The enchanting story of how Islam shaped, impacted and no-less transformed the world we live in today is one that needs to be told. Throughout history, Islam impacted peoples all over the world, influencing a plethora of civilisations and cultures.
With the power of faith and a principle articulated no less than by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – “God is beautiful and loves beauty” – Muslims across the world discovered and innovated new ways to express beauty. To Muslims, there is no contradiction between beauty, innovation and physical marvel in the earthly world, so long as it does not detract from the overarching objectives of a tradition that aims to connect people to a higher purpose and the next life.
Whether it be their breathtaking architecture, prodigious poetry, or even clotheware and household items, one could witness beauty – and therefore realise the Divine – in the daily lives and endeavours of Muslims throughout the ages.
This month, we take a fascinating journey through a short selection of Muslim cultures through the ages. We examine some of the most fascinating marvels of Islamic architecture that can be found in the Muslim world. From Turkey to Indonesia, to Africa and India, Muslim heritage is a treasure that deserves to be shared with the world.
Our exploration takes in some key geographies and dynasties and is by no means exhaustive. But in its partiality lies an incredible truth: if this is just a small portion of the artistic and cultural heritage Islam left behind, what was its overall, breathtaking impact? We hope to curate more such series to continue our exploration in the time to come, but for now, here is a selection that is sure to delight.
The Great Umayyad Mosque nestled in the heart of Damascus, Syria remains one of the salient symbols of the glorious period of Muslim civilisation and its pride. It is a master piece of architectural ingenuity, having had a decisive influence on the maturity of mosque architecture all over the Arab and Muslim World. It is that said some of the patterns are a reflection of the Roman temple that resided in the same spot during the Byzantine empire – however many of the designs remain unique and a testament to the inspiration derived from Islam.
The Mosque was adorned with marble mouldings and mosaics, although most of the originals were destroyed in previous fires. These mosaics, as they appear in the façade of the sanctuary, consist of urban landscapes and various engraved texts featuring profound arabesque calligraphy. It is no secret, then, why this mosque built in the Umayyad period brings tourists to the city of Damascus year after year.
Before praying towards the direction of Mecca in Arabia (referred to as the Qibla), Muslims stood facing towards the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Highly revered in Islam, the al-Aqsa mosque is the third most-sacred sanctuary on the face of the Earth. It, too, was a monument revived under the Umayyad caliphate.
Structurally, the land is of high importance as it was the first to ever use a dome in Islamic architecture, and includes intricate geometric use of piers, columns, and arcades. The architecture’s double-enclosed octagonal structure covers a monumental rock which represented the summit of Mount Moriah, a site in the Middle-East from which Muslim teachings explain the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) ascended to heaven.
As for the structure’s notable golden dome, it was originally made out of wood (also in a double-layered approach) and then ornamented with marble and gold-colored aluminum encasement. The pride of not just the Arabs, al-Aqsa (and Jerusalem broadly) remains a key destination for visitors from all backgrounds, appreciating its beauty and sacred legacy.
The bustling centre of the Muslim World, Baghdad, a city in modern day Iraq, became the destination for thinkers and researchers alike that wanted to access some of the greatest texts of scholarship available. What added to this pristine exclusivity was the preservation of the texts of classical Greek philosophers – something that the West had lost for centuries. From amongst the many institutions Baghdad so famously hosted was the House of Wisdom.
The House of Wisdom was initially built by Caliph Haround Al-Rasheed (ruled 786 – 809 CE) as a magnificent library named Khizanat al-Hikma (Library of Wisdom) that included not just the Qur’an, but manuscripts and books collected by his father and grandfather about various subjects in the arts and the sciences and in different languages.
In the House of Wisdom, translators, scientists, scribes, authors, men of letters, writers, authors, copyists and others used to meet every day for translation, reading, writing, scribing, discourse, dialogue and discussion. Many manuscripts and books in various scientific subjects and philosophical concepts and ideas, and in different languages were translated there.
Three decades later, the collection had grown so large that his son, Caliph Al-Ma’mun, built extensions to the original building turning it into a large academy named Bayt al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom) that housed different branches of knowledge. Later, he added numerous other study centres to allow more scholars to pursue their research, and an observatory in 829. The Islamic world gained much credit for this marvellous centre of learning.
The round city of Baghdad
The bustling centre of knowledge, Baghdad, now a part of modern day Iraq, was one of the most famous lands for the sharing of information in classical Islamic period. What made this city even more special was the unique shape it formed – a perfect geometric circle.
The circular design was breathtakingly innovative. “They say that no other round city is known in all the regions of the world,” Khatib al-Baghdadi, the renowned Hadith scholar noted. Four equidistant gates pierced the outer walls where straight roads led to the centre of the city. The Kufa Gate to the south-west and the Basra Gate to the south-east both opened on to the Sarat canal – a key part of the network of waterways that drained the waters of the Euphrates into the Tigris and made this site so attractive. The Sham (Syrian) Gate to the north-west led to the main road on to Anbar, and across the desert wastes to Syria. To the north-east the Khorasan Gate (pointing to modern day Iran) lay close to the Tigris, leading to the bridge of boats across it.
Early into the Muslim expansion, the land now known as Spain was discovered – an area surrounded by the beautiful Mediterranean sea – which was soon to become the centre of Islamic advancement. The name ‘al-Andalus’ (from which the term Andalusia is derived), was formed to describe the Vandals – a population that resided in North Africa. Becoming the intellectual centre of not just the Islamic empire but the entire world – people would travel great distances to study at the array of vibrant and academically-rigorous learning institutions it hosted. It was also renowned for its architecture, featuring serene monuments with breathtaking patterns and textures – all pivoting the land to become a special part of Islam’s rich legacy. From amongst the many buildings that formed a salient part of Andalusian architecture was the al-Hambra.
Moving southwards to the quiet city of Granada, we discover a magnificent fortress standing boldly above the hills – the Al-Hambra. Named after the Arabic word for the colour red, describing the unique colour that emits when the afternoon rays reflect off the otherwise brown bricks, the Al-Hambra stands tall as a mark of the Islamic presence in the land almost a millennium prior.
The structure rises majestically above the city of Granada, Spain, as Europe’s preeminent paradigm of Moorish architecture. A forbidding defensive wall with numerous towers, including one enormously imposing square watchtower, surrounds a world of intricate architectural splendor, with the countless characteristic delicate pillars, ornate windows, stunning tile work, elaborate stucco walls, ravishing fountains.
The Alhambra was built with its own special type of column, which is not used in any other building. The capital is divided into two bodies and the first one, cylindrically shaped, has a very simple decoration and a prism with a rounded-angled base and stylised vegetal forms as decoration.
One of the most impressive decorative elements used in the Alhambra is the mocarabe vault, formed by little cells or alveolares placed one on top of the other one and which may be admired in the Hall of the Abencerrajes (Sala de los Abencerrajes) and the Hall of the Two Sisters (Sala de las Dos Hermanas).
Another monument from this time is the famous Mosque of Cordoba. It is most notable for its arcaded hypostyle hall, with 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, granite and porphyry. The double arches were an innovation, permitting higher ceilings than would otherwise be possible with relatively low columns. The double arches consist of a lower horseshoe arch and an upper semi-circular arch. The famous alternating red and white voussoirs of the arches were inspired by those in the Dome of the Rock and also resemble those of the Aachen Cathedral, which were built almost at the same time. Horseshoe arches were known in the Iberian Peninsula since late Antiquity, as can be seen on the 3rd-century “Estela de los Flavios”, now in the archaeological museum of León. A centrally located honeycombed dome has blue tiles decorated with stars.
The edifice also has a richly gilded prayer niche or mihrab. The mihrab is a masterpiece of architectural art, with geometric and flowing designs of plants. Other prominent features were an open court (sahn) surrounded by arcades, screens of wood, minarets, colourful mosaics, and windows of coloured glass. The walls of the mosque had Quranic inscriptions written on them.
Located next to one of the gates of the walled enclosure and entirely preserved, the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz is one of the most important monuments of the Hispanic-Muslim and Mudejar architecture in Spain, and the most important exhibition of Islamic art in Toledo. Small like jewels, this valuable ancient building is a unique example of the survival of the Al-Andalus art: a mosque or small oratory from the Caliphal period to which, two centuries later, due to its transformation into a church, an apse was added, following the style of the original building and giving rise to the Mudejar art, in perfect combination and symbiosis.
Its interior is divided in nine spaces, which are covered with rib vaults. They reflect the moment of Caliphal splendor in which it was constructed: year 999. Its Visigothic capitals supporting horseshoe arches and the Romanesque-Mudejar head from the 12th century are a perfect example of how the different cultures have been mutually influenced in the city.
The Caliphate City of Medina Azahara is an archaeological site of a newly-founded city built in the mid-10th century CE by the western Umayyad dynasty as the seat of the Caliphate of Cordoba. The city was destroyed shortly afterwards, and from that time remained hidden until its rediscovery in the early 20th century CE.
The site is a complete urban complex including infrastructure, buildings, decoration and objects of daily use, and provides in-depth knowledge about the material culture of the Islamic civilization of Al-Andalus at the zenith of its splendour but which has now disappeared. In addition, the landscape features which influenced the city’s location are conserved.
The hidden character of the site over a long period has contributed to its preservation and it has not been rebuilt or altered in that time. The rediscovery has led to excavation, protection and conservation which has continued for a century, promoted by public institutions.
The Ottoman Empire was undoubtedly one of the most pivotal chapters of Islamic history – and if there is anything from its legacy that has left the greatest remnant on modern-day Turkey, it would be its architectural marvels that adorn the nation with beauty imbued in rich culture and history.
Many of the Empire’s greatest fetes took place in the 16th century under the rule of Suleyman the “Magnificent”, a period rooted in growth and prosperity and often known as the Ottoman Empire’s Golden Age.
Works from this period include the Sultanahmet Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque – which until today continues to embody one of the most recognisable symbols of Istanbul. Exhibiting its six minarets and distinctive facade, the mosque was designed by the architect, Mehmet Aga, at the request of Sultan Ahmet I – the 14th Ottoman Sultan who was known to be a religious man with a desire to build a building of unprecedented beauty as a signal of his gratitude to God.
The progression of the Ottoman Empire in becoming a regional leader in architecture also came to raise some great classical architects of the Eastern world. The most renowned of these is Mimar Sinan, an architect often likened to his Western contemporary, Michelangelo, and completed more than 300 works during his lifetime.
One of Sinan’s greatest works is the Topkapı Palace, which is nestled in a complex that once housed the Imperial Ottoman Court’s administrative hub and residence from 1478 to 1856, and notable for its rich cultural roots and architecture. Today, it exists as a museum that houses an extensive collection of books and manuscripts from the Ottoman Empire, and is visited by people from all corners of the globe.
Over time, architectural artforms of the Empire continued to evolve at different stages of its existence. One notable instance was the Tulip Period during the reign of Ahmet III (1718 to 1730), when floral decoration became popular in both Ottoman textile and architecture.
On the flip side of the world, in India, Mughal Islamic architecture also gave rise to some of the most well-known architectural marvels that still remain in the modern world.
The Mughals’ architectural journey began during the reign of Emperor Akbar, who was involved in many forms of construction – primarily characterised by red sandstone, white marble and painted walls of Hindu and Persian influence.
One of the most notable works of his time was the Great Fort of Agra on the banks of the Jamuna River – which was built over 9 years from 1565 to 1574 AD. Home to several key buildings such as the Moti Masjid and the Jahangiri Mahal, the fort itself is surrounded by a 2.5km long moat and a wall of solid red sandstone, and has a gateway ornately decorated with coloured tiles and marble inlay work.
Despite being renowned for constructing grand buildings during his reign, Akbar’s greatest achievement was the founding of Fatehpur Sikri between 1569 and 1574 AD. The walled city acts as a testament to his vision of achieving social, political and religious harmony in his kingdom – comprising many grand buildings such as the Jami Masjid and Salim Chisti’s Tomb, as well as many other beautiful works of both a religious and secular nature.
The Tomb of Akbar, which is located at Sikandra, is no different in its standard of architectural wonder. With five terraces constructed by Akbar himself, and completed by his son, Jahangir, the mausoleum is similar in design to a Buddhist Vihara – set in the center of a square garden with a red sandstone gateway, and decorated with rich coloured stone and four white marble minarets.
Other notable tombs of the Mughal period include Sher Jahan’s Tomb, a two storey building which was once decorated with coloured tiles, and Humayun’s Tomb, a mausoleum of red sandstone and marble that was constructed by his widow – Haji Begum – 14 years after his death.
The prime period of Mughal architecture, however, occurred during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century – wherein the most renowned achievement was the completion of the Taj Mahal, a palace complex on the banks of Agra’s Jumma River that was planned by the Persian architect, Isa, and built over 22 years by Shah Jahan himself in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Begum. The architectural masterpiece includes a mosque in the west, a corresponding red sandstone building in the east, and a large rectangular garden complete with fountains and ornamental pools.
Another grand work of modern-day India is Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the nation’s largest mosque. The building boasts a majestic double storey gateway, a square courtyard, and pillared corridors leading to a prayer hall of eleven arches and three domes with alternate black and white marble stripes.
However, architectural marvel was not exclusive to great Muslim empires. As Islam began to grow in South-East Asia, Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population today – also introduced its unique forms of Islamic architecture.
The most notable work is the Samudera Pasai, the first and oldest Islamic kingdom in Indonesia, as well as one of the largest in the world. Constructed by King Marah Silu, the kingdom once formed the capital of the Sultanate and acted as a centre of political, economic, trade and Islamic teaching in Indonesia and South-East Asia.
Although what remains of this great kingdom are largely remnants, they tell the fascinating story of what the Muslims once were many centuries ago.
It can be fairly assumed that wherever the Muslim populace went, so did the stunning artistry and breath-taking monuments. Much like its counterparts across the world, Islamic architecture in Africa became a salient point of discussion for academics and non-academics alike – forever marking itself in the book of history.
Among the unique features of buildings constructed in Africa was the use of mudbrick – an uncommon building material in the West. This construction style relied on the rendering of wet soil onto limestone rocks or brick of banco, which resulted in a unique colour scheme that resembled the monotonous brown of the deserts.
An example of such architecture is The Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali – the largest mud-brick building in the world, and often considered to be the greatest feat of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style. As well as being a centre of religious and community life, it is one of the most famous landmarks in Africa.
The Djinguereber mosque, Timbuktu’s oldest mosque, also follows a similar construction style. Until today, it continues to be loyally maintained by the proud descendants of its original builders. The mosque’s mudbrick style attracts visitors from all over the world who, being mesmerised by its serene beauty, attempt to take a part with them in their cameras – but to little avail; This monument is one to be witnessed first-hand!
Despite the distinctive use of mudbrick in some regions, different areas of Africa each entailed their own unique architectural style – especially the land that is nicknamed ‘the mother of the world’ – Egypt.
Even from its early centuries, Egypt has been home to many of the world’s most renowned mosques – such as the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As from 642 AD, Africa’s very first mosque.
Other early works include the Mosque of Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn, a majestic red brick building built in 876 AD by the Turkish governor of Egypt and Syria, as well as the Al-Hakim Mosque in Islamic Cairo from the late 10th century – both of which continue to be the two most religiously-significant Fatimid mosques in Egypt today.
Another renowned mosque of the Fatimid style is the Al-Azhar Mosque from 970 AD, one of the oldest mosques in Cairo. The mosque was named after the daughter of the Prophet (SAW), who was formally named Fatimah but who had the nickname of “Shining One” or Az-Zahra.
The Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque, which was named after the 13th century Sufi saint, also follows a similar style and is one of the most significant mosques in Egypt today.
Apart from its plethora of magnificent mosques, architectural Egypt also houses the Cairo Citadel, a medieval Islamic fortification constructed in the 12th century to protect against invading crusaders. Today, the citadel is home to several mosques such as the Alabaster Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pashar – which is located on the summit of the Citadel.
On the other side of northern Africa in the renowned land of Morocco, the streak of breath-taking architecture continues. Hassan II Mosque of Casablanca – an icon of the city – is often said to be one of the most beautiful mosques across the globe. The building features striking colours and interior design such as the use of zellige tiles, exquisitely carved wood and intricate plaster work.
Almost 300 km away in the heart of Morocco lies the imperial city of Fez. Known as the city of the saints, the vicinity boasts superb architectural monuments that receive thousands of visitors each year. Perhaps the most pristine structure of this walled city is the Qarawiyyin Mosque from 859 AD – which exhibits a blend of architectural styles from different times throughout Morocco’s history. The complex is complete with sweeping courtyards, a historic library and university – decorated with fountains, ornate artworks and colourful tiles. If that wasn’t grand enough already, the university is also widely held to be the first university built in the East and the West.
Other notable builds around Morocco include the Grand Mosque of Oujda. Built in the late 13th century, the mosque has been restored to preserve its magnificent Moroccan-Andalusian designs and artistry. Other famous sites include the 12th century Tin Mal Mosque in the High Atlas Mountains, and the Great Mosque of Taza of pinkish-red stone and coloured checkerboard tiles.
Moving eastwards, we find the beautiful nation of Tunisia. Housing some of Africa’s greatest architectural works, Tunisia has been the centre of many architectural discussions and studies. One of these salient sites is the Zaytuna Mosque, or the “Olive Tree” Mosque, which was initially built in 732 AD on the ruins of an old Roman basilica in Tunis. The mosque itself is fully functional to this day, but its surrounding complex now also houses the Zaytuna University and adjacent souks.
The Great Mosque of Qayrawan, which was built over a seventh-century oratory renovated in 703 AD, is also renowned as a great architectural marvel. Inspired by traditions of the Muslim East, the mosque exhibits a fortress-like structure of stone-cut-like brick, and has a ceiling influenced by the Kairouan School of Architecture.
Around 1km west of the mosque is the Tomb of Sidi Sahab, or Abu Zamaa Al Balawi – who was one of the companions of the Prophet (SAW). While the original mausoleum dates back to the 7th century, most of what stands today was added at the end of the 17th century. The entrance to the shrine is through a passageway leading to an enclosed courtyard adorned with tiles depicting the Great Mosque in Makkah.
The journey of Islam’s transitions through architecture over time has undoubtedly left a mark on history. Behind every architectural marvel is an untold story, boasting the legacy of what Muslims used to be, and a living testament to what we can be. It is this legacy that inspired the artists of the Muslim world to put their soul into their work and perfect every craft they touched. And it is one we’re very proud to share.
As the great scholar and gnostic, Ibn Ata’illah writes in his aphorisms:
“Whatever is deposited in the invisible world of innermost hearts
is manifested in the visible world of phenomena.”
Did you find this helpful? Why not share this news?
Digital Transformation and Growth Expert
Specialising in community engagement and digital product growth Nebras has over 15 years’ experience in designing and delivering executable audience growth and content strategies across a range of leading industries and countries. Nebras’s strategies are always focused on return on investments, customer retention and high brand value. He also plays a key role in ensuring research services business intelligence processes and operations are conducted in accordance with all audience measurement guidelines.