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Islamic Inheritance

Throughout the ages, the Islamic world has conceived distinctive art forms, designs and fashions that continue to evolve, and produced eminent scholars who have changed the way we look at the world. 

Words: Efi Eqbal  Images: Corbis, Inmagine & Getty Image

The legacy of Islam is seen across the world in buildings, design, art, education, fashion and more. These rich traditions are rooted in the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions, and inspired by the faith, which encourages the pursuit of truth and knowledge. This legacy has evolved through the generations and across cultures while retaining the essence of Islamic teachings. 

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“O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (Qur’an 49:13). This is the verse from the holy Qur’an that was used as inspiration for the construction of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.


Expressing the concept of Allah’s omniscience, Islamic architecture strives to reflect the majesty of the Divine. It is often described as the ‘architecture of the veil’ as its true splendour is revealed in its inner spaces. 


Islamic architecture is one of the greatest of Islamic art forms, and most of the design elements that define this architectural style are inherited from the Al-Masjid Al-Nabawí – one of the first mosques built by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Medina, Saudi Arabia. These elements include: 

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The minarets and central portal of the Masjid-i Jami-i Yazd in Iran. Originally built in the twelfth century, the mosque was constructed in the Ilkhanid and Muzaffarid styles and features a 12 by 12 metre dome flanked by two minarets said to be the tallest in Iran. Photo from Inmagine


Originally used as torch-lit watchtowers as exemplified by the design of the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus in Syria. 


Various parts of the mosque are usually designed with domes or cupolas, which signify Allah’s infinite power. 


The garden is an analogy for Paradise as interpreted from the Qur’an. The design of the Islamic garden draws from Persian gardens and is imbued with religious symbolism from the Qur’an. 


An open courtyard in the centre of a building, usually decorated with a fountain that was originally used for ablution, but today remains a design element for aesthetic reasons. 


Repetitive design themes with intricate re-productions of verses from the Qur’an generally encompass the main identity of Islamic architecture. There are, however, different styles and elements that make up the architectural heritage of the Islamic world. 

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The Sheikh Lutf Allah Mosque in the city of Isfahan, Iran, is a masterpiece of Safavid architecture. The inner side of the dome is designed to form a sunburst of descending medallions of floral arabesque motifs in white, blue and black. Photo from Corbis


One of the first civilisations to come into contact with Islam was Persia. The growth of Islam in the 7th century and its spread throughout the Persian Empire led early Islamic architects to not just borrow, but adopt Persian architectural traditions as well. Through this adoption and adaptation, many cities were built; for example, Baghdad, which was established around 762 CE and designed based on the city of Firuzabad (then called Gür) during the times of the ancient Sassanid Middle Persia (now Iran). Persian-style mosques are characterised by tapered brick pillars, large arcades, and arches supported by several pillars. 


Construction of the Great Mosque at Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain, beginning in 785 CE marks the beginning of Islamic architecture in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa (the Moors). The mosque is noted for its striking interior arches. Moorish architecture reached its peak with the construction of the Alhambra, a magnificent palace and fortress complex in Granada, designed with an open and breezy interior adorned in red, blue and gold. Its walls are decorated with stylised foliage motifs, Arabic inscriptions and arabesque designs with glazed tile-work. The roots of Moorish architecture are deeply embedded in the Arab architectural tradition established during the era of the first Caliphate of the Umayyads in the Levant circa 660 CE. 


Turkey is home to the greatest number of mosques, as well as some of the largest with influences from Byzantine, Persian and Syrian-Arab design traditions. The architecture of the Turkish Ottoman Empire is distinct; the height of the domes and cupolas is usually ‘shorter’ than observed in the predominant style. A good example is the mid-16th century Süleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. 


The reign of the military caste of old Egypt, the Mamluks (1250-1517), marked a breathtaking flowering of Islamic art that is most visible in old Cairo. Their piety and religious zeal made them generous patrons of architecture and art. The Mamluks utilised an artistic technique known  as chiaroscuro (a play of light and dark) in their buildings; natural lighting effects played an important role in creating an ambience of peace and contemplation. 


The Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh in India epitomises the grandeur of Mughal architecture. It was commissioned by ruler Shah Jahan in memory of his most beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child, and was completed in 1648. According to architects, the Taj Mahal represents the pinnacle of Mughal Islamic architecture in India. This white marble mausoleum inlaid with semi-precious stones from Baghdad, Punjab, Egypt, Russia, China and Persia, and adorned with floral arabesques and calligraphic inscriptions is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world.


The Great Mosque of Xi’an is one of the first mosques in China. It was established in the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty in China’s Shaanxi Province. Interestingly, this mosque draws on traditional Chinese architectural designs, with pagodas instead of domes. 


Modern Islamic architecture has taken design to a whole new level with magnificent buildings such as the skyscraper Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE. The design of the Burj Khalifa is inspired by the regional desert flower, the Hymenocallis, and integrates patterns from Islamic architecture; viewed from the base or the air, the building is reminiscent of the onion-shaped domes that are ubiquitous in Islamic architecture. 


The rise and spread of Islam through the ages has gifted the world with sacred places that are also considered as heritage sites. Some are mentioned in the Qur’an, while others are depicted through the Hadith (report of the deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad PBUH). 


THE CITY OF MECCA Mecca is Allah’s chosen location for His House. It was here that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born and began his prophethood, spreading Islam.

THE KA’ABA, MECCA The Ka’aba, also known as Baytullah (The House of Allah) is the first house built for Muslims to worship Allah. It functions as the Qi’bla, the direction to which all Muslims pray five times a day. 

THE ZAM ZAM WELL, MECCA The Zam Zam well has provided some 4,000 years of continuous water supply. It is regarded as a miraculous gift bestowed by Allah upon his followers. 

JABAL HIRA, MECCA Located about 3.2 kilometres from the Ka’aba, it was here in the small cave at the top of the hill that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) received the first revelations of the Holy Qur’an during the month of Ramadhan in 610 CE. The mountain is also known as Jabal Noor (the Mountain of Light). 


THE UMAYYAD MOSQUE Known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus, it is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. It is also one of the first monumental works of architecture in Islamic history. 


CAVE OF ASHABI-KAHF, AMMAN Mentioned in the Qur’an (surah 18, verse 19-26), Al-Kahf is where a group of pious youth sought refuge from a tyrannical pagan king; Allah put them into a peaceful sleep for 309 years. 


This was where Muslims fought a famous battle against a combined Byzantine / Ghassanid army in the year 629 CE. 


MOUNT SINAI Rising to a height of 2,286 metres above sea level, Mount Sinai was where Moses received the 10 Commandments. 


AL-AQSA MOSQUE, OLD CITY OF JERUSALEM Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was believed to have been transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to Al-Aqsa during the Night Journey – an overnight journey where he was brought to Al-Aqsa to lead his followers in prayer before ascending to Heaven to speak to Allah regarding the details of prayer. The Night Journey is also known as Isra Mi’raj


HAGIA SOPHIA, ISTANBUL Hagia Sophia means ‘Divine Wisdom’, and was originally built as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. It was later converted into a mosque when the city was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 CE. It remained a mosque until 1931, when it was turned into a museum. 


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Calligraphy of a verse from the Holy Qur’an drawn in the cursive Deewani style. Photo from Inmagine

Arabic calligraphy is often interwoven with geometric Islamic art, as well as the arabesque style of decorative art characterised by intertwining plants and abstract, flowing lines. Islamic calligraphy is used to adorn walls and ceilings of mosques with scriptures from the Qur’an. Calligraphy and these visual expressions of the religion’s spiritual concepts are among the most venerated forms of Islamic art. 


Although early Arabic sources mention several calligraphic styles in reference to the cities in which they were used, Islamic calligraphy generally fit into two broad categories – Kufic and Naskh. In the 10th century, the two script styles merged and a new script became ubiquitous, as seen in the print of the Qur’an. During the Abbasid Dynasty (750 CE -1258 CE), the combination of styles drew variations such as the Thuluth, Riq’a, Deewani and Nasta’liq scripts; many of which helped set the foundation for all modern Arabic print.


Calligraphers are among the most highly regarded artists in the Islamic world. The excellence of their work reflects their status alongside the eminence of their teachers. Some of the most well-known classically trained calligraphers include: 

IBN MUQLA, (885 CE-940 CE)

Wrote extensively about the art of calligraphy and devised theories of letter shapes. 


Wrote 64 copies of the Qur’an, of which only one still exists; it is kept in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland. 

MIR ALI TABRIZI (1360-1420 CE) 

Codified the Nast’aliq script, which became the most important script in Persian calligraphy. 

SEYH HAMDULLAH (1436-1520 CE) 

Founder of modern Turkish calligraphy, he wrote 47 copies of the Qur’an, several of which still exist in the Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul, Turkey. 


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Islamic fashion collection titled Revealing Innocence by Indonesian designer Dian Pelangi that was presented at the Indonesian Fashion Week in February 2014. Photo from Getty Images

Islam expounds the importance of dressing modestly and respectfully for both men and women. Showing the body off is regarded as a sign of disrespect to one’s body, hence the requirement to cover the aurat (intimate parts). For women, this includes all parts of the body except for the face and hands, while for men, it is from the waist (above the navel) to below the knees. Muslim men’s fashion has changed little, if at all, as they dress according to the cultures they are born into. However, Islamic fashion for Muslim women has transformed and evolved with borrowed styles and designs from the West. The long dress known as abaya and the head covering known as hijab come in various styles. Islamic fashion is now a multi-million dollar industry.


In 2010, Bloomberg reported that fashion houses in Milan and Paris were waking up to the commercial potential of the Muslim women’s fashion industry. It was forecasted that should half of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims spend just USD120 a year on clothing, the Islamic fashion industry would be worth USD96 billion!  

HARRODS started selling abayas by Beljafla’s DAS Collection in June 2010, a month after Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund bought the landmark store. 

JOHN GALLIANO participated in a Paris fashion show in June 2009 at Hotel George V, owned by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, showcasing made-to-measure abayas worth up to USD10,000 a piece! 

SAKS FIFTH AVENUE put designer readyto-wear abayas on sale for as much as USD12,000 in its stores in the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jeddah. The Islamic fashion evolution has lent inspiration to new creations, such as the burkini, full-body swimwear designed for Muslim women to maintain modesty while frolicking. It looks a lot like a deep sea diver’s suit, but is made of a different material. Such distinct evolution is also observed in Muslim women’s head covering designs; some come with ornate adornments like brooches, flowers and Swarovski crystals. Today, there are many varying and creative styles used to wrap the hair, and there are even convenient readymade head covers that can be slipped on! 


The advent of Islam and its emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge saw the birth of many notable Muslim scientists and scholars who have contributed immensely to human knowledge, especially between the eighth and 14th centuries. Here are some of the most celebrated Muslim scholars in history whose contributions have left lasting marks in the annals of science, astronomy, medicine, engineering and philosophy. 


Al-Khwarizmi, born in Persia during the Abbasid Empire, was a mathematician, astronomer and geographer. Dubbed the ‘father of algebra’, his major contributions include that of astronomy and introducing the decimal positional number system to the Western world, where it was translated into Latin in the 12th century. His Latin name, Algoritmi, which means ‘calculation’, set the premise for modern-day computer science calculations, data processing and automated reasoning – algorithm.  


Ibn Sina as he is known (Avicenna in Latin), was born in Afshana near Bukhara, Uzbekistan. At 17 years old, he cured Nooh Ibn Mansoor, the King of Bukhhara, of an illness that all the well-known physicians had given up on. His greatest contribution was to medical science through his famous book Al-Qanun, which listed a systematic approach to the practice of medicine. The book described 760 drugs among other things, and is considered the most authentic medical material of the era.  


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An illustration of a stanza from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. This image alludes to a quatrain translated by Edward Fitzgerald that reads: How sweet is mortal sovranty – think some: Others – how blest the Paradise to come! Ah, take the cash in hand and waive the rest; Oh and the brave music of the distant drum. Photo from Corbis


Better known as Omar Khayyam, this Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, physician and poet was born in Nishapur, the provincial capital of Khorasan, Persia. His most well-known contribution was to mathematics, through his book Maqalat fial-Jabr wa al-Muqabila, which is a masterpiece on the development of algebra, mathematics in general and analytical geometry. 


Referred to as Ibn Khaldun, this scholar left his birthplace of Tunisia and made his way to Fez in Morocco in pursuit of advanced knowledge while still in his teens. His most monumental work was the Muqaddimah, a book that identified psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of mankind, immortalising him in the company of respected historians, sociologists and philosophers.  


Ibn Battuta was born into a family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco, during the reign of the Marinid dynasty. In 1325, at the age of 21, Ibn Battuta began his journey to perform the Hajj in Mecca, which took him 16 months. Following his Hajj, he journeyed through the entire Muslim world venturing over land and sea for 22 years, and covering 44 modern countries! It wasn’t until the 19th century that his book, Rihla, was discovered in Algeria. This book chronicled his extraordinary globetrotting journeys and featured geographical drawings. Ibn Battuta kept his work to himself; had he shared it, his name would possibly rank alongside Marco Polo’s for world travel discoveries! 

Sources: Ettinghausen, Richard and Grabar, Oleg. (1987) The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650 – 1250 (Penguin, USA); World Architecture – An Illustrated History (Hamlyn, London); Creswell, K. A. C. (1958) A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture; www.islamic-architecture.info; Teachers’ Resource: Exploring Calligraphy Through the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art; calligraphyqalam.com; islamichistoryonline.com; www.inter-islam.org; www.islamreligion.com; salamcenter.org; www. islamiclandmarks.com; whc.unesco.org 


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