Islamic Architecture
Legitimacy of Islamic elements
I'm doing research about the legitimacy of signs and symbols in Islamic buildings -mosques- and i was wondering if you can help me find answers to some questions:

1. Is there any Koranic or early Hadith symbolic system with visual association?

2. Are there any Koranic verses opposing symbolism in mosques?

3. Does the Islamic belief in other religions as a part of its faith make it legimate to import some elements from churches and temples?

Sara Magdy
Legitimacy of Islamic elements
Sara, salaam -

For sure, there is, were, and remain some very strict constraints on depictions of humans. Nothing, not even a suggestion, that is particularly mortal can ever be depicted as being on par, partners with, or equal to Allah. Of course, in a global religion as large as Islam, there are great variations as to how and to what extent this has been followed through the ages. As far as I have been able to discover, there are no specific, prescribed methods from the Quran defining a 'system of symbolism,' visual or otherwise. I am not a very accomplished Islamic scholar, so I suggest that YOU read the Quran and study Hadith to be sure.

I do not understand your question, "does the Islamic belief in other religions as a part of its faith make it legitimate to import some elements from churches and temples." Emphatically, I would have to say not! First, Islamic belief, while respecting that there are those with other religious beliefs, is complete unto itself and therefore does not 'incorporate' other religions into itself. There are common themes, elements perhaps - even prophets respected by many people, from many different spiritual perspectives, but this does not in and of itself constitute a 'borrowing' of ideas or beliefs from one faith to another. Therefore, we cannot take this to validate the 'import' of 'some elements' from some other church, temple or system of belief.

Some confusion may ensue from understanding that during the great florescence of Islamic culture, the faith spread to many hundreds of thousands across many lands and, to the extent that Islam is a comparatively tolerant philosophy, the esthetic appreciation and technical expertise of artisans from a broad spectrum of social and cultural geography became part of the general mix. This speaks to the importance of Islamic identity and the arts, what is and what is not Islamic art. There are many opinions, ranges and degrees of thought on the matter in the Muslim world, as well as the West.

Perhaps, speaking more from modernity than antiquity, as Islam holds there is to be 'no compulsion to religion,' we should also add that there should be no compulsion to art!

One has to look to one's own heart to recognize that which is helpful, or hurtful to one's faith, and so it is with art. Enjoy!

ma salemah!
Anthony Stewart
Legitimacy of Islamic elements sounds like the Islamic verson of The Da Vinci Code. Interesting.
Maya Sanskrit
Legitimacy of Islamic elements
Maya, salaam -

Sure, why not! Is not mystery the source of both religion and art? :)

ma salemah!
Anthony Stewart
Legitimacy of Islamic elements
Regarding your 3rd question, firstly Antony Stewart is so right when he says:
"There are common themes, elements perhaps - even prophets respected by many people, from many different spiritual perspectives, but this does not in of itself constitute a 'borrowing' of ideas or beliefs from one faith to another."
And as for importing elements from churches and temples, that has often happened more due to regional reasons than religious reasons. For instance, when the local artisans infused styles/elements that they were skilled at and that belonged to their region, then these styles/elements often contained signs and symbols that may or may not necessarily have belonged to the concerned religion.
Roohi Zain Mohtisham
Legitimacy of Islamic elements

I think it important to expound a little further on this as it counters 'assumptions' often made in the west and illustrates what make a 'global culture' truly vibrant and viable.

Beliefs, whether one shares them all, in part or completely DO play essential roles in determining not only our personal outlook but also general social perspectives as well. One of the reasons Islam can be and IS truly successful as a global culture stems from the inherent, shared security in shared spiritual values: This means that Muslim artists can, do and most often are free to incorporate pre-existing technologies and esthetic themes without losing any essential "Islamic-ness" in the design process.

What happens in the breach of open, artistic flux is an overbearing imposition of values by one society upon another - not advantageous to either. I think much of the criticism of 'international style' stems from this, that these design styles seem 'culturally imperialistic,' opposed to fundamental Islamic sensitivities.

It is the very nature of Islam to be fluid as if water in a stream, forgiving to the rocks yet inexorable in the journey home, making its mark in gentle contour without compulsion.

Quite in contrast, observe the cold, hard, angular lines of Northern Europe during the Middle Ages or the stark clamoring urban skylines of contemporary North America:

It is as if western design concepts are rooted deliberately in 'obstinate contrariness,' oppositional to natural human development.

Perhaps these polar differences in perspective are necessary to human progress, in'shulla! In moderate society, each of us as individuals are free to make our own choice and, to the extent that we are a 'product of our environment, we take this decision as both 'art' and 'artist.'

ma salemah!
Anthony Stewart
Legitimacy of Islamic elements
Hello everyone,
I want to thank you all for helping me out in my research.

First, I totally agree with you Anthony about the restriction on depicting humans. Second, I meant by "importing some elements from other faiths" that owing to how Muslims began their conquests after the prophet's death, many temples and churches were transformed to a mosque, leaving some elements from its original phase. For example, "Hagia Sophia" and "The Great Mosque of Damascus" which was at first a roman temple of Jupiter and then St. John church. Since it was the fastest way, I think, to build a mosque and to attract people to the new religion. But what confuses me the most is, is that acceptable or not?
Sara Magdy
Legitimacy of Islamic elements
Sara, salaam,

My first impulse is to say - of course, absolutely, yes! But, I think there needs to be clarity in your use of the phrase "Islamic belief in other religions as part of its faith..."

Islam is complete and whole unto itself, as a 'belief system' Islam cannot hold any beliefs in of itself, it is the people of faith who have beliefs.

You are quite correct that many churches, temples etcetera were adapted to Muslim practice (and still are). There is nothing particularly unusual in this as civilisations expand and contract, regions become populated by one people than another, perhaps holding differences, or transforming in their belief.
A building cannot have a belief, it has a purpose, a utility, a value but it cannot hold a belief nor is its use 'justified' one way or another except as to what is considered appropriate, at the time in place by those that use it. Islam respects the freedom of individuals to choose to live as Muslims, there is no prohibition (as far as I know) regarding use of pre-existing buildings for congregational purposes, only that congregational meetings of believers happen on a regular basis as prescribed according to the Quran and Hadith. Again, I am not a very accomplished Islamic scholar so you should study Islam, the Quran and hadith to verify for yourself what is best. I hope this helps.

ma salemah!
Anthony Stewart
Legitimacy of Islamic elements
Salam Sara,
Regarding signs and symbols, I suggest you read Titus Burckhardts Mirror of The Intellect - Essays on Traditional Science and Sacred Art; Art of Islam - Language and Meaning; and Sacred Art in East and West - Principles and Methods.
Imanuddin Ghazali


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