Islamic Architecture: God is in the Details

German-American architect Mies Van Der Rohe’s aphorism “God is in the details” laconically describes the idea of aniconic ornament in the Islamic decorative arts which includes geometry, vegetal patterns and calligraphy. The concept of monotheism in Islam; the emphasis on the Oneness of God, also called ‘Tawhid’, is visually rendered through inherently forced balance, unity and order in the geometrical reciprocity of the interacting elements. The resultant is not as much an image, as it is an ephemeral experience where seemingly simple geometrical shapes morph into episodes of transitory forms, interlacing and combining themselves whilst enticing the viewer to come closer and study it further; to seek the unknown. The dual role of the viewer as seeker, despite unintentional, emphasizes the impermanence of creation. 

The geometrical play on shapes resonates architecturally with the representation of the gardens of paradise hasht-bihisht (eight paradises) design; a Persian concept, where a square grid is first divided into four, then eight, equaling 32 plots, as seen in buildings like Humayun’s tomb (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Taj Mahal; also known as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The charbagh is a characteristic feature of Mughal and Persian architecture, which was introduced in India by the first Mughal emperor; Babur. For instance, waterways dissect the gardens of the Taj Mahal into four equal areas. Humayun’s mausoleum was the first imperial garden tomb in India, and inspired many others, including the Taj Mahal. The rhythmic overlap of shapes that symbolized religious ideologies, when protruded, created spaces that further instilled the ideas of order and unity. These characteristic distinctions are found in the decorative arts of the Muslim world irrespective of geographical proximity. Geometric patterns like the octagonal star are to be found in many buildings and in use till today.   

Every decorative art, whether ceramics, illuminated manuscripts, carving or weaving, regardless of scale, adhered to earlier archetypes in terms of decoration and hence are visually consistent, as belonging to a certain style. However, regional influences did add an idiosyncratic layer to the basic structure of the ornament but the foundations of balance and unity remained, understandably so, as these principles supplemented the doctrine of monotheism experientially. Pietra Dura, a decorative technique wherein pieces of colored stone are cut and fitted in marble, as per the desired design, has been employed extensively in the Taj Mahal. The building thus, reads like a Mughal miniature painting with richly embellished borders, the organically flowing text and the grandeur of the spaces enveloped within and around the Taj. 

Built under the reign of the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (King of the World) in the 17th century, in memory of his wife Arjumand Bano, whom he later gave the title ‘Mumtaz Mahal’, meaning ‘Jewel of the Palace’, the construction of the Taj Mahal employed more than 20,000 laborers for over 20 years. White marble and  red sandstone were primarily used, apart from precious and semi-precious stones like  jasper, crystals, jade, garnet lapis lazuli, onyx, coral, sapphire, emeralds, etc. located at the banks of the Yamuna river in Agra, as one enters the main entrance or darwaza-i-rauza, the gardens and lotus pool provide a lush foreground for the gracefully inviting architecture of the monument that symbolizes eternal love. The Taj Mahal appears different at varied times of the day, the rays of the sun washing the gleaming white surface, and the interior spaces retaining a meditative character. In 1983, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.    

In the Islamic tradition, the art and skill of writing is highly valued especially the art of calligraphy since it was a way to document the verses of the Qur’an; the word of God, in the most beautiful manner possible. Also, it separates man from beast and is a witness to civilization. Hence, calligraphy forms a part of architecture as surface embellishment in a variety of styles- the Naskh script seen in the gateway fa├žade of the Buland Darwaza and the Thuluth script on the Taj Mahal’s main Pishtaq (central doorway) engraved with jasper. The importance of the written word and the act of reading or gaining knowledge, in the Islamic tradition, can be inferred from the fact that during the Qur’anic revelations, the first word of the first Surah to be revealed was ‘Iqra’, meaning ‘read’. The emphasis on reading or gaining knowledge cannot be more pronounced, as buildings or spaces people inhabit in, are adorned by it and articles of daily use have verses painted on their surfaces. Every encounter in day-to-day living is an exemplification of the value of knowledge and learning.

Islamic architecture explores, through geometry, the ideals of perfection, unity, balance and order, creating rhythm and harmony in spaces embodying them. Geometry exists in nature, in the minutest particle inhabiting it, in the structure of leaves and petals, soil and water, volcanoes and clouds and of course, man and animal. Buildings in this tradition are not just experiments in aesthetics but meticulously planned spaces that celebrate unity in equality and enchant the viewer into a meditative exploration, nudging one to seek. To take a step forward.