Architecture with Identity Crisis: The Lost Heritage of the Middle East

by Marwa Al-Sabouni

This important paper has been first published as part of the International Journal of Biourbanism, 1&2 (2016)  devoted to the subject of epistemology of design, on pages 81–97. We share it separately from that 310 pages volumes, wishing for a discussion on the specific problems presented by the Author.


ABSTRACT: We live in a world that suffers from conflicts, wars, and political discords all over its parts. We are told that nations’ sovereignty is in threat. And that what has been the world’s urgent quest for achieving prosperity all along the past decades, namely, globalization and modernity, needs now to be seriously reconsidered as the main reason for the very opposite. Much of what has been taken for granted is renegotiated again; free markets, open borders, even human rights. This should not come as a surprise — we must admit that we have collectively misused and overused so much of what the age of modernity has brought us. However, there is one notion that sits in common at the core of all our fearful world of today — identity. Looking closely, we can see that the havoc and instability in so many parts of our world today have proved a common feature, i.e. that when identity is threatened, existence is what becomes at stake. It is sure that debate on the concept of identity is needed more than ever before. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that the best place to embark on such a debate is the built environment. Our built environment is the most evident record of our existence, and it plays an important role in who we are and what we do. In the following pages, I shall consider the case of the crisis of identity in the Middle East — a region where I come from, and one that struggles to find its own identity on many levels — especially that of the built environment. Middle East architectural approaches and their disconnection from the Islamic past exhibit such an identity crisis. To prove this, I analyze what has defined the architecture of the past in order to shed light on the kind of error committed in choosing the way forward.

Keywords: identity, home, place, Islamic architecture, traditional architecture, value, pleasure, accomplishment, Zeitgeist



In his book Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph points out the importance of what he calls “points of departure” from which people can orient themselves toward the world they live in, and without which they “are lost and without identity” (Relph, 1976). Naturally, our built environment is where “place” can happen or not. There is an ascending global awareness toward the importance of what is now called “placemaking”. But how do we make a place? Places are naturally “there” — what else can one add to a place for it to become a place? The very long discussion about this subject, in my opinion, can be narrowed down to a main thought, namely identity. If we can identify ourselves with what is in a place, then we can simply call it our place. The importance of this can be summarized in a simple fact: when people feel belonging to a place, they are more likely to preserve and maintain it. We see the kind of destruction spread over vast areas of conflict in the Middle East today. We cannot oversimplify things by claiming that the loss of identity and sense of place is the only cause of instability in the region, yet we can surely consider it as a main factor (Al-Sabouni, 2016). In the following pages, I will try to show what kind of identity loss has occurred in the Middle East and how this feature affects architecture and built forms. The comprehension of this loss is meant to produce a needed “diagnosis” about reality, from which one can later set off toward possible solutions.


The quest for “identity” has dominated architectural research in the Middle East, both academically and practically. Most of the region’s architectural discourse has been concerned with it. It is interesting that there is a serious lack of genuine architectural critique or theory, where most academic discussions indulge in a long-lasting search for a “lost identity”. Terms like “originality”, “locality”, “globalism”, and “Arabic architecture” versus “Western architecture” dominate the architectural literature, conferences, and academia. This has led to no conclusions and accomplished nothing other than either celebrating the adulated “past” or despising it in order to glorify the modernized West.

Clearly, people admit the existence of a crisis — an identity crisis. And this crisis needs to be dealt with. The debate is over how this should be done. First, a state of polarization has dominated architectural approaches” those who admit the crisis (the ones who are “for”) proclaim the “defeat”. They see that their region is no longer capable of producing, and that they must seek the “ready-made production” available thanks to the “advanced countries”. Identity for them should not be a burden, although a settlement with the idea can be made when it is confined as a pasted layer over imported architectural forms, which will be discussed more thoroughly later on.

People who belong to the other party define themselves as being “against”. They resist the trend of what globalization has brought to their doorsteps and rather see in it a threat to their existence — an identity threat, to be fought. How have they chosen to fight? As traditional conservatives would do, i.e. by holding on to their inheritance. However, they seem to hold only on the surface, leaving any investigation into the values that have produced the built forms out of consideration.

Hence, their invention of hybrid styles is an approach that does not differ much from that of the contradicting party. I therefore will try to prove the fragility of any attitude that refuses a serious process of questioning.


The countries of the Middle East have many different cultures that have historically belonged to different kingdoms and civilizations. They have not been unified until Islamic rule. However, it should be noted that Islamic rule in itself has stretched over different eras with different characteristics. Islam has brought Arabic language to different places, too. Some of them have already been familiar with it, and some not. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire — the last grand Islamic rule — the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) had produced the borders of separate countries known to the world as the Middle East. However, the people of these areas, despite all the foreign effects, have maintained a sense of affiliation toward their shared beliefs, language, and history. This sense has been strongly attacked and further damaged. Moreover, the world is witnessing the vandalism of Islamic conceptions and the consequent sufferance by terror made in its name. This has resulted in a deepening of the crisis of identity we are discussing. Consequently, we see invented architectural styles that have avoided the “Islamic charge” by resorting to the so-called “Arabic Style”. The Arabic Style is defined by certain elements like patios, arcades, vaults, and geometric patterns. These elements, though, can be detected in many other architectures, such as “othic or Islamic. This leads to the question: is this a kind of pseudo-architecture by which we are seeking to pacify our instinctual need for expression? And what is it that makes it unreal or ungrounded”

Our identity crisis was the main leitmotif of the entire architectural scene in the Arabic region. Obviously, we were not able to produce a style of our own without paying tribute to the Islamic tradition. And this tradition, in turn, was the subject of highly polemical expositions. I think that these expositions overlooked some imperative aspects of their subject. Islamic Architecture has stimulated the curiosity of scholars, historians, and architectural critics both regionally and in the West. Westerners especially have presented very informative works documenting, analyzing, and categorizing what has remained of this architectural tradition, disputing how to study and evaluate it, and even how to give it a name. However, it seemed to me that most of those works had something in common: they overlooked the architectural experience.

The centrality of experience seemed to have been lost between two scholarly fantasies. On the one hand, Orientalism tended to view Islamic architecture as mere decorated surfaces associated with the desert and nomadism (architecture as a temporary relief from carpets, so to speak) — even though much of it was accomplished in flourishing urban centers. On the other hand, Sufism had gone overboard in its search for poetic and symbolic messages without any supporting grounds in the physical reality.

Researchers from Arabic-speaking regions have tended to focus on passive design and local construction techniques, using certain architectural elements with a “copy and paste” approach, hoping that way to “generate identity”. However, such a quest for “generation” is in itself problematic as it does not make sense to use some torn up pieces of physical forms in order to attain a result that can be described in retrospect, but never prescribed in advance. While examining the Arabic regions” architectural language, the mainstream “prescription” for identity has been “to be original and contemporary” an arbitrary combination of certain “authentic” elements and of modern design approaches without relation to the practices and principles that created those elements. From my perspective, those two terms carried an ontological contradiction from the beginning: what is “original” and not “contemporary” or “contemporary” and not “original?” And why do we need either of these phenomena if one does not have the other contained within” The application is questionable too, because it takes randomly chosen elements from old Islamic architecture and sticks them on new buildings without any attempt for integrated structure.

Major problems are the following. First, we do not achieve identity by burdening architecture with a prescribed mission — an idea that has been refuted by the work of philosophers and writers such as Roger Scruton and Michael Mitias, while discussing meaning in architecture. Second, in this way, we do not achieve the pleasure and value that inheres in the architectural experience itself.

Before examining the work of those two writers, it may be useful to explore the prevailing misconceptions about Islamic architecture. In order to reconcile differences between scholars and to “achieve identity”, several Middle East architects have kept following the “Arabic Style” path and the spirit of its alleged Zeitgeist. “Modernized Arabic Style” was the conformist result, using a typical Islamic house design from the Ottoman, Ayyubid, or Mamluk periods, of course without discerning them. For instance, putting a patio at the center of a rectangular or square building, surrounding it with arcades, and puncturing it with a water fountain in the middle adding clichés such as the mashrabiah (screened oriole window) or vaulted rooms with wall niches and arches, all without forgetting to top a few spaces with small domes or to divide summer from winter sections. Further “secrets” for modernizing such a mixture consist of inserting a curvature somewhere in the plan or tilting the upper floor so it forms an angle with respect to the lower one. Similar approaches can be seen both in the work of local architects and in the academy.

This is a sad show of ignorance about the history of Islamic architecture and of a complete disorientation in respect to what should be done. The values expressed through traditional elements are overlooked. The architectural experience that once studied to complement them is wasted. Further, such a way of seeking identity as a prescribed quest exhibits a stereotypical “group think”: in-group versus out-group, Arabic versus Western, et cetera, where everything is conceived in a context of threats to identity and the need for self-assertion. My argument is that the Arabic speaking region has defined itself as an in-group through architecture, and that it sought to compensate for its lost identity by binding the channels of expression with stereotypes. Hence, “Western” architectural accomplishments are to either be imitated or contradicted, regardless of artistic or social requirement.

Confusion goes beyond the terms “Arabic” and “Islamic”. “Traditional” is another adjective that shares the same ambiguous relationship with “Islamic”. In reality, the traditional — sometimes called “local” or “vernacular” — is something quite distinct from the Islamic—and not only because much of it has been built by people who were neither Muslim nor aspiring to be Muslim. True Islamic architecture has a distinctive and distinguished architectural style that experts recognize easily. Moreover, Islamic architectural forms have expressed an artistic intention that constrains conscious choices of the architect. The traditional, on the other hand, denotes an unreflecting norm. It can be defined as the architecture of the local context, the “instinctive” forms suggested by need and function. Even when it includes aesthetic choices, they reflect the surrounding context. Confusion between “Islamic” and “traditional” can be explained by the simple fact that Islamic architecture has formed part of that context for almost 10 centuries. Besides, the distinction is not black and white. The two terms overlap and interact: the traditional forming the background from which the Islamic style has emerged as something consciously devoted to an idea and opposed to the “simplicity” of traditional forms.

Well-known contemporary Arabic architects such as Hassan Fathy, Mohammed Saleh Makkia, Abd Alwahed Al-Wakil, Refaa Jadeji, and Rasem Badran have been experimenting with traditional style. Despite the peculiarity of each of their architectural experiments, they all have had something in common, which is the adoption of vernacular elements as well as the acknowledgement that these exist and endure because they are adapted to context and climate. Even though their works might look as if they intertwine with the forms of Islamic architecture, their characteristics are fundamentally far from the truth. The true Islamic architecture, in fact, is rather animated by Islamic moral choices, Islamic thought, and a consequent aesthetic.

Literature produced by those architects and their like-minded followers makes this fact even more obvious. Fathy, for instance, never claimed any affinity with Islamic architecture, rather being inspired by vernacular mud buildings as well as the ancient Sasanian architecture of Egypt (where the Sassanid dome with the octagonal neck was adapted to indigenous Nubian patterns). Even when he employs elements that were used in the Islamic tradition, such as domes and mashrabiah, he always considered them passive design solutions to climate and economic issues. Fathy’s design approach provides more evidence — be it his focus on constructional aspects, outward openness, or dependence on the plan as starting point. Finally, and more importantly, the austerity of Fathy’s architectural experience is very different from the multi-layered response typical of the true Islamic way of building, where an idea of God and the work of creation are expressed in every detail.

Notwithstanding, even academic circles confuse the work of Fathy with Islamic architecture. From my view, his work can be described as the product of a village doctor who wears the hat of a scientist but never that of a creative artist, and whose concern is to raise his society from poverty and ignorance through practical measures. Fathy had used architecture as a means, not an end. Hence, his product should be judged in terms of its efficiency, not of its meaning. The same thought can be applied to the works of all the prominent practicing architects mentioned above.

In the end, it is the very name, “Islamic architecture”, that is controversial. In fact, “Islamic”, “Moorish”, “Mohammedan”, et cetera, represent notably different nuances of a wider concept. Yet stronger tension arises between the two adjectives, “Islamic” and “Arabic”, because it spurs straight on the aforementioned identity crisis.

The struggle between Arabism and Islam is a modern phenomenon. It came after Michel ‘Aflaq (Beriont, 2017), founder of the Ba’ath party, promoted an Arabic identity in place of the Islamic one. However, of course, not all Arabs are Muslims, just as not all Muslims are Arabs. ‘Aflaq, for example, was an Orthodox Christian and conceived the idea of an “Arab” identity while studying in Paris. Christian architects and builders, on the other hand, made a notable contribution to the history of Islamic Architecture. Naturally, given that other religions became minorities in the Arabic-speaking world after the Muslim conquests, it is inevitable that the most significant buildings in that world were by Muslims. Nevertheless, we should not ignore facts, such that the architect of the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo was Christian (Nasser, 2006), or the important contributions given under the Ottomans by architects and artisans of Armenian or Greek origin. Mimar Sinan, responsible for 300 of the most important buildings in the great period of Ottoman architecture during the 16th century, and designer of the standard Islamic school or madrasah, was from a Christian Orthodox family and rose through the ranks of the largely Christian Janissaries to become the leading architect of his time.

Titus Burckhardt in Art of Islam discusses the validity of such a term as “Arabic architecture”, confronting the two aspects of Islam and Arabism. Although Islam — in Burckhardt’s terms — is an “open invitation” to everyone and not a “racial phenomenon”, the Arabic language, however, represents a critical faith element. For every Muslim, whether Arab or not, the language of the Qur’an is essential, both for praying and for reading the Holy Book. A language is not only a spoken tongue but also a mode of thinking. Thus, Burckhardt writes, “Arabic determined to a greater or lesser degree the ‘style of thinking’ of all Muslim people” (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 39), which was reflected in all their other forms of expression, including architecture and art. Nevertheless, despite this marriage between religion and language, there is no reason to regard the two as equivalent: “It would, indeed, be impossible to confine the manifestations of Islam to Arabism” on the contrary, it is Arabism that was expanded and, as it were, transfigured by Islam” (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 39). According to Burckhardt, what Islam gave to Arabism cannot be compared to what Arabism gave back to it.

This brings us to an idea that is important for understanding identity — “accomplishment”. We tend to belong to what makes us proud when we identify ourselves in it. Likewise, we all like to cheer for the winning team (Al-Sabouni, 2016, pp. 129–136). Now, no Arabist accomplishment can even remotely compare to the real Islamic accomplishment. The Arabic language itself has been preserved and developed by the Qur’an. If not for the Holy Book, this now widely spread language would have disappeared long ago. The best proof of that is the way in which the myriad dialects of the region have been unified through the text that they share.

Further, describing our region’s architecture as “Arabic” excludes from the equation those who enriched Islamic architecture, namely Persians, Seljuks, Moguls, and Ottomans. Islamic architecture reached the peak of its glory under what architectural historians call the three Empires: Safavid, Ottoman, and Indian Mogul. Hence, the term “Islamic” is validated by the fact, as Burckhardt states, that this architecture is the outward manifestation and expression of a civilization and a faith (Burckhardt, 1976, p. i).

However, even the expression “Islamic architecture” has caused confusion and led to stereotyping when understood as the architecture of Islam. The architecture that was produced from the eighth until the late 17th century—from the tail end of Umayyad rule until the decline of the Ottoman Empire—which spread from Mogul India to Morocco and Andalusia, was not an architecture of religion but the effect of that religion on people who believed and lived through it. So although it has manifested Islamic conceptions by the people who produced it, such architecture stands out as a fruit of their understanding and interaction and should not be understood as based on Islamic law or anything like it.

Such loose terms as “traditional”, “original”, “Arabic”, and so on, incorporated into stereotypes, produce a mere labeling rather than analytical understanding. By this labeling, certain randomly chosen elements fall detached from the attempt to understand the architectural experience. Architecture becomes just a means to reach the unjustified end of a so-called “identity”. Architectural criticism is thereby rejected in favor of identity politics. The surprising thing is that this entire labeling process is done collectively, through a group behavior directed at maintaining an ideological orthodoxy.

The result is an inability to produce any new architecture while remaining in a closed circle, searching for the lost self and misunderstanding, misusing, and distorting our once great architectural history. This endless pursuit of one’s own tail deprives architects of the freedom of aesthetic choice and design invention, pushing them toward one of two practices: either blindly imitating the self-accomplished “Western” architecture or entering the dead-end of pastiche and collage. Two questions are raised by this discussion: what are the elements that define our architecture, and how are they used in local practice? And what is the “right” architectural experience and how can it be achieved?


The inspection of the architectural product of the region suggests that the label “Islamic” is confined to the following basic elements: dome, patio, mashrabiah, muqarnas (i.e. honeycomb vaulting), minaret, geometric patterns, and Arabic calligraphy. Although all of those elements were to be found in old Islamic buildings, each of them has a different use, timeline, and source — a fact that is altogether ignored or misused in current practice. Old Islamic architecture benefited from the context in which it arose. It did not begin from a tabula rasa but made use of an existing heritage, reproducing, reinventing, and imposing its individual stamp until connection with the original source became almost undetectable.

The issue at stake has nothing to do with the benefit of re-using existing elements. The problem here is the way those elements have been exploited. Rarely the elements are read in terms of their history. Thus the dome, which has become a cliché to be included in every building that seeks to have an “Islamic” character—whether a mosque or a public building, whether built by a Western or an Arabic practitioner, whether perceived or merely imagined. The dome, originally found in Mesopotamia, dates back to 4000 BC and was favored for its structural properties. Use of the dome was less frequent in old Islamic architecture and also underwent long and distant interruptions. Its use in mosques originates from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which had adopted the Byzantine style before Islam had developed its own architectural language; likewise with the cupola of the Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus (706-715 AD). The dome as an element was not regarded as essential until the Seljuks embraced its use in the 11th century. It was later fully developed by Mimar Sinan as the central space of the mosque, inspired in this case by the Byzantine architecture of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. However, although Sinan had been charmed by Hagia Sofia’s dome space, he had dedicated his work to experiment, so as to develop a dome-style of his own — almost certainly studying Michelangelo’s plans for Saint Peter’s in Rome.

Therefore, it is surprising that today the dome is a required element in every mosque building; and all the more, it is shameful that it is often put on top of the finished structure like a hat.

The same story is about the element most dear to identity seekers: the mashrabiah, or screened oriel window. Its use reached its peak in residential Ottoman architecture as a solution to the problem of reconciling privacy with the need to peer out over the privacy of others — the perfect gossip-feeding device. Nowadays, its employment for the sake of “dressing identity” is not any better than a stereotype without any real architectural sense.

The same critique can be made of all the mentioned elements, well studied by historians. It is enough to know that none of those elements were used with the veneration and adulation that is bestowed on them today. They were regarded not as central ideas but rather as decorative byproducts of the architectural process, and most definitely, none of them were tools for achieving any separate goal or loaded agenda.


In his book Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, Titus Burckhardt has presented an insightful perspective into Islamic architecture. Although he did not sum up the matter in the order I present, he identified the basic tenets of Islamic style, conferring unity across vast geographical spread and long centuries of use. By acknowledging these tenets, we can grasp the enormity of misuse in the name of “inspiration” and “identity”. Such understanding would enable us to take more pleasure from the aforementioned works — through a process that I shall explain — and more importantly, help us make connections with the past according to a rational choice rather than a mere, distorted copy. Of course, those tenets do not exist in written laws, historic documents, nor memoirs of old architects. However, they establish a common thread that many scholars noticed and verified, even if they are still “readings” and not to be counted as certainties.

Arabic language and monotheism are the two most essential tenets. They are like the thread of a rosary, whose different beads of various sizes and colors are the multi-cultural expressions of these two commanding principles. Burckhardt distinguishes the different effects of languages on periods of Islamic architecture, starting with the “imaginative intuition” of Arabic in contrast to the “auditive intuition” of Latin languages (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 42).

About Arabic, he focuses on the dynamic aspect generated by the “tree of verbal forms” and the static one represented in the nominal sentence, in which nouns stand side by side. The tree of verbal forms is a distinctive feature of Arabic. Each verb consists of:

three invariable constants, something like an aural ideogram, from which are derived as many as twelve different verbal modes — simple, causative, intensive, reciprocal and so on — and each of these modes produces in its turn a plethora of nouns and adjectives whose first meaning is always linked, in more or less ways, to that of the fundamental action depicted by the trilateral root of the verbal “tree”. (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 42)

Thus, the tree has the dynamic ability to produce an infinity of new expressions from a single root idea.

The static aspect of Arabic, according to Burckhardt, is represented in the nominal sentence, which juxtaposes nouns regardless of time. The intertwining of those two aspects can be read in the devices of Islamic art such as the Arabesque, in which rhythm and order are fully expressed and intertwined, while breaking the monotony of repetition with “rhythmic alternation” and “qualitative perfection of each element”. “ontrasting the “incisive and dynamic” Arabic with the “all-embracing and circumspect” Turkish, Burckhardt displays those differences as corresponding to distinct “mental types” and resulting in distinct art forms. “”The Turk’s) works always proceed out of an all- enveloping concept; they are as if hewn from a single block” (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 45). Conversely, the Persian’s “inner melody” and “hierarchical gradations” result in architectural harmony and articulation. “onetheless, the architectural manifestations of the Arabic language’s mental type derive from the higher source of this language—the Qur’an where style is developed to such a perfection that challenges everyone and anyone to come up with even one verse of similar level. Hence, the conclusion reached by Burckhardt himself that

there’s no such thing as Quranic style which can simply be transposed into art, but there does exist a state of soul which is sustained by the recitation of the Quran and which favors certain formal manifestations while precluding others (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 46).

This intertwining of dynamics and statics, creating tensions and resolving them, is therefore also manifested in architectural forms. This effect is described by Burckhardt and other scholars as Divine Unity, or the unity of existence, which is assimilated to tawhid, the oneness of God. This is the essential notion of Islam and the key message of the Qur’an: “There is no God but the one and only God”. These scholars have read the principle of “Unity in multiplicity, and multiplicity in unity” in each layer of the many layers that compose the old Islamic works, both in the elements of space and in the decoration that is used to enhance it.

Most old Islamic buildings lack a central space, being composed of sequenced and juxtaposed parts. Some critics have condemned this idiom because the building grows unreadable from a single vantage point, as opposed to the traditions of composition in the West. Old Islamic architecture concentrated on the interior, so that it is the exterior rather than the interior that is “hidden”. This quality is very well described by Ernst J. Grube:

This disregard for the outside appearance of structure is often developed to the extreme whereby even the monumental structure, such as a congregational mosque, is completely hidden by being totally surrounded by secondary adjacent buildings (for instance a bazar). This “hiding” of major monuments goes hand in hand with a total lack of exterior indications of the shape, size, function, or meaning of a building. (Grube, 1978, p. 10)

The reason for this kind of composition is that succeeding rulers had inherited the job of continuing buildings that had yet to be completed, adding new parts organically and without reference to a master plan. This is exactly what provoked the French mandate in Damascus and other Syrian cities to enforce its “correcting” clearances around key monuments. In fact, the sequenced approach and openness to horizontal growth pervaded the whole architectural work down to the smallest interior details and resulted, on the outside, in a humane urbanization of the surroundings and a lived experience of deep settlement. We are talking here of the way in which a building that prays and invites the Almighty into the city, also extends its gentle hands around its neighborhood to create a peaceful settlement.

Burckhardt interestingly compares the conceptions of interior space in the church and in the mosque. The church is oriented from west to east, directing the perceiver along a single main axis to focus on what is most important and sacred. This effect is enhanced by the fact that all the motion and descending light converge on the altar. By contrast, the space of a mosque is dominated by unity on every level. There is no differentiation between one person and another, nor veneration of any subject. Hence, the order of the space is open and united, and the eye can rest calmly in equilibrium without turning toward a specific direction. Burckhardt considers the Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus, which was rebuilt through a “synthesis of pre-existing elements” to combine layers of older architectures, as is the case of many Syrian monuments. This mosque has been likened by some observers to contemporary Christian churches on account of the evident influence of the Roman basilica. However, Burckhardt shows the key difference in the organization of the space: the mosque exhibits openness toward the courtyard in contrast to the introverted space of the Roman churches. The mosque’s internal space expresses an “undifferentiated plenitude” manifested by the “synthesis of stability and abundance” in the repeated rows of sweeping two-level columns and arcades. This intended design aims to create peacefulness in the soul, resting the eye through lightness and stability and soothing the worshipper in the presence of the Holy.

Many of the space elements that were used in Islamic architecture were also used in Christian architecture, such as vaults and cupolas. However, Islamic architecture managed to reproduce them in a completely different way, from the point of view of both meaning and technique. For instance, the Persian rib-vault was entirely different from its Christian counterpart. The ribs of the Persian vault, Burkhardt writes,

do not support it like a timber framework, but they strengthen it and, as it were, stretch it out by means of brick arises which are apparent only at the extrados; at the intrados, the ribs are barely perceptible, so that the different segments of the vault are presented as facets of a single concave surface. At the same time, the ribs do not at all come together in the crown of the vault; they are interlaced like basket-work, leaving the central crown of the vault or cupola free. (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 74)

In contrast, the Gothic vault reveals a reversed direction of the converging powers, which seem to be ascending from the supporting columns upwards to the joint at the crown. In this regard, as Burckhardt suggests, the architectural differences correspond to spiritual differences between the two religions, although they are not differences of essence so much as differences of emphasis. Thus the “union with God”, which is a central theme in Christianity, corresponds to the upward striving of its architecture. By contrast, the dropping down embracing unity of the Islamic work can be read as an “existing a priori“: a unity that comprehends us, regardless of our search. It is an inherent unity, from which the “component elements” are deduced and which is not produced from those elements by any upward visual dynamic.

Within the same frame of reference, Burckhardt discusses the differences of static order between the Classical European architecture and Islamic architecture. The first adulated the human body as an image of God, and this was reflected in weight distribution and building statics, proportioning the building to its support. The building must, in the end, stand as we do. In the Islamic context, where adulation is permitted only toward the creating divinity, to whose name all the universe offers praise, the logic becomes “objectively static but never anthropomorphic” (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 127). The mosque does not stand as we do but brings down upon us the blessings of the Most High, which needs no support from earthly things.

Unity is also expressed through decoration which, contrary to the mainstream Western view of it as an overly used two-dimensional excess, has been another manifestation of the inherited spiritual and moral vision of the faith. Through decoration, unity was expressed by blurring and dissolving the limits, so that nothing becomes truly individual save the One who is All. Decoration was not only used as a surface covering. Rather, it was used to “transform space”, according to Dalu Jones, by covering the structural elements and “dissolving the barriers” between the load bearing and ornamental parts, thereby achieving fluidity, smoothing transitions, and dissolving tensions. “Like water itself, which plays such a unique role in Islamic architecture, the decoration continually reflects and multiplies patterns to provide a “cool” refuge for the eye and the mind, creating an art that is dynamic yet unchanging” (Jones, 1995, p. 162). Moreover, decoration also functions so as to confuse the eye through creating a game of interchangeability between the various elements and their original functions:

There is, too, an inherent ambivalence in Islamic designs. An abstract curving shape can be read as a bird; calligraphy is decorative as well as being a message conveying a precise meaning. The lines in a primary grid of a façade, as in certain arabesques or in Abbasid woodcarving, transform a decorative element into the contour of form. The same designs are reproduced side by side in different materials and for different purposes. (Ibidem)

These primary grids that Jones writes about are also a contributing factor in creating unity, order, and harmony, and play a key role for making the architectural experience pleasant. Islamic decoration had certain design principles, one of which was obedience to overall controlling grids. In the words of Jones, these “indicate the principal elements of the decorative scheme” — such as the calligraphic bands, arches, niches, et cetera, by which the surface is subdivided and the elements of the façade held visually together. Additional secondary grids “control the patterning within each of the elements of the primary grid” (Ibidem), and they are usually not apparent as contours; existing as underlying matrixes of squares, triangles, octagons, or hexagons.

Of course, this is only a small fragment of what has been studied and which still needs to be further studied in the great history of Islamic architecture. But the above remarks give a general idea of what is being missed out by the modern approach, in which shadows and fragments of the past are pasted together without any conception of their meaning as parts of a whole.

It should be noted here that I am not in favor of mystical interpretations, something that can be detected in the writings of such scholars as Burckhardt himself. Despite his profoundly valuable contribution to the understanding of the experience of Islamic art and architecture, he sometimes seems to invoke a Sufi spirit that prefers poetic projections to concrete perceptions. Whether valid or not in themselves, these correspond to no physical details in the built form and more importantly cannot add to or take away from the architectural experience.

Now, the question is whether what has been described above about the aesthetics and spirit of Islamic architecture corresponds, however remotely, to what is being practiced in the Arabic and Islamic regions today. It is enough to take a look at the project briefs and “promotions” by well-known Western architects who have been practicing in the Arabic regions (mostly the Gulf), such as Lord Norman Foster and Hanning Larsen. On every possible occasion, they claim to be “taking inspiration from traditional Islamic architecture” or “communicating with traditional elements” and so on. Modern architects, for some reason, seem obliged to sell their product as having some special connection with history, generally, and specifically, with the history of the place that they are about to desecrate. Maybe this happens because they are aware of the radical break with the history of mankind performed by their way of building and are hoping, in this way, to purchase by their words the approval that they can never win by their deeds.

The only problem is that they are attributing wrong labels to architectural history, confusing the traditional with the Islamic. Moreover, they are thereby claiming historical justification to build in one place using forms that belong to another — something particularly noticeable in the Gulf, whose architectural heritage is so limited and sparse, because the area was largely desert with no developed urban centers before the discovery of petroleum beneath the sands. Yet the most intrusive thing is the way these so-called affinities are exploited in an architecture that has been dropped into the desert from outer space, or at any rate from cyber space, since it is for the most part designed on a computer.

Architects know that they ought to achieve identity according to the place in which they are building, otherwise their architecture would look less like a city and more like a shelf of perfume bottles, as in Dubai. But, as I have argued, identity cannot be achieved as a prescribed recipe. It is not an independent goal of design but a byproduct of designing meaningfully and beautifully, according to the spirit of the place.

We should ask ourselves whether Western architects practicing in the Arabic regions are the only ones to blame for the meaningless buildings that we see there, and if they take the blame only for spraying “traditional inspiration” around or brushing strokes of “traditional” elements and not for the rest of what they do. What language should an architect use in his work? And how come the architectural scene in those countries has become dominated by architects who are foreign to their intimate understanding of life and of the universe” If those places were “filled” with such an understanding, then empty architectural gestures would have no place. Hence, the desperate clinging to “fillers” from the past in order to disguise the Swiss cheese structure of our communities and their built environment. Why is the history of Islamic architecture emptied of every meaning and aesthetic sense? Those questions merge directly with the following questions: what determines the right architectural experience? How can it have a meaning? How can it be judged? In response, I will try to summarize the philosophical conclusions of two authors who have offered profound analysis of these critical subjects, namely Roger Scruton in The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979) and Michael Mitias in Expression in Architecture (1994a).


Roger Scruton writes:

The fulfilment of a rational agent — what the Greeks called eudaimonia and we happiness — comes only when the agent has that which he values, as opposed to that which he merely desires. And perhaps the most striking feature of the “architecture of human need” is that it seems so often to conceive the world as a world in which there are no values, but only animal needs — fresh air, health, exercise, food. (Scruton, 1979, p. 31)

The architecture of sustainability sells its product in terms of how much energy it conserves and what ecological impact it has, so adding another scale of need to the one mentioned by Scruton. Sure, needs have a fundamental part to play in the design process. But we have to consider their location in this process and how they have become both the center that controls the architect’s choices and the standard whereby those choices must be judged. Our sense of value, as Scruton explains it, can be educated through rational discussion, and is rooted in our wider moral and spiritual concerns. It is not reducible to the “functional” goals of the building (using the term “functional” to refer to all that a building can achieve as architecture, not just in the narrow sense of a functional program). Through discussion and comparison, values become the foundation on which “bridges of logic” can be constructed from one taste to another. And from here what is central to the architectural experience can be recaptured: “We must then search for that core of experience, for the ‘surplus’ in which we find ourselves reflected, not as creatures of the moment, consumed in the present activity, but as rational beings, with a past, a present and a future” (Scruton, 1979, p. 36).

Following this thread of thought, one could conclude that value determines what is right and what is appropriate, but that in turn it can be adjusted and changed through logical discussions controlled by that very value. Thus, the stability of the value does not mean the unchangeability of the result. Rather, such stability makes its continuous adaptation and controlled development possible according to the value’s standard. The latter is a producing factor of identity (or style):

Our preference means something more to us than mere pleasure or satisfaction. It is the outcome of thought and education; it is expressive of moral, religious and political feelings, of an entire Weltanschauung, with which our identity is mingled (Scruton, 1979, p. 105).

Yet around what will the logical discussion, by which architectural experience can be adjusted and improved, revolve? According to Scruton, the matter can be addressed in two aspects, visual pleasure and moral values:

[My argument” seemed to suggest that criticism involves a search for the “correct” or “balanced” perception, the perception in which ambiguities are resolved and harmonies established, allowing the kind of pervasive visual satisfaction which I hinted at. But that cannot be all. The conceptions which influence our experience of architecture are as far-reaching as the conceptions which govern our lives. How else is it possible for an architect like Pugin to think that it was incumbent upon him as a Christian to explore the intricacies of finials, pinnacles and tracery?(Scruton, 1979, pp. 119–120)

Now, before going any further, it should be noted that what has been stressed by both Scruton and Mitias is that this aesthetic understanding cannot be reached in advance of the architectural experience, derived from a set of rules or a prescribed form of knowledge; rather it is the result of an intuitive engagement in the experience offered by the building. This engagement happens, according to Scruton, on two levels of perception: the primitive and the rational. The primitive level is the first impression that inclines the perceiver to describe his experiment with words such as serene, sad, or hostile. On this level the visual pleasure results from what the building offers the eye and how and where it makes the eye move. On the rational level pleasure results from understanding what has been perceived as appropriate and right through an engaged “process of contemplation and comparing”. This engaged form of contemplation can be understood through the question “why”, according to Scruton. Why does a thing look a certain way? Why does this detail make me experience a certain feeling? Why did the architect/designer choose to do things this way rather than another?

True aesthetic way, according to Scruton, is a distillation of practical reason in its own right. It resists the “deliberate infusion of matter with demands of our moral life” and with the burden of a message; rather the perceiver should be able to feel what Scruton calls “the inward resonance of an idea or a way of life”. This could only be reached through experiencing the embodiment of the moral life in every detail of the building and in its manner of production. Not an imposed or stuck moral lesson, but an inwardness with the moral sympathies of the observer:

The experience of Chartres is the apprehension of a divine light penetrating all things, of matter made permeable to Soul, of a universal harmony which transforms every stone from its material roughness into a minute symbol of the intellectual love of God (Scruton, 1979, p. 204).

Only in this way does the perceiver enter the inner world of the building:

One does not learn about medieval theology from Chartres: but one does learn what it is like to believe in it, what it is like to see and feel the world as the people of Chartres once saw and felt it (Scruton, 1979, p. 205).

However, as in the earlier distinction (and connection) between the primitive and rational perceptions, the perceiver has a key role in the architectural experience. This is what Michael Mitias meant by saying that aesthetic characteristics exist potentially in the building, to become activated by the perceiver through what Scruton has called “imaginative perception”. What has been articulated by the architect is imagined in the mind of the perceiver, in the way that a sequence of steps gives the impression of ascendance, or a series of columns the impression of an infinite path. Again, this happens not only primitively, where the perceiver has no control over what he perceives, but also on a deeper level rationally, when the perceiver chooses to be more engaged in the architectural experience.

While the perceiver has the role of distinguishing what is to be felt and observed in the building, how is the architect to coordinate this experience of meaning? Mitias explains Rudolf Arnheim’s view in The Dynamics of Architectural Form in which he uses the term “dynamic structure” to explain how a building corresponds to the perceiver through its formal order, by which it shares a “dynamic structure” with the feelings of the observer. Besides Alberti’s “correspondence of one part with the other, and each part with the whole” in order to achieve harmony and balance, the building has to correspond with the perceiver in terms of what Mitias has called “universal structures”. The first impression (Scruton’s “imaginative perception” or Arnheim’s “perceptual act”) corresponds to what is around me in the universe, within a net of interconnected relations of “being and behaving”. The latter gains their specific meaning for the perceiver through “recalling and illustrating the kind of qualities which inhere in this organization” (Mitias, 1994b, p. 134).

This can be explained through the example of the willow tree given by Arnheim and Mitias. Why is a willow tree perceived as sad? The answer, they suggest, is that it looks sad because of the way it dangles its branches downwards (formal organization) seems (imaginatively) like what we perceive in a sad person: there is an isomorphism between the built form and the structure of a feeling (Mitias, 1994b, p. 134).

Similarly, Mitias argues that when a door is seen it is perceived first as a door before any conscious perception of its size or color or other formal characteristics; its “door-ness” is the result of what is known collectively about things of this kind. Hence, the formal structure of the willow tree or the door regenerates the kind of feelings associated and logically consistent with that specific structure. Accordingly, Mitias reaches the conclusion that there are basic “universal structures”, which correspond to what Susan “anger called the “virtual structure” or “logical form”. The virtual structure is something that we perceive and realize imaginatively, bringing to it our past experience, our background knowledge, our degree of intelligence, and other psychological, social, and cultural factors. In this regard, there is inter-reliance between the perceiver’s background and the universal structures.

However, I would suggest that there is a slight difference between the willow and the door examples presented by Mitias. The universal structure of the first is inescapable, being part of a world that humans had no hand in creating and which belongs to the unchangeable background of our thought. The “door-ness” described by Mitias, though, is a human creation. Although it has not been radically changed since it was created, and although it corresponds in one way or another with other natural “doors” (such as cave openings and tree holes), its universal structure is not unchangeable as is that of the willow tree. As an architect or designer I can ask myself questions such as: why do I need this “door”? What is the function (in the wide sense of the word) of a door?

Such questions can alter the universal structure of the door by creating different versions of it. Door-ness is not perceived as a natural essence, unlike the willow-ness of the willow tree. Of course, I will not be able to escape the universal structure entirely because man cannot create ab initio — he merely reassembles what occurs around him. If I want to defy the universal structure for a door, I might research doors around me, such as the “doors” of the human body—even on the cellular level, or in a volcano or a river. My point is that the universal structures of human products are less resilient than those of any natural object since we ourselves had a part in shaping them. In contrast with the created universe, what we humans have made is always questionable and we always face the problem of its appropriateness or rightness. With any tool or device that we make, we strive, as Scruton explains, to “give a sense of what it means, by filling in the background of expectations, customs and attitudes against which it is deployed” (Scruton, 1979, p. 227).

As in daily life, Scruton stresses that, when aiming at what is appropriate we do not adopt a “problem-solving” formula as though searching for the means to some given end. What is appropriate is explored both before and after the action is performed. As in the field of morals a person may not know what he is doing until he has done it” “the art of manners is the art of seeing what is apt before knowing exactly what success will consist in” (Scruton, 1979, p. 229). And what is true of manners in life is true of manners in architecture. In both cases, we are seeking to fit our acts and products to a context, to adapt to something that has meaning not only for me, here and now, but for all who encounter it, both now and as long as it lasts.

Hence, the connection between aesthetic characteristics and the moral life, according to Scruton, arises through the cultivation of our sense of the appropriate. We try to understand why “is it nicer this way or more beautiful that way”—by answering the question “why?” in front of each detail. We want to know what hangs on to the way we do things, whether it is an architectural choice or a simple social act such as holding a fork. Everything we do raises the question of its acceptability to others. And that means it raises the question of its moral acceptability.

Scruton’s fork example is important here. He explains that holding a fork in a certain way can be judged aesthetically in terms of what it implies about jaw movement. Jaws that open too wide suggest the idea of greed, which is socially unacceptable. I wish to take this discussion further by asking what Scruton has not, which is why greed is not socially acceptable. The answer could be that we associate greedy behavior with the stretching jaws of predator animals. Or it could be that our aversion is more rationally based, either in a secular morality or in some kind of universal law.

Scruton considers the moral sense to derive from our response to each other as social creatures, joined to an order greater than each person’s individual ego. This moral sense can seem radically different, from place to place and culture to culture, especially in its application to the things that we make: an object can speak with welcoming accents to one person, while being repellent to another. However, as Scruton rightly emphasizes, everything we do raises the question of its acceptability to others, and this is as true of architecture as it is of all our words and deeds. It belongs to human nature to pursue agreement in things that matter and to reconcile our interests through a system of rights and duties. Hence, we humans stand in need of a foundation, a system of law, through addressing each other and to which we can appeal in our conflicts. This is what is provided, we Muslims believe, by the Islamic Law deriving from the Qur’an and the hadiths. This system of law is not, as so many Westerners seem to believe, and as so many so-called Muslims seem to want them to believe, a set of absolutist edicts that extinguish freedom and discussion. On the contrary, as beautifully explained by the late Prof. Al-Bouti in his book, The Regulation of Interest in Islamic Law (Al-Bouti, 2010), it is an instrument of reconciliation by which interests are sifted and rights assigned, in order to resolve the conflicts that are inherent in every human community.

At this point, the pursuit of the deep question of universal law, with all its philosophical and theological ramifications, does not belong to the core of the discussion. The matter is rather that, with or without a universal law, human beings need rational arguments and must cultivate a sense of what is right and appropriate if they are to really know what they are doing. This is true of architecture as it is true of everyday behavior. When the sense of the appropriate orders our experience, and we witness Alberti’s “correspondence of part with part and the part with the whole”, pleasure of the eye and its movement within a frame of visual validity is guaranteed. The “moral life”, as Scruton writes, “ennobles our choices”, and the beautiful work of architecture shows “an accumulation of moral character, it wears a sympathetic expression… and inhabits the same world as the man who passes it” (Scruton, 1979, p. 232).

On the other hand, an object or a building can become alien to humans when it fails to invite the perceiver to understand and to relate to it as a neighbor and fellow citizen. Buildings that do not “bear the imprint of what is appropriate”, in Scruton’s words, stand in an alienated relation to people. This is exactly what we are facing in our region (and around the world), which can explain the desperate reactions of the architects who seek to “paste” layers of what used to “make sense” to the people in a vain hope of creating such a connection.

On the contrary, the embodiment of moral life described above was brilliantly achieved in some of the old works of Islamic architecture. These works excelled in creating multi-layered correspondences so that, passing through the richness of detail, the eye is neither bored nor exhausted. Zooming in from the harmonized whole, unwrapping the interwoven layers of space, elements, pattern, light, and water, the eye can move in small sequenced rebounds from sight to mind and back again. Every “layer” on which the eye settles invites the mind to follow it into an arena of pleasurable experiences. Think of a tree as an example. You can enjoy the shape of the tree, the smell, the shadow, and all that a tree can bring to your experience. You can enhance your experience and take it deeper to every possible given level; you can focus on its leaves and bark, on the small insects marching on it, on the details that dissect each leaf and each line of it. However, all these layers are combined within one soul. On each level of experience, there is a new world of design to be discovered and enjoyed.

This is exactly the effect where the old Islamic architecture aimed. Next to pleasure, there can be amazement, and this is what many modern works want to achieve. Yet notice, if wow-ness is not followed and combined with pleasure, then it soon fades away, leading to the alienation described by Scruton. Amazement and pleasure must be in balance just like the eye-mind movement controlled by moral thought. This is the key difference, from my point of view, between the buildings of today and those of the past. Yesterday, the ground of belief was not as slippery as today. Whether Greek, Roman, Buddhist, Gothic, Islamic or even Aztec or Pharaonic, such stability of belief ordered what was appropriate in moral life, from ancient days until recent history. Such order was subsequently carried over into style and sense of identity. After those beliefs shifted, architecture moved to a point where it now resorts to what Arnold Gehlen calls “ritualization” (Weber, 1994, p. 117). We see it in the cut-and-paste approach: “although classical architecture initially evolved from a stylistic repertoire similar to that of any indigenous tradition, its forms have become increasingly disassociated from their original meanings” (Weber, 1994, p. 116).


We have seen how architecture in the Middle East struggles between two choices: either Gehlen’s ritualization or the abandonment of any continuity. Both have proved to be dysfunctional when it comes to recognizing the human need for settlement and home. This is a characteristic of modern architecture where new, invented tenets support aesthetic choices without any conception of nor respect toward the people who will undergo those choices. This was the pattern set by Le Corbusier in his inhuman plans for Paris and Algiers, and by Ecochard and Banshoia in Damascus. It is a pattern that has been too often followed by architects educated in Western schools and so often brought in as practitioners or consultants to the Middle East. Modern architecture prefers to control a place rather than respect it. And in order to achieve full control, it gives us plenty of computer- designed gadgets that bear no relation to our real needs, both moral and spiritual. This is well explained in Tom Leddy’s observation on the shift of man’s battle from controlling nature to avoid being controlled in turn:

For five hundred years the discourse of science has been about humanity overcoming nature through things that are rational, good, truthful, beautiful. Architecture, because it symbolizes the structures and cosmological attitudes of society, has, until now, followed science in being about overcoming nature. But today this is no longer the problem which science is addressing. The problem today is to overcome knowledge. Today knowledge is seen as information, which may be processed by computers. Humanity, if it is to be distinguished from computers, can still be seen to have wisdom. The knowledge revolution has gotten out of hand and has started to control humankind. (Leddy, 1994, p. 184)

Therefore, the problem seems to be that humans have lost control over what they were trying to achieve. Unacknowledgement of this loss of control leads people to try to compensate through amazement or the use of a stipulated repertoire peeled off the back of the past. Indeed, a wider issue to our world is that identity seems to stand irreconcilably at odds with the Zeitgeist, but this should be left for another discussion. What has been under the lens here is the crisis of identity that the regions of the Middle East are suffering. In this regard, we must give up the retro approach of using the past as a quarry of fragments. Stereotyping burdens architecture with an imposed message that denies its inner vitality. Criticisms should be extended to the habit of creating certain shapes whenever the term Islamic is used and the vast waste of resources on spurious demands, such as that of an exterior “identity”. Identity, in fact, should arise from our moral understanding, not from clichés and stereotypes. This must involve deeper exploration into the practice of the past, not only the resulting form but also the thought that produced it. Only by this, we can call out for a serious attempt to regain our places.


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Cover image: Marwa Al-Sabouni, portrait by James Wilson aka Scorebrx (2017). © Stefano Serafini.