Architectural Wonders of Islam

Domes are clustered together at the Bayezid I Mosque complex (1390-95) in Bursa, Turkey

The glorious architecture of Islam is found in many different cultures around the world – from Spain to India, and Turkey to North Africa.

The many types of Islamic structures includes mosques, qiblas (muslims are required to face towards the KAABAH Shrine in Makkah when praying during the five times daily. This direction of prayer is called the Qibla), madrasas ( religious school), bazaars, buildings, courtyards, fortified walls, palaces and whole cities.

The common factor in this great output from so many different cultures is the religion of Islam.

The Mosque of the Prophet in Madinah, Saudi Arabia, from simple courtyard and prayer hall, has become 2nd largest mosque in the world.

The Mosque

Since 622, when the house of Prophet was built, worshipers gathered in large numbers in its enclosed courtyard for praying. The early courtyard mosques were based on this pattern:

  • a flat – roofed prayer hall led to a sahn
  • a fountain at which worshipers performed ritual ablutions
  • Mihrab- a niche on one wall indicating the direction of the Kaabah
  • Minarets – tall towers- were added to the mosque in the late 7th century
Great Mosque of Damascus, among the first’s built, under Umayyad Caliph al-Walid I (706-15)

Arab Style Mosques followed Damascus design which has a prayer hall of 160m long with a wooden roof supported on columns and great courtyard.

The same pattern was used in 817-63 for the Great Mosque at Kairouan, Tunisia, where the prayer hall contains 8 bays and upward of 400 columns.

In Cordoba, Spain (784-86) the builders constructed a vast prayer hall containing 850 pillars that divide the hall into 29 aisles running  east-west and 19 aisles north-south.

Mezquita of Cordoba, under Umayyad ruler Abd al-Rahman I

The Interior

The essential elements found in a mosque are the qibla wall ( indicating the direction of Kaabah in Makkah), the mihrab in this wall and a fountain at which faithful perform ablutions before the prayer.

A pulpit, always staying at the right of the mihrab, was serving for readings at Friday prayer.

A grand minbar stands to the right of the mihrab in the Sultan Hasan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt

 The Mihrab

The holiest place in the mosque is the mihrab archway. It is often highly decorated and is usually part of mosque wall. The imam leads prayers in front of the mihrab. Today, his voice is amplified by microphones and speakers, but in pre-electronic times, the imam’s voice could be heard thanks to the opening of mihrab.

It is decorated with lamps, symbolizing the light of Allah’s grace. A small window is sometimes cut in the wall to give a sense of the alignment outside the mosque.

Sultan al Nasir Muhammad Mosque, Cairo, Egypt

The Minbar and Maqsura    

The minbar is a free-standing structure, often carved from wood to the right of the mihrab. In some traditions, is decorated, in others is plain.

The first minbar used by the Prophet, had three steps and was made from tamarisk wood; the Prophet stood on the top step, but the first caliph, Abu Bakr, would go no higher than the second one as a mark of respect and then the third caliph, Umar, only on the third step. Since that time, the preacher has stood on the second step from the top.

In the early mosques, the mihrab and minbar were behind a carved wooden screen known as maqsura. These screens were introduced to protect the caliph.

However, over time, the maqsura, which was beautifully decorated, functioned also as a statement of the ruler’s power and wealth.

Sultan Hasan Complex , Cairo, Egypt (1356-62)

The Madrasa (religious college)

In Cairo, Egypt, the Mamluks built many splendid madrasas. When it was established in 1356 the mosque and madrasa of Sultan Hasan was the largest structure ever built in Cairo, Egypt.

The Sultan intended it to house teachers of all four legal schools each, school in Sunni Islam; it has four iwans, one for teachers and students of each school, adjoining a large central courtyard.

It’s facade is extremely impressive and measures 36 m high and 76 m long. Only one of the original two minarets is still standing, but at 84m high it is the tallest of all minarets surviving from medieval Cairo.

Mustansiriya Madrasa, Baghdad, Iraq – One of the world’s oldest centres of study (1227-34)

Types of Madrasas

The madrasa came in a variety of forms. Some has a single large hall beneath the dome, but a typical configuration was the two-iwan, three-iwan or four-iwan , in which a central courtyard adjoins two, three or four large vaulted halls.

Under later rulers, notably the Ottomans in Turkey and the Safavids in Iran, madrasas was built as part of large complex centered on a grand mosque.

In Iran, the complexes often also contained a caravanserai (an inn with a central courtyard for travelers) and a bazaar, and the commercial areas served to fund the educational and spiritual activities in the madrasas.

The striking 52m tall minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra, Iraq (848-52)
Through the Centuries

The first caliphal dynasty of the Islamic empire was founded by al-Muawiyah of the Umayyad in 661 and lasted for 90 years.

To this day, world-famous icons of modern architecture continue to be built in Muslim countries, particularly the Arabian Peninsula, modern mosques, state-of-the-art commercial buildings and even international airports in locations such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Tehran, Jakarta.

Al Haram Mosque Mecca Saudi Arabia
Al Azhar Mosque Cairo Egypt
QolSharif Mosque Kazan Russia
Badshahi Mosque Lahore, Pakistan
Hussein 3-Hussein Mosque and its ottoman style minaret
Al Hussein Mosque Cairo Egypt
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Brunei
Zahir Mosque , Kedah, Malaysia   

Modern Architecture

Sakirin Mosque, Istanbul Turkey

The dome is clad in fish-scale aluminium panels and facades are finished in stone and aluminium mesh.

The lighting strategy and courtyard water feature, the bronze and glass doors and the chandelier were all conceived to enrich the space with artistry. Equally, the symbolic mihrab, the minbar and the calligraphy are new interpretations of ancient Seljuk Turkish traditions.

KAPSARK Mosque Riyadh KSA

The spiritual center of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) community is a mosque within the linear park at the heart of the site.

The prayer hall is set within a reflecting pool and reached from elevated glass bridges leading to its entrances. The reflecting pool glows at night, giving the illusion that the entire building is floating over water. To either side of the prayer hall, curving walls screen supporting functions, including ablution spaces and imam’s office.

The Culture of Islam has had far-reaching influences around the world, and we can explore its beautiful architecture.



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