Community, Space, and Time in Islamic Architecture

Volume 51, Issue 3 :: Ozayr Saloojee

Hypothetical floor plan of the prophets house

Hypothetical floor plan and perspective drawing of the Prophet’s House, Madinah. Image courtesy of Archnet.

In all the aspects, cultures, and geographies of the Islamic world, one will often hear the term “ummah” in conversation. It is heard in conversations between friends and families. It is heard from the minbar of the mosque at the Friday prayer; heard in animated discussions between teachers and students, at evening meals. It is a commonly used word. It is also a deeply complex word. It is a word that exists not only as a linguistic or purely semiotic term, but also exists as part of a layered philosophical and religious discourse. It is at once a practical term, and also an operative one. It is both a conceptual term and a poetic word. Loosely translated, the word ummah means “community.”

But this word is not simply a noun that references the physical body of believers around the Islamic world. It is at once a word that identifies both a local community and a global one. It is a word that indexes the near and the distant. It is a term that is lateral—horizontal if you will—across space and place. It is also a word that challenges and upends our notions of time. In one meaning, it can be of the present and in another, the past, yet in a third: the future. In this sense, the word ummah is therefore also vertical. It works as a temporal axis mundi: a chronotope that exists in the classical age of Islamic art, architecture, culture, and history, while also anchored to the present, and simultaneously more than the present. The single body and time of the believer is tied, always, to the larger body and time of the ummah.

Green Mosque, Bursa, Turkey

Interior of the Green Mosque, Bursa, Turkey. Photo courtesy of the author.

One can speak of an Ummayyad or Ottoman ummah; an ummah of scholars; a geographical ummah: the ummah, for example, of a region—the Maghreb or the Hejaz; the ummah of a specific place: Tunis, Konya, Dearborn, Cape-Town, and so on. The word, in its linguistic form and from its etymological roots, is tied to a shared ethos of faith and belief, yet celebrated in the diverse aesthetic, artistic, and cultural worlds of the Islamic universe. This notion of community is embedded and expressed in the diverse spatial practices of the Islamic world. It ranges in scale and scope certainly, and in doing so echoes the Quranic verse that describes the ummah as being “created…from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).” (Quran, 49:13)). The idea of community and its expression in architecture and urban space is, at its very heart, about knowledge, exchange, and dialogue. And this we can see most expressively and richly in the built and constructed works of the Muslim world.

The most immediate example is, of course, the mosque—the heart of the community. A gathering place for congregational prayer, for solitude, for celebrations both festive and melancholy, the mosque exists (like the word ummah) as communitas. Its linguistic expression in Arabic (masjid) links to root words like jama’ah—a congregational togetherness, and sujud (prostration). The mosque is a place for community and for worship. While its form may differ (like its communities around the world), its essential purpose is of and for community. The horizontal dimension of the mosque celebrates an idea of space that links community across the globe. Its vertical dimension means that the community of the mosque becomes both an historical connection and future seeking aspiration. The faith and form of the mosque are tied both to the historical past and to the projective and desired future of the paradisiac garden.

Interior of the Selimiye Mosque, Edirne, Turkey

Interior of the Selimiye Mosque, Edirne, Turkey. Photo courtesy of the author.

The best historical exemplar is the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad, built in Madinah upon his migration from Mecca. The mosque Muhammad (unlike the structure that exists today) was modest—a simple space that was connected, physically, to his house. In this example, we see that the intimate space of the family was tied to the congregational and public space of the mosque. Community in the Islamic world is, as a result, multi-scalar, referencing units small and large, local and global. As a result, the mosque embodies worlds within worlds.

Courtyard in the Albaicin, Granada, Spain

A community courtyard, in the Albaicín, Granada, Spain. Photo courtesy of the author.

Consider, for a moment, the Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) in Bursa, Turkey (1421); a building that greatly influenced Corbusier in his Voyages en Orient (see Le Corbusier, Voyages d’Orient Carnets, Phaidon Press, 2002), where he, as he described, experienced a “pictorial integration” with reality. A small building, the mosque served as a place of prayer, while its internal (and covered) courtyard served also as a social and jurisprudential space of the Ottoman court. Two iwans (arched spaces) face the mihrab and serve as spaces for two kadis (judges) who would mediate (and sometimes legislate) disputes within the space of the mosque itself. The sultan and his family could preside on an upper level in the hünkar mahfil, observing the proceedings. Flanking rooms (recently restored) served both as small classrooms, prayer spillover, but also as retreat spaces. In the Green Mosque, one can see the full and broad cultural function of community—entwined as religious, social, and legal space.

The later Ottoman külliyes (complexes) take on a more ordered and organized expression in the Waqf (the pious endowment) of a patron to provide not only space for religious purpose, but also for the community at large. Sinan’s great İstanbul complexes such as the Süleymaniye and the Selimiye, allow not only for the mosque masterpieces of his patrons, but also provided—as part of the Sultan’s public commitments—a public kitchen, a library, a lodge for dervishes, several schools, a public bathhouse.

There are ample examples in the historical and richly diverse architectural legacy of the Islamic world. The Qarawiyyin Mosque (and much of the domestic urban spaces of Morocco’s cities (Fez in particular) is so hidden yet connected to its surroundings that it is impossible to know where the mosque ends and the urban stuff around it begins. Doors might lead to family riyaads or into the space of the mosque itself. The Albaicín in Granada is another example, a labyrinth of streets and doorways that seem to make that portion of the city into a single home—the urban equivalent of an ummah. More examples are plentiful: the integration of bazaars, souks, and bedestans of Istanbul, Bursa, and Edirne; the Silk Road caravanserais that tied hospitality to commerce and to faith (each caravanserai often had a central mosque); the hamams and bathhouses that were equally social spaces and the spaces of informal diplomacy and administration.

Interior courtyard of the Koza Han

Interior courtyard of the Koza Han, Bursa, Turkey. Photo courtesy of the author.

When we look back through the long arc of history, examples of this ummatic architecture abound—particularly in countries with the longue durée of this cultural and religious worldview. And while there is no Ottoman, or Ummayyad, or Abbasid, or Selcuk empire to endow complexes of extensive buildings and city blocks in Canada and the US and around the predominantly non-Muslim worlds, it is worth remembering the more modest dimension of the space of this community: a prayer room at an airport, a meeting on the corner of the block, in the backyard, a family dinner at home, a street-front mosque in Brooklyn, a handshake between strangers, now friends<.

The writer teaches at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and serves on the Faith & Form editorial advisory board.