The architecture of the Muslim world, highly diverse but unified by climate, culture, and a love of geometric and arabesque ornament, as well as by the mobility of ideas, artisans, and architects throughout the region. The central public buildings are mosques, often with a dome and minaret; domestic houses face an inner courtyard and are grouped together, with vaulted streets linking the blocks.
The mosque is the center of religious life throughout the Islamic world, the masjid or “place of prostration”. The major mosque in a city is the masjid al-jum’a, the Friday mosque. The mosque form originated in Mohammed’s house in Medina (where he fled from Mecca 622). It was a mud-walled courtyard enclosure with a shaded perimeter. The elements of the mosque are essentially functional rather than symbolic. There is no division between the sacred and secular. A mihrab niche indicates the orientation to Mecca. To the right of the mihrab stands the minbar, the pulpit. A minaret signifies the presence of the mosque and provides a platform from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. A courtyard sahn is a place of gathering for the community.
The Arab-type mosque plan of columned halls surrounding a courtyard is found throughout N Africa, Arabia, Syria, and Mesopotamia; an example is the mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, Cairo, Egypt, 876–79. The other great mosque type is the four-eyvan mosque originating in Iran. Here the courtyard has a high eyvan, or arched recess, in the center of each side. This plan comes from the Persian house and is seen at its noblest in the Masjid-i-Jum’a in Isfahan, Iran, 8th–18th centuries. A very flexible plan form, it is found from Cairo to central Asia in mosques, theological colleges, caravanserais, and hospitals.
In the Ottoman Empire, the stimulus of the Hagia Sophia (532–37), Istanbul, the great church of Justinian, inspired the development of the imperial Turkish mosque in which the open courtyard of the Arab and Iranian mosques is translated into a great space enclosed by a large central dome; an example is the Suleymaniye, Istanbul, 1550–57, by Sinan.
The minaret was originally square, following the towers of Christian churches. Spiral minarets are found but most commonly they take the form of a tapering cylindrical tower.
The Islamic city is a highly organic entity. The basic cellular unit is the courtyard house, representing the desire for privacy and familial obligations of Muslim life. The houses are grouped into quarters, often of a tribal or ethnic character. Each quarter has its own mosques and facilities. At the center of the city stands the focus of the community, the congregational mosque, the masjid al-jum’a. The arteries of this intricate organism are the vaulted streets of the souk, or bazaar, which thread outward from the masjid al-jum’a toward the great gates of the enclosing fortified walls. The key monuments and facilities of the city are found along the souk—the religious colleges, baths, hospitals, and fountains. Examples of these are found in Fez, Morocco; Aleppo, Syria; and Isfahan, Iran.
Islamic private houses are invariably inward-looking courtyard houses. A bent corridor (for privacy) leads from the gated entry from the public lane into a courtyard paved with tiles, often planted with shade trees and with a pool at the center. Surrounding the courtyard are the principal rooms of the house. Different sides of the courtyard may provide separate accommodation for sections of the extended family.
decoration and color
In Islam there is a general dislike of figurative representation. As a consequence, architectural decoration relies on calligraphic script and abstract ornament, often combined with a passion for color, intensified by the desert environment. The domes and courts of such buildings as the 17th-century Masjid-i-Sháh, Isfahan, Iran, are entirely clothed in faience tiles. Arabic script is used extensively in the earliest surviving Islamic building, the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, AD 691, and thereafter the word of God plays a significant role in architectural decoration.
In a largely arid region, the Islamic garden represents an image of paradise. The basic plan is a rectangular enclosure walled against the dust of the desert and divided into at least four sections by water channels. Pavilions are placed at focal points within the gardens. An example is Chehel Sutun, Isfahan, 17th century.