Preserving the Living Heritage of Islamic Cities
Toward an Architecture in the Spirit of Islam
Yesterday we were theoretical, as if Islam were primarily or solely a system of beliefs. What has always impressed me about Islam is that it is a set of actions if one considers the five pillars. It is not the belief in God that is important, it is the declaration of God. It is not the idea of praying, it is prayer itself. It is not the community of equality as an idea, but the pilgrimage in which all men stand equal in community. In Ramadan, it does not matter whether you think you ought not have that cigarette or food. It is not the smoking or the eating, the thing of importance is observing the fast. The fifth, which has been totally forgotten in the theory is alms. They are a responsibility of each man toward his fellow man. I want to talk about practical Islamic spirit. You are practicing architects, let us see if there is something upon which to practice, not something for just theorizing.
Many of the largest cities and now a few smaller ones in the vast territory shaped by historic Islam are the repositories of a precious and irreplaceable heritage (not only for Islamic countries, but for the world) not only for their archaic qualities, but for their living relevance today. Both the preservation of that heritage and the harnessing of that vital relevance are compelling rationales for a concern, practical as well as scholarly, with Islamic architecture and urbanism.
There is not, nor was there ever, an Islamic city or even an Islamic system of city building, if one means by that term a of tiny space aggregating to vast designs, that signals the code? Is it the basic architectonic concept of square-horizontal and round-vertical space that announces the unity underlying external diversity in exact shape? Is it the overall emphasis upon enclosing, enfolding, involuting, protecting and covering that one finds alike in single structures in quarters, indeed in entire cities? There appear to be certain basic "deep structures" to the language of Islamic expression in space.
There are also recurring idioms which, while they may not be attributable directly to the religious or legal system, were functionally suited to the social structure commonly found within Islamic cities and to the technology dominant during their periods of maximum definition and growth. Among these idioms are, characteristically: the saq or bazaar, the residential court (contiguous but unconnected rooms each giving out to a common gallery or atrium), the blind or deceptively hidden entranceway to individual structures or quarters, the tri-fold (rather than the more Western bi-fold) division of space into private, controlled semi-private and public, and a clear segregation into male and female spheres, perhaps as an underlying cause of many of the above features.
Some mechanism, common throughout the lands of Islam, helped to generate both the deep structure and the more idiomatic expressions. Without a doubt this was the legal system, which constituted a common base despite the variations introduced through major sectarian cleavages and the chief schools of jurisprudence. Rather than central planning according to certain models (as was true, for example, in the overseas colonies of classical Greece and Rome), it was legal notions of proper behaviour in space and legal regulations in property relations (between theocratically-legitimized ruling classes and their subjects, among fraternal members of the 'Umma, between believers and non- or semi-believers, between near and distant neighbours that created, over and over again, certain recurring solutions to the question of urban spatial organization,wherever Islam was implanted. Whether one speaks of restoring and preserving a heritage, or of incorporating into contemporary planning and building the elements which made Islamic cities both beautiful and functional, one must try to define this essence and the principles that governed its repeated generation. For only if we can identify those essential qualities can we select appropriate buildings and quarters for preservation according to the criterion of exemplariness; and only if we can formulate these basic principles can we explore their enduring worth and determine whether they have any applicability for solution of present-day problems in urban planning.
Excerpts from the Proceedings of Seminar One in the series, Architectural Transformations in the Islamic World. Held at Aiglemont, Gouvieux, France April 1978. Preserving the Living Heritage of Islamic Cities by Janet L. Abu-Lughod.
Islamic Art / Calligraphy