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Source: Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, T. 60, Fasc. 1, História da Filosofia & Outros Ensaios (Jan. - Mar., 2004), pp. 197-214 Published by: Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia

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P. F. I

60 « 2004

Does an IslamicArchitectureExist?

Abdullah Al-Jasmi* Michael H. Mitias*

Abstract: Oleg Grabarhas argued thattherewasnota systemof visual symbols inIslamic culture;consequently itis difficult toholdthatan Islamicarchitecture exists;that is,if weweretostand before a mosque and try to experience it aesthetically orsee whatkind

ofbuilding itis wewouldnotbe able to say thatitis a mosque. In

against this proposition. We,first,present a briefanalysisof

critically evaluatethisview. Third, we explicate howthe mosque as an architectural type

embodies uniquely Islamic symbols. Weshallillustratethis pointby an analysisof one basicIslamic symbol: theMihrab.Thethesiswe defend is thatthereare basicIslamic symbols andthatthese symbols inhereinthe mosque. Itis this fact thatlends credibility totheclaimthatan Islamicarchitectureexists.

this paper we argue

Grabar's view. Second, we

Key Words: Aesthetics;Architecture;Decoration;Grabar,Oleg;Islam; Islamic culture; Koran;Mihrab;Minaret;Mosque; Prayer;Representation;Symbolism,

Resumo: Oleg Grabar defendeu a

tesede que ndoexisteumsistemade simbolosvisuaisna

culturaisldmica;consequentemente, e dificildefender a existenciade uma arquitectura

isldmica; ou seja, se estivessemosdiantede uma mesquita e tentdssemos fazer uma

experiencia esteticada capazes de dizer que se

tamcontraesta proposiqdo. Em primeirolugar, os autores comeqampor apresentar umabreveandlisedo ponto de vistade Grabar.Em segundolugar, avaliamcriticamente

esta posiqdo. Em terceiro lugar tentam explicar ate que ponto a mesquita como tipo arquitectonicoapenas incorpora simbolosisldmicos.Os autores exemplificam este ponto mediantea andlisede umdossimbolosbdsicosdo Islamismo:o Mihrab.O artigo

defende,portanto, a

tesede que existemsimbolosisldmicosbdsicose de que estessim-

bolosestdo presentes na mesquita. Ora e precisamente este factoque dd credibilidade

a afirmaqdo de que existeuma arquitectura isldmica propriamente dita.

mesmaou analisar que tipo de edificio se trata,ndoseriamos tratade uma mesquita. No presenteartigo, os autores argumen-

Palavras-Chave: Alcordo;Arquitectura; Cultura Isldmica;Decoraqao; Estetica; Gra- bar,Oleg;Isldo; Mesquita;Mihrab;Minarete;Oraqdo;Representaqao; Simbolismo.

* PhilosophyDepartment, Kuwait University(Kuwait).


Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia





198 Abdullah Al-Jasmi I Michael H. Mitias



insightful,yet provocativestudy,"Symbols and Signs in Islamic

Grabar argues that"therewas

no coherent,consistent,


visually perceivedsymbols"




architecture; "therewasno clearly identifiable sense,even, offormsconsideredto

be one's own,culturally discrete.It may,therefore, be possible to propose that

traditionalIslamicarchitectureidentifieditself through meansotherthanvisual:

thesoundsof the city, thecall to prayer, theWordof theRevelationbutnotits

forms, thememoriesof menandevents."1This is tantamountto

cannotdiscovera system, or a set, of visuallyperceptible Islamic symbols in traditionalIslamicarchitecture.Thisdoes notmeanthatareno Moslem

signs or symbols, "but they existin thememoriesof menand events:the place where something took place or someone did something."2 Thus what makes an architecturalworkIslamicis notwhethertheworkitselfin some waypossesses certain symbols butthefactthatit is a place whereMoslems perform definite

functions: prayer, Koranic instruction,caring forthe poor and the sick, or

administering the political andsocialaffairsofthe community. Weknowwhether

a building is a mosque, for example,byobserving thefunctionsit performs, notthe symbolicqualities it possesses. Buttheclaimthattherewas nota system ofvisual symbols inIslamicculture entailsa denialoftheexistenceofIslamic architecture;that is, ifI wereto stand

beforea mosque and try to experience it aesthetically orsee whatkindof

itis I wouldnotbe ableto say thatitis a mosque. The mosque wouldnotinthis

case proclaim its religiousidentity becauseitcannot speak, anditcannot speak

becauseitdoesnot possess a

us. Thus since thedifferent buildings in whichMoslems pray and perform a

diversity offunctionsaredifferentintheirarchitectural design or style itwouldbe

extremely difficulttoasserttheexistenceofan Islamicarchitecture.In this paper

weshall argue thatthiswholelineof reasoning iserroneous.We

a brief analysis of Grabar'sview. Second, we shall critically evaluatethisview.

Third, we shall explicate how the mosque as an architectural type embodies

uniquely Islamic symbols. The thesisthatwe shall defend

discussionis thattherearebasicIslamic symbols andthatthese symbols inherein

the mosque. It is thisfactwhichlends credibility to theclaimthatan Islamic architectureexists.

saying thatwe



meansofwhichitcan speak to


throughout this

inIslamic Architecture," Architectureand Commu-

nityBuilding intheIslamicWorld Today, The Agha KhanAwardforArchitecture (published

byAperture, a

1 OlegGrabar,"Symbols and Signs


divisionofSilver Foundation, Inc. Milerton, New York,1983),p. 29.

Ibid.,p. 28.



Portuguesa de FHosofia



an Islamic



Analysis ofGrabar's View


Grabar begins his discussionof thethesisthattherewas nota pan-Islamic

visual system of symbols withthe followingquestion: whatis the pertinence of

Islamto architecture, nowandinthe past?3 The emphasis inthis question is onthe

relationship betweenbasic symbolicqualities - values and meanings - and architecture.AnIslamicwork acquires anIslamiccharacterwhenitembodiesthese qualities, andwhensuch qualities areabsentitwouldbe impossible tocharacterize itas Islamic.Thisis basedonthe assumption thatwe cannotattributea symbolic,

or any aesthetic quality, toa building unlessthe qualitybelongs tothe building. For

example, I cannot say the paper

"whiteness"somehow belongs to the paper.Similarly, I cannot say Kamal is courageous unless courage somehowinheresinhischaracter. Likewise, we cannot


of being Islamic.Thus Grabarasks: "Is therean Islamic system of visually

perceptiblesymbols and

variants?Whatare thesourcesof the system, therevealedand theologically or pietisticallydeveloped statementofthe faith, ortheevolutionofvisualformsover

fourteenhundred years? In whatfashionand how

symbols transformedinto building forms?"4Grabar argues thata universal system

ofvisual symbols does notexist.We cannotfindsucha system in theKoranor Hadithor in the worksof the theoreticianson art.We cannot,moreover, empirically discoversucha system inthearchitecturalworkswhich punctuate the

mosaicofIslamicculture during the past fourteenhundred years.Accordingly an


architecture.HowdoesGrabarestablishthe validity ofthisconclusion?

on whichI am now writing is whiteunless

thatthisarchitecturalworkis Islamicunlessitsomehow possesses the quality

signs? How universalis sucha system andwhatareits

successfully were signs


system of

signs and symbolsnecessarily entailsanabsenceofIslamic

To beginwith, Grabarrelieson three arguments in defending thisconclusion.

examinesthe existing literatureon symbolism in Islamicculture.Two


deficiency is the

First, he

major studiesaredonein this area, one by RudiParetandtheother byJacques

Waardenburg.5 Both of thesestudiesare unsatisfactory.They lack scientific

precision and clarity.Moreover,they do not sufficientlyexplore

component ofIslamicculture.No one, Grabar observes, "hastriedto identify an

Islamicvisual sign-symbolsystem in any serious way, withthe partialexception of

an Iranianand Sufi-oriented system."6 One reasonforthis

study. Anotherreasonlies in"Islam'shistorical

underdevelopment ofthisfieldof

destiny." How? Although Islaminheriteda richtraditionof symbols, it preserved only someof it,especiallynon-religioussymbols,mainly becauseit rejected all

3 ibid. p. 26.



6 /ta/. p. 27.

/fc/d. p. 26.

Ibid. p. 26.


Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia





200 Abdullah Al-Jasmi I Michael H. Mitias

types of representation inart.Butthis rejection hasrestrictedthe development of

religioussymbols. ButGrabardoes not stop herein defending theconclusionthatthereis nota

system of visual symbols. He considerswhathe calls three approaches to the

question of symbolism inIslamicarchitecture. (A)

puretheory. Grabardiscussesthree majortypes of theory on the question of

Islamic symbolism the philosophical, the semiological, andthe anthropological

approach. No theory withinthesethree approaches throwsa

on the identity of Islamicarchitecturefortworeasons. First,they are abstract.

Althoughthey are basedon theobservationof certainworksof art,they failto

explain anunstudiedIslamicworkofarchitecture. Second,they do not provide an

adequate accountof Islamic symbolism, of how symbolsoriginated in the historical process ofIslamicarchitecture.

The first approach focuseson


light of understanding

(B) The second approach focuseson Islamicwrittenevidence:classicaltexts,

theKoranand Hadith, and literary andmathematicaltreatises.First, a survey of

classicaltextswritten by thinkerssuchas Muqaddasi, Ibn Nadim, Ibn Khaldun,

and Ibn Fadlanwould readily showthatthereis "no

Islamicarchitecturetobe derivedfrom texts, as there is, for instance, inChristian

architecture."7 However, thisdoes not mean, as we pointed out earlier, thatthere

arenoIslamic symbols,e.g., Al-Ka'ba.Grabaradmitsthatsuch symbols exist, but

in thememoriesand actionsof theMoslem

symbols inarchitecturalworks.8 Second, is there, Grabar asks, a "Koranicor

Hadith symbolicsystem withvisualassociation?"9A discussionofthis question,

Grabar contends, "is

methodof dealing withit."10There are in the Koran severalarchitectural

inscriptions(Cf.II, 256; VII, 52; LXII,

meaning of some

architectural meanings areinherentintheKoranic passage orthatthemonuments

servedto represent orotherwise symbolize the Holy Writ."11Itis more reasonable,

for Grabar, toholdthat"the symbolic or iconographic use oftheKoraninIslamic art nearly"alwaysfollowed the development ofa symbolic or iconographic need. Symbols,signs, or meanings werediscoveredintheKoran but, atleastas faras the

artsare concerned, do not actively derivefromit."12 Third, neitherthe literary nor

themathematicaltreatisesleftforus by Islamicauthorsfromthe

onwardrevealtheexistenceof an Islamic system of visual symbols. Written

symboliciconography of

people. We do not perceive such


develop an appropriate

difficultbecause it is difficultto

1-5;XXIV,35-8) which mayexplain the

architectural elements, butit is questionable whether"these


1 1bid. p. 28.


Ibid. p. 26.

9 Ibid.

»° Ibid. p. 28.



/fc/d. p. 29.





Revista Portuguesa de FUosofia

60 2004



an Islamic




sourcesinIslamicarchitecturein general havenot providedany indicationofsuch

a system. What they have provided, Grabar thinks, is: (1) a religious artistic vocabulary which explains the meaning of manyaspects of visualformand (2) "judgments onstandardsoftaste."13

(C) Thethird approach focuseson monuments.An examinationofarchitectu-

ralworks throughout theIslamicworldwillshowthattheseworksdo notexhibita

uniquely Islamic system of visual symbols which persisted in the longspan of Islamicarchitectureforfourreasons. First,although thereare many architectural

monumentsintheIslamic world, the symbolicsignificance ofthesemonumentsis synchronic, notdiachronic.That is, the depth and intensity of their symbolic meaning was intimeandnot through time. They shonefora period of time, but their symbolicmeaningchanged inthe process oftime. Accordingly, noneofthe monumentalworkssuchas Taj Mahal, Domeofthe Rock, ortheGrand Mosque of Damascus became architectural types even thoughtheywere, and remain,

historically and religiouslyimportant. Second,

"restrictedcultural continuity,"14 for example, the hypostylicmosque that spread in

theFertile Crescent,Arabia, andtheMoslem West, the Iranian, the Anatolian, the

Indian, andtheOttoman mosques. Butthe symbolicconfigurations ofthese types

of mosque were culturallydetermined;they didnot exemplify an Islamic mosque. Inother words,they werenotintrinsictotheIslamic mosque as such.AnOttoman mosque, for example, "canbecomea nationalorromantic symbol andthe building

today ofa hypostylemosque inTunisiais merelycontinuing a regional tradition."15

Third, "there are," Grabar points

consistently indicativeofthe presence ofIslam."16He mentionsthreearchitectural

forms:the Mihrab, the Minaret, and theGate. But all theseforms performed

different practical and symbolic functions regionally and temporally. So itwould bedifficulttodiscoveranIslamic system ofvisual symbols inthevariouselements thatconstitutethe mosque as a religiousbuilding.Fourth, we shouldlookforan

Islamic system ofvisual symbols in decoration, not architecture, Grabarholds!But

evenheredecorationvariesfromone cultureto anotherandfromone period to another.Moreover, decorationis notintrinsicto thestructureofthearchitectural

work; it is added to it forthesake of beautification, and frequently thesame

decorativeform appliedindifferently to different types of building,e.g., the

mosque, themadrassa, orcaravanserai.The point thatGrabarwantstounderscore

is that"the symbolism of thedecorationis notinherentin the design butis the


we can identify whatGrabarcalls



very fewarchitecturalformsthatare

prescribed actioninthe building."17

13 ibid. p. 29.

14 Ibid. p. 30.

!5 Ibid. p. 30.

16 Ibid. p. 30.

v Ibid. p. 31.


Revista Portuguesa de FUosofia

60 «2004





Abdullah Al-Jasmi I Michael H. Mitias


We havediscussedGrabar'sviewin somedetailbecauseit is, so faras we

know, themostrecent comprehensive and scholarlyanalysis ofIslamic symbolism in architecture.The basic concernof this analysis is the identity of Islamic architecture:has Islam developed a system of visual symbolsduring the past

fourteenhundred years? Is therea system of

architecturefromother types of architecture?Grabaranswersthese questions in

the negative. He lookedforsucha system intheworksof anthropologists,philo- sophers,historians,semiologists,mathematicians,existing architecturalmonu- ments, andtheKoranandHadith.No oneofthesesourcesdelivereda pan-Islamic

system ofvisual symbols.Accordingly we wouldnotbe ableto identify a mosque,

for example, as an Islamicworkof architecture, as a place whereMoslems pray,

by perceiving it withour bodies, and by examining thedifferentarchitectural qualities,relations, andelementsthatmake up its structure,mainly becausethis mosque does not possessany featurethatis uniquely Islamic.We mayidentify a building as a mosque, butthisidentificationis basedmoreon behavioral,habitual,

historical, or customary thanon perceptualqualities or factors.In short, the fundamentalcharacterwhichmakesan act, a person, ora thing Islamicis absent fromthearchitectureoftheIslamicworld. We areinclinedtothinkthatthe preceding lineof reasoning Grabarofferedin support ofhisviewis defectivefortwomainreasons: (1) themethodhe usedfor

establishing the existence, or non-existence, ofanIslamic system ofvisual symbols

in architectureis inadequate;(2)

Islamic symbols embodiedinwhatis generally knowninthe history ofarchitecture

as "Islamicarchitecture"and thatthe presence of these symbols is thebasis of identifying Islamicarchitecture.We shallnowdiscussthesetwo propositions in somedetail.Thefocusinthisdiscussionwillbe onthe mosque,mainly becauseit is themost importantrepresentative ofIslamicarchitecture. How, or where, shouldwe lookforvisual symbols inIslamicarchitecture?We

haveomittedin this question theword "system" whichGrabarused consistently throughout hisdiscussionofIslamic symbolism in architecture.His quest in this

study hasbeena quest fora

necessary or warranted?Is theexistenceof a system of symbols a necessary

conditionfor establishing theexistenceofan Islamicarchitecture?We thinkthat

looking forsucha

we cannot speak oftheexistenceof an Islamicarchitectureunlesswe somehow discoverorarticulatea system ofvisual symbols. Butwethinkthisis anerroneous assumption. What mattersin any attempt to determinewhetheran Islamic architectureexistsis toestablishthe presence ofoneormorefundamental symbols thatare (1) essentialtoall Islamic mosques and (2) express theessential character, or spirit, ofIslamas a religion. We may ask:whatmakesan action, a person, a law,

symbols that distinguish Islamic

itis reasonableto argue thatthereare genuinely

system ofvisual symbols. Butis the quest fora system

methodologicalbias, forGrabarassumesthat

systemimplies a

Revista Portuguesa de FHosofia

60 • 2004


Does an Islamic Architecture Exist?


oraninstitutionIslamic? Or, whatis the definingquality of"Islamic"?Itseemsto

us thatthe presence ofsucha quality ina building or anyobject ofIslamicculture is whatmakes that object Islamic. Such a quality becomes a principle of

explanation, a

Next, Grabar's quest fora system of visual symbolsputs thecartbeforethe horse, forit implies thata systemexists; italso implies wheretolookforit.How do we knowsucha systemexists, or should exist, in thefirst place? It is this

assumption thatled Grabarto look fora system of Islamic symbols in literary, historical,religious, mathematical, and religious sources.But thesesourcesare externaltothe actuality ofthe mosque as a cultural phenomenon. Howcantreatises in theseareasof scholarship be sourcesin thefirst place? Whatifone of these


ofan Islamicarchitecture?Ofcoursenot!Grabar may remindus thatthe purpose

of studying thesesourceswas to see

mosquesaccording to authoritativeor establishedIslamic principles of mosque

construction, to see

Butevenifwe discovera manualora treatiseon Islamic symbolism, ora Suger, stillsucha discovery wouldnot help in establishing theexistenceof an Islamic

system ofvisual symbols fortwomainreasons.

criterion, we rely onin identifying whatis Islamicas such.

system of

symbols? Does this ipsofacto establishtheexistence

whetherIslamicbuilders designed their

whethertherewas a Suger ora Procopius in Islamicculture.

First, an architecturalworkis nota mere building; itis a creation.Whatmakes

a building architectureis theextenttowhichit expresses, or embodies,meaning.


itfromoutside.This mayapply totheconstructionofthe physical structurebutnot

totheworkas architecture. Accordingly the cultural, andinourcase the religious, identity ofthe mosque, is discovered by a criticalor aesthetic perception of the


includingsymbols, aretheultimatebasis ofitscultural identity. An architectural

work is, for example,Egyptian, Greek, or Chineseinasmuchas theaesthetic

qualities it possessesexpress the

Egyptian, Greek, or

distinguishes onekindofarchitecturefromanother.Artcriticsand philosophers of architecturefrom Hegel to Sigfried Giedeonhave accepted this principle. The point, which merits emphasis here is that symbols, and consequently the architecturalwork,originate fromthe spirit of a people, not from symbols externallyimposed on it by some religious or politicalauthority.18Consequently the identity ofIslamicarchitecturecannotbe discoveredintheworksofscholars butinthefabricofIslamicculture.Thusthe question, whichshould guide us inthe

designed andbuilt according torules imposed on


or aesthetic qualities it embodies.These qualities,

spirit or thedistinctiveculturalvaluesof the

Chineseculture.This modeof expression is exactly what

18 Sigfried Giedeon,Space, Timeand Architecture (HarvardUniversityPress,1967);

Corbusiera Towardsa NewArchitecture (MIT Press,1920).

KarstenHarries, TheEthicalFunction of Architecture (MIT Press,1997); Louis Sullivan*

Kindergarten ChatsandOther Essays(DoverPublications,1979): Frank LloydWright, The

Future ofArchitecture, Le


Revista Portuguesa de FHosofia






Abdullah Al-Jasmi I Michael H. Mitias

study of symbolism in Islamic architecture, is: to whatextentdo the mosques, whichexistinthevarious parts oftheIslamic world,embody, or express, the spirit ofIslamicculture? Letus suppose forthesakeofdiscussionthatwehavediscovereda Suger inthe history of Islamic architecture, thatis a theoreticianor a philosopher of the mosque, willthisinsuretheexistenceofanIslamic system ofvisual symbols? Yes,

only if (1) sucha theoreticianor philosopher has succeededin

hercreative imagination thesoulofIslamand (2) ifthissoulwas embodiedinthe various mosques oftheIslamicworld.Butthis supposition is unrealisticfortwo

mainreasons. First, a study ofthe history ofarchitectureshowsthatarchitectural types, ethnicor religious, did not come into being suddenly, in one act, or

according tocertainrulesdictated by a person oran institution, butevolvedintime.

This, itseemsto us,applies toall the living architecturaltraditions.Thisevolution

has always beeninfluenced by the development ofa people'ssocial,technological, and spiritualdevelopment. The degree and sophistication of thisthree-fold development determinestoa great extentthe design ofa building andits capacity

to express certain religious or

Vitruviusin theancient period to Albertiand Palladio in theRenaissanceto Laugier andLodoliinthe eighteenthcentury and finally to Wright, Le Corbusier, andJencksin thetwentieth centuryrecognized thatarchitectureconsistsofthree

mainelements: fermitas(technic,durability), utilitas (function,convenience), and venustas (form, human beauty).19 These threeelements provide the basic principles, or criteria, fortheconstructionof good buildings. We cannot, and should not, viewthemin isolation; eachone oftheminfluencesand dynamically interactswiththeothersin the process of design andconstruction.The morewe advancein technology orthemeansofconstructionthemorehumanfunctionswe

canserveandthemore meaning wecan

the progress of technology itself depends in turnon the intellectual,moral, and

social development of a people. The capacity of an artformor type to express human meaning is an on-goingprocess of development, of growing bothinform and content,mainly becausethemeansof design andconstructionareinconstant growth and development. Thusitis extremely difficulttocontendwitha "system"

of symbolsadequateenough to identify Islamicor any other type ofarchitecture.


may be acceptedby a society ora culturethisshouldnot necessarily meanthatthis

system is complete or final. Accordingly itis notusefulto lookfora system of symbols as a conditionfor establishing theexistenceofan Islamicarchitecture.

capturing inhisor

cultural meanings. Writerson architecturefrom

express inthe design ofour buildings. But

evenifa cultural genius weretoarticulatea system ofvisual symbols that

19 Marcus Vitruvius, The TenBooks on Architecture, Tr. By M.H. Morgan(Dover

Painting(Yale UniversityPress,1966);


Publications,1960), Leon Alberti, On

Jencks, ModernMovementsinArchitecture (AnchorPress,1973); 'Architectureand the

Problemof Symbolism,"Japan Architecture,1976; The Language of Post-Modern

Architecture (Rizzoli,1977).

Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia

60 2004


Does an Islamic Architecture Exist?


leaderoranarchitectis practically aninsurmountabletask.In principle this applies to all types of architecture.A thinker,regardless of whethershe is an artist, a

philosopher, a

cultural period shelivesin (Hegel). The way she thinks,feels,hopes andmakes decisions; the way sheconsiders importantquestions aboutthe meaning ofhuman lifeand destiny; the way shelooksattheessentialfeaturesand capacities ofhuman nature; orthe way shefacesthe problems oflifein dailyliving - all these aspects and othersrelatedto themreflectthe moral,religious,social, political, and aestheticvalues, in short, theculturethatnourishedthesubstanceofher very self. In additionto thissortof influence, thereis always thedimensionof personal

weakness,bias, genius,philosophical or ideologicalcommitment, or peculiar

understanding of

Grabarrefers, is

NotreDame - that

idiosyncrasies.Suger was credited bydesigning a cathedral -

reflectedthe metaphysical visions,principles, and beliefsof the European

medievalworldandthatina wayrepresented the Kingdom ofHeaven (orCity of

God) on earth.It was believedthatin designing thiscathedral Suger createdan

architectural archetype(the Gothic Church) thatdefinedthesubstanceof

ChristianChurch.But thisbeliefwas severelyquestioned and rejectedby the

majority ofart critics,architects, andhistoriansofarchitecture during thelatter part

ofthetwentieth century. Thiswholeissuewas recently discussedinsome depthby

a numberofscholars.20We neednotdwellon it here, butwe touchon it,though

briefly,only to spotlight the difficulty of discovering or appealing toa thinkerfor

identifying a system ofvisual symbols.

Second, thearticulationofan Islamic system ofvisual symbolsby a

social or political criticor a reformer, is always thechildof the

existential reality. Even thecelebratedAbbot Suger, to whom

not exempt fromthesecultural peculiarities,shortcomings, or



Moreover,contrary toGrabar'sclaim, thereis nota Christian system ofvisual


survey of

Protestantdenominationswould show thatthesechurchesdo not exhibita consistent system of visual symbols.Symbolism in theChristianChurchis an

unusuallycomplex, controversial, and recondite topic. No one can do it evena measureof justice inanarticlelikethisone.Butweshallmakea briefexcursusinto

it only tostressthefactthattherehasneverbeena consciouslydesignedplan for

symbolism fortheso-calledChristian Church, not only


the adoption ofa system of

whichwe can identify theChristianChurch.An empirical, critical

the multitudeof churchesin the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and

a namethatreferstoa diversity of religious

outlooks,beliefs, and practices but especially becausethe actuality of symbolism in

thevariouschurchesoftheChristianworldis oneof diversity, not uniformity. This

is tantamountto saying thatwe cannotdiscovera "system" of visual symbols in


20 MichaelH. Mitias, Architectureand

Smith, "Architectural

Civilization (Rodopi,1999),pp.

60 ff.; Norman

Vol. 2,

Authenticity,"Perspecta: TheYaleJournal ofArchitecture,



Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia I 60 2004 I 197-214


Abdullah Al-Jasmi I Michael H. Mitias

Christian architecture;

that is, we cannot rely ona setof symbols in identifying


identity of theChristianChurch.As we shall presentlyargue, the presence of a system ofvisual symbols is notthe high roadtothedeterminationofthe identity of Christianchurches.A careful study ofthechurchesin France,Germany,Italy, or

Spain;Russia,Bulgaria,Georgia, or Romania;Greece,Egypt,Lebanon, or Syria;

Canada, theUnited States,Norway, or Finland, to mention just a few prominent

places where Christianity survivesat leastto some degree, willshowan amazing

diversity ofvisual symbolism inthesechurches. Consider, as an obvious example,

theiconostasis.Itis essentialtoEastern Orthodoxy butabsentintheCatholicand Protestantchurches.Thedomeis centraltomostOrthodoxchurchesbutnottothe ProtestantandCatholicchurches. Moreover, in generalsimplicity andabsenceof

prevalentamong Protestantchurcheswhile symbolic decoration

and representation are important to OrthodoxandCatholicchurches.The spire is

absentfromOrthodoxchurchesbut centralin Catholicand mostProtestant churches; insteadof the spire we see thebell towerin theOrthodoxchurches. Moreover, thebasic design of thechurchis notuniformin all theChristian

churches. Perhaps the cross,placed as a crucifixon thechurch building ornextto

it, or incorporated inits physicalstructure, is themostcommon symbol. Coulditbe

thatthecrossis themost importantsymbol intheChristianChurch?Ifthisis the case, itwouldbe hasty, ifnot wrong, to holdat least implicitly, thattherewas a Suger inthe history ofChristianarchitectureora consciouseffortto adopt a system ofvisual symbols in building theChristianchurches.

representation is

Next,commitmentto thesearchfora consistent system ofvisual symbols in

Islamicarchitecture is, we think, whathinderedGrabarfroma

tionof Islamicmonumentsas themain place forthe discovery of truly Islamic symbols. Thefocusonthe monuments, andforthesakeofthis study the mosque, shouldhave been theexclusive subject of inquiry in the analysis of Islamic symbolism, forthecentral question whichGrabar placed beforeus fordiscussion is whetherwe can identify an Islamicarchitecture:are therevisual symbolsby

whichwe can identify the mosque as a religiousbuilding inall theIslamicworld fromMoroccoto Bangladesh and theother parts of southEast Asia? The real

question is notwhetherthereis a

ous symbols buthowdo we knowthata

recognizedsystem,theory, ormanualof religi-

fruitful investiga-

certain building in

anypart oftheIslamic

in the



worldis a mosque? An answerto this questioncannot, as we argued

precedingsection, be derivedfromthewrittensourcesofIslamicculturebut by a

critical, and we should

"aesthetic"becausethe mosque is not simply a building that performs a certain

function; it is a religiousbuilding.Religiosity is the defining featureof its character.The physicalstructure, whichwe experience whenwe perceive the

building withour body, embodiesa stratumof

aesthetic qualities. The religious

dimensionof the mosque lies in thisstratum.This dimensionis thelocus of

particular Islamic symbols.

say aesthetic, investigation of the mosque.

Revista Portuguesa de Fitosofia

60 2004


Does an Islamic Architecture Exist?


Now whatmethodshouldwe adopt in the study of symbolism in Islamic

monuments, orthe mosque in particular?Unfortunately Grabaris notclearonthis

question,yet suchan answeris urgent, forwe cannotascertainwhetherour study is adequate unlesswe aresurethatthemethodwe employ in conducting itenables us to explore thestructureandrichnessof the symbols inherentin the mosque. Although GrabarbaseshisdiscussionofIslamicmonumentson observation, that

is, on the empirical methodof inquiry, thebrandof empiricism he adopted is painfully naive.He focusedhis investigative attentionon the physical sideofthe symbol, onits outside, notonitscontentor meaning. In other words, helookedat the mosque fromtheoutsideas it appears to ordinary sense observation, notfrom theinsideas it appears to aesthetic imagination and religioussensibility. This methodologicalapproach is obviousintwo ways. First, GrabarclassifiedIslamic

mosques as

these categories intermsof "type". He heldthatthese types reflectedthetasteand materialmeansofthedifferentculturesinwhich they were developed. These types haveenduredbecausethe specificcultures, which theyrepresent, haveendured. The diversity ofthese types is whatled Grabarto characterizethisenduranceas restricted.He attributedtheir symbolicqualities to "specific historicalandcultural conditions, nottointrinsicvaluesinthe mosques themselves.That is, the mosque

itselfdoes not, in each of these types,possessuniquely Islamic qualities. Thus sincetherearedifferent types of mosques, andsincethe symbolic formsofthese

types are

Islamic mosque.Second,although Grabarsawthatsomearchitecturalforms - the

minaret, themihrab, andthe gate - are consistentlypresent in mosques in general

he dismissedtheseformsas

identifying the mosque as an Islamicworkofarchitecture.Firsthe dismissedthe

minaretas an Islamic symbol because he was dissatisfiedwiththe various explanations ofits appearances; moreover, theKoranic inscriptions ontheminarets

vary from building to building. But regardless ofwhetherthe explanations offered forthe appearance oftheminaretorthefactthattheKoranic inscriptions on the minarets vary fromone building to another, itis clearthatGrabarwas unableto treatthisarchitecturalformas a symbol, becausehelookedatitfrom outside,i.e.,

as historicalor

meaning orwhatitstandsfor.He was limitedin thisendeavor by hismethodof observation.He ineffect argued thatsincetheKoranic inscriptions onthedifferent

minarets vary fromoneminarettoanother, thereforetheminaretis nota symbol.

Butis the

may knowwhetheran artformis a religioussymbolbydirecting thethrustofour

inquiry to thedomainofthe

quality orformderivesits meaning andthe place this quality orform occupies in thisdomain.Thisdomain, as we shall argue, is theultimatesourceofthe religious

symbol.Relying onsensuousobservation necessarilyprevents us from penetrating thestructureofthe symbol; it keeps us hovering arounditbutdoesnotenableus

hypostylic, Iranian,Anatolian,Indian, andOttoman.He characterized

regionally determined, itwouldbe difficulttoasserttheexistenceofan

symbolic in characterand thereforeas a basis for


structure.He did notmake any effortto explore its

presence oftheKoranic inscriptions whatmakesita symbol? No. We

religious as such,

to thesourcefromwhichsucha


Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia






Abdullah Al-Jasmi I Michael H. Mitias

to moveto its interiority:meaning. Thuswe cannot study the symbolic formsof

the mosque unlesswe proceed in this study froma genuineperception of the religiousspirit ofIslam. Moreover, howan artformcomesinto being is irrelevant

tohowithasbecomea symbol. In Christianity thecrossis a symbol, butthecross

cameinto beinglong beforetheadventof Christianity. Some symbols are adopted

by convention (e.g., the flag),

evolve (e.g.,weddingring).Manysymbols ofworld religions evolved.This applies totheminaret.

Letusconsideronemoreartformthatcanbe usedas a basisfor identifying the mosque as an Islamic religiousbuilding: themihrab.Grabardismissedthemihrab

as a religioussymbol inonesentence!And yet thisarchitecturalelement is, as we shall explain inthelast part ofthis paper, themost importantsymbol inthe mosque

and can

architecture.Grabarwrites:"therearethemihrabsof sanctuaries, of course, but their symbolismis, witha few exceptions(Cordoba, someFatimid examples in Cairo), anobvious one, andthe object itselfbecame automatically functionalrather

than emotionally or intellectuallysymbolic."21Thoughobvious, Grabardid not mention, evenone word, whatthemihrabstoodforas a symbol but quickly added thatthe "object" becamefunctionalratherthan symbolic. Itwasa symbol butlater on lostits symbolicsignificance! How can we accountforGrabar's inability to explain whatthemihrab symbolized beforeitbecamea functional object? It is extremely difficultto give a finalanswerto this questionsimply becauseGrabar didnot support hisdiscussionofthemihrabas a symbol with anyarguments. This

is an unpardonable shortshrifttreatmentof an

mosque. WetendtothinkthatthereasonforGrabar'sfailuretosee themihrabas

a symbol is hisadamantadherencetonaive empiricism. He limitedthe scope ofhis

inquiry towhat ordinary observationcoulddeliverinhis study ofthe mosque,viz.,

written sources, sensuous perception, and the socio-religious functionof the

mosque. Butthesemodesof experience do notdisclosethe signification of symbol

orthe spiritual dimensionofthe object underconsideration.Let us nowconsider someofthedifficultiesthatvitiateGrabar's analysis ofthe (1) classificationand

(2) symbolic elementsofthe mosque. To beginwith, Grabar'sclassificationofthedifferent types of mosque restson

confusionbetween "type" and "style". This confusionrevealsGrabar'smetho-

dological bias. The

types. A type is a model, an

copy of somethingelse, butother objects or events may be copies of it. For

example, Adamis a

model. Moreover,"type" referstothecommon qualities ofa classof

qualities constitutetheessentialnatureofthemembersoftheclass.Their identity,

othersare natural (e.g., moon), whilestillothers


itselfbe the basis of establishing the existenceof an Islamic

indispensable elementof the

types of mosque to whichhe refersare in fact "styles", not

original. Itis a creationsui generis; as such, itis nota

modelandtherestofhuman beings areinstantiationsofthis

things. These

21 "Symbols and Sign inIslamic Architecture,"p. 30.

Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia

60 • 2004


Does an Islamic Architecture Exist?

orwhat theyare, is defined by these qualities. In other words, an object is whatit is invirtueofthese qualities, andifit happens to possess other qualities itwould

be a differentkindof object, ora different thing."Style", ontheother hand, refers

tothedistinctivemannerof expression in art, social behavior, or any kindofhuman

artifact.It consistsof therecurrenceof certain forms,elements,qualities or relationsinartorhumanconduct.The defining characterof "style" is thehowof expression. Thisidea applies not only to individualartistsbutalso to a group or

evena society. We can,e.g.,say thatanartist expresses a feeling, an experience, or his personality in and through his style orthata group, ora society,expresses its religious, moral,aesthetic,social, and politicalvalues, in shortits spirit in and

through a particularstyle. We may

Mozart!"without knowing theauthoror thetitleof the piece. We are able to

identify a pieceby the generalquality thatthe pieceexpresses,by the way theartist has organized the totality ofhismusicalwork. Similarly, wecan say thisartifactis Egyptian without knowing whomadeitorwhetheritis an imitation.We areable

to identify itscultural identityby

thevariousworksof Egyptian civilization. Style manifeststhe personality of an

artist, a

We havemadethe foregoing excursusintothedifferencebetween type and styleonly tostressthatGrabardidnotdiscussthe mosque as an architectural type. He didnot ask, whatmakesa mosque a mosque?Or, whatis theessentialnature ofthe mosque as an architectural type? Forhadhe askedthis question he would

havediscoveredthatthe mosque consists,regardless ofthe style