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Medieval Islamic Architecture in Spain

Introduction: The Mosque
Professor Dodds

Architecture and Early Islam:
This building type serves as a place of prayer, but also a community center. It is not an exclusive, sacred space a priori. A mosque is not necessary for prayer, but it is preferable that all members of an Islamic community pray together on Friday. The extraordinary growth of Early Islam is predicated in part on the democratic nature of religion and society: all are equal in the eyes of God; prayer is an individual interaction with God; there is no priesthood, no intermediary between man or woman and God. The will of the umma, or community, reflects God's will. So the early mosque, as the center of community identity, developed in a form which reflects this concern with democracy: the hypostyle plan, with its forest of columns has no axis, no hierarchical space. In the earliest mosques, like Kufa, there is no axis or hierarchy.

Map of Early Islam


Kufa II, plan

Mosque Plan

Because those who pray face Mecca (in earliest Islam, they faced Jerusalem), the largest part of the prayer hall, or roofed area, often faces Mecca. The wall that faces Mecca is called the Qibla wall. Often the Qibla wall is distinguished by a niche in the thickness of the wall called the Mihrab. The mihrab indicates the Qibla, and is also thought to represent the presence of the prophet, One never prays to the niche, nor to the prophet. The Mihrab, like the Kaaba in Mecca, is an empty space.

Hypostyle mosques also have a courtyard called a Sahn, around which are shaded porticos: Riwaqs. The call to prayer in the early period was accomplished from platforms on the mosque roofs. Later, the minaret was developed as a symbol of the presence of Islam. Smaller minarets in time became associated with the call to prayer. (See: Andre Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, rev. and enlarged ed., New Haven and London, 1987.)

In the 7th century, there was a conscious attempt to resist highly monumental, luxurious and rhetorical expressions in mosque building. But, in particular with the Great Mosque of Damascus, opulent and monumental schemes became more and more the favored means of expression of Umayyads and Abbasids as they established new hegemonies.

Great Mosque of Damascus, Aerial view

Architectural Decoration:

There can be no images of animate beingsanimals or humansin the decoration of the mosque. Islam is an aniconic religion: one that resists such images. Though various artistic expressions in Islamic secular art will develop around figural representation, such images are never present in mosques. At the Great Mosque of Damascus, an enormous urban space was glazed with green and blue mosaics executed by Byzantine mosaicists. These are similar to Christian images of paradisegardens, rivers, trees and palacesbut without the images of saints which would inhabit them in a Christian context. Representational art without figural representation might however have proved to limiting.

Mosque decorationin other parts of Damascus and in other mosques throughout the Islamic world—developed a series of approaches instead to abstract ornamentation. Whether geometric, vegetal, or trompe l'oeil, these decorative schemes engaged the viewer intellectually.

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