Characteristics of Islamic Architecture

by Eleanor McKenzie

Islamic architecture is distinctive, featuring regional variations in both Islamic and non-Islamic countries. Mosques, houses and gardens provide the best examples of Islamic architectural principles, displaying distinctive arches, tile designs, towers and interior gardens. One of the central concepts of Islamic architecture is that of privacy, and for this reason it is referred to as "architecture of the veil."

Plain Exteriors

Islam advocates plainness in appearance. This applies to architecture as much as it does to the color of external clothing and the use of more basic materials such as brass or wood in decorative arts. A house designed along Islamic principles may appear undesigned on the exterior, and as BBC Religions says, the outside doesn't reveal anything about the mechanical structure of the house. However, the interior of the house will usually reveal a much more extravagant design approach. Houses are typically built around a central courtyard that is invisible from the outside but provides an outdoor space inside. Here you'll find colorful tiling, fountains, fruit trees and flowers, but the only decoration you'll find on the exterior is around the entrance door.

Mosques

Mosque architecture is the form familiar to many in the West. Early mosque design is called "hypostyle," which means it is a quadrilateral shape surrounding a courtyard. Domes and cupolas played an important part in Arab architecture long before the emergence of Islam and they continue to be important features of mosque design. Every mosque interior contains a niche in the wall called the mihrab. This niche faces Mecca, the direction Muslims face to pray. Each of the external walls contains a niche -- called an iwan -- and the largest of these also faces Mecca. The minaret is another characteristic of mosque architecture. This is the tower where the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Mosque interiors are highly decorated with wooden screens of geometric marquetry and colorful tiling.

The Arch

Arches are one of the most distinctive features of Islamic architecture and are found in almost every type of building. Symbolically, they lead into an inner space. Islamic architects borrowed heavily from Greek and Roman designs for archways and door designs but then came up with a series of arch shapes over history that are distinctively Islamic. For example, the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, has various examples of arch designs including the horseshoe, the cinquefoil, the trifoil and the semi-circular. The use of arches in this mosque is credited with spreading Islamic arch design throughout Europe. Islamic building also use arches to create colonnades lining the inner courtyards of both houses and mosques.

Modern Islamic Architecture

Islamic architecture has tended to stick to historical tradition with little changing in house or mosque design over the centuries. However, the Middle East oil boom and the emergence of cities such as Dubai as major trading places for the whole world has introduced a new approach to Islamic architecture. The Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai may look like a typical 21st Century glass and steel construction shooting up into the sky like a glass shard, but its design is based on a desert flower called the Hymenocallis, reflecting the traditional Islamic principle of converting vegetal shapes into geometric designs.

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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