Islamic Architecture: History, Characteristics, And Examples

Ian Mutuli
Updated on
Ian Mutuli

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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Traditional Islamic architecture is a centuries-old building tradition deeply rooted in Islamic principles that originated in the middle east and spread out gradually to the rest of the world. However, it is usually associated with religious structures and has significantly contributed to the architectural landscape. Islamic architecture encompasses common buildings such as tombs, public buildings like schools, palaces, and fortresses, and smaller ones like public baths, fountains, and domestic architecture.

Unlike modern and post-modern or Roman architecture, this architecture is unique because of its Islamic calligraphy, rich floral and geometric mosaics, and vibrant colors that are hardly used in other architectures.

What Is Islamic Architecture?

What is Islamic architecture

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Early Islamic architecture, unlike modern architecture, refers to Muslim people’s construction traditions. Additionally, traditional Islamic architecture began in the 7th century and is varied, given that Islamic rule stretched from Spain to Northern India at some point. At this time, not many buildings were done using the style. Due to the diversity, the Islamic infrastructure can be defined as any buildings designed using characteristics of the Islamic culture.

In the Muslim world, buildings designed using this architecture are usually secular and can be both public and private structures. Nevertheless, typical examples include mosques and madrasahs. Tombs, forts, palaces, and city government buildings are other examples.

With the early Islamic religion spreading across Africa, Asia, and Europe, architecture became more diverse, adapting artistic traditions from Chinese, Slavic, Indian, Turkic, and other cultures. For instance, the shape of an arch would differ from North Africa to Persia. Nonetheless, the architecture’s common functions, ideals, and various physical characteristics remain the same.

Development of Islamic Architecture 

Islamic architecture consists of various styles, designs, and construction. Early Islamic architectural patterns and techniques were derived from other contemporary building traditions. Islamic architects, however, further developed and enhanced it to contribute to what is now known as Islamic architecture.

The Islamic architectural style is characterized by a repetition that is well-ordered, structures that are radiating, and rhythmic patterns. Some of the significant features of Islamic architecture include columns, arches, and piers intertwined with alternating colonnades and niches. The key characteristics of the style include the following:

1. Religious Architecture: Mosques

A mosque

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The places of worship for the Islamic people, known as a mosque or Masjids in Arabic, feature an open courtyard for accommodating a big crowd and a fountain for ritual cleansing. The main aspect of the mosque’s architecture is the minaret. This is the tower from where the clergy sits when calling Muslims to prayer and is also a visual reminder of the presence of Islam.

Congregational mosques have one or more domes, called qubba in the Arabic language. These domes were adopted from Byzantine architecture and symbolically represented the vault of heaven. The essential element inside the mosque is the Mihrab, a niche in the wall that points in the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when praying.

Different types of mosques emerged, and the oldest style, known as the hypostyle mosque, was inspired by the house of Muhammad. This style is shown best in the Great Mosque of Kairouan. This mosque is large and rectangular, with a big hall supported by columns and a large inner “sahn.” The Hypostyle type of mosque is defined by the forest of columns that characterize the interior.

During the 11th century, the four-iwan mosque emerged. Iwan is a vaulted space that opens on one side to a courtyard.

2. Madrasa

Madrasa

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The madrasa is an Islamic building used when teaching Islamic studies. Seljuk Turks built the earliest madrasas in the 11th century in Iran. The design of these structures was obtained from contemporary house plans or Buddhist Viharas. The oldest madrasa is the Gumushtutigin Madrassa in Bosra, dating back to 1136. It has a domed courtyard and two iwans.

The domed madrasas are small Islamic buildings, but those with an open courtyard are larger and have arcades surrounding central iwans. The Egyptian madrasas were started in 1160 by Sunni Orthodoxy. The four-iwan plan signifies the Egyptian madrasas, where the four iwans represent the four orthodox schools of law.

This design later spread to other countries and is present in Mustansriya Madrassa in Baghdad. In Egypt, the madrasa is the dominant architectural form where religious buildings adopted the four-iwan plan. In later years, the madrasas provided accommodation for students, and this architectural style has continued to the present day.

3. Islamic Pilgrimage Places: Kaaba

Kaaba

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The Hajj, the most well-known pilgrimage in Islam, consists of many rituals that shaped the architecture of the most sacred places of the religion. Kaaba is where pilgrims go even in the present day. It means cube in Arabic, a square building covered in a silk and cotton veil. The faithful assemble in the courtyard of the Masjid al-Haram around the Kaaba.

The Muslims circulate the Kaaba during the tawaf ritual, hoping to touch and kiss the Black Stone embedded in the eastern side of the building. Muslims believe that Abraham and Ismail constructed the Kaaba even though it existed in pre-Islamic times. 

Traditionally, the Kaaba was a simple roofless rectangular structure. Its door was raised above ground level to protect the shrine from intruders and flood waters. The Muslims believe that the Black Stone was given to Abraham by archangel Gabriel. Over the years, the places surrounding Kaaba were expanded to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims.

With time, colonnades were built around the open area where the Kaaba stands, and important monuments were included in the sanctuary. During the 17th century, the Kaaba was covered with a black cloth called kiswa, which is replaced yearly during the Hajj.

Characteristics of Islamic Architecture

Some of the key elements of Islamic religious buildings include domes, minarets, arches, muqarnas, girth tiles, and vaults. The tile work, domes, and arches reflect the influence of Christian architecture in Islamic architecture. 

a) Dome

Dome

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This is the rounded vault usually erected on the roof of an Islamic building.

b) Arch

Arch

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It is a carved symmetrical structure on top of an opening that carries the weight of the wall or the roof. Arches and domes are used to direct one’s look to the heavens.

c) Courtyard

courtyard

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The courtyard provides stillness and privacy to the worshipers. It is also essential as it allows for lighting and cooling.

d) Minaret

Minaret

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These buildings also have tall and narrow towers. This is where a calling to prayer is read. The structure is called a minaret, while a mihrab is a niche in the mosque’s wall that indicates the direction of Mecca. Muslims pray facing the Mihrab as it points toward the Muslim holy city.

e) Girth Tiles 

Girth tiles 

Image credits: Parametrichouse.com

These are pieces of star and polygon-shaped tiles. They are combined to create consistent geometric patterns. One characteristic of Islamic interior design is the use of geometric mosaic patterns. This relates to Islamic values. Islamic interiors are decorated with girth tiles, colorful patterns, with intricate calligraphy.

f) Muqarnas

Muqarnas

Image Credits: Middleeasteye.net

These are three-dimensional decorative elements often used from the 11th century. They are tiers of cells that go up to the ceiling of the building, like stalactites or honeycombs. Maqurnas create a spectacular visual effect when light shines off the surfaces.

Examples of Islamic Architecture

1. Qutub Minar

Qutub Minar

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This building was created to celebrate the dominance of Muslims in Delhi. Qutub Minar was constructed right after the victory of Aibak against Rajput rulers. Its construction commenced in 1199, is 14.3 meters in diameter, and stands 72.5 m high. Its top diameter is 2.7 meters. The Minar has a total of 379 steps running from top to bottom, while its exterior walls display carvings that reveal the history of the construction.

The curving on the wall is intricate, with Afghani-style patterns creatively blended with local artistic conventions. Red sandstone is the primary material used to construct the first three floors of the Minar, and sandstone and marble are used afterward. The building has projected balconies after every five floors. Plus, its cylindrical shaft contains Quran inscriptions.

2. CharMinar 

CharMinar 

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This is an Indian structure that is famous for its architectural design. It was constructed in 1591 by Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah purposely to mark the end of a plague that had stricken the city. CharMinar is greatly inspired by Arc de Triomphe and gets its name from the minarets. The two-story building stands 48.7 meters high. Plus, you can see the landscape from minarets.

On the other hand, the minarets have four stories, each having a ring around the minaret. CharMinar takes the shape of a square. It has four arches that face the four directions. You can get a glimpse of huge courtyards from all four directions. Additionally, the arches have a height of 20 meters and a width of 11 meters.

This building displays Indo-Saracenic architecture. This is a mixture of Hindu and Islamic architecture. On the other hand, the ornamentation of the domes and arches was influenced by Hindu architecture.

3. Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Image Credits: Britannica.com

Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1648 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan on the banks of the river Yamuna. The mausoleum, like CharMinar, also displays Indo-Islamic architecture and a rhythmic combination of voids and solids.

This mosque-cathedral has a clever combination of concave and convex and light and shadow. On a raised square platform, a tomb is placed right at one end of the quadripartite Mughal Garden. Additionally, the platforms for the sides of the octagonal base of the minarets go past the squares.

4. Gol Ghumbaz

Gol Ghumbaz

Image Credits: Commons.wikimedia.org

This is yet another monument constructed using Islamic style and was put up to mark the tomb of Mohammed Adil Shah. The measurements of the tomb are 47.5 meters on all sides. Further, the tomb is capped by a wooden dome that measures 44 millimeters in external diameter. The tomb is a single chamber structure constructed using dark grey basalt, while its facade is decorated using plaster.

Gol Ghumbaz is found only two kilometers from the capital city of Adil Shah’s rule, Bijapurand. It is inhibited in a complex that consists of other structures such as mosques, Dharamshala, and more buildings. There were also gardens in the complex. Deccan Indo-Islamic is the architectural style used in the construction of Gol Ghumbaz, a mixture of the Dravian and Indo-Islamic styles.

The tomb cubical has a gold-plated wood dome on top, fitted on a 600 feet podium, and is the second largest in the world. There is also a staircase in the building’s wall which leads to a seven-story octagon tower on each corner of the cube. Every seven storiecs have arched windows that are capped by a smaller dome. The pendentives are also another unique feature of this building. These are groined compartments whose purpose is to counteract the outward thrust of the dome. Plus, the tomb’s foundation is the bedrock presumed to prevent unequal settlement.

5. The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock

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This is thought to be the oldest Islamic monument, and by the time of the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, the monument was already 55 years old. It was the first Islamic building to feature Byzantine architectural elements and designs. The monument is also called Qubbat al Sakhra.

The Dome of the Rock is found on the Temple Mount, a hill in the Old City of Jerusalem, and is sacred in all three religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

6. Sixty Dome Mosque

Sixty Dome Mosque

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Sixty Dome Mosque is known as Shait Gambuj Mosque or Saith Gumbad Masjid. The structure is mainly recognized as one of the most impressive Muslim monuments throughout the Indian continent. It is found in Bangladesh and was built in 1442 and completed in 1459.

The monument has walls of unusual thickness, a hit-shaped roofline, and tampered bricks. It has up to 77 squat domes and four-sided pitched Bengali domes that stand right on the middle row.

7. Great Mosque of Samarra

Great Mosque of Samarra

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Found in Samara, Iraq, the Great Mosque of Samarra was built from 847 to 861 AD. Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil completed the 9th-century mosque. One of its most remarkable features is its minaret.

The Malwiya Tower is a vast cone that spirals vertically, is 52 meters high, and is 33 meters wide. The walls of this mosque are paneled with a mosaic of dark blue glass, and inside, it has up to 17 aisles. The unique architectural element used in the construction of this building makes it an icon in the area.

8. Great Mosque of Kairouan

Great Mosque of Kairouan

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The Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia is the Mosque of Uqba. Due to its rich history, this mosque is considered one of the most important mosques in Tunisia and stands as one of the oldest places of worship in the country and the Islamic world. The mosque is also one of the largest and most impressive monuments in the northern part of Africa. 

The Great Mosque of Kairouan features a hypostyle prayer hall, a square minaret, and a marble-paved courtyard.

9. The Nur-Astana Mosque

The Nur-Astana Mosque

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The Nur-Astana Mosque is located in Kazakhstan and is the largest mosque in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. The Islamic monuments’ materials are glass, granite, and concrete.

It can house up to 5000 worshipers. Nur- Astana Mosque has a height of 40 meters which symbolizes the age of Prophet Muhammad when he started receiving revelations.

10. The Great Mosque of Cordoba

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

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The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption is the other name given to the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Found in the Spanish region of Andalusia, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was constructed on the site of a Christian church. The great mosque was constructed by the Umayyad ruler Abd Al Rahman I in 784 and completed in 786 using local materials.

It underwent a couple of enlargements and contains a richly decorated mihrab set behind an intricate arch. Architectural styles used to construct the mosque include Gothic architecture, Islamic architecture, and more. It remains among the oldest structures from the Muslim -ruled Al Andalus in the late 8th century.

11. Khanqah-E-Maula

Khanqah-E-Maula

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Khanqah-E-Maula is another shrine worth mentioning, located on the banks of river Jhelum. This great mosque is among the oldest shrine and was built by Sultan Sikander in 1395. It was later reconstructed in 1732. This building is mainly constructed using wood, with the architecture inspired by Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist architectural designs.

Additionally, its plan is in the form of a square erected in an irregular walled base. This great mosque is a two-tiered building with a sloping pyramidal roof that demarcates each tier. Its roof has been accentuated by heavy woodwork with cornices under the eaves.

The first tier of the monument’s roof has a double-arcaded verandah that runs around the building. The roof’s second tier has an open pavilion for the muezzin and then further crowned by a pyramidal spire. Some parts of the roof are covered with seasonal vegetation. This creates a fantastic sight of intricate woodwork.

12. Agra Fort

Agra Fort

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Another name for Agra Fort is Red fort. It is found on the banks of the river Yamuna. It found its name from the use of sandstone. Akbar, the Mughal emperor, built it. The fort is capable of serving as a military base and also as a residence. The structure is a crescent-shaped building approximately 1.5 miles and 70 feet high.

It is also surrounded by a moat. Also, it is accessed from the Amar Gate facing south or Delhi gate, facing west. Delhi gate is the original entrance to the fort and is decorated using intricate marble inlays.

13. Jama Masjid of Delhi

 Jama Masjid

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Jama Masjid was built for six years, between 1650 to 1656. This monument is Delhi’s principal mosque and is situated in Old Delhi. The primary material for this monument is white marble and red sandstone. The mosque is oriented towards the holy city of Mecca. There is an open courtyard in the structure that measures 325 feet square. This courtyard is capable of holding up to 25,000 people. Its eastern gateway is meant for royal use.

The mosque also has two 130-foot minarets marking the southeastern and northeastern comers to the structure. On the other hand, the prayer hall is interior and measures 90 x 200 feet. Just above this prayer hall’s entrance, there are calligraphic Persian inscriptions. The mosque also has three larger marble domes.

14. Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad

Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad

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Mecca Masjid is one of the largest mosques in Hyderabad. Its primary construction materials are granite and bricks. The mosque’s gateway was built, leading to the court’s entrance.

The mosque has intricately designed 15 arches that support the main hall’s roof. Inside, there are up to 5 passageways as well as the tombs of rulers of the Asaf Jhi dynasty.

15. Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

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Sultan Ahmed Mosque is also called the Blue Mosque. This is its original name. The Ottoman-era history imperial mosque is found in Istanbul, Turkey. The mosque is inspired by Islamic architecture and Ottoman architecture. It stands 43 meters high and is constructed just near a famous mosque called the Hagia Sophia mosque.

This building contains five main domes, six towering minarets, and another eight smaller domes. The architect of this project, Sedefkar Mehmed Aga, created a combination of Islamic elements and Byzantine from Hagia Sophia.

Conclusion

We have explored Islamic architecture’s unique characteristics that make it so fascinating, from its striking dazzling ornamental details to its awesome sculptural forms. We have detailed some of the elegant buildings of Islamic architecture, from mosques to secular styles—this architecture’s elegance and timeless appeal charm historical fans and those who appreciate beautiful details.

 Featured Image Credits: Thespruce.com

Ian Mutuli

About the author

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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