What Is Islamic Architecture?

Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Kriangkrai Thitimakorn / Getty Images

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. Some of its key elements include geometric designs, pointed arches, and domes.

What Is Islamic Architecture?

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 characterize 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. Its traditions continue 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. It includes everything from large-scale mosques, fortresses, palaces, tombs, schools, and other public buildings to smaller-scale fountains, public baths, and domestic structures. 

Islamic Architecture
Mosque Hassan in Rabat, Morocco

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Existing styles including Roman, Byzantine, and Persian architecture influenced early Islamic architecture. As Islamic architecture spread from the Middle East throughout the world, specifically to Asia, Chinese and Mughal architecture influenced it as well.

North African Muslims who conquered the Iberian Peninsula and many surrounding Western Mediterranean islands brought Islamic-influenced architecture to parts of Europe. Many prominent examples of this style are in Spain. In the mid-19th century, a revival movement included the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who 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 are towering spires with interior staircases and small windows. They are striking to look at and serve an integral function, calling Muslims to prayer five times a day.


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.


Horseshoe (or keyhole), pointed (a precursor to Gothic), scalloped (or multifoil), and ogee (multicurved) arches are common in Islamic architecture.

Ornamental Details

Islamic Architecture

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Islamic decoration often includes multicolored mosaic tile featuring repeated patterns and 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. It's also 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 halls with a roof 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 Dome of the Rock was the first Islamic building to feature a Byzantine-style dome. The gold-plated wood dome is situated on an octagonal base. And the building itself is decorated with floral and geometric mosaics.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India

One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal is cited as the most famous example of Islamic architecture. 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. It is 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 built on a plateau overlooking Granada, Spain. While the complex has lost some of its original structures over the past 700 years, what remains is a stunning example of Islamic architectural ornament. There are 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 Heydar Aliyev Center reinterprets the characteristic flow of architectural elements found in traditional Islamic design, resonating with centuries of tradition while appearing resolutely contemporary.