brutalist minaret, which probably exists somewhere out there (let me know if you know of a Brutalist minaret). That is, the minaret is Islamic because of its function, not because of how it looks.

The same is the case with other similar structures. A mosque is Islamic because of its function, being built with various functional aspects required for a mosque to be a (proper) mosque, such as a mihrab, qibla, and possibly a minbar, etc. This holds true, no matter what it looks like, i.e., what style it’s been built in.

This only rings even more true when we look at other buildings and structures, which are not Islamic, i.e., they are not built to be used for purposes related to Islam. For example, synagogues, which are built to function as a synagogue, with a bimah (a stand from where the Torah is read), an Aron haKodesh (the place the Torah scrolls are stored), etc. It might be built according to Mamluk architectural design principles, but that doesn’t make it “Islamic”, it is still a synagogue.

Let’s close the discussion on Islamic Architecture

Hence, when we talk about Islamic architecture we need to keep two things in mind; a) that the term “Islamic” refers to a function, not to design, and b) architecture in this regard solely refers to those functional aspects which are making the structure “Islamic”. Whenever we talk about design pertaining to a specific period of time, it will have to be referred to in the context of the prevailing culture of the time. For example, the Dome of the Rock is Umayyad, not Islamic, even if later Osman design elements have been added to it. We can then, in this regard, talk about what makes the Dome of the Rock specifically Umayyad on the one hand, and on the other hand also talk about what makes it particularly Islamic, in case that would be a point to discuss. And while it might seem self-evident that the Dome of the Rock is both Umayyad and Islamic, then we can ask why it then looks so different from another prominent Umayyad Islamic structure in the Haram al-Sharif, namely the Qibla Mosque (also known as the Aqsa Mosque), the two seemingly built very differently both considering the design and in functionality. But that will be a discussion for another time.

What we should take from this is that we use the term “Islamic architecture”, we will use it strictly about Islamic structures and in the context of their religious importance. If we are dealing with a different subject, for example how they look, we will need to focus on the architectural design used to build them, for example, Umayyad, Mamluk, Osman, or even Art Deco if ever an Islamic structure would be built according to Art Deco architectural principles.