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Islamic Architecture: Seen and the Unseen

© Yashi Garg , Kashish Garg & Nitin Singh Negi

A period in history that stretched for five hundred years in India i.e. from 1206 AD to 1707 AD. The period of Islamic architecture witnessed a considerable revolution in the way buildings were built. Not only the way, but the purpose had also begun to alter as well. The different types of buildings built during this period were mosques, tombs, palaces, and forts, and the Mosque being the most prominent one.


Numerous speculations of Islamic architecture take us to the foremost prominent elements of Islamic buildings which are ARCHES, DOMES, MINARETS, COURTYARDS, GATEWAYS, PORTICO, and MIHRAB. All of these elements with time became the soul of Islamic architecture.

ARCHES, under the influence of this period, evolved into four main basic types: pointed, ogee, horseshoe, and multifoil. Arches featured multiple spearhead projections underneath the surface, which is a specialization of Islamic arches.

DOME being a self-shading structure experienced appreciable evolution amid this period. Distinctive alterations lead to the shape of the dome being like an onion adorned with bold foliations at the base of the dome.

The tall winding tower with windows and an encased staircase is the MINARET. Minaret being a vital element is found in 89 percent of mosques. Another conviction about minarets is that they were used to call out people for prayer.

These are just the facts that are well known to all of us and there’s no need to clarify all.


Before beginning with the unseen version of Islamic Architecture, do we know of any framework of visual symbols that delineates unadulterated Islamic Architecture?

Most of us would reply in the affirmative and will legitimize by claiming the above-mentioned elements of Islamic Architecture. But when asked about how pure these components are to Islamic Architecture? Here comes the catch-out.

Have we ever wondered that the elements to which we specify as Islamic, have their root based somewhere else?

Let us take a look at some examples to legitimize what I am attempting to convey.

ARCHES, as told prior, took diverse forms in Islamic monuments. What is to be highlighted here is that ‘True arches came into use much before the Islamic period i.e. during the Roman civilization around 3rd century BC.’ Aqueducts in Rome are a live illustration of this. Even before the true arch came into use, Corbelled arches were into the ground earlier than that.

After knowing this, is it truly justified to call Arch an element of Islamic Architecture? Because being an element of a major period of history, it isn’t absolutely of Islamic origin.

Talking further, about DOMES, does the presence of a Dome over a building portrays the building as an Islamic monument? Of Course not. Indeed domes were also in sight before the Islamic period. The Pantheon in Rome built in 126 BC possessed the largest unreinforced dome in the world for about 2000 years even after its construction. So should we call DOME as an element that traces itself to Islamic architecture?

Another comes from the MINARET, a well-known fact about minarets is that they were constructed for the purpose of calling out worshippers for prayer. Contrary to this, coherently the minarets were not for the purpose of calling out; instead they were prompted by a desire to reach God, who was believed, to be up in the heavens. The minaret in a mosque was just like the steeple in a church, the Shikharas in a temple. Still, not all mosques have minarets in them, as per studies only 89% of mosques do have minarets in their premises. In spite of this, Minaret is a functional element of Islamic Architecture.

Let’s use the example of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Built-in the year 360, since then, it has been used as a Cathedral for Constantinople, a mosque under the Ottomans, and a historical center for sightseers nowadays. In case a Cathedral Church with all its elements can be reimagined as a Mosque during the Islamic period, then how can we say that the dome, the minaret used in it, is an element of Islamic architecture? Subsequently, these elements cannot be the soul of Islamic Architecture.

Finally talking about MIHRAB, the focal point of the mosque. No building can be a mosque without it. Architecturally, Mihrab is a niche in the wall of the mosque on the mecca (west) side. Functionally, its purpose is to indicate the direction of prayer. While praying, worshippers are anticipated to confront the Mihrab, and in facing it they in effect face the qibla. The Mihrab of each mosque symbolizes the intersection between the vertical and horizontal line, i.e., between the divine god and humans. The significance of Mihrab is such that Mihrab can exist without a mosque but the vice-versa is not true. Thus, Mihrab is an element that transforms the mosque from a physical structure to a sacred place. It is a pure dynamic symbol because of its spiritual context. Every other element- the minaret, the courtyard, the dome, the sanctuary- derives its religious character from this element i.e. MIHRAB.

Concluding all with what is composed above; it gives clarifications with respect to why MIHRAB is the foremost element of pure Islamic Architecture. Indeed if Islamic monuments consist of elements that are mostly taken from some other type of architecture, they are so well integrated into the Islamic monuments that they look as if they have developed for Islamic construction only. This is an extraordinary achievement of binding diverse elements into one fashion and making that style so prevalent that individuals nowadays take inspiration from their structures.

Ending with a great quote,

‘Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other; nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking: and the result is a structure of absolute balance and solid composure.’……

Muhammad Azad

Give deep thought to this quote and examine





Kashish, Nitin, and Yashi are students of Chandigarh College of Architecture, Chandigarh. However, three of them belong to different cities (Kashish from Malerkotla, Nitin from Mohali, and Yashi from Bathinda). It's been a few months that they have participated in many competitions as a team now and amalgamation of three different design philosophies always results in intricate design solutions. They also show a keen interest in learning architectural facts and the Architectonics of different periods of History. Henceforth applying these principles in modern-day designs help them create new forms altogether.


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