Grabar, well describes the mosque as the “visible symbol of Islamic civilization’s essential unity” (“Cities,” p.114). The mosque was originally quite simple in make-up, and it was only later that it acquired certain additional elements.
Stanley Lane-Poole in his book, “The Art of the Saracens in Egypt” (1886), writes that the first mosque made up the courtyard of the Prophet Muhammad’s own house in Medina (AD 622), in what is now Saudi Arabia. It consisted of a small, square brick enclosure which was partially roofed over with wooden planks and which was supported on pillars made of palm stems plastered over. Provisions were thus made for worshippers in the mosque to have some privacy from the surrounding hub-bub of the town and protection from the hot sun (p.51). The courtyard wall facing the holy city of Mecca, called the qiblah wall, was provided with a roofed area where worshippers recited their prayers. This simple scheme with three main elements:—the courtyard, the qiblah wall, and the roofed prayer hall,—became the basic plan for all later mosque design. Let us now examine the symbolic significance of some of the ‘colors, shapes and spaces’ within a mosque.
The whole raison d’etre for the mosque is the provision of a wide-open, level, egalitarian space in which all believers can worship together facing the same direction. The only real partition was generally a corner in the back of the mosque ‘fenced off’ with a wooden screen (mashrabiyah) behind which the women could congregate in private. Crucial, therefore, to the architectural history of the mosque was the Muslim’s obligation to perform prayers. Prayer was, of course, a private act, but it was also a peculiarly collective one of the entire Muslim community. Grabar speaks of two characteristics of Islam: “an all-embracing, egalitarian one, in relationship to its own members; and a restrictive one in relationship to others,” which constituted “essential general requirements of what became the mosque” (“The Formation of Islamic Art,” 1973, p.101).
The mosque’s interior came to be orientated inside by the mihrab, a niche, usually concave and lavishly decorated, found on the wall of the mosque, indicating the direction of Mecca, where the Prophet was first enlightened. Although the mihrab was perhaps not really an element of the earliest mosque plan, it was to become a universal feature in all later mosques, whether simple or grandiose. Grabar suggests that the mihrab “had a liturgical or symbolic sense in the faith itself” (ibid., p.115). We can trace the first appearance of the mihrab in the Umayyad mosque in Medina. It was thought to commemorate the place in the Prophet’s house where he used to stand while preaching or leading prayers. Grabar proposes the idea that the mihrab’s function became one of commemorating the presence of Muhammad as the first imam (ibid.).
Two significant shapes often found in mosques are the minaret (manarah) and the dome (qubbah). Towering above the low-lying mosque structure was the minaret, perhaps the most conspicuous feature of Islamic architectural style in Western eyes. It is from the minaret that the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day, and its shape is that of a high tower either attached or standing nearby the mosque. Why a tower when it was sufficient during the Prophet’s time that the call to prayer be carried out from the roof of his house? Grabar traces the initial use of monuments used for the call to prayer to the corner-towers of a Roman temenos in Damascus which had been transformed into a mosque. Thus, a pre-existing architectural form was made a part of the new mosque and well-served an important liturgical need. It did not necessarily make the call to prayer to believers, dispersed throughout a noisy city, any easier or more effective, however. Grabar suggests that it was not for functional reasons that the minaret-form was adopted but rather for important symbolic ones. He interprets the minaret “as a symbolic expression of the presence of Islam, directed primarily at the non-Muslims in the city” (Formation, p.114). As minarets came to be so beautifully designed in such cities as Isfahan, Istanbul and Cairo, Grabar goes on to suggest that this form also became a symbol “of social, imperial or personal prestige or...a purely aesthetic device” (ibid.).
A feature of mosques which is less universal is the dome. Lane-Poole argues that because it is the roof of a tomb and has nothing to do with prayer, it is not an essential feature of a mosque (op.cit., p.60). When the mosque includes a chapel which contains the tomb of the founder or a member of his family, then there is a dome covering the tomb. He suggests that the origin of the dome might be traced to the cupolas covering the graves of Babylon (ibid.).
Despite all of these exotic and exquisite developments, the general mosque design always followed the simplest basic plan, a function as discernible in the most recent neighborhood mosques of America as it is in the grandest monuments of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt.
According to Ettinghausen, the use of color in architecture represents a “special Islamic achievement” and is one that “strongly contrasts with the chromatic restraint in Western buildings” (Man-Made, p.69). Much of the landscape in the territories of Islam, stretching from the Atlantic to the China Sea, can be characterized as hot, arid, and barren areas having few striking features. What would bring visual relief to the weary traveler who has entered another in a series of mud-colored towns was the turquoise or blue-tiled dome or conical roof of a mausoleum or local mosque. Nader Ardalan and Laleh Bakhtiar in “The Sense of Unity” (1973) speak of the harmony of opposites achieved where the blue-green tiled roof of a mosque can provide a pleasing contrast to the buff-yellow tones of its barren surroundings. It is in this contrast of opposing hues that the intensity of each color is heightened (p.51). Exuberant color was employed in the decoration of the exterior as well as interior of some mosques, with the use of colorful, glazed tile combinations and mosaics favoring, in particular, dark blue and turquoise. Combinations of both analogous colors and opposing colors abound in nature. Typical of Islamic ornament is the juxtaposition of opposite colors in large areas with analogous colors interwoven in minute areas creating “distinct color sensations” (op. cit., p.54).
The typically Arab view of color is, in a sense, primarily one of light values. The Beduoin, coming in from the harsh, bright surroundings of the desert, regarded the lush valleys of Mesopotamia as black (the rural area of Iraq is called ‘the black land’, al-sawad). Black, in this sense, was for them the very color of life. Ardalan and Bakhtiar explain that color in Islamic tradition is considered typically from a metaphysical point of view, “one which sees the duality of light and darkness as permanent possibilities latent in the celestial Archetypes” (op. cit., p.47).
Ardalan and Bakhtiar focus on two systems of color which they call traditional, which, when combined, comprise the group of seven hues: black, white, sandalwood, red, blue, green, and yellow. In line with the traditional view, each color is representative of a particular sphere of correspondences and exhibits unique characteristics. In the system of three primary colors, the polar qualities of black and white are mediated by sandalwood (ochre). The latter is considered the neutral base upon which not only black and white, but also nature, represented in the system of four cardinal colors (red, blue, green, yellow), can act. Qualities of nature and of matter are assigned to each of these four primary colors as exemplified in the following diagram:
(figure available in print form)
Green, from the Islamic perspective, has always been considered the superior of the four cardinal colors, since red, blue and yellow are viewed as being embodied in the natural hue, yellow and blue combining to produce green, with red being seen as its “after-image”. Symbolically viewed, “green is hope, fertility and eternity with its two inherent dimensions of past (blue) and future (yellow), and its opposite, the present, seen as red” (op. cit., p.50). It should be noted that the color, green, in Arab culture ranges all the way to turquoise and azure (Arabs refer to the sky as ‘the green dome’). Briefly, in regard to gold, while Islamic artisans certainly appreciated the excellent qualities of this color, they did not go on to indulge in the mystique of gold that we note in the art of Byzantine Christian icons.
Thus, in Islamic art and architecture, what Ettinghausen calls “the decorative urge” was “much more pronounced than elsewhere, and purely ornamental motifs predominate” (“Man-Made,” p.70). In our final section we shall examine two types of Islamic ornament: geometric patterns and the arabesque.