in Islamic Civilization
Dr. Khaled Azab(*)
The subject of Islamic residential architectureis closely related to Islam's teachings on family life and living style as the family is considered the nucleus of society.
1) In Islam, the home's privacy is highly respected and no one is allowed to violate this privacy by peeking at the house interior or its inhabitants. Allah decreed (ordered) the sanctity (purity) of the home and warned against its violation, thus conferring (award) much respect on the abode, not so much for its architectural value as for the people inhabiting it.
2) From an Islamic perspective, the home is a social unit where the structure cannot be dissociated from the family living inside it. In fact, family needs, as they were addressed in Islam, were the factor determining the design of a house.
3) The house was built from inside out and not the other way around. The family defined its housing needs with the help of the builder and according to its financial means. This entailed (involved) a true participatory approach involving the house owner and the architect. In general, houses in Islamic architecture appeared simple and similar in design and were often white-washed for example houses in granada.
The Almighty says in the noble verse: 'O ye who believe! Enter not houses other than your own, until ye have asked permission and saluted those in them: that is best for you, in order that ye may heed (what is seemly)'(2).
4) Allah (SWT) thus decrees that permission be sought before entering a house. For such purpose, the wooden doors of old houses were fitted with a knocker. This knocker was often metallic and the most simple in design consisted of a metal piece on which a wooden device was mounted, the two connected to the door with a flexible joint. The visitor uses the knocker to tap on the door three times. If permission to enter the house is not granted, the visitor goes away. In modern times, the knocker has been replaced with new and more advanced instruments.
5)In most old houses, the entrance hallway is laid out at a 90 degree slant to prevent outsiders from seeing into the interior of the house and its inhabitants when the doors are open. Slanted entrances were extensively used in houses in Al Fustat and Baghdad, for example.
6) The inner courtyard, considered the main activity hub of the house, serves many purposes, namely:
A) Climate modification: This consists of obtaining cooler temperatures within the courtyard. This is achieved thanks to the shade cast by the courtyard's opposing walls and the existence of water features which favor humidification -fountains- and therefore a drop in temperature, and the reflection of part of the sunrays, thus reducing the absorption of heat.
i) The presence of foliage is also a factor in ensuring climate mildness. In order to provide proper ventilation while preventing pollution, the courtyard, with its cool temperature serves as a high pressure environment while the outside (street) provides as an outlet area (low pressure).Thus, an air current is always flowing from the courtyard towards the street. This ensures pollution-free ventilation and tempers the internal atmosphere. All of this is madepossible through the creation of intelligently placed openings that guarantee proper ventilation of the various sections of the house.
The courtyard also plays an important role in
ii) trapping the cool air which seeps (leaks) during the night through the thick walls and rooftops. This allows a minimal use of external windows, and using the basement passageways which slowly absorb heat and humidity.
iii) House is encased on three sides by neighboring houses, its exposure to sunrays is tangibly reduced. Temperature measurements taken at surface and underground levels revealed temperature differences in some old houses in Al Kazmiyya of up to twenty degrees in some cases.
iv) A temperature disparity(gap) of 18 degrees was noted between the ground floor and subterranean spaces at noon on a summer day.
v) This temperature difference may vary by about four degrees when the courtyard is covered with a cloth canopy.
vi) The thickness of the walls in Baghdadi houses, reaching sometimes one meter, has contributed to increasing the temperature's 'delay', a delay that at times reached 7 to 12 hours.
Islamic houses stand out in design and architecture by their tremendous harmony with their environment.
vii) This is most noticeable in the orientation of these houses. In Damascus, for example, houses span out in a rectangular shape from north to south with a 20 degree westward incline to ensure that they benefit from the southern sun rays and avoid the northern and western winds(6). The element of sun canopies in Islamic houses was widely used in Egypt and Syria, as well as in Emirati houses. These shamsiyyat consisted of a panel of gypsum inlaid with coloured glass which allows multi-coloured sunrays to filter into houses. In arid Saharan environments such as in the Emirates, it allows light in and prevents dust-laden winds from entering the house(7).
B) Tranquillity: Noise levels in modern cities are certainly beginning to threaten the psychological serenity and wellbeing of the population. The most important source of noise is the street which is crisscrossed by tremendous numbers of diverse vehicles which make a liberal use of annoying horns. Even in countries where the use of horns is banned, the large number of engines relying on air for their cooling has become in itself a source of disturbance. About 70% of the noise filters into the houses through the openings looking onto the street. Naturally, in the case of courtyard houses where openings onto the exterior are reduced to the minimum, the noise penetration will occur in far lesser extents.
C) Privacy: The desire for privacy is one of the main motivations behind the choice of the courtyard as a crucial element in Islamic house planning. The in-depth analysis of the social aspects of this planning reveals that:
i) courtyard plays a vital role as the focal point of the family's social interactions. It sets the scene for weaving family bonds and is usually used to host the various social activities, all the while preserving total privacy.
House planning in Islamic architecture evolved with time, allowing us to see the clear progression of these houses at the various phases they went through. The various elements of this planning were conceived according to an Islamic vision.
ii) Special wings were dedicated to the male guests of the master of the house. These guest-destined wings were often set apart from the remaining units of the house and were known as the salamlek.
In the houses of Ar-Rasheed, a town situated in the north of Egypt, the
iii) first floor was usually reserved for guests. The staircase leading to the guest quarters came to an end on the landing of the second floor, and another staircase started from somewhere inside the second floor and other floors of the house. This reflected a desire to isolate the various floors of the house where the master and his family live from the guest quarters. When food needed to be served to the guests in the upper guestrooms, a secret staircase located in one of the rooms was used. This was, for example, the case in Ramadan when the women of the house would place all the food on the table and leave. Once the table was fully laid, the guest was shown into the room where he would see the ready platters without having inkling as to where the food had come from. Always in Ar-Rasheed, another cunning innovation used was the serving cupboard. This was a revolving cupboard fitted into the wall and made up of two shelves on which the food platters were placed. The cupboard was then turned from the outside into the guest quarters where the house master presents the food set on the shelves to his quests. This ingenuous system was used in two houses of Ar-Rasheed, namely the houses of Baqrawli and Gibri. The system was also used in the West in restaurants and hotels to isolate the kitchen from the dining area. We imitated this idea without realising that it was rooted in our own Arab cultural heritage.
iv) Architects were not oblivious to the fact that women sometimes needed to be present in the reception area for such matters discussed by men as engagements, marriage or inheritance. To cater to this need, overhanging corridors were designed above reception areas and covered with lattice woodwork panels to allow women to hear and see from the openings without being seen. Such additions were widely used during the Mamluke era in Cairo. In some houses, such as that of Al Razzaz in Cairo, special reception areas were reserved for females, thus allowing the mistress of the house to receive her own visitors in all privacy.
D)Muslims have always been anxious to provide all comfort to their guests, especially the spiritual one. To provide such comfort, old Yemenite houses always contained an architectural element called the 'Mufraj', a terrace on the roof of the house reserved for guests, meetings and leisure. The terrace usually provided a view of the whole town and its scenic surroundings and was also called the 'mandar' or 'mandara'. One specific feature of this place is the large windows which provide the guests with the unhindered visual pleasure of the natural scenery.
i) The mufraj is also referred to as the Large Room because it happens to be the largest room in the house. However, the Mufraj is not always built in the upper levels of the house. Sometimes it is an independent pavilion standing in the garden, overlooking a fountain and surrounded by flowery shrubs and trees.
The Mufraj plays an important part in Yemenite social life. In addition to being a guest house, it also serves as the venue of parties and celebrations. As such, it is the centre of much attention and care on the part of the house master who invests much time and effort in decorating it and adorning its walls with tapestries, plates and other ornaments. Several openings and windows are set into the Mufraj's walls and its walls are embellished with gypsum decorations and a set of upper windows.
ii) Emirati houses, particularly those of wealthy people, have a similar element represented in the majlis, a space dedicated to receiving people and which has two doors, one opening onto the street and the other leading into the house.
iii) The Muslim builds his house in order to live in it with his extended family. With this in mind, the house's structure usually allows for horizontal and vertical expansion to accommodate increasing needs that may arise from the marriage of one of the sons or new births, and as allowed by the topographic nature of the flat or mountainous landscape.
E) Islamic houses were characterized by the structure's excellent design functionality.
i) Building materials were derived from the surrounding environment, the dry mud in the deltas of rivers and riverbanks, ceilings made from palm branches or domes from gypsum with marvelous yet simple arches which trap the internal cooling of the house and keep the scorching heat by reflecting sunrays outside, from the coral reefs of the seas, and from silt deposits, while palm trees or wood provide the roofing materials. In mountainous environments, houses were built from rock and were multi-storied to counterbalance the lack of space and meet the various and growing needs of the Muslim household for guests, children, spaces for performing religious rites, and for leisure and relaxing in the moonlight under the sky's canopy. In environments that combined mountains and flatlands, the houses were large and horizontally laid out, the walls were from rock and mud and the ceilings were from palm trunks.
ii) The facades of Muslim houses are in most cases exquisitely decorated. However, at the houses in Sanaa where the facades are so exquisite that one believes them to be the artwork of creative craftsmen. Unlike the facades of houses in other parts of the Islamic world, facades of houses in Sanaa are similar. This similarity is owed to the fact that these facades serve an architectural and artistic function that truly reflects the need they were created to fulfill. No matter how myriad (many), the shape and diameter of window openings truly express at all times the need for which they were made. The end result is an extraordinary aesthetic display with an explosion of designs and decorations. The facades of Sanaa houses have the peculiarity of false windows which are painted on to look real, particularly in the floors housing the female members of the household. Builders have resorted to this maneuver to preserve the perfect and beautiful symmetry between the parts of the façade sporting windows and those that do not. Facades in Sanaa present a wonderful amalgam (mixture) of shapes with small, large, rectangular and circular windows fashioned with a pleasant spontaneity (naturalness) and naivety. The end result is a beautiful display free from dull repetition or disharmony. Above these windows one often sees wooden overhangs shading the window apertures. These are locally known as 'Kunna' and are fastened onto wooden bars affixed to the walls. These canopies protect the adorned windows from rainwater which may spoil them, and add further beauty to facades that are already lavish with geometrical, animal and floral designs.
Inscriptions are also a common feature in Islamic houses. One of these famous inscriptions is found in an orphanage. An author writes how he saw, while walking the streets of Cairo, or Al Fustant then, a house of which the door carried the following inscription in verse:
This house of ours belongs to the guest in it
Equal to us is the passer-by
Let the visitor be the master
For in his rule he shall be right and just
From us he shall have all his heart's desire
But not that which the Creator has proscribed (forbidden)
By Allah, we fear neither need nor poverty
For Allah is the One to withhold
And Allah is One to bestow.
In the town of Ar-Rasheed, the passageways leading into some houses are decorated with inscriptions giving information about the date of the house construction, as in the house of Al Amseeli, or professing the unity of Allah through the words 'There is no God but Allah' laid out in fine mosaics, as in the house of Makki. The main reception areas may also be decorated with Al Aboussairi's poem 'Al Burda' as in the house of Makki in Ar-Rasheed and the house of Arazzaz in Cairo.
E) Muslim households paid great attention to another element, namely the rights of their neighbours. This attention became manifest very early in their history. In Al Fustat, a historical incident related to this issue was reported as follows: Khareja Ibn Hudafa was the first person to build a room above his lodgings. Amru Ibn Al Aas reported this to Omar Ibn Al Khattab who then wrote to Amru saying: I instruct you to go into the room built by Khareja, set up a bed (meaning a chair) and have a man of medium height seated on it. If the man manages to see outside through the room window, then demolish that room. Amru did as instructed and since he could not see out of the room's window, he let the room be. This incident meant that whoever built a room higher than his own house had to respect the privacy of his neighbour and not overlook his house. As a result, a rule was adopted in architectural law, namely the rule on the harm of exposure.
The patterns of Islamic houses are numerous. We see them in Samarqand, Sanaa, Fez, Ispahan, Baghdad and Cordoba. They are rich with the jewels of Islamic architecture and stand proud as representatives of the civilizational heritage of our Islamic Ummah.