What Is Islamic Architecture?

Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India

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Islamic architecture can be found primarily in Arab States and Muslim-majority countries around the world, as well as in European countries with Arab or Islamic histories, such as Spain and Portugal.

Islamic architecture is a centuries-old category of architecture that is rooted in the principles of Islam. The striking sculptural forms and often dazzling ornamental detail that characterizes Islamic buildings include some of the most awe-inspiring built structures on Earth.

Islamic Architecture
Mosques of Sultan Hassan and Al-Rifai in Cairo, Egypt

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History of Islamic Architecture

Islamic architecture refers to a style of architecture that was created as a physical manifestation of the principles of Islam by the Mohammedan (people of Islamic faith) in the 7th century, a tradition that continues to the present day. The building that is most frequently associated with Islamic architecture is the mosque, or Muslim place of worship. But Islamic architecture encompasses both secular and religious buildings, including everything from large-scale mosques, fortresses, palaces, tombs, and public buildings such as schools to smaller-scale structures including fountains, public baths, and domestic structures. 

Islamic Architecture
Mosque Hassan in Rabat, Morocco

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Early Islamic architecture was influenced by existing styles such as Roman, Byzantine, and Persian architecture. As Islamic architecture spread from the Middle East throughout the world, specifically to places such as Asia, it was influenced by Chinese and Mughal architecture. Islamic-esque architecture in parts of Europe is a version of Islamic architecture that was developed by the North African Muslims who conquered the Iberian Peninsula and many surrounding Western Mediterranean islands and developed the style over hundreds of years of reign. Many prominent examples of this style can be found in Spain. In the mid-19th century, a revival movement included the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, whose work was highly influenced by Islamic style in Spain. 

Islamic Architecture
Nasir-al Molk Mosque in Iran

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Key Characteristics of Islamic Architecture

Minarets

Towering spires with interior staircases and small windows, minarets are striking to look at and serve an integral function, calling Muslims to prayer five times a day.

Domes

Islamic architecture features domes placed on structures called pendentives that make it possible to fit a round dome on a rectangular or square room. Pendentives are often decorated with mosaic tiling. 

Muqarnas Vaulting

Resembling a honeycomb or stalactite pattern, elaborate muqarnas vaulting adds a textural and monochromatic touch to the ceilings of often intricately and colorfully tiled interiors.

Arches

Horseshoe (or keyhole); pointed (precursor to Gothic); scalloped multifoil; and ogee-style arches. 

Ornamental Details

Islamic Architecture

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Islamic decoration often includes multi-colored mosaic tiling featuring repeated patterns and non-figurative geometric or vegetal motifs and patterns such as the arabesque. It also typically includes the use of Arabic calligraphy scripts, such as passages from the Qur'an. Another striking feature is mashrabiya, or wood lattice work, that is used on windows for privacy and climate control and sometimes used in a modern context as a purely decorative element or option for dividing interior spaces. Other decorative elements of Islamic design include wall paintings; stucco sculpture and wall panels; and decorative woodwork.

Outdoor Elements

Islamic architecture often features gardens; walled interior courtyards; open hypostyle halls held up by columns; and vaulting.

Famous Examples of Islamic Architecture

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel

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Dating from the 7th century, this famous public shrine is the world’s oldest standing Islamic monument. The first Islamic building to feature a Byzantine-style dome, the construction of The Dome of the Rock was one of the earliest examples in the development of an Islamic style. The gold-plated wood dome is situated on an octagonal base. The building itself is decorated with floral and geometric mosaics.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India

A UNESCO World Heritage Site Often and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal is cited as the most famous example of Islamic architecture on the planet. Combining elements of Persian, Indian, and Islamic architecture, this sprawling 17th-century mausoleum complex has become one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions and prized selfie backdrops, instantly recognizable thanks to its imposing central white marble tomb. Closer inspection reveals intricate details such as precious inlaid stones and Arabic calligraphy. 

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Alhambra is a 14th-century palace and fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site built on a plateau overlooking Granada, Spain. While the complex has lost some of its original structures over the last 700 years, what remains of this grand complex is a stunning example of Islamic architectural ornament, such as carved wood and stucco, colorful tiling, calligraphy, and muqarnas that decorate the Court of Lions. 

Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan

Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku

Helene Binet / Zaha Hadid Architects
 

 

A well-known example of a modernized version of Islamic style is this award-winning 2013 cultural center designed by the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, who died in 2016. The building reinterprets the characteristic flow of architectural elements found in traditional Islamic design, resonating with centuries of tradition while appearing resolutely contemporary.