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Islamic Architecture - Geometry, Characteristics, and Examples

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Islamic Architecture - Geometry, characteristics and examples

Islamic architecture is the representation of the principles of Islam in built form. They are depicted through elements such as minarets, arches, domes and ornamental motifs. The ornamentation on the buildings is done in 3 styles: Islamic calligraphy, arabesques (rhythmic linear and curving designs mimicking branches of plants and trees, vegetal patterns) and geometric patterns.

Why is there a use of geometric patterns?

It is forbidden in Islam to portray living things because of the belief that the creation of all living things is unique to god. In Hadith, this belief is strongly represented whereas in Qur’an this idea is loosely expressed. The worship of idols is condemned. 

Design of the patterns

  • Most of the patterns can be broken down into singular units of simple shapes like circles, triangles, squares and polygons. These shapes are overlapped, interlaced, rotated and repeated to create a more complex unit. Then the units are repeated that are laid out on the surfaces of the subject.
  • One of the most common Islamic geometric patterns is the 8-pointed star. Two squares are overlapped and one square is rotated by 45 degrees. The 8 points created at the exterior of the pattern then can be matched with other stars thus repeating the pattern till infinity. 
8-Pointed star pattern on Agra Fort, India
8-Pointed star pattern on Agra Fort, India
  • The importance of the circle in Islamic geometric art is that it is represented as a symbol of unity. Often the first step of constructing a pattern is to divide the circle into smaller segments and then the lines are joined to develop the shapes into more complex geometry.

Development of patterns

1) Early Stage:  The use of basic 8-pointed stars and 4-sided polygons containing squares are some of the earliest geometric patterns documented. These can be studied from the Great Mosque of Kairouan dating back to the year 836 C.E. 

Lustre tiles in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia
Lustre tiles in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia

2) Middle Stage: Then the patterns developed with the use of 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13-point stars. Combinations of different pointed stars were also designed. Timeline: Year 880-1230, seen in structures like Tulun Mosque in Cairo, Jameh Mosque of Isfahan and Abbasid Palace in Baghdad. 

Patterns from Abbasid Palace, Baghdad
Patterns from Abbasid Palace, Baghdad

3) Late Stage: Although they were rare in Hasan Sadaqah Mausoleum in Cairo 16-point patterns were designed in 1321. Even Alhambra in Spain (1338-1390) showcased these patterns. The Jama Masjid in Fatehpur Sikri (1571-1596) had 14-point patterns.

Patterns from Alhambra, Spain
Patterns from Alhambra, Spain

Mediums for the geometric designs

Jali: these are the screens carved out of stones to act as windows or room dividers. It was a classic feature in Indo-Islamic architecture. Polygons such as pentagons and octagons were used with 5 and 8-pointed star patterns. They allow the flow of air and light into the room and provide a layer of privacy.

Jali at Tomb of Salim Chisti, Fatehpur Sikri
Jali at Tomb of Salim Chisti, Fatehpur Sikri

Muqarnas: originated during the Abbasid Empire, these were ceiling designs for the half domes in a structure. They were made out of stucco (a type of plaster used for sculptures and artistic works) and therefore were non-structural elements. They are not limited to stucco as the material choice and have expanded with the use of wood, stone and brick. The division of layers in the design is visible, these tiers stack and progressively diminish at the top. The form can be compared to that of the cells in a honeycomb therefore it is also called honeycomb vaulting. 

They serve the purpose of ornamenting the transition spaces and hold the significance of being the symbolic representation of living things created by God.

Muqarnas of Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran
Muqarnas of Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran

Zellij: It is a type of tile work where individual pieces of tiles are chiselled and then put together to form patterns. The individual pieces are often simple polygons and together they give shape to the Islamic geometric motifs. It is made from glazed terracotta and is fixed with plaster. This art form is popular in Morocco as well as in Spain.

Zellij in Alcázar of Seville, Spain
Zellij in Alcázar of Seville, Spain

The patterns also appear on Girih tilework, woodwork, ceramics, Kilim (Islamic flat woven carpet), leatherwork, metalwork and stained glass.

The origination of these ornamental works can be linked with classical Greek and Roman architecture. The Islamic artists studied and improved the elements and then emerged with a new pattern system which is a reflection of Islamic beliefs representing unity and order within the infinity that these patterns achieve. Islamic scholars in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and science have had a huge influence on the development of this style.

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