Importance of Water in Islamic Architecture

by E. Anne Hunter

The Quran states that all living things are made of water, highlighting the element's importance to Islamic life. Water plays an integral role in Islamic architecture throughout the Middle East and beyond. It's both symbolic, representing purification and life, and practical, used to cleanse the body and cool the air. The decorative effect of water is also central to Islamic architecture, which emphasizes rich, intricate patterns.

Hot Climates

Islamic buildings, courtyards and gardens in hot climates often employ water features to cool the air. Paradise gardens, also called Persian gardens, are a prominent type of garden architecture that use water for cooling, as a means to mask surrounding city noise and to irrigate planting beds.

Paradise Gardens

In paradise gardens, the water features used for cooling and irrigation are laid out in a geometric fashion called charbagh, which has its basis in the Quran. The central fountain or pool of the charbagh symbolizes the giving and sustaining of life. Four channels of water extend from the fountain or pool, representing the four rivers of the Garden of Eden. The central location of water in paradise gardens, as well as in mosques and other Islamic architecture, reminds Muslims of the Quran’s teaching that man is simultaneously body, the physical life; soul, the self after death; and spirit, strength given by God.

Cleansing

Water is also used for cleansing in Islamic architecture, with ablution fountains found in mosque courtyards for bathing and ritual purification. These fountains play not only a practical role in bathing, but also a spiritual one, reflecting the Quran teaching that water gives life and purifies. Fountains, producing water in motion, also symbolize the dynamism of life.

Decoration

Islamic architecture is defined, in part, by an emphasis on transforming space through decoration of surfaces. Water plays a prominent role in this space-transforming tradition, as water reflects the richness of the architecture and decoration, and provides a dynamic, changing surface of its own. In gardens, water softens the geometric nature of the charbagh design.

About the Author

E. Anne Hunter has more than a decade of experience in education, with a focus on visual design and instructional technology. She holds a master's degree in education. Hunter has contributed to several professional publications, covering education, design, music and fitness, among other topics.

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