Islamic Architecture and Interior Design – Part I

This was my final essay for last year’s Historical Influences on Interior Design module. The word count for the final essay was brought down from 2500 to 1500, which meant a ruthless butchering of my 3800 word draft. However, here I have chosen to publish my final draft in full as it gives a more comprehensive coverage of some of the features of Islamic design. The essay is divided into three posts:

  1. Introduction and the Dome.
  2. Arches, and Lattices and Calligraphy.
  3. Courtyards and Gardens, Grids, and the conclusion.

Some parts have been adapted from:


Discuss the key of features of Islamic architecture and interior design and consider how these have become characteristic.

Islamic architecture and interior design is part of a rich and dynamic culture dating back to the sixth century A.D. The transformation of space through elements such as light, sound, water, symbolism and mathematicism played an important part in the development of buildings, landscapes and urban spaces under Islamic rule. Throughout the centuries, experimentation with these elements have resulted in important architectural features such as domes, arches, calligraphy, mosaics and lattices, mathematical grids, courtyards and gardens that are now considered characteristics of Islamic design. They are most prominent in buildings spanning the globe over many centuries such as the Dome of the Rock, Alhambra Palace, Taj Mahal, and Chadgoan Mosque. This essay attempts to examine these characteristics in these examples, and explain how they have come about.



Architectural mobility is the result of the influx of architectural styles, symbolism, materials and crafting techniques from other parts of the world, brought in by the processes of migration, colonization for reasons of spreading empires, expanding trade routes and spreading religion. The Muslims, who engaged in all of these activities, were strong agents of architectural mobility, which lead to these features becoming characteristic in Islamic architecture.

The initial precedents for both religious and secular Islamic buildings were the existing indigenous buildings in Medina and Mecca – present Saudi Arabia – at the time Islam was founded, in the early part of the seventh century. Wolper (2014) states that the first recognised Islamic building (mosque) was the house of Prophet Mohammad, built in 622.

However, Islamic architecture and design started to proliferate only after the death of Muhammad, with the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate from 610-750, which was based in Jerusalem and Damascus, and so exposed to Byzantine and Sassanid architectural influences. They were followed by the Abbasids (750-1258), when the empire expanded into Africa, Turkey and the Balkan states, whose architectural and building technologies were added to those already present in Islamic culture (Watenpaugh, 2004). The dissolution of the Abbasids lead to the rising of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turkish empires (950-1450), and the expansion of the Nasrid empire in to Spain, and the establishment of its capital in the Alhambra citadel. Here, they came into contact with Byzantine and Catholic influences, as well as Safanid invasions, and extremes in temperature and weather conditions (Graves, 2006 and Wilmert, 2010).

Although Muslim influences were already present in India owing to trade with the Arabs during the seventh and eighth centuries, Islamic architecture in the subcontinent reached its zenith during Mughal occupation in the sixteenth century (Alfieri, 2000). The Mughals were the main proponents of Islam in South Asia. They were descended from Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan, and the founder of their dynasty was Babur. By the fifteenth century, their capital city Samarkand in Turkestan (on the Silk Route, the ancient trade route which linked the Eastern and Western civilisations), was a center of Islamic architecture and Persian culture (Koch, 1991).



The dome is one of the most common and iconic features of Islamic architecture. It is used in many mosques and some secular buildings such as palaces and citadels to transform space – usually cubic or octagonal volumes – and add greater verticality to the space, creating a sense of awe and wonder (Avner, 2010). The soaring height topped by the dome symbolises divine presence, while the space beneath symbolises the insignificance of man (Wolper, 2014).

There are many types of domes, such as the round dome, the beehive dome, the Persian dome, the cloister vault, the geodesic dome and the onion dome. First used in basic form in prehistoric times, by 300 A.D they were made in increasingly elaborate and advanced designs with the invention of the squinch by the Persians (Alfieri, 2000). The squinch allowed greater variety in the joints and load bearing capacity between arch and dome (Edwards and Edwards, 1999), leading to many possible variations in the shape of the dome (Avner, 2010).

Roman, Byzantine and Sassanid domes were in use in Catholic churches in Jerusalem and Damascus when the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates gained power. They adapted these domes to suit their cultural and symbolic narratives when they built new mosques, and made no changes to existing domes wherever possible – which were mostly round or Persian domes (Ching, Jarzombek and Prakash, 2007). This was because the dome had become a symbol of identification that signalled the importance of the church as a place of worship in society, and the Caliphs wished the converts and subjects of the new empire to view their mosques in the same manner.

The first Islamic domes, such as one of the Dome of the Rock, (691) on Mount Moraya in Jerusalem, were made of wood and plated with golden-copper alloy, and the drum was plated with shimmering red, blue, green and grey mosaic patterns, as these were readily available materials (Ching, Jarzombek and Prakash, 2007).

Dome of the rock

Gold plated Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem.


The Great Mosque of Damascus (709-715) built by the Umayyad Caliphate, features a 36m high octagonal dome called the Nisr dome – the dome of the eagle. These domes were derived from basic forms of existing Roman domes in Catholic cathedrals and churches, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Kathisma church in Jerusalem (Avner, 2010).

Over time, the domes diversified and began to move away from the typically Roman and Christian domes, as the Muslim architects wished to distance their designs from their Catholic origins (Graves, 2006). Though the Muslim empire expanded in Africa, Spain and India in the following centuries, it was in Indian Mughal buildings such as the Taj Mahal that the difference in dome design was most pronounced.

The Taj Mahal complex in Agra, was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632, as a mausoleum for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and was built over a period of twenty one years, ending in 1653 (Preston, 2007). By this time, the Mughals had spread Islam and Persian traditions over much of peninsula, including their dome building techniques. However, added to these were the techniques brought from Turkey, and from other parts of India, containing Hindu and Buddhist influences as well (Lall, 1982). The dome of the Taj Mahal was designed by Turkish designer Ismail Khan, and its old finial was cast by Qazim Khan of Lahore. (Ching, Jarzombek and Prakash, 2007).


Taj Mahal dome
Taj Mahal – Onion Dome.


Most of the Islamic buildings – whether religious or secular – that were built in the following centuries followed the traditions of building large and ornate domes out of wood, plaster, brick and metal. (Lambourne, 2010). However, with the advent of modernism in the mid twenty-first century, decoration gave way in the face of function and form. (Prestinenza Puglisi, 2008).

Although modernism rejected spirituality, it continues to influence many religious buildings today in terms of its minimalism and functional ethos. One such building is the Chadgoan Mosque (2007) in Bangladesh, by Kashef Chowdhury.

The Chadgoan Mosque, in addition to minimalist influences, is strongly influenced by local Bangladeshi cultural and Muslim architectural traditions. (Chowdhury, 2008). It contains all the requisite characteristics of Muslim architecture: courtyards, a water feature, and a dome.

However, it differs from traditional Muslim architecture in its transformation of space. Decoration and ornamentation are replaced by materiality, form, and space. Light and special verticality were prominent elements in designing the dome. Chowdhury states, “The naturally lit mihrab wall is balanced by a cut dome. While the apertures give a sense of openness and draw in light and ventilation by day, by night they allow light to shine out of the mosque like a beacon.” (Chowdhury, 2008). The meaning, symbolism and atmospheric appeal of the dome remain intact, but its execution has changed.


Chadgoan 2
Chadgoan dome exterior
Chadgoan 1
Dome interior
Chadgoan 3
Light play in Chadgoan


Coming up: Part II – The Arch, Lattices and Calligraphy.




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