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Summary Article: Architecture
from Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States

Islamic architecture includes a wide range of religious and secular structures erected by or for Muslim communities, beginning in the early seventh century. This field of study encompasses architectural forms of cultural expression from diverse historical and geographical contexts. In each case, a connection to the religion of Islam is held in common. In the United States, Islamic architecture is characterized by diversity in structural form, function, and intended use. The majority of public spaces in the American Muslim community have been adapted from existing buildings originally built for other purposes. Contemporary design of American Islamic architecture typically seeks to reflect the ethnic or national identity of an immigrant community, frequently imitating the style of architecture present in the country of origin.

The study of Islamic architecture can be approached according to such categories as function, chronology, monument, dynasty, and typology. In this context, one of the two broadest functional classifications of Islamic architecture is the religious structure, which includes prayer spaces, commemorative edifices, housing for religious education, and monastic structures. The second of these classifications is the civic structure, a category encompassing residential, palatial, commercial, military, industrial, and landscape architecture. Conversely, the chronological approach to the study of Islamic architectural history can be divided into five major phases: the Formative, Classical, Medieval, Imperial, and Modern Periods. In most cases, books outlining a survey of Islamic architectural history use a chronological approach, highlighting those structures erected during the reign of the major Islamic dynasties. These periods of rule include the Umayyad (661-750), Abbasid (750-1258), Fatimid (909-1171), Seljuk (1038-1194), Ayyubid (1176-1250), Mamluk (1250-1517), Ilkanid (1256-65), Timurid (1370-1506), Safavid (1501-1732), Mughal (1526-1707), and Ottoman (1299-1922) empires. Typological studies, however, include formal and functional features that are specific to Islamic cultures, including mosques, mausoleums, palaces, commercial structures, and forts. While these approaches also apply to the study of Islamic architecture in the United States, it remains a relatively young and interdisciplinary field, incorporating methodological approaches from anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and other areas of study as well.

Today, scholars in the field of Islamic architecture continue to define a set of criteria by which a form can be called Islamic. One significant question concerns how scholars might formulate and agree upon a single methodology for use throughout the discipline. As of 2007, three trends in academic writing prevail. These are monographic studies based on single buildings; semiotic studies examining the relationship between the Quran and Islamic architecture; and contemporary urban development in the Islamic world. Academic figures that have pursued such courses of study include Swiss scholar Titus Burckhardt (1908-84), Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933) of the George Washington University, and Yasser Tabbaa (b. 1948) of Oberlin College. Furthermore, because American interest in Islamic studies has risen in recent decades and especially since September 11, 2001, the study of Islamic architecture has also grown as a field of study among American scholars. Figures who deal with Islamic architecture being built in the United States include Michael M. J. Fisher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Omar Khalidi of the MIT Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture, Susan Slyomovics, also of MIT, and John Sweetman, author of The Oriental Obsession: Islamic Inspiration in British and American Art and Architecture, 1500-1920 (1988).

The origins of Islamic architecture can be traced to seventh century Arabia, when the nascent religion of Islam began to influence all aspects of society. In developing an overtly Islamic type of architecture, early Islamic communities continued to employ the architectural traditions of Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, and Persian (or Sassanian) cultures. In 622 CE, the structure that served as the house and mosque of the Prophet Muhammad was built in Medina as the first truly Islamic edifice. Thereafter, it served as a paradigm for later developments in the civic and religious architecture of Muslim communities. With the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, and Europe, Islamic architecture also came to include foreign design elements found in conquered lands. Occurring over many centuries, this cultural exchange resulted in a diverse range of building styles that are now recognized under the single umbrella of Islamic architecture. An early example of such influences can be observed in the Dome of the Rock (692 CE), located in Jerusalem. The first Islamic edifice to intentionally convey an air of monumentality, the Dome of the Rock was meant to memorialize its sacred location and the victory of the Muslim community. A number of well-known structures built under Muslim rule similarly exhibit the stylistic variations and cultural syncretism within Islamic architecture. Most notably, these include the Selimiye mosque complex in Edirne, Turkey (built by the Ottoman architect Sinan in 1569-74), and the Taj Mahal mausoleum in Agra, India (built by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan in 1632-54).

The many religious forms of Islamic architecture include the masjid (neighborhood mosque); the masjid-i-jāmi' (congregational or Friday mosque); the musḥalla (prayer enclosure); the kuttāb (Quranic school for children); the madrasa (religious college); the ribāh (a fortified monastery); the khanqah or taqīyya (urban Sufi lodge); the zawīyya (retreat for a famous shaykh); the qubba or turba (mausoleum with a charitable function); the rawḍa (funerary garden); the mashad (memorial of a vision); and the walī (memorial structure for a saint). Alternatively, the various forms of civic architecture include the miṣr (an early Islamic garrison city); the palace; the residential structure with a qa'a (a type of hall in medieval residential architecture); the caravanserai or khan (a traveler's inn, an urban inn, or a guarded storehouse); the citadel; the Dār al-'Adl (Palace of Justice); and the Chahar Bagh (a garden divided into four equal sections). A number of features are commonly used to identify forms of Islamic architecture, including the dome; arch; minaret; open courtyard; arcade; dīwān (a vaulted hall enclosed on three sides); calligraphy; arabesque designs (geometric and vegetal patterns); and muqarnas (a honeycomb or stalactite vaulting used both as a decorative and structural device).

While the elements of Islamic culture developed largely in the Middle East and North Africa, the influence of Muslim societies, including their architectural styles, also traveled to Western Europe. In the eighth century, for instance, Muslims of the Umayyad Empire settled in Spain, formulating what came to be the Moorish or Mudéjar style. Recognizable for its use of bright colors, its façades of multicolored horizontal brick bands, decorative terra cotta, and horseshoe arches, this form of architectural design involves a technical and stylistic symbiosis of Islamic and non-Islamic motifs. Classic examples of monuments from the Moorish style include the Great Mosque of Cordoba, built in 786. Similarly, the palace and fortress complex of the Alhambra in Granada (1248-1354) also displays characteristic features of this architectural school. While these structures have appealed to both Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans, they also provided the foundation for a revival of the Moorish style in European and American architecture in the nineteenth century.

Although Islamic architecture takes a variety of forms in the United States, it is possible to make a distinction between those styles that have taken inspiration directly from the Islamic world, and those structures built with the culture of American Muslims in mind.

While Islamic architecture became more popular in America when Muslims entered the country in larger numbers, an awareness of this style did exist in the United States prior to such waves of immigration. Nonetheless, Americans in the early nineteenth century largely conceived of the Islamic world as being part of the "Orient." The cultural elements and traditions of Islamic countries were thus not well understood until a later period, when a formalized notion of Islamic studies came about. Before 1865, for instance, some of the most commonly found examples of Islamic influences included bazaars, markets, and exhibition halls. Interest in Islamic architecture began to appear most prominently in North America during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In many cases, examples of this style became available through World Expositions (for example, in New York from 1853 to 1854) as well as Orientalist literature and art. The Moorish style in particular became a popular source of inspiration for religious, domestic, and commercial architecture among Muslims in America, while Moorish architecture was also used widely in Jewish communities for synagogue design. In such cases, Islamic architectural motifs were applied to the religious context of Judaism, with the Central Synagogue of New York City (1870) serving as an example of this trend. In the construction of domestic architecture, Islamic features were chosen selectively to express the individual tastes of the patron. Often built in the form of private villas, these structures include the "Iranistan" in Bridgeport, Connecticut (built in 1848 and burned down in 1857) and the Villa Zorayda in St. Augustine, Florida (designed in 1882), which references the Alhambra. Another example of residential architecture can be seen in the city of Opa-Locka in Miami-Dade County, Florida, where a 1926 structure built by multimillionaire Glenn Curtis reflects the Orientalist imagery of the Arabian Nights. Similar motifs appear in the architecture of the American entertainment and tourist industry, including a number of theaters across the United States and the Sahara hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. The most famous example of these may be the Fox Theater and Cinema in Atlanta, Georgia (1929).

Today, architecture has become a tool for increasing the visibility of Islam in the larger American public sphere, with many communities choosing to design mosques, schools, and cultural centers in a distinctly Islamic style. In addition to serving as prayer space, mosques since the earliest stages of Islam have provided Muslims with a general venue for their social and political activities. An American mosque thus has the ability to reflect the particular cultural and ethnic identity of its community. While some groups of Muslim immigrants tend to reaffirm their group identity after settling in America, others choose to redefine themselves as American Muslims, incorporating aspects of the dominant culture. Although American mosques can be classified according to their relationship with a cultural context, some scholars choose to categorize them in relation to size and function. These categories include such forms as headquarter mosques, Islamic centers, community mosques, and campus centers.

For example, headquarter mosques are generally large structures that uphold the central authority of other mosques in the same state or country. Although there is no single headquarter mosque in the United States, several large state mosques provide space for large congregations and attract wider, international Muslim communities. For example, the Al-Farooq Masjid in Atlanta (established in 1980) serves an estimated 75,000 Muslims, while approximately 30,000 Muslims frequent the mosque of the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield, Indiana (built in 1979). Although larger Islamic Centers are often similar in size, their specific areas of focus are determined by the cultural traditions of the community in which they operate. Two of the largest American mosques are the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center (AICC) in Staten Island, New York (established in 1973), and the mosque of the Detroit Islamic Center (built in 2005). The style of the latter structure borrows from current trends in the mosque design of Saudi Arabia, where post-modern references to historical architectural styles are shown in the use of monochromatic stone. Other Islamic centers of this size include the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (completed in 1991), which accommodates more than one community. In many cases, Islamic centers also focus on education and related resources.

Alternatively, community mosques provide prayer space while also carrying out other charitable work, typically offering financial support and counseling services to member families. As they are usually smaller than Islamic Centers, the design of community mosques often follows two opposing paths. On the one hand, a community may replicate architectural features characteristic of its country of origin. On the other hand, a community may attempt to blend into the American context, an attitude taken in the design of the Masjid al-Salam in Edmond, Oklahoma (built in 1992). At the same time, a mosque such as the Islamic Society of Boston's Cultural Center in Roxbury (started construction in 2002) is distinguished as Islamic only by its Mamluk square-based minaret and modernized dome; otherwise, the center seeks largely to blend into its immediately surrounding urban setting. Because of this attempt to incorporate Islamic and contemporary American architecture, the project has been the object of controversy.

Finally, campus centers and other large institutional complexes are typically more integrated with American society than other types of mosques, showing a tendency toward assimilation. The size and setting of these structures often prevents its many member groups from cohering into one unified mosque community. For instance, the prayer space of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is visited mostly by students, while many locally employed professionals also use this space for daily prayer.

This general function-based classification shows that mosques in America are more than centers for the religious activities of a Muslim community. Rather, these institutions often represent and communicate the identity of a particular culture, ethnicity, or nationality. With their lack of unified typology, contemporary mosques in the United States reflect the diversity of Islam in America.

See also Art; Charity; Ethnicity; Immigration; Mosques; Mosques History; Sufism

Further Readings
  • Bagby, Ihsan, Perl, Paul M., and Froehle, Bryan T.. The Mosque in America: A National Portrait. Washington, DC: Council on American-Islamic Relations, April 26, 2001.
  • Blair, Sheila and Bloom, Jonathan. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1994.
  • Burckhardt, Titus. "The Foundations of Islamic Art." In Sacred Art in East and West: Its Principles and Methods. London: Perennial Books, 1967, pp. 101-19.
  • Danby, Miles. Moorish Style. London: Phaidon, 1995.
  • Ettinghausen, Richard, Grabar, Oleg, and Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J. "Orientalizing America: Beginnings and Middle Passages." Merip Report 22, no. 178 (Sept.-Oct. 1992):32-37.
  • Frishman, Martin and Khan, Hasan-Uddin, eds. The Mosque: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
  • Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. 2nd ed. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1987.
  • Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Architecture: Form, Function and Meaning. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.
  • Hoag, John D. Islamic Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977.
  • Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York: Warner Books, 1992.
  • Khalidi, Omar. "Approaches to Mosque Design in North America." In Muslims on the Americanization Path? Edited by Yvonne, Yazbeck Haddad and John, L. Esposito. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998, pp. 317-34.
  • Khalidi, Omar. "Fantasy, Faith, and Fraternity: American Architecture of Moorish Inspiration" (2004) ArchNet Digital Library Web Site, (accessed January 2007).
  • Khalidi, Omar. "Import, Adapt, Innovate." Saudi Aramco World. (November/December 2001): 24-33.
  • Michell, George, ed. Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning. Reprint. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, "The Principle of Unity and the Sacred Architecture of Islam." In Islamic Art and Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987, pp. 37-63.
  • Rabbat, Nasser, "Islamic Architecture as a Field of Historical Inquiry." AD Architectural Design, Special Issue Islam+Architecture 74, no. 6 (Nov-Dec 2004):18-23.
  • Slyomovics, Susan. "The Muslim World Day Parade and 'Storefront' Mosques of New York City." In Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Edited by Barbara, Daly Metcalf. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 204-16.
  • Sweetman, John. The Oriental Obsession: Islamic inspiration in British and American Art and Architecture, 1500-1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Tabbaa, Yasser. The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 2001.
Azra Aksamija
Deniz Turker
Copyright © 2007 by Jocelyne Cesari

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