ISLAMIC HERITAGE BELONGS TO ALL -- ARCHITECTURE
[By Dr. Mohamed Elmasry] - Oct 26, 2007
throughout the world have remained untouched by the
extraordinary, multi-faceted heritage of Islam. For more than 1000 years
the unique and unsurpassed achievements of Islamic culture illuminated the
known world, building a civilization that in itself formed one of the
greatest epics of human history.
From the 7th to the 18th centuries - more than an entire millennium --
Islam permeated society with a profound cultural fabric whose influence is
still being revealed even in today's postmodern age.
Inspired in new and revolutionary ways by the teachings of the Prophet
Muhammad, as well as by his Companions and later followers, Muslim artists,
architects, scholars and scientists carried the intellectual and creative
concepts of Islam from present-day Saudi Arabia across the lands now known
as Morocco, Spain, France and Sicily, as well as eastward throughout
ancient Persia (now Iran) to India and the Far East.
Over time as Islam spread, many lands and many peoples also flowed into the
faith, resulting in a diverse global community where all believers became
brothers and sisters in spirit, united by their faith in the one God. Thus,
diversity developed within unity, expressed in an astonishing breadth and
flowering of culture which had a deep and permanent effect on life, art and
science throughout societies even beyond Muslim borders.
Sadly, however, this noble and living heritage, together with the
importance of its worldwide influence, is too little known today among both
Muslims and non-Muslims.
Islamic architecture is a prime example of how much has been forgotten or
Within the early Islamic world, which included Arabia, the Maghrib (North
Africa), Spain, Sicily, Egypt, Turkey, Persia, and India, the foundation of
all great building enterprises was based solidly on the precepts of faith.
From mosque to mausoleum, Muslim architects and builders devoted their
greatest skills to creating edifices that reflected the glory of God,
rather than that of humans.
Many great historic mosques demonstrate, for example, the enduring success
of a major structural innovation replicated by Western builders. This was a
radically new method of constructing a dome upon a cube by creating
transitional supports between the two - called muqarnas or corner squinches
-- such as those found prominently in the Martorana and Cappella Palatine
built in Palermo, Sicily, during the 11th and 12th centuries.
The minaret (tower) form of the mosque was also adopted by Western
architects. In Seville, they simply added to the Giralda, which had
originally been built as a minaret. The influence of the minaret may also
be seen in some Medieval church towers in rural England and the campanile,
or in the bell towers of Renaissance Florence and Venice, as well as
somewhat later in the later free-standing church towers common to
Artists and architects of the Islamic world also brought to the West their
elegant and daring ways of covering the interior walls of buildings. In
Spain's famed Alhambra at Granada and in the mosques of Isfahan, a breath-
taking explosion of beautiful patterns and colors took place. Before long,
the techniques of Islamic faience, mosaic and tile design -- virtually
unequalled before or since -- were absorbed into the mainstream of Western
Architecture was further enhanced by advances in the fields of Islamic
sciences and engineering, through the practical works of many great Muslim
scientists - al-Razi, al-Biruni, Avicenna, and even the poet-scientist Omar
Khayyam - which were also passed on and eagerly adopted by the West.
Fascinated by the versatility and potential of machines and mechanics,
Muslim inventors developed many new ones, ranging from the ingenious water-
clock to enchanting mechanical "automata" (animated figures), also run by
water, and regarded as being among the most magical of all diversions.
Muslims were also innovative pioneers in another major branch of science -
that of optics, or the investigation of vision and the physics of light.
Al-Haytham, born in the 10th century, wrote one of the greatest medieval
scientific works, the Kitab-al- Manazir, or Book of Optics. This work was
the fruit of his detailed exploration of optical illusions, rainbows, and
the camera obscura - the beginning of photographic instruments. He also
made important discoveries about atmospheric refraction, mirages, and
comets, as well as studying the phenomenon of eclipses. His work laid the
foundation for later optical developments, such as the microscope and
telescope. Al-Haytham's exhaustive studies in optics and related fields
influenced Western scientific thought for centuries.
Muslim scientists such as Jabir bin Hyan lived and worked during the 8th
century. And as early as the 10th century, the Baghdad scientist-historian
al-Masudi spoke of the process of evolution from mineral, to plant, to
animal, to human being -- a concept gradually inherited by Western
scholars, reaching fruition nine centuries later in the works of England's
There is much more to know about Islamic sciences at:
(Dr. Mohamed Elmasry is national president of the Canadian Islamic
Congress. He can be reached at