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Crafts In Islamic Architecture

Creativity in traditional Islamic crafts 

At the risk of appearing to be quibbling over semantics, let me first of all state simply and clearly what I understand by the terms “creativity”, “traditional”, and “Islamic crafts”.

By “Islamic crafts” I understand those manual skills and artefacts which are associated with the specifically Islamic system of rituals and beliefs.

By traditional I will, for convenience, take to mean those forms which evolved within a pre-industrial environment. That is, using animate rather than mechanised power, tools and processes.

These definitions are important because I believe that “creativity”, in the traditional, and more specifically Islamic traditional context has a very different meaning to creativity as we understand it today in our post-industrial context. Today we value novelty, innovation, and originality as necessary qualities of the individual artist. But in a traditional Islamic context it would be considered presumptuous of any individual to claim for himself a role which was the exclusive prerogative of God. Thus the traditional craftsman could not seek to be creative or original by inventing new forms. He could at best aspire to reflect or faithfully represent an “ideal” which already existed in the world of archetypes.

This paper argues that while building and decorative crafts have been an intrinsic part of all sacred architectural traditions, the distinctive role of the crafts in Islamic architecture needs to be understood in the specific context of Islamic religious doctrines and practices.


The Craft tradition

In all pre-industrial cultures earth, stone and wood have been carved, moulded and assembled manually into buildings for a variety of uses. In each culture these processes have evolved unique sets of craft traditions and conventions which define the vocabulary of its building vernacular or “folk architecture”. In this category would be included most utilitarian structures such as ordinary dwellings, animal sheds, grain stores, etc. As in other crafts, such as basketry, pottery, weaving etc. the primary concern of the building crafts in such buildings is with function, space, light, protection against the elements and structural stability, available materials, construction techniques etc. That is, the immediate concerns of worldly existence and physical, material realties. In all of these crafts and arts the criterion of quality is never creativity, in the sense of originality or innovation, but the degree to which the product conforms to pre-existing conventional forms.

In this sense the object becomes a representation of the ideal within its own category: the ideal basket; the ideal pot; the ideal house etc. these ideal forms must meet at least two criteria: first, functional perfection, that is, appropriateness to the practical utility of the object – given the constrains of material and technology – , and secondly aesthetic perfection in its shape, proportions, harmony between its component parts, colour, texture etc.

But there is another aspect to the products of traditional crafts. These objects are often shaped into forms of decorated with motifs which have no practical or ‘purely’ aesthetic function. Moreover, these decorations often include representations of categories other than the object itself: animal or human forms chiselled into a stone column or painted on a water vessel floral or geometric motifs carved on a wooden door or woven into a rug.

These forms indicate concerns which are beyond the immediate, practical, material or even aesthetic function of the object: talismans or charms for good luck, safety, or protection against the evil eye; symbols of a faith, status, power, or wealth; prayers for the safety or happiness of the owner or the beholder; invocations addressed to a deity; words of wisdom or good advice; or simply representations of an ideal (person, place, object, or state of being).

These forms express, communicate or represent more or less abstract ideas and concepts to the craftsman himself, to the owner, user, beholder or to a supernatural power. Thus the object Acquires an additional function as a medium or vehicle for communication.

Once again there is seldom any intention to being original or “creative”. Rather, these external representations are invariably in the form of either highly conventionalised, and stylised images or symbols and diagrams. This is not to say that traditional crafts were impervious to change, evolution and innovation, but that creativity was neither emulated by nor attributed to the individual craftsman. Such developments happened providentially in every craft, to be sure, through the agency of gifted “masters”, but no credit for creativity was claimed by them.

It is only after undergoing ritual purification, fasting, meditation and invocations prescribed in the ancient sources that the Buddhist sculptor may be blessed with a vision of the deity to be portrayed.[2]

Maulvi Yaqoob, a master metalworker, told me recently, with genuine humility, “I don’t know what it is,” he said. “perhaps it is a gift of God, or a blessing bestowed on me by my elders, but I can be confronted by the most complex problem and the solution will come to me in a flash. I take no credit in this myself, but I can see exactly what needs to be done.”

Similarly reports, such as ‘Titus Burckhardt’s encounters with craftsmen in Fez[3], for example, have been recorded in many other traditional cultures. It is not surprising therefore, that the Ashanti, in Ghana, refer to their craftsmen as the “okyeme” or spokesman of the Supreme Spirit, and the Hindu craftsmen ascribe the origin of each of their crafts to a particular deity. Whereas the Muslims attribute to Allah “the most beautiful of names: Khaliq, al Bari, al Mussawwir”, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of forms.[4]


Monumental and Sacred Architecture

In addition to fulfilling a utilitarian and aesthetic function and serving as vehicle for communication, traditional building crafts are required to do all this within the context of the building of which they are a part. Just as functionally, structurally, and aesthetically, each component of the building plays its designated role in the orchestration of the total architectural scheme. So also the content, meaning, concepts and ideas expressed in each component must form part of the larger message intended to be conveyed by the building as a whole. This is more so in monumental building types whose primary function is the ritual performance of (social, religious or state) ceremonies or the symbolic expression of (temporal or divine) majesty and power.

To the extent that the functions of these buildings are related to religious rituals and the forms are expressive of divine attributes, these crafts, and the buildings they adorn, may rightly be defined as sacred. It is in the context of the sacred architecture of Islam that we shall now proceed to examine the role of the traditional crafts.


Crafts in Islamic Architecture

The role of the traditional crafts in Islamic architecture can not be discussed without reference to the universal doctrines and rituals, which are the basis of the singular unity of content in Islamic arts, and the particular social and geographical contexts which are reflected in the diversity of its regional forms.

The fundamental source of the Islamic doctrine is the Qur’an.

This book is at once a legal framework for society (shariat), the way (Tariqat) to spiritual enlightenment, and rational criterion (furqan) of the truth. Thus the schools of thought within the body of Islamic society have tended to interpret the doctrine with an emphasis on one or the other of these three perspectives. The attitudes of the three schools of thought towards the arts has, to a large extent determined the forms of creative expressions in Islamic societies.

The highly academic intellectual discourses of the rationalists could scarcely be expected to fire the imagination or move the heart and soul of the creative artist and craftsman. The legalists, finding no sanction for artistic pursuits, condemned music, painting, sculpture and dance as downright sinful and repugnant to Islam. Moreover, in a cast ridden feudal society such as ours, the artist and craftsman had to live with being relegated to the status of an outcast. Thus it was only in the circles of the Sufis that he found not only acceptance as a human being, but a place of honour among the brethren who referred to themselves as “faqirs”, and recognised artistic activity as a legitimate path to God. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find that most of our craftsmen were affiliated to some Sufi “silsila” (spiritual chain)[5]. This nexus between “Tariqat” and the arts in Islam is central to the understanding of our traditional crafts and it is only in this context that we can define the forms and unravel their meanings.

Unlike, for example, the Hindu “yantras” or Buddhist “mandala”. Islam does not have a prescribed religious iconography. There are no exclusively religious forms. Thus everything is potentially sacred. This absence of the secular/sacred divide extends even to the ritual worship in Islam. Thus the ritual prayer may be performed practically anywhere, not necessarily in a sanctified or designated place of worship, conversely, the mosque may be used for a variety of secular functions: school; community hall; or a snooze in the afternoon. Thus designs evolved within the sacred domain could be extended to the secular domain and find universal application.

Whether in pursuit of trade, knowledge, conquest or fulfilment of a religious obligations of the Haj, Muslims are known to have been inveterate travellers. As they came into contact with increasing variety of cultures the diversity of their artistic expressions was necessarily enriched. While the absence of a religious iconography and the absence of a secular/sacred divide defined, or rather expanded the parameters of Islamic art and architecture… Sufi doctrine and method allowed it to capitalise on these possibilities to produce some of its most remarkable qualities: a unifying expression of the essential metaphysical dimension of Islam; a diversity of regional forms; and a certain ambiguity or ambivalence which allows for a multiplicity of layers, or levels of meanings which can be simultaneously contained in the same object.

Sufism considers “form”, that is outward form, as of no consequence in the quest for content and meaning, and recognises a multiplicity of ways to the common goal. Thus it has no problem with assimilation and adaptation of local forms into the vocabularies of its poetry, music and architecture. Secondly, in order to communicate the experience of metaphysical realities, which have no equivalent in the ordinary sensory experience of the physical world, Sufism had to rely on the use of symbols and metaphors, using intelligible words and familiar forms borrowed from the common language and everyday experiences of people they were addressing.

Proscription against representation of animate forms has been widely asserted as the explanation for the use of geometry, floral arabesques and calligraphy in Islamic visual art and architecture[6]. This assertion is for course neither substantiated by the works themselves, which contain numerous examples of representations of living objects, nor by any specific injunction of the Qur’an. But the problem with such assertions is that they “explain away” the phenomenon without either defining the formal schema, principles or characteristics of the designs or providing insight as to the intention., meaning, or reason for making those forms.

Bazid, the youthful architect of the tomb of the sixteenth century Sufi saint, Sheikh Dawood Jhunniwal, at Shergarh in the Punjab, tells us that when they had finished the construction they placed upon its walls the following inscription: “…This edifice, may its shadow spread far and wide, is built so that anyone who sets eyes upon it will be attracted towards it, and he who sits beneath its dome and recites the litany “la ilaha il Allahu” (there is no God except Allah) will receive from the body of this structure the response “Wahdahu la sharikalahu” (He is one and He has no associates)

We learn from the architect himself that the purpose of the building was to spread the teachings of the Sheikh far and wide, and it was for this purpose that it was designed to be attractive even to the casual spectator. But for the initiate on the “way”, the seeker, it was meant to serve as a tool in his meditations.

It is only when we go beyond looking upon these patterns as mere “decoration”, and begin to read them as symbolic representations of abstract concepts, that we will come closer to understanding the principles of design, the choice of forms, and the message they were intended to communicate.

Thus typically, a clearly delineated frame or border defines the universe of discourse: the object that from a specific position fills our entire field of vision. As if to say that what we behold, the created universe, is one and finite. The diversity of elements within the frame reflects the diversity within unity. The symmetrical arrangements and the geometric harmonies and proportions remind us that this universe was created in perfect balance, in perfect order. Yet one out of these forms is unique, and it is the centre of the creation. But as we approach closer, what was at one level only an element in the larger scheme, reveals itself to be a microcosmic representation of the macrocosmic whole, with its own frame, diversity of elements, symmetries and unique centre. And the same truth seems to reveal itself at each level/stage of our contemplation of the design. Here then we have a graphic illustration of a concept so frequently expressed by our poets. To quote Rumi: “if you split the heart of a single atom it will reveal a thousand suns.”

While the overall schema of the designs could be used as a mandala, a cosmic diagram, more specific meanings could be expressed implicitly in geometric, floral and architectonic motifs and explicitly in calligraphy.

The pre-Islamic sources of a sacred geometry, which ascribes qualitative meanings to number and forms, are well known, and its development and use in Islamic art has been well documented[7]. The meanings of written texts are of course self evident. But the vocabulary of floral and architectonic motifs may need to be more systematically studied, particularly with reference to the contemporary literature. Thus by comparing the imagery used in miniature paintings with the accompanying texts which they illustrate, and by cataloguing the use of metaphors and similes in written sources, it should not be difficult to establish an inventory of motifs and their symbolic meanings.


Wazir Khan’s Mosque

"The Mosque of Wuzeer Ulee Khan," published by the Illustrated London News, 1858;

"The Mosque of Wuzeer Ulee Khan," published by the Illustrated London News, 1858;

The 17th century mosque of Wazir Khan, in the heart of walled city of Lahore, illustrates how sacred and monumental architecture in Islam was designed to communicate specific metaphysical concepts and meanings. I have elsewhere demonstrated how building and decorative crafts – stone and brick masonry, fresco painting, glazed tile mosaic, stucco plaster, wood carving etc. and calligraphy – were orchestrated into the grand scheme of the architecture to communicate a clear and consistent message. Thus the mosque invites us, the visitor, in the midst of our worldly affairs, to remember our goal in this life and the hereafter; to turn towards God. Having made the transition, as we move through its forecourt, across the wide expanse of the courtyard, and into the main, prayer chamber, we are reminded to submit to the ritual prayer and invoke God, the Opener, to open the gates of His mercy. The theme of the Prophet, peace be upon him, as the symbol of God’s mercy, runs throughout the entire conception of the mosque. And if , after having walked through its gates, traversed its court and feasted upon the delights of itsewan, if still you do not recognise the import of its message, then read, as you must, when you leave the mosque, the bold Persian inscription above the exit:


“Mohammad of Arabi, who is the honour of both worlds,

Dust be upon the head which is not the dust of his threshold.”



[1] Presented at the Lok Virsa seminar on “Creativity in Traditional Islamic Crafts”, Islamabad, October, 1994

[2] Ananda Coomaraswamy, “the Dance of Shiva”, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1982. p.44

[3] Titus Burckhardt, “Fez-City of Islam”, Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, 1992. Pp. 76-79, relates his encounter with a traditional comb maker who ascribes the origins of his craft to the prophet Lord Seth, the son of Adam, and talks of the inner meaning and wisdom embodied in every act associated with the manufacture of these simple objects.

[4] Sura’ al Hashr.

[5] All four calligraphers of the Wazir Khan Mosque are known to have belonged to Sufi circles.

[6] See Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press. pp72 et passim,

[7] André’ Paccard, “Traditional Islamic Crafts in Moroccan Architecture”, Vol. 1., Editions Ateliers 74, Saint-Jorioz, 1980. pp. 134-311. See also Keith Critchlow, “Islamic Patterns”


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About the Author
As practicing architect, educator, author, and pioneer in the movement for conservation of architectural heritage Kamil Khan Mumtaz, has been a leading influence in raising standards of architectural design in general and in the search for a contemporary, appropriate architecture for Pakistan responsive to climate, economy and materials yet rooted in the indigenous culture. He has been a practicing professional architect in Lahore for the past forty three years. From 1966 to 1975 he was in private practice; was a partner in the firm BKM Associates from 1975 to 1985; and ran his own practice from 1985 to present.
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