Sacred Architectural Order in Sufism

Sacred Architectural Order in Sufism

From Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam

An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas By Samer Akkach

  • Gazing at the Sky

Al-Ghazâlï’s analogy that served as the starting point of this excursion into premodern Islamic cosmology and metaphysics was concerned with the pro-cedural aspects of the creation, with how God and an architect alike first produce a written or drawn exemplar in accordance with which an object is then brought into existence. The analogy does not tell us much about the contents of these exemplars, nor about whether and how the architect interprets the divine paradigms and casts them into architectural forms.

Even in his more detailed discussion of the divine names, al-Ghazâlï’s main concern remains the process and protocol of production. In a treatise on the wisdom of God’s creatures, al-Ghazâlï gives us other clues. With references to the verses: “Have they not then observed the sky above them, how we have con-structed it and beautified it, and how there are no rifts therein?” (50:6) and “God it is who has created seven heavens, and of the earth the like thereof” (65:12) he writes:

Know, may God treat you with mercy, that if you reflect in your mind upon this world you will find it like a built house equipped with everything one needs. The sky is raised as a roof, the ground is stretched out as a carpet, the stars are hung like lamps, and the substances are stored as treasures. Everything is prepared and specifically formed for a purpose. Man acts as the owner of the house who is in charge of its contents. The varieties of plants are designated for his needs, and the species of animals are dedicated to his interests. God also created heaven and made its color most appropriate and strengthening for his vision. For if it was pure rays and lights it would have harmed the onlooker. Looking at the green and blue, however, is suitable for the human sight, as the souls find felicity and comfort in gazing upon the vastness of the sky, and especially when the starts are shining and moonlight is clear. For this reason, the kings adorn the ceilings of their courts with patterns and decorations that give the viewer comfort and delight. Yet, as the viewer continues to look at this adornment he becomes bored with it and loses what he used to find in his visual experience of felicity and delight. This is unlike gazing upon the heaven and its adornment, to which those displeased by whatever reason—be they kings or lay people—turn their sight seeking delight both in the sky and the vastness of space. As the wise men say: “you will have of comfort and delight in your house just as much as you have of the sky.

That the cosmos, in its complexity, beauty, and order, conceals a profound divine wisdom is beyond question for most Muslims. It is a core theme in the Quran that enjoins Muslims to reflect upon the wonders, beauty, and wisdom of God’s creation in order to deduce lessons, guidance, and meanings for their worldly practices.

A whole genre of literature concerned with the wisdom of God’s creations proliferated in premodern Islam. Even Islamic historiography was predicated on the notion of i’tibar, the need to reflect and “take lessons” from the events of past generations in order to understand God’s hidden wis-dom. The search for and praise of divine wisdom is traceable in a wide range of Islamic literature, and especially in the later Ottoman writings on architecture. The seventeenth-century text of Risale-i Mi’mariyye wonders about the architecture of the world:

What is this exalted mosque and retreat for witnessing?

What is this lofty vault and lamp ornament?

What is this bright window, what is this luminous taper?

What is this wonderful creation, and what is this beauteous form?

What is this vault of heaven, and what is this surface of the world?

What is this lofty arch, and what is this great pavilion?

What is this? Who made such an edifice?

Without drawings and without mathematics and without analogy?

Such reflections, while being concerned with procedure and aesthetics, support the assumption of a deeper connection between the divine act of creating and the human act of designing. In the preceding, I have explored the “contents” of the divine exemplar from the mystical perspective, focusing on what the Sufis consider to be the consistent, underlying nizam (order) of the universe, the thread that ties together all divine, cosmic, and human manifestations. So far, my focus has been on the divine side of the analogy; here I will turn to the architect’s side to discuss the tectonic embodiment of the universal order in architecture.

  • Ordering Spaces

A simple examination of a range of surviving premodern Islamic buildings reveals a discernible preference for geometrically ordered spaces with isotropic spatial qualities. There was a tendency to organize spaces symmetrically around a central point and to identify, in one form or another, the cross of directions, regardless of whether or not the cross is aligned with the cardinal points.

For example, the formal composition of a dome on a geometrically regular base or a courtyard with a central fountain and four vaulted iwans, doorways, and other symmetrical elements are recurrent in a variety of building types.

They were used to form the whole or parts of buildings as diverse as tombs, mosques, palaces, hospitals, caravanserais, public baths, garden pavilions, and schools. This same spatial order is traceable in buildings that serve secular as well as religious purposes. There are rich tectonic and regional variations, of course, but the underlying spatial order remains consistently visible from India to Spain and from the formative period to the late Ottomans. This tendency is not peculiar to Islam though. Notwithstanding the conspicuous differences in tectonic expressions, other traditions reveal a similar sense of ordering.

The consistency of this tendency across geo-cultural, temporal, and typological boundaries is taken to suggest a spatial sensibility that is more uniquely premodern than Islamic. Shaped by prevailing intellectual and inter-cultural conditions, as well as by established professional practices, ‘spatial sensibility’ remains an elusive concept, one whose roots extend well beyond any historically or culturally identifiable boundaries. Yet spatial sensibility is graspable through the sense of ordering and spatial structure it reveals, providing an appropriate focus for broad theoretical analyses of architecture and cosmology across historical periods, building types, and regional variations.

Spatial order, thus identified, is concerned primarily with individual spaces that are pictorially and experientially unified. Large architectural complexes are considered to be composed of a series of interrelated spaces that are pictorially unified. The overall compositional qualities may vary widely, as in the Taj Mahal in Agra,

Masjid-i Shah in Isfahan,

the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem,

the Sultan Hasan school in Cairo,

and the courtyard gardens of Alhambra.

However, the same sense of spatial ordering is clearly visible in all. Focusing on spaces of pictorial unity enables us to appreciate the compositional relationship of the whole and the parts without giving pri-ority to the whole or being concerned about the accretive or accidental na¬ture of compositions that is common in premodern Islamic buildings. It also enables us to correlate elements of different styles and historical periods within an ahistorical frame, such as the early Umayyad Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque along with the various Mamluk additions, especially the Ashrafiyya school, which are experientially unified in the ensemble of the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem.

This approach resonates with the way in which Muslim travelers present their spatial experiences of buildings and landscapes as seen outside their distant and diverse sociohistorical origins. The rich variety of designs and tectonic expressions reveals two types of composition: concentric and linear.

Concentric Composition

The concentric composition represents all architectural designs that are laid out about a stationary center, expressing the spatial order of the three-dimensional cross in a static manner. Two models typify spaces thus ordered: a centralized en-closed space and a centralized open courtyard. A centralized enclosed space in-cludes all architectural spaces that are defined by a geometrically regular base and domical, conical, or other form of centralized roofing. While the roof tends to em-phasize unity and centrality, the base tends to emphasize the directionality and spa-tial deployment. The Umayyad Dome of the Rock and the adjacent four-iwan hall of the Mamluk Ashrafiyya school in Jerusalem, recurrently visited described by Muslim travelers, are two immanent examples of the concentric order. Their di¬verse forms and distant temporality show how a particular spatial sensibility can continue to manifest the same sense of ordering in different forms and across both historical periods and stylistic variations.

The Umayyad Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Fig. 4.1 The geometry of the concentric composition.

Fig. 4.2 The formal order of the centralized enclosed space model.

Geometrically, a centralized enclosed space develops from a regular polygon (mostly quadrangular); spatially, it expands from a focal point and evolves symmetrically about a central axis, resulting in a balanced synthesis in all di-rections. The simplest architectural embodiment of this model is a building with a cubical base and a hemispherical dome.

The architectural composition of the Islamic mausoleum, described as “the posterity of the Dome of the Rock,” follows this model.

Mausoleums can be free-standing structures as in Qubbat al-Sulaybiyya,


and the tomb of the Samanids, Bukhârâ,

or part of a larger complex, as in the mausoleum of Barqüq

and that of Sultan Qayitbay, Cairo.

Externally, Islamic mausoleums vary greatly in shape and scale; however, most of them are composed of a geometrically regular base with a domical or conical roof. Internally, they reveal the same centralized order.

The cities of the dead in Cairo show the widespread use of this model for tomb architecture. Gunbads—mausoleums in tower form—found mostly in Iran, such as the Gunbâd-i Qâbüs and Gunbâd-i Ghâzân Khân, though of different appearance, are only variations on the theme.

The central domed structure at Ibn Tülün mosque in Cairo showing the geometry and spatial order of the centralized enclosed space model.

Fig. 4.3 The formal components of the centralized enclosed space of the model.

They exhibit the same spatial regularity and symmetry but emphasize the vertical axis.

The second form of concentric composition is the centralized open courtyard. It represents all confined, unroofed spaces that are organized symmetrically about a central point. The geometrical order of this composition reveals, like the previous model, the geometrical proliferation of unity into quadrature. The defining surfaces are usually symmetrically articulated in relation to a central axis, leading to a balanced deployment of space in all directions. Far from being merely a negative space, the open courtyard forms an integral and major part of many architectural compositions. In many cases it even forms the major space of which the building is the defining parameter.

The courtyard can form a part of buildings such as mosques, schools, and houses; or on a larger scale it can become a large garden or the central space of an entire city. In the many cases, where the internal courtyard is a predominant spatial element, regular geometrical and spatial qualities are evident. Whether a centralized courtyard is the determining model of an entire architectural complex or only a part of it, it normally expresses, in one form or another, the underlying order of the concentric composition.

Many Islamic gardens follow this model. Domestic courtyard gardens, character-ized by a central fountain and regular spatial arrangements can be found throughout the Islamic world.

Large gardens, particularly those found in the Iranian plateau and the Indian subcontinent, are particularly expressive of this model. Two complementary spatial arrangements have been identified: gardens inwardly oriented with a major structure, a pavilion or a mausoleum, occupying its center; and gardens outwardly oriented with an empty center and a major structure defining its boundary.

Some gardens with a central domed pavilion, such as Hasht Bihesht in Isfahan, show a sophisticated synthesis of the centralized enclosed space and centralized open courtyard.

The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century, the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate

The planning of some of the early Islamic cities, such as al-Kufa, al-Basra, and Baghdad also follow the model of a centralized open courtyard. As described by Muslim chroniclers, they were laid out around a large open court (sahn) centered by one or two buildings—a mosque in al-Kufa and al-Basra and a mosque and the caliph’s palace in Baghdad, revealing the same underlying spatial order at a larger urban scale.

Fig. 4.4 The centralized open courtyard model.

The courtyard of the Sultan Hasan school in Cairo showing the geometry and spatial order of the centralized open courtyard model.

Linear Composition

The linear composition is a variation on the concentric composition involving repetition. The repetition of a concentrically ordered unit generates a linear com-position, conveying motion and extensionality. The linear composition can be seen primarily in premodern bazaars, such as those still existing in Isfahan,



and Jerusalem.

The repetitive form might have been generated by structural necessities, yet the spatial characteristics of the linear spaces are expressive of the same spatial sensibility that underlies the concentric compositions. While maintaining the order of centrality, axiality, and quadrature, the linear composition is created when the stationary center of a concentric space “moves,” so to speak, manifesting through this motion a linear space that joins two or more points.

In contrast to the concentric composition, the linear composition represents all spaces that are focused by a “moving” center, expressing the underlying spatial order in a dynamic way. Movement enables reiterative exposure to a similar formal unit and spatial structure, the arched base and domed roof, creating a sense of monotony and repetition. Colonnades, porticoes, and spaces covered with a multidomed structure, typical of Ottoman architecture, share with the bazaar its linear, dynamic characteristic.

Fig. 4.5 The geometry of the linear composition.

Architecturally, the linear composition is formed by the repetition of a spatial unit, creating a number of individual concentric spaces or “spatial pulses.” These units are linked together in a manner analogous to the way beads of a rosary are connected upon its thread. The monotony of linearity is often interrupted when the main route of the bazaar intersects with another or when the entry to a building is emphasized. These interruptions produce a series of nodal points that break the regulating monotony of linearity.

Whereas the static unfolding of space in the concentric composition reveals one center in a pictorially unified space, the dynamic nature of the linear composition manifests a multitude of centers, all of which are of more or less equal importance.

As a series of “spatial pulses” they embody in a repetitive manner the same underlying spatial order and reveal similar spatial characteristics. An architectural composition that is concentrically ordered may also comprise a multitude of centers, but usually varying degrees of importance can be distinguished. A geometrical analysis of the plan and form of Taj Mahal, for example, shows how the central space is distinguished in size and articulations from the other similar but smaller spaces, which nonetheless reveal the same underlying spatial order as the whole.

From an analogical perspective, one may observe that the concentric composition is the basis from which the linear composition derives, just as the point is thought of as the prin-ciple from which the line extends and stillness (sukun) as the state from which motion (haraka) proceeds.

Note: Spatial Connection Systems of the Bazaar

The form of a traditional city is based on its movement systems, of which the most important architecturally is the order of the bazaar. Each system, like a mode or dastgáh in music, is the most stable and least changeable part of a given expressive form.

Essentially, the bazaar is the line which ties the city into a totality as it moves between two points, the entrance and exit to the city itself.

As the musical mode gives scale and structure to the overall composition, so too the line of the bazaar gives the overall scale and structure of the city’s form.

Each mode (dastgáh) of Persian music has its own special repertoire of melodies (gashah-ha) which explore the most characteristic aspects of  the mode. The melodies evolve from the mode in a system corresponding to the traditional spatial connection system.

The spatial connection system of the bazaar dictates how one moves between encounter points. While traversing the line of the bazaar you meet first the dependent indoor spaces. These spaces rely for their existence upon the primary, secondary or nodal spaces, such as stores and shops along the bazaar route.

Occasionally you come upon another kind of opening, and this leads to nodal spaces. Nodal outdoor spaces, as seen in the caravanserai which sterns from the primary movement system, are essentially rooms around a courtyard. Nodal indoor spaces, as seen in the timchah, are essentially rooms around a covered courtyard; there is usually a centra] pool, and the roof often has an open oculus.

This encounter between dependent and nodal spaces and the primary movement system always unfolds in a ternary process of connection, transition and culmi-nation. It is in this same way that a leaf joins a branch or a vase unites with the space around.

When we look to traditional musical forms, and in particular to the musical connection system, the correspondences between the modes and melodies and the system of the bazaar are striking.

The musician moves from the mode to the melodies in a particular way; there is a system of connection. Small or short melodies never leave the mode. They stay at the same scale but use a different tone. They act as dependent indoor spaces in relation to the line. However, through the use of a central melody (sháh gashah), one  moves into a new area where the beginning note is called a witness (sháhid).

Spatial connection system: the bazaar, Rezaiyeh, Iran

Outdoor nodal space: the main courtyard of a madrasah or college, the Madrasah-yi-Nimawar, Isfahán, Iran.

This moves through an introductory phase which is the transition into the central melody or culmination space. A composition is essentially several melodies put together following a traditional order that invoIves an increasingly higher range for succesive melodies. The bazaar is essentially a series of dependent spaces, sometimes emphasized through a space which serves as a crosssing with an elevated roof, which heightens the main line of the bazaar.

Each melody has a descent (furud), a short melody played at the conclusion of a longer melody to connect it to the parent mode; as one re-enters the main bazaar space from the nodal spaces, one moves through the same descent  back to the parent line. 

The melody or tonal system provides the model and rhythmic features of a composition. It shapes the melody by giving it mood and character. It is the Gestalt of traditional music: it provides something more than the sum of the parts. The same is true of the traditional spatial system. The rhythm of dependent spaces, with the variation of openings to nodal spaces, provides a Gestalt.

Spatial system: plan of segment of the bazaar, Káshán, Iran, by Nader Ardalan. The darker line is the primary bazaar route, the lighter the secondary residential paths; nodal spaces are outlined with broken lines.

Primary movement system, diagrams from Ar-dalan and Bakhtiar, The Sense of Unity.

In the tonal system the generic features of the melodies are range (location and extent of tones), configuration of notes (in the range) and the hierarchy of notes (notes of stress, stopping, etc.). In the spatial system the generic features are the range of spaces, their location and extent, their geometric configuration, and the spatial connection system which provides a hier-rchy of spaces within the main order.

Rhythm and Symmetry

Traditional architecture captures space through geometric forms. Traditional music relates to melodies (gushah-ha} rather than scales (that is, space rather than shape) as the framework of a composition. By symmetrically repeating the forms in serial or circular order, a moving architecture is created that reads like a musical composition. Serial or binary forms balance and succeed each other in arithmetical proportion, as seen in the symmetry of the dependent spaces along the route of the bazaar.

In the ternary or circular form, the dividing line between two symmetrical halves becomes an autonomous connecting space which delays the fulfilment of the symmetry. Repetition fulfils the symmetry through a balance of total im-pressions. A courtyard space may balance a domed sanctuary space, the connection being the iwán or porch.

As the movement system extends, combinations of serial and circular symmetry become apparent. Dependent spaces of various sizes repeat themselves (a, b, c, d, a); or alternating dependent and nodal spaces combine binary and ternary or serial and circular symmetrical forms (a, b, a, b, a). Each of the dependent or nodal spaces is itself designed according to geometrical laws, and their symmetrical repetition constitutes the flow.

The role of time in traditional architecture lies in rhythm, the succession of boundary lines that allow an unbroken rhythmic flow, like the waves of the sea: ‘Macrocosmically and microcosmically, nature has disposed itself in rhythm. Only through rhythm is one able to escape the prison of time. Nature contains continual repetition, inspiring man to imitate her in her mode of operation through an open-ended, continuous movement system‘ (Ardalan and Bakhtiar, The Sense of Unity.)

Circular and serial symmetry: plan of segment of the bazaar, Kashán, Iran, from Ardalan and Bakh tiar, The Sense of Unity. The lettering denotes the individuality of eách unit along the main bazaar    


Back to Sacred Architectural Order in Sufism:

The Quest for Principles

Premodern spatial sensibility and modes of spatial ordering were rooted in a complex web of scientific and theological thinking.

Geometry, geography, and astronomy, an intertwined set of scientific enterprises, were often under the influence of theological, philosophical, and astrological speculations that were concerned with the origin, order, and purpose of the universe. In the complex matrix of ideas and preoccupations that underpinned premodern modes of thinking, the relentless quest for principles provided a common ground across most disciplines. If existence is meaningful only with God as its principle, then everything else in the world must likewise have a founding principle, including, one would think, the ordering of spaces and making of architecture. This prevailing assumption can be traced in numerous sources.

The Ikhwân give an explicit reference. In their treatise on geometry, the Ikhwân speak of the divisions of science introduced by people of antiquity (al-qudama) to teach their children and students. The divisions they identify follow those of the Greeks: mathematics, logic, natural sciences, and metaphysics.

Each division, they say, includes many branches, each of which has a principle (mabda) that governs its fields and possibilities. Mathematics, for example, includes four sciences: arithmetic, whose principle is the number 1; geometry, whose principle is the point; astronomy, whose principle is the movement of the sun; and music, whose principle is the proportion (the equation of two or more ratios). The same goes for other divisions.

This mode of reasoning constructs, on the one hand, causal links between the principle and its manifestations and, on the other, correspondences between different worlds and modes of being based on the inherent order that binds all principles to their respective worlds. As we have seen, the whole of Sufi cos-mology is motivated by a passion to understand how the world unfolded from its primordial principle. This quest for principles is central to our understanding of what shaped the spatial sensibility and sense of ordering of premodern Muslims. From the third century onward, Euclidian geometry and Ptolemaic astronomy prevailed in the Islamic world. As these sciences were themselves underpinned by a quest for principles, it is necessary to understand the scientific frame of geometrical imagining that legitimated Sufi cosmological and cosmogonic interpretations.

Designing necessarily involves geometry, the Ikhwân write, since it involves the manipulation of dimensions and measures according to what the designer conceives of and imagines in their mind.

According to Euclidian geometry, everything begins with the point, the principle to which the entire science of geometry, its intelligible and sensible forms, can be reduced. The Ikhwân explain:

An intelligible line cannot be seen on its own, but only as it lies between two surfaces, like the borderline between sunlight and shade. If there were no sunlight and no shade you would not have seen a line [defined] by two imaginary points. And if you imagine that one of these two points is moving while the other is standing still, until it returns to where the movement began, a plane will occur in your mind.

Fig. 4.6 The point as the generative principle of rectilinear bodies according to the Ikhwan.

An intelligible surface, too, cannot be seen on its own, but only as it lies between two bodies, like the common surface between fat and water. An intelligible point, too, cannot be seen on its own, but only where a line is divided by imagination into two halves; wherever a division is indicated the point is marked there. And know, O brother, that if you imagine this point moving in one direction, an imaginary straight line would occur in your mind. And if you imagine this line moving in a direction other than that toward which the point has moved, an imaginary plane would occur in your mind. And if you imagine this plane moving in yet another direction to those of the point and the line, an imaginary body that has six square planes with right angles, that is, a cube, would occur in your imagination. If the distance traced by the movement of the plane is shorter than that traced by the line, a brick-like body (jism labiniyy) will occur; and if it is longer, a well-like body (jism bi’riyy) will occur; whereas if they are equal, a cube will occur.

And know, O brother, that every straight line conceived in the imagination must have two ends which are its two extremes; they are called the “two imaginary points.” If you imagine that one of the two points has moved, while the other stayed still, until it returns back to the point where movement began, an imaginary circular plane will occur in your mind. The still point then becomes the center of the circle, while the moving point marks, in your mind, by its movement the circumference of the circle. Then know that the first plane that occurs is the quarter of the circle, then the third, then one half, then the circle. If you then imagine that the curved line, which forms half of the circumference of the circle, is moving while its two ends are still, until it returns to where it began moving, a spherical body will occur in your mind. So it is clear to you, from what we have said, that intel-ligible geometry is the reflection on the three dimensions, which are the length, the width, and the depth as abstracted from natural bodies.

Fig. 4.7 The point as the generative principle of spherical bodies according to the Ikhwan.

And know that many of the muhandisin (geometers, architects) and scientists imagine that these dimensions, I mean the length, width, and depth, have forms that exist by themselves, without knowing that this existence is either in the substance of the body or the substance of the soul. To the dimensions, these substances are like matter (hayula), and in the substances the dimensions are like form (sura), detached by the thinking faculty from the sensible bodies. If only they knew that the ultimate aim of studying mathematical sciences is the training of the students’ souls to be able to abstract, through the senses, the forms of the sensible bodies and to conceive their essences by the intellectual faculty, so that when the sensible bodies disappear from contact with the senses these forms—which have been transmitted from the senses to the imagination, and from the imagination to the intellectual faculty, and from the intellectual faculty to the memory— remain formed in the substance of the soul. The soul, then, when turning to itself, will dispense with using the senses in perceiving the information. It will find the forms of all information in its own substance.

This mode of geometrical reasoning of the fundamental order in space is based on the necessity for a principle, following the divine model wherein the Essence projects itself into the world as the main cause of existence and principial element of order.

And once the first principle is identified it is only logical to search for a progressional order of manifestation that explains the existence of the complex from the simple and the manifold from the one. This is not limited to the field of geometry, of course, but extends to other sciences, culminating with metaphysics whose principle is seen to be the Principle of all principles. The understanding of space and spatial manifestations as three dimensional projections from a principial point can be seen as a foundational concept that shaped premodern spatial sensibility, resulting in a consistent sense of ordering across geo-cultural, temporal, and typological variation.

Non-being is a mirror, the world an image,

and man Is the eye of the image, in which the person is hidden.

Thou art the eye of the image, and He the light of the eye.

Who has ever seen the eye through which all things are seen?

The world has become a man, and man a world.

There is no clearer explanation than this.

When you look well into the root of the matter, He is at once seen, seeing eye, and thing seen. The holy tradition had declared this, and ‘without eye or ear’ demonstrated it.

Mahmud Shabistati, trans. E. H. Whinfield

  • Architecture and the Sacred

The ‘sacred’ is a key concept in modern discourses of the symbolism of pre-modern architecture. Cosmology and architecture meet on sacred grounds, and forms that embody cosmological ideas invoke the sacred. The sacred consti-tutes the complex religious context of spatial ordering.

The Sacred and the Profane

Our current understanding of the nature of the sacred is profoundly shaped by the works of two influential scholars, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade. Ever since the appearance of Otto’s seminal work Das Heilige (The Holy) in 1917, the notion of the holy has come to denote primarily the mysterious, the numinous, the ineffable, and the nonrational. Otto’s main challenge, when he wrote the book, was explaining the ineffable nature of the mysterium to a dispassionate and intensely rational German audience. As a theologian and historian of religion, Otto was clearly writing from a defensive position. Rationalism, the prevailing intellectual condition of the time, relegated to the irrational anything that was inexplicable in rigorous and scientifically coherent terms. Throughout the text Otto was at pains to make an argument for the nonrational or suprarational as an alternative to the irrational. His main focus was the psychology of the holy; he wanted to make a case for “the feeling which remains where the concept fails.” Otto’s struggle was clearly reflected in the English edition (first appeared in 1923), which bore the following clumsy title: The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational.

Clearly, the perceived conflict between the rational and nonrational aspects of religion was the framework within which the notion of the holy was understood and defined. In this intellectual context, Otto presented the mysterious core of the holy as the “wholly other.” He saw it as the inexplicable essence that lies “beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar,” as the incomprehensible alien that fills the mind with “blank wonder and astonishment.”

The truly mysterious object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension,” he wrote, “not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.”

In The Sacred and the Profane Eliade developed Otto’s perspective, while maintaining a polarized understanding of the sacred. “The first possible defini-tion of the sacred,” he wrote, “is that it is the opposite of the profane.”

Eliade articulated his understanding of the sacred as a “hierophany,” that is, “something sacred that shows itself to us.” It is the manifestation of divine otherness at the human level of existence. Eliade saw the whole history of religions to be constituted by the manifestations of a wide range of sacred realities.

Unlike Otto’s preoccupation with the psychology of the sacred, however, Eliade focused on its mythico-symbolic functions and spatio-temporal conditions. Central to his thesis was his conception of the heterogeneous nature of space and time. For homo religiosus, Eliade argues, space and time are not homogeneous extension and duration. The sacred marks “interruptions and breaks” in their continuum by disturbing the predictability of the natural processes and familiar conditions of existence. Where and when this happens, the sacred manifests itself in spatial or temporal forms that reconfigure the profane’s nondifferentiated continuum. Thus the manifestation of the sacred disrupts the homogenous continuity of space and nullifies the linearity of history. With the manifestation of the sacred, space becomes centralized and time cyclical: the amorphous becomes structured according to archetypal paradigms.

Eliade’s theoretical analyses were of a wide appeal. Not only anthropologists, ethnologists, historians of religion, and social scientists were keen to explore Eliade’s polarity, but also architects, architecture historians, and theoreticians were also quick to appropriate it into the field. Through the agency of function, the sacred-profane polarity was uncritically extended to architecture. A functional-typological split between religious and secular architecture was convenient and easy to define. It made sense to academics as well as professionals, leading to polarized historical and theoretical studies as well as design practices. While buildings, landscapes, and settlements, in general, are interpreted in sociopolitical, environmental, and aesthetic terms, only those that serve religious purposes are seen to accommodate the sacred and the symbolic. It is not the act of making or the fabric of the made object per se that legitimates the presence of the holy but rather the human function that takes place within.

The fabric is seen merely as a material support for the human activities. In such a polarized setting, a place of worship, for example, presupposes a mode of engagement with architecture that is different to, say, a marketplace. One seeks the holy; the other ignores it.

A Sacred without a Profane

Insightful and illuminating though it may be, Eliade’s polarized approach to the study of the holy in general, and of sacred space, landscape, and architecture in particular, involves many problems.

The most significant challenge the Islamic tradition poses to both Otto’s and Eliade’s polarized thinking is the lack of polarity. Neither was the sacred defined with reference to an antonym, nor was it viewed to pose a challenge to rationality. Translators of Eliade’s works into Arabic face the difficulty of finding not only that critical definer, the elusive profane, but also the equivalents to many of his terms and concepts. The “profane” has been rendered in various translations as al-‘adi (the “ordinary”) and al-mudannas (the “impure,” the “desecrated”), yet neither forms a polarity with the sacred that is traceable in premodern Arabic literature. True, the absence of a term for the “profane” does not automatically rule out the availability of the concept or the possibility of a polarity, but it does make it difficult to maintain the sharp distinction Eliade draws between the two domains.

Apart from invoking the numinous, the notion of the “sacred” in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as Otto explains, is generally understood as a moral attribute. It is the “completely Good.” The “holy,” Otto writes, stands for “the absolute moral attribute, denoting the consummation of moral goodness.”

The Arabic term for the “sacred,muqaddas, while sharing the association with the numinous, denotes the idea of “purity.

“Purity” was understood as a bodily rather than moral attribute, although one can make an argument for the overlap between spiritual purity and moral goodness. Purity, in premodern Islamic texts, signified proximity to the primordial nature (fitra), the initial condition of one’s being, hence its association with sacredness.

The Muslim version of the narrative of Moses and the burning bush illustrates this subtle difference. The Quran recounts the events in a similar way to the Torah: “Verily I am your Lord. So take off your shoes, for you are in the sacred valley, Tuwa” (20:12). Eliade refers to this event in order to illustrate his fundamental concept of ‘spatial heterogeneity.’ He cites the story to show that there is “a sacred space, and hence a strong, significant space” that stands in contrast to other amorphous spaces “that are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency.” Taking off the shoes, Eliade argues, marks the discontinuity of the profane space that is ruptured by the manifestation of the sacred.

Following Eliade’s logic one would expect to find in medieval theological texts that interpret this Quranic verse some treatment of the spatial qualities of the “sacred valley, Tuwa,” or some preoccupation with the characteristics that distinguish it from the nonsacred surrounds, or at least a curiosity to delimit the sacred from the ordinary. But this is not the case.

Instead, we find a debate of what Moses’ shoes were made of that made them unfit for a holy presence. It was not spatiality that seemed to be the main concern, but rather the purity of the body. The sandals, some argued, were made of dead donkey’s skin, and that contravened the purity of the sacred.

The contact of the bare feet with the ground was considered necessary for the direct contact with the numinous source and associated blessing conferred on that site. Of course, this does not devalue Eliade’s insights and compelling interpretations but points to the necessity of identifying clearly the reading protocol that is being followed. While Eliade passionately argues that this is how premodern homo religiosus has always and everywhere conceived of and understood his spatial condition, his readings are in fact modern academic constructions that are often incongruent with the premodern perspectives they represent.

Medieval Arabic sources do not speak of “sacred” sites, landscapes, and cities as distinct from other types that are “profane,” nor do they interpret spatiality in a dualistic frame of real and unreal, structured and amorphous, significant and insignificant.

They also present us with scanty references to ritualistic practices of consecration that are associated with laying out buildings, settlements, or gardens. The absence of elaborate rituals in Islam presents yet another challenge to Eliade’s interpretations. There are numerous references to astrological correspondences, but these are not presented as a part of consistent ritualistic practices for consecrating human acts of making.

Apart from the reference to the “sacred valley” of Tuwa and the “sacred land” of the Jews, the Quran does not use the term muqaddas to identify sacred sites, not even the most sacred of all, Mecca.

This does not mean, of course, that in premodern Islam there were no conceptions of the sacred or sacred sites but that the understanding and construction of the “sacred” itself was different.

Conceptually, a “sacred” without a profane must necessarily be different from a “sacred” with a profane. Such difference presupposes a unique spatio-temporal understanding that constitutes the conditions of the sacred’s modus operandi.

The Sacred as the Virtuous

In premodern Islam, we encounter an understanding of the scared as the “virtuous,” meaning that which has special merits.

The notion of the virtuous accounts for both the sacred and the profane in that all sites and places have virtues.

The intensity and significance of the virtuous, however, vary from one place to another. The variations are hierarchically ordered and are charted through a unique form of conceptual mapping of holiness that is traced by Muslims on the territories they inhabit.

The notion of the sacred in relation to places, integral to premodern Islamic cosmology, was best expressed through the unique premodern genre of fada’il. Literally meaning “merits,” “virtues,” or “excellences,” the term fada’il was used mainly as an adjective denoting the distinctive virtues of, or merits associated with, certain texts, individuals, places, or times. The intent is panegyric, while viewing things from a peculiar divine-human perspective for the purpose of laudation.

A large portion of the fada’il texts is devoted to the distinctive virtues of provinces, cities, places, and monuments, which began to develop into a unique genre of literature from the twelfth century onward. In their early forms, dating from the first century of Islam, the fada’il texts consisted mainly of a compilation of sayings attributed to the Prophet and his immediate companions. Later on, they developed into a unique style of historiography establishing a recognizable discourse.

Evidenced by its pervasiveness in most forms of literary expressions, there is no doubt that the concept of the ‘fada’il’ was central to the modes of thinking and seeing the world in premodern Islam. While the works of later Muslim scholars, such as Ibn ‘Asâkir (d. 1175), al-Maqdisï (d. 1364), al-Suyütï (d. 1475), and al-Hanbalï (d. 1520), among many others, present the fada’il in its most developed and sophisticated form of religious historiography, the works of chroniclers, geographers, theologians, mystics, travelers, and literary scholars throughout premodern Islam also incorporate, in a more or less conspicuous way, the perspective of the fada’il. The ubiquity and legitimacy of the fada’il discourse derives primarily from being as it were a by-product and a direct extension of the science of prophetic traditions (‘ilm al-hadith).

The fada’il is anchored in the Quran and the hadith, which identifies and alludes to many sites of special significance.

In the chapter of “The Fig,” for example, the Quran says: “By the fig and the olive, by the Mount of Sinai, and by this land made safe” (95:1–3). These were interpreted as referring to four significant sites. The Damascene historian and hadith scholar Ibn ‘Asâkir explains that the “fig” refers to the mosque of Damascus; the “olive” to the mosque of Jerusalem (bayt al-maqdis), “Mount Sinai” to the spot where God spoke to Moses, and the “land made safe” to Mecca.” Ibn ‘Asâkir further elaborates these references by reporting a set of traditions that describe the eschatological significance of these sites. For example, a recurrent hadith says that the construction of the mosque of Damascus was predicted long before it was actually built and that it will survive the destruction of the world by forty years.

Jerusalem, al-Quds, Bayt al-Maqdis, and al-Bayt al-Muqaddas in Arabic, meaning “holiness,” “the house of holiness,” and “the holy house,” is one of the most sacred sites in Islam on which numerous fada’il texts were composed. In these texts one encounters complex spatial conceptions presented through prophetic sayings and popular narratives.

For instance, Jerusalem is said to be God’s favorite spot on earth, toward which he glances twice a day. It is the center of the earth and the closest place to heaven by eighteen miles. Whether because of this spatial proximity or other cosmological reasons, paradise is said to “long” passionately for Jerusalem. In fact, Jerusalem itself is said to be an extension of the heavenly geography of paradise. Paradise is envisioned to be located directly above it, and those aspiring for a foretaste of paradise are directed to see Jerusalem.

Along with Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina are consistently cited among the cities with heavenly connection (other urban centers are often selectively included). When the three most sacred centers, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, are projected together a hierarchy of holiness is always evident. Visitors of Mecca are, for example, said to be forgiven and elevated eight steps, whereas visitors of Medina are to be forgiven and elevated six steps, while visitors of Jerusalem are to be forgiven and elevated four steps.

Through such as well as various other means the fada’il discourse confers significance on places, monuments, and landscapes. It constructs the virtues of a particular site through a complex juxtaposition of various religious, cosmo-logical, eschatological, and environmental references, while at the same time weaving together elements of vernacular history, sacred geography, religious rituals, and popular legends. Through such geo-mythical conceptions, the fada’il enables, on the one hand, the construction of imaginative geographies that differentiates sharply between places, and on the other, the blurring of the boundary between the mythical and the real. It is through this blurring of spa-tiality that the fada’il confers significance on places, buildings, and landscapes.

The Sacred and Difference

The concept of ‘fada’il’ reveals a discriminatory view of things based on God’s own “preference” (tafdil, a derivative of fada’il). The way things are materializes this divine preference. Things do not just happen serendipitously, but manifest in accordance with divine partiality, the logic of which hinges on the necessity of difference. In the overall scheme of creation, according not only to Islam but also to many other religions, different peoples, texts, and places are not of equal status. In the beginning was difference, and difference was never meant to be projected democratically.

Difference was predicated on a preference, an absolute, nonnegotiable, divine preference.

From this perspective, the fada’il conception can be seen as an attempt to lay out spatially the matrix of differentiation and to reveal the pattern of divine partiality. It is as it were a literary act to inscribe the ontological foundation of difference.

‘Difference’ is, of course, a relational concept that requires a horizon of reference against which the other is to be differentiated. Naturally, the fada’il projects Islam as the horizon of reference against which divine preferences are identified and explained. The non-Muslim other occupies an awkwardly marginal position that is never in concordance with the order of things. The other is de-placed.

The fada’il texts on Jerusalem, for example, relate an elaborate story of how the Christians’ attempts to construct a monumental building over the sacred rock (where the Dome of the Rock was later built), long before the Islamic takeover, repeatedly failed. Three times their exquisite and highly adorned structure miraculously collapsed, forcing them in the end to consider a different site. It was not their architectural or engineering inadequacies that led to the repeated collapse but simply their religious otherness. The site, originally designated for Islam, could only tolerate an architecture that facilitates spatial practices that are in harmony with the Islamic creed of absolute unity.

In this manner, the fada’il discourse founds not just difference per se, but a politicized difference. Difference is politicized through religious scenarios of encounters with the sacred, which take place in the blurred spatiality of the real and the imaginary, the earthly and the heavenly. It is a determinedly Islamic version of geo-politics wherein God, along with the Muslims, acts as a central figure in the plotting, unfolding, and staging of events.

Design and Cosmic Paradigms

Apart from the typological split of the sacred and the profane, Eliade’s approach enabled a relocation of architecture into a context where the determinants of forms are not entirely human centered, where the divine is seen as an active partner in the act of siting and designing.

Sacred places, Eliade argues, are not “chosen but rather discovered by religious man.” “The sacred place in some way or another reveals itself to him.”

In the absence of a direct revelation, holiness can still be invoked by human consecration through the enactment of certain religious rituals. Once consecrated, a sacred space becomes a defined, qualified, and significant space; it becomes an ordered space: a space with precise limits measured in accordance with cosmic paradigms. The act of ordering with reference to cosmic paradigms, Eliade argues, invokes God’s blueprint of the world, the universal pattern of creation, and the principal elements of determination that emerged out of the primordial chaos.

We know very little about the procedures involved in designating spaces and the demarcation of their limits in the Islamic tradition. The designation of a sacred zone by setting out demarcating boundaries can be traces in some premodern Islamic references.

Fig. 4.8 The demarcation of the central space in the layout of the early cities of al-Küfa and al-Basra according to early Islamic sources.

Many early places for prayer were said to have merely lines drawn in the sand: “[O]nce the worshipper had stepped over the boundary thus demarcated he was within a sanctified area in which all the Quranic taboos governing ritual purity were in operation.

The procedures involved in laying out the early cities of al-Basra and al-Küfa are significant. Medieval sources say that the mosques of these two cities were first laid out, forming the centers of their internal open spaces (al-sahn). The boundaries of these internal spaces were determined by shooting arrows toward the four directions from their central points (i.e., their mosques).

The space thus determined was then marked out by a ditch, and the residential zone was established beyond this boundary. Chroniclers also say that the city of al-Küfa has four openings or gateways.

A similar planning pattern was reproduced in the city of Baghdâd (762), the famous city of al-Mansür, the so-called City of Peace, which was laid out in concentric circles about a central point. The mosque and the caliph’s residence occupied the center, which was surrounded by a circular residential zone that encompassed a large empty space. The surrounding residential belt was punctuated by four fortified gates, marking the ends of two perpendicular axes intersecting at the center of the city. The city was made cir-cular, historian al-Baghdâdï (d. 1071) says, so that all residents are equally related to the caliph who resides at the center.

Premodern Islamic chronicles provide other references to significant sites. They tell us that many buildings, cities, and gardens were erected consciously on sites that were chosen with the help of scriptural, cosmological, or other supranatural references.

Some settlement sites were chosen on particular auspicious dates determined astrologically or with reference to traditions that predict the location of the settlement or the destiny of the ruler. Through this religious reference the act of decision making is mediated by a divine reference giving the site or settlement special significance.

For instance, the mount on which the mosque of Ibn Tulun was built in Cairo was believed to have been a blessed place, where a prayer was always heard and where Moses conversed with the Lord.

The foundations of the city of Baghdad were said to have been laid at a particular date chosen by the astrologer Nabukhat, and so was the founding of Kashan and Cairo.

The renowned Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) relates an amusing story concerning the founding of the city of Cairo. After the astrologers chose the appropriate dates to dig for the foundation of the city’s protecting wall, all the workers were instructed to commence work simultaneously when the astrologers observed the ascent of the stellar reference. So that the workers would know when to start, bells were attached to a rope stretching throughout the work area. But in this instance things went wrong. A crow landed on the rope, ringing the bells and prompting the workers to begin under the ascendancy of the wrong star, which gave Cairo its current name, al-Qahira. Regardless of the historical reality of such anecdotes, they nonetheless reveal a particular preoccupation with some kind of suprarational references to legitimate human preferences.


Acts of orientation reveal how people’s spatial sensibility is influenced by the working of the sacred. The Quran describes Muhammad’s inner desire for a new sacred center (qibla) to pray toward other than Jerusalem, in response to which the Ka’ba was chosen. The Quran says: “We have seen the turning of your face to heaven. We shall therefore make you turn toward a qibla that pleases you. So turn your face toward the Holy Mosque, and you (O Muslims), wheresoever you may be, turn your faces toward it” (2:144). Since this event all mosques have been oriented toward the Ka’ba, the divinely chosen center of the Islamic world. And since Muslims can pray practically anywhere, other buildings, such as tombs or schools, are often provided with niches for prayer and aligned with the direction of the qibla. Even entire cities, with more or less orthogonal street plans, are sometime laid out facing the direction of Mecca so that religious buildings could thus be aligned with the street patterns.

It might seem a simple liturgical practice; however, in premodern Islam orientation took on cosmic significance. Orienting a built form toward the sacred center means positioning one’s self and space on the grid of the divine map of holiness.

Facing the Ka’ba can thus orient one’s mind toward the celestial archetypes that lie directly above it. A marginal commentary on Ibn ‘Arabi’s treatise on Transcendent Unity (Risâlat al-Ahadiyya) articulates a fivefold structure of the qibla.

The first qibla, it says, is the niche (al-mihrâb) of a mosque; the second is the Ka’ba; the third is the Frequented House (al-bayt al-ma’mür); the fourth is the Throne (al-‘arsh); and the fifth is the Footstool (al-kursï).

The niche is the qibla of the soul (al-nafs); the Ka’ba is the qibla of intention (al-niyya); the Frequented House is the qibla of understanding (alfahm); the Throne is the qibla of the heart (al-qalb); and the Footstool is the qibla of the intellect (al-‘aql).

Orienting oneself, and by extension a built form, toward the qibla, can thus be seen as establishing a horizontal link with the center of the world and a vertical link with the celestial centers marking the axis of the world. Orientation, in this sense, is an act of integration that establishes a way of return from the fragmented to the unified, from the complex to the simple, from the accidental to the essential, and from the many to the one.

In addition to the liturgical alignment with the direction of the qibla, there is a spatial alignment with the cardinal and intercardinal directions as marked by the sun’s trajectory in its diurnal and annual journeys. Although the spatial ordering of Islamic buildings and landscape, as we have seen, emphasize the cross of directions with elements such as four doors, openings, ïwâns, gate-ways, channels of water, or two major perpendicularly intersecting thorough-fares, the cross of directions is not always aligned with the cardinal points.

The visitor to the bazaar of Isfahan and Masjid-i-Shah, for example, would notice that in the buildings clustered alongside the spinal route of the bazaar there are numerous spaces of varying sizes and significance with clearly identified cen-ters and cross of directions.

Given the crookedness of the route, to which many of these spaces are parallel, and the orientation of the city, it is evident that the quadrature marked by their cruciform pattern has little to do with the cardinal directions. A cruciform planning pattern reappears in the Masjid-i-Shah with which the bazaar ends.

The orientation of the mosque masterfully ruptures the north-south axis of the city in order to face Mecca, yet the center and the cross of directions are clearly marked not only in its central courtyard but also in the other minor spaces that form parts of the overall composition.

The alignment of buildings with the cardinal points is, as many studies have shown, a well-established ancient practice. In the Hindu tradition, for instance, there are building manuals that prescribe the rituals of laying out buildings in accordance with cosmic geometry.

Traversing the parameter of the celestial space, the sun determines the four extremities of spatial extension—east, west, north, and south—and the four nodes of the temporal cycle—the four seasons and the four temporal measures, year, month, week, and day. These spatial and temporal determinations are “married in the motions of the solar orb.” Marking the center and the cross of directions through architecture is shown to have been understood as tracing the order of celestial geometry. By way of corre-spondence with the solar cycles, the plan of a building becomes, so to speak, an architectural crystallization of temporal cycles, a cosmic graph, a projection of the celestial geometry, a geometrization of time, and a coagulation of time in spatial form.

The Islamic tradition left no textual references to consistent rituals of laying out buildings, settlements, and landscapes similar to those found in other traditions. Yet Muslims seem to have adhered to the same sense ordering and spatial sensibility, appropriating the ancient practices into their religious frame-work. With the orientation toward Mecca taking priority, the cruciform pattern acquires a new significance, one that is anchored in human spatiality viewed, as we have seen, as the original idea and the divine paradigm of cosmic structure. This can be traced in the temporal notion of ‘waqt.’

Al-Waqt and Spatial Order

Islamic prayers occur at certain times (awqât, singular, waqt) of the day, the accuracy of which is essential for the prayer’s validity. Defining those times is a spatial as much as it is a temporal exercise. Al-waqt, literally “a period/point in time,” denotes, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, a designation (taqdïr) in something that in itself does not admit what is being designated.

It is an assumption, in other words, as is the case when one assumes a beginning, middle, or end in a sphere, while the spatiality of the sphere does not admit any of these definitions. With reference to a prophetic tradition that describes time (zamân) as being circular in form, Ibn ‘Arabi argues that al-awqât, as temporal assumptions, are meaningful only with reference to both human spatiality and man’s centrality in the world. It is the correlation of the stellar movements with human spatiality that establishes the spatio-temporal order of the world. Ibn ‘Arabi explains:

When God created the atlas sphere and it revolved, the day was not yet deter-mined, nor did it have a designated form. It was as the water of a jug when the water was still in the river before being in the jug. But when God designated in the atlas sphere the twelve divisions, which were precisely timed, and called them “signs” (burüj) . . . , set an individual standing [in the center] about whom this sphere revolved, and rendered this individual with sight whereby he observed those designated divisions by means of the signs rendered in them, these supposed divisions were distinguished from one another by those signs which are made as allusions to them. This individual sighted one of those designated divisions, I mean, the sign, then the sphere rotated with that sign, on which the spectator had already fixed his sight. The sign vanished from his sight, but he never ceased standing in his position there until that sign had returned to him. It was only then that he knew that the sphere has revolved one circuit, in relation to this spectator and not to the sphere, so we called that circuit “yawm” (day).

Then afterward God created an immense luminous planet in the fourth of the seven heavens. He called it in the Arabic tongue “shams” (sun). In the sight of the spectator, the atlas sphere rose with the sun from behind the veil of the earth, upon which this spectator is standing, so he called that place of the sunrise “mashriq” (east),and the rising “shurüq” (illumination); because that luminous planet rose from it and illumined the atmosphere wherein the spectator was standing. His sight never ceased following the movement of that planet [as it rose] until it coincided with his position; he called this coincidence “istiwâ” (resting). Then the planet began descending from its resting position towards the right-hand side of the spectator, with regard to the spectator and not the planet itself, as we have already said. He called the beginning of its dissociation from its resting position, in the eye of the spectator, “zawâl” (vanishing, disappearing) and “dulük” (moving from the center of heaven). The spectator kept on following it by his sight until the body of the planet disappeared; he called its disappearance “ghurüb” (setting), and the place where his sight saw the sun disappearing “maghrib” (west).

In its continuous movement around the stationary earth, the sun, according to this depiction, neither rises nor sets.

Its perpetual movement reflects the non-differentiated motion of the atlas sphere, which, according to al-Qâshânï, is but a temporal expression of the undetermined duration of the subsistence of the divine Essence from “preeternity of preeternities” (azaliyyat al-âzâl) to “posteternity of posteternities” (abadiyyat al-âbâd). The cardinal points are spatial determinations of the temporal differentiation of the flux of time into recurring cycles of prescribed diurnal or annual durations by means of a reference point.

Man’s centrality marks the reference point, without which there can be neither east nor west, nor can the cross of the directions marked by the solstitial and equinoctial nodal points be meaningful.

This is why Ibn ‘Arabï considers ‘direction’ to be a relational concept, defined as neither existent nor nonexistent, neither spatial nor nonspatial, neither self-supported nor supported by other substances. ‘East,’ ‘west,’ ‘north,’ and ‘south’ are thus concepts identifiable only with reference to a given visual horizon established by a fixed point on earth. Man represents the fixed point, and his vision is what establishes the horizon. The determination of the cardinal directions coincides with the determination of al-awqât. The directions qualify the nondifferentiated expanse of space, in the same way that al-awqât qualify the nondifferentiated duration of time.

Long before Islam the Arabs also used human spatiality as a reference for qualifying the directions of space. This is evident in the Arabic names of the four winds that were astronomically determined, and with which the four sides of the Ka’ba were aligned.

Al-qabül, the eastern wind, derives from qubl, “man’s front”; al-dabür, the western wind, derives from dubr, “man’s back”; al-shamâl, the northern wind, derives from shimâl, “man’s left-hand side”; and al-janüb, the southern wind, derives from janb, literally “man’s side,” referring indirectly to man’s right-hand side.

The alignments of the Ka’ba with the four winds shows the primacy of human spatiality in identifying directions in space. This can also be traced in the shooting of the arrows in the four directions to determine the layout of the cities of al-Basra and al-Küfa. The early chronicler and Quran scholar al-Tabarï (d. 923) defines these directions as the right-hand side, the left-hand side, the front, and the back of the archer, while the ninth-century historian al-Balâdhurï relates them to the directions of the winds.

Furthermore, from the very beginning Islam did not ascribe a special religious value to the sun. In fact, the sunrise, the zenith, and the sunset position are considered among the prohibited awqât for prayer. This is to avoid any coincidence between praying and these three nodal positions of the sun so that he whose qibla is aligned to the east or the west, or who happens to be standing directly below the sun, would not appear as if he were praying toward it. This sensitivity is expressed in the verse: “Adore neither the sun nor the moon; but adore God who created them, if it is in truth him whom you worship” (41:37).

Whether it relates to the four cardinal points, to the four winds, or to the four directions of man, the tectonic quadrature can be seen to correspond with the quaternary order of manifestation and divine pattern of proliferation. It expresses a desire to impose a transcendental order on the human settings. The deployment of space from a central point along the axes of the cross of directions can be seen as an embodiment of the manifestation of the four creative attributes—Life, Knowledge, Will, and Power—from the unmanifest Essence, and a reenactment of the spreading out of the square of the earth from its unextended substance, the turba.

The spatial and directional ordering marked by two horizontal axes can be seen to correspond to all nondirectional divine quadratures, the four supranatural principles— Intellect, Soul, Nature, and Matter—the four principles of Nature—heat, cold, dryness, and moistness—the four ideal elements (arkan)—fire, air, water, and earth—the four bearers of the Throne, the four supporters of the Footstool, and the four rivers of paradise.

It can be taken to correspond to the four nodal points of the sun, the four intervals of the moon, the four seasons, the four measures of time—year, month, week, and day—the four kinds of signs—Igneous, Aerial, Aqueous, and Terrestrial—the four kingdoms—mineral, plant, animal, and human—to man’s four humours—yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm—and to his four natural forces—attractive, fixative, digestive, and repulsive. The marking of the four directions in space may also allude to the four spiritual masters (awtad) who guard these directions and to the four qualitatively different sets of Arabic letters. This set of correspondences is only a sample of a much wider range that can be found in numerous premodern Islamic sources.

Heavenly Landscape

From his prison cell in the fortress of Fardajân, the great Muslim philosopher Ibn Sïnâ (Avicenna, d. 1037) projected his burning desire to break out of the captivi-ties of this world. In a visionary narrative, Hayy bin Yaqzan, Ibn Sïnâ revealed his longing to journey away from the wretched darkness of the Occident, and to set out for the enlightening beauty of the Orient. His spiritual guide, Hayy, a beautiful and youthful shaykh who shone with divine glory, came from al-Bayt al-Muqaddas, “the Most Holy Dwelling,” with which the city of Jerusalem was identified. Hayy’s job was ceaseless journeying, forever traveling around the uni-verse to know its conditions. In response to Ibn Sïnâ’s eager questioning, the shaykh provided fascinating descriptions of the cosmic terrains he visited, the various climes and their inhabitants, the Occident and its darkness, the spring of life, the cities, the mountains, the seas, and the perilous obstacles one has to overcome in order to reach the Orient. Eager to follow in Hayy’s footsteps, Ibn Sïnâ asked the shaykh to show him the way, to which the shaykh’s surprising response was: “[T]he road is closed to you all.”

This was not always the case, of course. Ibn Sïnâ was not the only one to speak of a spiritual journey or to visualize cosmic and paradisaical landscapes. His contemporary al-Ma’arrï (d. 1058) and later al-Suhrawardï (d. 1191) wrote equally fascinating accounts of the cosmic topography and environments.

Ibn ‘Arabï, too, needed no one to show him the way as he set out to explore the wondrous cities, landscapes, and inhabitants of the celestial world. His detailed and vivid descriptions reveal not only the richness and profundity of his spiritual experiences but also an intriguing sense of famil-iarity with the otherworldly things.

Such visualizations and experiences show that al-Ghazâlï’s gazing at the sky for psychic comfort and delight and for contemplating the wonders and beauty of God’s design are only one aspect of the Muslims’ fascination with heaven.

Another more profound aspect is the imagining, constructing, and indeed experiencing the spatial order and architecture of the celestial world. This draws attention to the premodern Islamic understanding of spatial reality that includes both physical and spiritual spaces. In premodern Islamic sources one encounters a complex picture of the world where earthly geography occupies only a limited space. There are other vast, imaginal, yet real, terrains that even mainstream religious literature meticulously describes.

The Sufis have contributed significantly to the construction and propagation of such conceptions, while establishing a sense of actuality based on real experiences. Although it is difficult to make sense of such experiences in modern scientific terms, we cannot simply ignore them or reduce them to the “spiritual,” “mystical” or “mythical” categories, in order to sharply distinguishing them from physical reality. For the experiences they unveil have spatial and bodily dimensions connected with the architecture and landscape of these ethereal terrains as well as socio-religious values.

Where has the protected rider come from?” Ibn ‘Arabï was asked upon ar-riving at the gateway of the celestial world. “From the land of the occidental body,” he replied.

These experiences seem to be of an imaginative nature, combining spirituality and materiality in creative ways. Although spatio-temporal, they do not conform to the commonly known laws of nature. They have their own “natural” laws and corresponding spatio-temporal conditions. To what extent the visualization of such terrains had influenced the conceptualization and making of earthly spaces in architecture and landscape is a question that is yet to be adequately explored. The paucity of such studies in this area limits our understanding of this potentially rich possibility.

The Land of Reality and the Cities of Light

When God created Adam, the father of mankind, from fermented clay, Ibn ‘Arabi writes, a very small remnant of the clay was left over.

From this remnant God created the palm tree (al-nakhla), Adam’s “sister,” yet, a tiny speck, the size of a sesame seed, still remained. Within this speck God spread a vast land, so vast, indeed, that it included all creations, even the divine Throne and what it contains—the Footstool, the skies and the earths, all that is below the earth and all levels of heaven and hell. The proportion of all of these to the vast land is as a ring thrown in a limitless desert. This is the Land of Reality (ard al-haqiqa). Access to this land has certain protocols; Ibn ‘Arabi explains:

On that land there exist forms (suwar) of wondrous formation and beautiful stature; they stand at the entrances to the avenues that overlook this world in which we are, its earth and heaven, its paradise and hell. When one of us wishes to enter this land, that is, the knowers from any kind they might be, human, jinn or angel or from the people of paradise, as long as he possesses adequate knowledge and has stepped outside his temple of flesh, he finds these forms at the entrances of the avenues, standing ready to carry out the responsibilities that God has charged them with. One of them runs to the new arrival; it clothes him in a dress appropriate to his rank, takes him by the hand, and walks with him through this land. The visitor goes wherever he wishes and reflects on God’s artefacts . . . When the visitor wishes to return, his companion goes with him to the place where he entered; he salutes him, removes the dress in which he had clothed him and departs from him.

The protocol of access and departure and the exchanges that take place at the threshold are intriguing. The process involves both continuity and transformation so that bodily engagements are not completely dispensed with.

Ibn ‘Arabi explains the mechanics of formal exchanges by way of an analogy. If one looks at a light source and squints one’s eyes, he says, one will see a multitude of light rays connecting one’s eyes with the luminous source. By gradually opening the eyes the rays contract back to the light source.

The light source, he adds, represents the specific place of this land whence forms emanate; the pupil, the instrument of vision, represents the world; and the rays represent the new forms one’s soul take on once detached from its body (during sleep, for example). One’s intention to see the rays by squinting represents one’s preparedness (al-isti’dad); the projection of rays represents the emanation of forms upon such preparedness; and the contraction of the rays represents the return of forms to the land upon the cessation of one’s preparedness.

The Land of Reality has been interpreted by modern scholars as an allegorical reference to the “imaginal world,” the world where “all the essential realities of being . . . are manifested in real images.”

It is an intermediary world between the physical and the metaphysical, the plane where spirits and bodies exchange qualities: spirits become materialized and bodies spiritualized. As described by Ibn ‘Arabi, it is the land of great wonders, where many rational impossibilities and absurdities exist, where reality reveals itself in many fascinating forms and whence all imaginable forms emanate.

The Land of Reality is the qibla of the Sufis, the place in which their active imagination is anchored. Those who visited this land reported what they had observed and learned there. They say that unlike things in our world, all things on that land are alive and endowed with a rational faculty. One can converse with, and learn from, gardens, animals, and minerals. “He passes near no stone, no tree, no village, nothing whatsoever,” Ibn ‘Arabi reports after a visitor, “without talking to it, if he wishes, as a man speaks with his companion. They have different languages, but this land has the characteristic of giving to all who enter it the understanding of all the languages that are spoken on it.”

And while everything in our world is ephemeral, mortal, and mutable, things there are permanent, immortal, and immutable. This land contains many worlds, among them one made exactly in the form of our phenomenal world. If a Sufi observes this world he would see himself in it, as confirmed by the Prophet’s companion Ibn ‘Abbas.

Within this land there are many places with distinct characteristics. There is a place where everything—from minerals to fruits, to men, and so on—is made of red gold. The shapes and forms of trees and fruits are exactly the same as ours, but they are golden; their taste and fragrance, however, are far superior. Fruits are ornamented and decorated so beautifully that they can hardly be imagined. It is one of the many wonders of this land that if one picks a fruit from a tree another fruit in a ripe state instantly replaces it. Other spots are made of silver, of white camphor, and of saffron. The most exquisite place, however, is that of saffron “compared to whose women the Houries of Paradise fade into insignificance.” Time differs from one spot to another—a moment in one may equal a year in another.

As for the architecture of this land, the inhabitants there can either build using the same tools and methods familiar to us or else build by mere imagination and intention. They have cities called the “Cities of Light” (mada’in al-nur), whose structure is wondrous. They also have a Ka’ba, which they circumambulate in the same manner as the people of earth. Although it has the same quadrangular form as the earthly Ka’ba, the one in this land is larger and unclothed. And unlike the earthly one, this Ka’ba salutes, and speaks to, its ambulants, benefiting them with sciences they do not possess. Their cities, the Cities of Light, are multistoried, thirteen in number, built one above the other. They have gates with vaults that are made of enormous stones of hyacinth. When these cities were built a particular spot was first chosen and then a small city with great fences was constructed. Afterward, towers that are higher than those of the small city were erected away from the sides of the first one. Extending the building in between these towers the first city was covered up. The new structure became like a roof to the first one. This roof was used as a ground, and another city greater than the first one was built upon it. Building layer upon layer in this manner, thirteen stories were constructed.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s diagrammatic representation of heaven and earth, already discussed, bears striking similarities to the Cities of Light, which can also be seen in premodern iconographic depictions of the celestial, terrestrial, and infraterres-trial worlds. Seen as an extension to this land, the earthly environment provides the necessary reference for the transformed spatial experiences, which can be traced in the popular literature concerned with the modes of living in the hereafter.

The architect of the cities holds a privileged status in this land. Ibn ‘Arabi reports after one visitor, who met many of the land’s kings, that once he met a distinguished person sitting next to one of the kings. The person’s gestures and movements attracted the attention of the visitor, so he asked the king about his status in the kingdom. The king smiled and asked: “Did you like him?” “Yes,” the visitor replied. The king said, “He is the mi’mâr (architect) who builds for us the houses and the cities, and everything you see is the traces of his work.”

  • The Ka’ba: The First House

According to premodern Islamic sources, Mecca was the omphalos of the earth, and the Ka’ba was God’s first house of worship. Being, so to speak, the first divine-sponsored architectural project, the Ka’ba is a key element in the interplay of cosmology and architecture. With the help of angels, Adam is said to have been the builder of the primordial house (al-bayt al-‘atïq).

During the deluge, however, the Ka’ba was raised to heaven, and it was Abraham who later rediscovered the site and reerected the sacred house under God’s order and guidance. The Quran says: “And when we prepared for Abraham the place of the house” (22:26).

Traditional narratives elaborate on this, explaining that after the disappearance of the Ka’ba during the deluge, God ordered Abraham to reestablish the house of God. Not knowing where he should do so, Abraham asked: “O Lord, but where?” God replied: “We shall show you.” God sent him a speaking “cloud” (al-sakïna) that directed him to the sacred spot.

Taking on the form of the house, the sakïna said: O Abraham, your Lord orders you to design according to the measure of this cloud”; in another source: “O Abraham, take from the land according to my measure, with no increase or decrease”; Ibn ‘Arabi reports: “Build according to the measure of my shadow.”Abraham traced precisely the form of the cloud, and with the as-sistance of his son Ishmael rebuilt the house as he was instructed.

The Quran confirms: “And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the house (Abraham prayed): our Lord, accept this from us, you are the Hearer, the Knower” (2:127).

Al-sakïna, the divine agent that selected the sacred site and delivered the heavenly model of the Ka’ba, denotes the ideas of “centrality” and “peace.” The name derives from sukün, literally “stillness,” and has been used in the Quran to denote the ideas of “repose,” “peacefulness,” and “certainty”: “He it is who sent down peace of reassurance (al-sakïna) into the heart of the believers” (48:4).

It also relates to sakana, to “dwell,” a meaning that alludes to the heart as God’s “dwelling,” the center of repose, the spring of certainty. The quest for principle is implicit in this term, since stillness is the quality par excellence of the center, the motionless mover, the unvocalized cause of utterances (sukün), and the immutable principle of change. As a visible embodiment of the sakïna, the Ka’ba becomes the heart of the world, the house of stillness, the locus of great peace, and the immanence of divinity at the center of the world.

In Sufi terms, the Ka’ba’s cube-like form is a crystallization of the cube of man. It is an embodiment of the human as well as cosmic spatial structure and a visible manifestation of the three-dimensional cross. Its four arkin correspond to the human nature, its six faces to the human figure, and its three dimensions of length, breadth, and depth to the human body. The form of the Ka’ba is also seen to correspond to the twentyeight mansions of the moon and,consequently, to the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet.

Fig. 4.10 The cube of the Ka’ba crystallizing the spatiality of the human

Ibn ‘Arabï says that the height of the Ka’ba is twenty-eight cubits, twenty-seven cubits to the roof level, and one cubit for the parapet. Every cubit corresponds to a designation of divine order (amr ilâhi). These designations, he says, are analogous “to the stations of the heart, traversed by the planets of faith in order to manifest events that occur within the soul, and this corresponds to the mansions of the moon, [traversed] by the mobile planets in order to produce events that occur in the natural world.”

Premodern literature on the Ka’ba provides ample references to the notion of centrality, axiality, triplicity, and quadrature; to its agency in the spatial de-ployment and temporal differentiation; and to its significance in materializing the creative relationship between triplicity and quadrature. The rich and complex mythology of the Ka’ba shows how a built form can become an integral part of divine geography and a central element in a cosmic landscape.

The Center of the World

Built according to a divine model and on a divinely chosen site, the Ka’ba was viewed to mark the center of the earth. Renowned early scholar al-Kisâ’ï (d. c. 805) affirms: “Know that the center of the earth, according to a tradition on the authority of the Prophet, is the Ka’ba; it has the significance of the navel of the earth, because of its rising above the level of the earth.”

Described in the Quran as “the mother of towns” (umm al-qurâ, 6:92), Muslims were reassured that Mecca was indeed the navel of the earth. Al-Azraqï (d. after 858) in his famous chronicle Akhbâr Makka reports many traditions concerned with the origin and significance of the Ka’ba that had continued to be reported in various forms until the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Mecca-centered maps prevalent in premodern times depict the Islamic world as a gigantic wheel with Mecca as its hub. The regions of this world were often identified by niches ori-ented toward the center. The lines radiating to all the mosques on earth, which represent the spokes of the wheel, form the axes of orientation that converge on the Ka’ba.This imagery can be traced in early literature. Describing the Ka’ba’s geo-cosmic position the Ikhwân write:

The house (al-bayt) in the middle of the holy mosque (al-masjid al-harâm), the holy mosque in the middle of the sanctuary (al-haram), the sanctuary in the middle of al-Hijâz, al-Hijâz in the middle of the Islamic countries, is in the likeness of the earth in the middle of the atmosphere, the atmosphere in the middle of the lunar sphere, the lunar sphere in the middle of the [celestial] spheres. And those who pray in the horizons oriented toward the house are in the likeness of the planets in the spheres—their radiations are directed towards the center of the earth. And the rotation of the heavens with their planets around the earth is in the likeness of the rotation of the ambulants around the house.

Marking the center of the earth, the Ka’ba assumes a significant cosmological function. It is the initial element from which the earth was “spread out” (duhiyat). A reported tradition says that the site of the Ka’ba was created two thousand years before the earth, which was spread out from it. Ka’b al-Al bâr, the Prophet’s companion, is reported to have said: “Forty years before God created the heavens and the earth, the Ka’ba was a scum on the water, and from it earth was spread out.”

Al-Azraqï reports a tradition that says that the Ka’ba stands on the exact spot where Adam built the first temple, the foundations of which were laid by the angels deep in the seventh earth. It is said that Adam was ordered to build a house to glorify God in the same manner of the angels. So he was led to the spot where the archangel Gabriel struck the earth with his wing, revealing a “firm foundation” (uss thâbit) in the nethermost earth. The angels filled up this pit with immense rocks until it became level with the surface of the earth. Adam then laid out the first temple on the angelic foundation.

Al-Ya’qübï (d. after 905) adds that the Ka’ba was once burned down, and in the process of rebuilding, the Qurayshïs dug deep to Abraham’s foundations, of which they accidentally extracted a stone. But the stone immediately jumped back to its position, and a large serpent emerged and prevented the workers from reaching the building. Such narratives show the cosmological significance of the Ka’ba seen as the navel of the earth, the sacrum (‘ajb al-dhanab) of the body of the world.

In mystical exegesis, the Ka’ba assumes another level of significance whereby it becomes a visible trace of the process of universal manifestation. In an interesting interpretation of the Quranic verse, in which Abraham addresses God, saying: “Our Lord, I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivated valley near your holy house” (14:37), the celebrated Bosnian Sufi al-Bïrâmï (d. 1644), known as shârih al-Fusüs, reads an architectural embodiment of the divine process of determination. The “uncultivated valley” (wâdi lâ zar’a fihi), he says, refers to the state of nondetermination (al-lâta’ayyun): the “valley” being the divine Essence, and “cultivation” being the manifestation of the names and attributes. Thus understood, the “uncultivated valley,” on which the Ka’ba was built, becomes a reference to the state of Transcendent Unity (al-ahadiyya), the state of virginity not yet cultivated with the considerations of the names and attributes, nor with their relations and additions, nor with their effects and determinations.

As “the first sanctuary appointed for mankind” (3:96), the Ka’ba then becomes as it were an architectural trace of the first act of determination. It becomes a tectonic expression of the manifestation of the divine presence from the un-manifest principle of Being. The laying out of the square plan of the Ka’ba in the uncultivated, virgin valley corresponds to the differentiation of the creative divine quadrature—Life, Knowledge, Will, and Power—from the undifferentiated unity, and to the differentiation of the quadrangular form of the Throne from the undifferentiated primordial Light. With reference to the Quranic verse: “So let them worship the Lord of this house” (106:3), the Ka’ba has also been associated with the presence of lordship (al-rububiyya). Its “planting” in the plantless valley, al-Bïrâmï writes, is a visible trace of “the determining of the state of lordship in the uncultivated valley of essential unity (al-wahda al-dhatiyya).”

The Cosmic Axis

At the center of the earth the Ka’ba reveals a vertical relationship with the center of heaven. Premodern sources speak of the correspondence the Ka’ba has with the Polestar, viewed as the center of heaven. Al-Kisâ’i says that traditionally it is believed that “the Polestar proves the Ka’ba to be the highest situated territory on earth, for it (viz. the Ka’ba) is opposite the center of heaven.” He further explains:

In the center of this moving part of heaven (viz. the Great Bear) is a fixed star which does not move, and this is the Polestar, around which the Bear and the rest of the stars turn. People are agreed on this point that he who places him-self opposite the Polestar has at the same time the direction of the Kibla, because this star is above the Ka’ba, without ever moving. The Bear may move somewhat, but the Polestar never does. If now the Polestar, which is the center of heaven, around which the other stars turn, is above the Ka’ba, this fact proves that what corresponds with the center of heaven is most likely to be the center of the earth; consequently the Ka’ba is the center of the earth.

The correspondence between the terrestrial and celestial centers suggests a perpendicular cosmic axis that penetrates the terrestrial and celestial terrains, tying the Ka’ba to their respective centers. This perpendicular connection makes the Ka’ba the nearest point to heaven. “In no place,” says the Prophet’s wife ‘A’isha, “I ever saw heaven nearer to earth than I saw it in Mecca.”This is also expressed by the tradition that says that Mecca “is situated twelve mil nearer to heaven.” The cosmic axis that passes through the Ka’ba connects it to its infraterrestrial, celestial, and supracelestial counterparts.

Fig. 4.11 The Ka’ba’s axial relationship to the Polestar according to al-Kisa’i.

A prophetic tradition describes the location of the Ka’ba as being at the midpoint of an axis that penetrates the seven heavens and seven earths, marking at each level a central point whereupon stands a house similar in structure and sacredness to that of the Ka’ba. Al-Azraqï writes: “The Apostle of God said: this house is one of fifteen, seven in the heavens up to the Throne and seven down to the limits of the lowest earth. The highest situated one, which is near the Throne, is the Frequented House (al-bayt al-ma’mur). Every one of these houses has a sacred territory, like that of the Ka’ba. If any one of them fell down, the rest would fall down, one upon the other, to the limits of the lowest earth. And every house has its heavenly or earthly worshippers, like the Ka’ba.

The cosmic axis is the channel through which the higher cosmic entities pass their qualities onto their lower replicas. The Ka’ba is a visible replica of the Frequented House, also referred to as “al-durah,” the Ka’ba’s highest celestial counterpart, which in turn is a replica of the supracelestial model, the divine Throne.

A popular tradition says that “the house which is in heaven is called “al-durah”; its form is similar to this sacred house; if it falls, it would fall upon the house.” It is said that the Prophet saw it during his miraculous ascension and afterward described it to his companions as being located directly above the Ka’ba and directly below the Throne, and as being as sacred to the inhabitants of heaven as the Ka’ba is to the inhabitants of earth.

Ibn ‘Arabi explains the unchanging axial relationship between the Ka’ba and its celestial counterpart, al-durah. He says that al-durah is located in the seventh heaven, which is standing still, as are the rest of the heavens. God made these heavens firm and settled; they are to us as the roof is to a house, and that is why heaven is called the “uplifted roof” (al-saqf al-marfu’). As for the spheres (aflak) in which the planets revolve, they are confined within these fixed heavens and not the heavens themselves. That is why al-durah does not move from its axial position opposite the Ka’ba.

Axiality is associated with the idea of the mountain, seen as the natural place of communication between heaven and earth. In a sense, the mountain, a primordial symbol of centrality and loftiness, represents the cosmic pillar that stands at the center of the earth and around which everything revolves. According to Islamic cosmogony, the position of the Ka’ba as the navel of the earth is evidenced by the fact that Abü Qubays, a mountain in the vicinity of Mecca, was the first mountain positioned on earth, and this is why Mecca is called the “mother of towns.” Reporting after the Prophet, Ibn ‘Abbâs says: “When, before the creation of heaven and earth, the Throne was upon the water, God most high sent a soft wind that struck the water, unveiling at the position of this house a piece of rock like a dome. God stretched out the earths from underneath it; it swayed and swayed again, so God most high pegged it by mountains, and the first mountain placed therein was Abü Qubays, and that is why Mecca was called the ‘mother of towns.’

Spatial Deployment, Temporal Differentiation

Describing the form of the house that Adam first constructed on the Ka’ba’s site, al-Azraqï writes: “Adam descended with a hollow red ruby that has four white corners (arkan) and laid it upon the foundation. It remained like that until the time of the deluge.”

Al-Tabarï (d. 922) adds that the foundations of this house, which were laid out by the angels in the seventh earth, were also quadrangular. The form of Adam’s house was imagined as reflecting the form of the Frequented House, the Ka’ba’s celestial model, described as “a building on four pillars of chrysolite that God crowned with a red ruby and called ‘al-durah.’”

Both Adam’s house and its celestial model, al-durah, confirm the divine paradigm of the Ka’ba’s quaternary structure. Ibn ‘Abbâs is reported to have said: “God created the Ka’ba and placed it on water, upon four pillars, two thousand years before he created the world. From underneath the house the earth was then spread out.

As the omphalos whence the earth emerged and was spread out, the Ka’ba extended its quadrature into the shape of the earth. East, west, south, and north were depicted as four sides of the earthly square. The spatiality of the Ka’ba thus becomes a meteorograph for the rainfall and fertility for all parts of the earth. “When rain beats one of the sides of the Ka’ba,” a tradition says, “fertility will be during the year on that side; when it beats all sides, fertility will reign on all sides.” In representing the first spatial deployment, the Ka’ba becomes a visible trace of the creative process through which unity proceeded into four-ness and a tectonic expression of the emergence of space and directionality from its maternal, nondirectional source, the point. Many iconographic depictions emphasize the Ka’ba’s quadrature and extend it to the complex of the haram, its architectural context.

In Sufi views, the Ka’ba’s quadrature is a reminder of the four directions along which Satan approaches and corrupts man, and of the presence of the four awtâd, the spiritual guardians of these directions.

Seen as “mountains”— “Have we not made the earth an expanse, and the high hills bulwarks (awtâd)?” (78:6–7)—the awtâd assume the role of stabilizing the faith of the believers and ensuring the constant flow of God’s grace and inspirations.

Through the four awtâd God preserves Islam as the primordial religion, al-dïn al-hanïf. By one he preserves faith (al-ïmân), by the second he preserves sainthood (al-wilâya), by the third he preserves prophecy (al-nubuwwa), and by the fourth he preserves scripture (al-risâla).

In their onerous tasks, the awtâd are aided by four prophets and four archangels, with which the four corners of the Ka’ba are identified. Ibn ‘Arabi explains:

Among them is one who corresponds to the heart of Adam, the other to the heart of Abraham, the third to the heart of Christ, and the fourth to heart of Muhammad, peace be upon them. So among them is one who is supported by the spirituality of Seraphiel, the other by the spirituality of Michael, the third by the spirituality of Gabriel, and the fourth by the spirituality of Izraiel. Each watad has one corner of the house: the one who corresponds to the heart of Adam . . . has the Syrian corner, the one who corresponds to the heart of Abraham . . . has the Iraqi corner, the one who corresponds to the heart of Christ . . . has the Ya-manite corner, and the one who corresponds to the heart of Muhammad . . . has the corner of the black stone.

The corners of the Ka’ba correspond with the original divine quadrature of “the first and the last, and the outward and the inward” (57:3), which inheres in all created quadratures that God set for himself as the house of being.

In this correspondence, the inward correlates with the corner of the black stone, God’s right hand on earth, which the pilgrims kiss in recognition of its significance. When the sight falls on the stone, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, the insight falls on the right hand, the stone’s inner reality. It stands for the “oil” of the “blessed olive tree,” that is “neither of the east nor of the west,” which sustains the divine light—“God is the light of the heavens and the earth” (24:35). While the outward form of the Ka’ba expresses directionality and spatial deployment, its centrality conceals the secret of the directionless identity, the coincidentia oppositorum, whence the light of the world emanates.

In addition to its spatial symbolism, the Ka’ba and the rites associated with it also have temporal significance. A popular imagery depicts the Ka’ba with the circumambulating pilgrims as an earthly miniature of the divine Throne and its encircling angels. The imagery seemed so vivid that questions were raised about the nature of space occupied by the angels, since the Throne was known to have occupied the entire vacuum. And Ibn ‘Arabi goes so far as to consider human glorifications of God in circumambulating the Ka’ba to be superior to those of the angels.

The ritual circumambulation of the Ka’ba is performed in seven continuous, anticlockwise revolutions, starting from the corner of the black stone.

A cycle is completed by the return to this same point, indicated by kissing, touching, or facing the stone when out of reach. The black stone is seen to mark the starting point of the ritual revolution about the Ka’ba in the same way the position of the divine Feet on the Footstool regulates the cyclic revolution of the atlas sphere. Thus the seven rounds performed about the Ka’ba correspond to the original cycles of the atlas sphere about the earth before the creation of the planetary spheres, and the delineation of the seven cycles by reference to the black stone reflects the differentiation of the seven divine days by reference to the divine Feet. It is with reference to this correspondence that the completion of the seven rounds around the Ka’ba is known as “completing one’s week.”

The seven revolutions of the atlas sphere are, as we have seen, temporal expressions of the seven principal divine attributes, and the ritual circumambu-lations are reenactments of the celestial cycles.

Thus the seven cycles around the house correspond to the seven divine attributes, while the house stands for the Essence. In realizing the significance of their act while partaking in the ritual circumambulation, the ambulants are said to be endowed with the qualities of the divine attributes.

By circumambulating the Ka’ba the ambulant not only reenacts the primeval process of temporal manifestation that successively took place through the revolution of the atlas sphere but also qualifies space by differentiating its four cardinal directions.

The ritual circumambulation involves the utterance of four different statements that correspond to the four corners of the Ka’ba. These utterances punctuate the continuity of the ritual revolution, marking four distinct points that correspond to the four directions of space determined by the four corners of the Ka’ba. This act mimics the way in which the four nodal points—the two solstices and the two equinoxes—of the ecliptic punctuate the sun’s annual journey whereby it measures out the limits of the space and defines the cardinal directions.

Triplicity and Quadrature

In Akhbar Makka Al-Azraqi relates a common hadith that says that once the Prophet told his wife ‘A’isha that when her tribesmen of Quraysh rebuilt the Ka’ba, they did not lay it out exactly upon the foundations of Abraham. They made it shorter on one side by about seven cubits. Had they not been still well acquainted with infidelity, the Prophet lamented, he would have rebuilt the house, adding to it what they had omitted. The hadith adds that the Prophet then took his wife and showed her the missing part of the house so that she might be a witness if Quraysh ever decided to add the missing part.

Acknowledging their omission, however, the Qurayshi builders fenced the unbuilt part of the Ka’ba by a semicircular parapet wall opposite the northwestern side. This fenced area is known as al-hijir, from hajara, literally “to deny access,” “to detain.” It was built in order to prevent the ambulants from intruding into that area during circumambulation, thus acknowledging its belonging to the Ka’ba.

At the time of Ibn al-Zubayr’s revolt against the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, the Ka’ba was burned down. With reference to the above tradition, Ibn al-Zubayr is said to have rebuilt the Ka’ba according to the Prophet’s descriptions exactly upon the foundations of Abraham. But no sooner had he finished rebuilding the Ka’ba than he was killed by al-Hajjaj, the Umayyad governor, who took over Mecca, pulled down the Ka’ba, and rebuilt it again as it was at the time of the Prophet. Thus it remained to this day. After realizing the authenticity of the above hadith, some sources say, the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik later regretted what he had done to the house and wished he had left it as it was.

Given the Ka’ba’s rich cosmological significance, the above tradition and the related historical events raise critical questions about its original form and the divine model it meant to embody. Was it quadrangular or triangular?

Ibn ‘Arabi considers the Ka’ba to have two complementary forms, explicit and implicit. The explicit form is the current one with four corners (arkan), while the implicit form is the one established by Adam and Abraham according to the divine model that has three corners only. He says that it was for a divine secret that “God caused his house to have four corners, though in reality it had only three, because it is muka”ab in shape.”

Here the term muka”ab used by Ibn ‘Arabi to describe the original shape of the Ka’ba calls for some explanation.

Although the Arabic term ka’ba denotes the idea of cube-like, it does not literally mean “cube,” as is commonly understood, nor does the Arabic term muka”ab, currently used for “cube,” refer, in the original sense of the word,to a “geometrical hexahedron.

This is evident from the preceding reference by Ibn `Arabi’. Both terms ka`ba and muka“ab derive from ka`b, which means literally “ankle,” “anklebone,” and “every articulation between bones.” It seems that the form of the Ka`ba as a cube has something to do with ki`ab or ku`ub (plural of ka`b), “bones,” perhaps “cuboid,” which were used in certain games in ancient Arabia. The shape of these bones must bear some similarity to the semicircular form of the hijir, since Ibn `Arab’ says it is muka“ab in shape.

Describing the third corner of the Ka`ba’s implicit form, Ibn `Arab’ says: “The one corner that coincides with the hijir is as the hijir in form, muka“ab in shape, and for this reason it is called ‘ka`ba,’ comparing it with the ka`b.

The relationship between the circular form of the hijir and the name ka`ba can also be traced in the verb ka`aba, meaning “to be full and round,” “to swell,” which was traditionally used to describe the “swelling of a woman’s breast.”

Al-Zamakhshari says that the “swelling(taka“aba) of a woman’s breast is to protrude like the ka`b. Al-Faráh’d’ further explains that ka`ba also means “quadrature,” and the ka`ba of the house is its “upper quadrature,” and every square house is ka`ba.These references suggest that the term ka`ba refers originally to the form of the house including the hijir, that is, its quadrature as well as its semicircular end, rather than to the form of the cube, to which it nonetheless bears a secondary relation.

Be that as it may, Ibn `Arabi’ considers the original divine model of the Ka`ba to be ternary rather than quaternary. The three corners of the house being the black stone, the Yemenite, and “the third corner is in the hijir. This corner is undetermined, he says, for it has no sensible form in the house. As for the Syrian and Iraqi corners the hijir replaces, Ibn `Arabi’ says that they were not part of the original divine model of the house and, consequently, not corners of the house, and this is the reason why their treatment in the pilgrimage rituals is different.

The meanings of the Ka`ba’s implicit triplicity, Ibn `Arab’ explains, lie in the holy tradition that is widely reported in Sufi literature, in which God says: “Neither my earth nor my heaven can encompass me, yet the heart of my faithful worshiper can.

Sufis compare the heart to the Ka`ba for both share the notion of centrality at the micro and macrocosmic levels. Just as man is defined by two extremities, namely, his innermost heart and outermost body, so the world is defined by the Ka`ba, its innermost center, and the divine Throne, its outermost body.

In a mystical reflection, Ibn `Arab’ poetically writes what God has communicated to him: “This Ka`ba of mine is the heart of existence, and to this heart my Throne is a defined body. Neither of them has space for me, nor tells about me what I tell about them, but the house of mine that has room for me is your intended heart, placed in your perceived body.”

In this analogical frame, the ambulants who frequent the Ka’ba become the “quick-passing thoughts” (khawâtir) that frequent the heart. These khawâtir are man’s inner secrets (asrâr) and interiorized thoughts that are generated by worldly engagements and personal preoccupations.

They circumambulate the heart in the same way the pilgrims circumambulate the Ka’ba, so one’s sensible attachments turn around one’s body in the same way the angels move about the encompassing Throne. The ambulants of the Ka’ba are viewed to correspond to the secrets of the heart, because both share the idea of “heart-ness” (al-qalbiyya); whereas the ambulants of the body correspond to the ambulants of the Throne, because both share the idea of “encompassed-ness” (al-ihatiyya). And just as the composed body is of a lesser status than the simple heart, so likewise is the encompassing Throne in relation to the Ka’ba.

As for the quick-passing thoughts (khawâtir) that circumambulate the heart, Ibn ‘Arabï says, they derive from four distinct sources: divine, angelic, psychic, and satanic. They correspond with both the quaternary and the ternary orders of the Ka’ba.

When we consider the ternary order, Ibn ‘Arabï says, the three corners of the black stone, the Yemenite, and the hijir correspond to the heart’s divine thought (al-khâtir al-ilâhi), angelic thought (al-khâtir al-malaki), and psychic thought (al-khâtir al-nafsi) respectively, leaving no room for the satanic thought (al-khâtir al-shaytâni).

This is the model after which the hearts of prophets are made, he says, and to which Satan has no access.

But when we consider its quaternary pattern, the four corners, with the Syrian and the Iraqi corners replacing the hijir, we add the satanic thought.

From the ritual invocation associated with each corner during circumambulation, Ibn ‘Arabï infers that the Irâqï corner is the one correlated with the satanic thought, whereas the Shâmï corner is the one correlated with psychic thought. The quaternary order underlies the model after which the hearts of all people, other than the prophets, are made, including the hearts of the faithful.

Concerning the relationship between the concealed triplicity and revealed quadrature, Ibn ‘Arabï says that it was the divine wisdom that prompted the Umayyad caliph to order his governor al-Hajjâj to pull down the Ka’ba and return it to the current quadrant form that does not conform to the original divine model.

In this the Ka’ba become a true expression of the creative relationship between hidden triplicity and manifest quadrature, the triplicity of the divine command (al-amr al-ilâhi) and the quadrature of universal manifestation (al-zuhür al-kulli). The concealed triplicity complements the revealed quadrature in the form of the Ka’ba, in the same way in which spirituality complements materiality in cosmogony, and essentiality complements substantiality in manifestation. Thus this productive relationship that was first revealed through the inherent nature of the intermediary world of al-barzakh, and then manifested in various modes at different cosmic and human levels, is ultimately crystallized in the architectural form of the Ka’ba.

  • The Mosque and the Spatiality of Prayer

Mosques—masjid, musalla, and jami’—are the Islamic places of worship the Muslims have constructed in a rich variety of forms and styles. Austere or elab-orate, simple or monumental, the mosque serves a uniquely Islamic function and has, therefore, been widely recognized as the expression par excellence of Islamic architecture.

Despite the large body of literature on the origin and development of mosque architecture, the curious relationship between the act of prayer and the architecture of the mosque, between the function and the form, has rarely been profoundly explored. Several prophetic sayings, such as, “Wherever you pray, that place is a mosque,” and, “I have been given the whole earth as a sanctuary,” raise questions about how and why an identifiable mosque architecture emerged and developed.

In its formal and compositional characteristics, the typical mosque remains an intriguing phenomenon that is at once simple and complex. It is simple in that a number of recurrent elements can be traced in various compositions throughout the premodern and modern periods, revealing a consistent identity. Yet it is complex in that the model perpetuated in many elaborate forms has little to do with the function it serves. One only needs to observe the ranks of a large Muslim congregation during a major feast or Friday prayer, extending in linear form inside and outside the prayer hall, inside and outside the courtyard (when a mosque has one), to realize how impertinent the form of the mosque is, with all its elaborate elements, to the fulfillment of the prayer. If one can pray just as well inside and outside a mosque, then what difference does architecture make?

This question is further complicated when one considers the various curious extensions, enlargements, and additions made to many mosques, such as, for example, the duplication of al-Mansur’s mosque and the successive additions to the Cordoba mosque; or considers the large structures that are sometimes built within the prayer hall, as with the shrine of the prophet Yahya in the great Umayyad mosque of Damascus; or considers the broad range of structures and forms to which the term “mosque” can apply. For instance, the Dome of the Rock, the sanctuary where it stands, and the Aqsa are all referred to as “mosques” in premodern Islamic literature. With regard to the spatial order traced so far, the typical hypostyle mosque layout appears to bare little relevance. In order to show the consistency of the premodern spatial sensibility with regard to mosque architecture, I have followed an unorthodox approach that focuses on the spatiality of prayer.

The Prophetic Model

Historians of Islamic architecture generally concur that the simple dwelling and hypostyle mosque constructed by the Prophet in Medina served as a model for mosque design throughout the Islamic world. Some even argue that this model contained in an embryonic form the elements that later became the defining characteristics of mosque architecture. The perpetuation of the basic layout of the prophet’s house-mosque is curious, since this prototype is not conceived as being constructed according to a specific divine model. Unlike the Ka’ba, the first mosque did not generate a rich body of mythical narratives associated with its founding and construction. This may be explained by the lack of Quranic references and the nature of prophethood in Islam; however, it seems that the prophetic example has in time assumed the status of a divine model that legitimated its numerous adaptations.

The story of founding and constructing the Prophet’s house, however, is not without sacred connotations. Early sources describe how the Prophet was led to the site of his mosque by God. As he entered the Medina on the back of his camel, al-Qaswa’, Muhammad was fervently welcomed, and many eager invita-tions were offered. But Muhammad told the inviting crowd repeatedly to let his camel go on her way saying: “She is under the command of God” (ma’müra). After a short tour, al-Qaswa‘ finally knelt and flattened her chest against the ground. There, Muhammad alighted and said: “This, if God will, is the dwelling.

The sources also report that during the course of construction, Muhammad asked his companions who were helping him to “build it in the form of ‘arïsh like that of Moses,”indicating that he had a particular model in mind. According to the literal meanings of the term, ‘arïsh refers to a “trellis” erected for shading, to the roof of a building, probably made in the form of a trellis, to a kind of house found in Mecca, and also to “tabernacle” or “tent.”134

The Prophet’s house-mosque was in the shape of a square measuring one hundred or seventy cubits a side. It consisted of two parts: a simple walled court-yard and a simple shelter built with a flat roof held up by palm trunks used as pil-lars. This was first built along the northern side that faces Jerusalem, and a few months later with the divine injunction to change the qibla it was dismantled and reerected along the southern side, which faces Mecca. This shelter formed the prayer hall and opened onto the courtyard, which formed an extension to the cov-ered area and an integral part of the mosque as a whole. The open courtyard was the predominant part of the mosque and was provided with three doors, one on each of the eastern, western, and northern sides of the square.

In his Tabaqât, Ibn Sa’d (d. 845) describes the doors as being one at the rear, one the door of al-Rahma (compassion) that is also known as the door of ‘Atika, and the third was the door through which the Prophet used to enter. Whether these three doors together with the sheltered hall, often depicted in opposite positions, were meant to mark the four directions of space is not clear. Yet, it is clear that many subsequent mosques, including the early great Umayyad mosque of Damascus that was first to reproduce the Prophet’s model at a monumental scale, reveal similar planning and spatial characteristics. The question that is rarely discussed in the studies of mosque architecture is how does this model serve the performance of prayer?

Prayer as Visualization

As prescribed by the Prophet, Islamic prayer is an act of worship performed to-ward a liturgical center, the Ka’ba, that, unlike the church’s alter, lies beyond the boundaries of all mosques, except for the one that contains the Ka’ba. The Prophet further teaches: “adore God as though you do see him, for if you do not see him he does see you.” Thus viewed, the Islamic prayer is not primarily a pictorial experience or a visually oriented act, for the object of seeing is that which cannot be seen. In the Islamic prayer “seeing” takes on a different meaning, especially when viewed from the Sufi perspective.

Islamic prayer requires no tangible object, such as an icon or a statue, to induce a sense of divine presence and serve as a support for worship. Visual engagement is therefore unnecessary. The only visual engagement it requires is that whereby Muslims orient themselves toward the qibla. Otherwise, the prayer is simply a bodily performance associated with oral recitations, requiring, especially in the communal prayer, an acute auditory engagement.

From the moment the call to prayer is heard, Muslims engage in aural-oral correspondence, repeating certain phrases and acting in certain ways. During prayer, the oral recitations by the imam are the principal means of regulating the prayer’s rhythmical sequence. This was the reason why in some large mosques the dikka, a “respondents’ platform,” became a necessary piece of liturgical furniture in order to extend the imam’s audible presence.

There are several prophetic traditions that define the nature of the Islamic prayer, such as the one cited above and the one that says: “In truth God is present in the qibla of every one of you.” But the most important one in the context of this study is the holy tradition that concerns the recitation of al-fatiha, the opening chapter, which constitutes the principal text of the prayer.

In this rather long hadith, God begins by saying: “I have divided prayer between me and my servant into two halves, one being due to me, the other to my servant; and my servant will receive that for which he asks.” The hadith goes on depicting the prayer as a dialogical act, a direct conversation between God and Man, wherein each has a role to play and a responsibility to fulfill. In this sense, prayer becomes as it were a “colloquy” between the adorer and the adored, an “intimate dialogue” (munajat) between the creator and his creature. Ibn ‘Arabi goes so far to suggest that prayer is indeed a shared act of worship: “He glorifies me and I glorify him. He worships me and I worship him.

The respondents’ platform (dikka) at the Sultan klasan school in Cairo.

In Mir’at al-‘Arifin, the author translates this holy tradition into a diagram that illustrates the dialogical nature of prayer in a geometrical form.

Ibn ‘Arabï teaches that to achieve such a dialogue, one must place oneself in the presence of God, imagine God as being present in the qibla, visualize his presence in his heart, and hear his voice vibrating in all manifested things.

Shuhud, “vision” or “visualization,” the key Quranic concept in such experience, refers to imaginative visualization that compensates for the lack of sensory visual engagement in prayer. Imagination being our only means of engagement with the Absolute, any prayer can be seen as an attempt to commu-nicate with God through imaginative visualization.

The way to achieve such visualization, however, may differ. In Christianity, for example, Ibn ‘Arabï observes that visualization is achieved through the mediation of icons. “The Byzantines developed the art of painting to its perfection,” he writes, “because for them the unique nature (fardaniyyah) of Sayyidnâ ‘Isâ as expressed in his image, is the foremost support of concentration on Divine Unity.

In contrast, Islam prohibits the use of icons in prayer, he adds, prescribing instead to “adore God as though you do see him.” Ibn ‘Arabï’s argument reveals an awareness that visualization in Christianity is induced through the agency of depiction; whereas in Islam it is induced through the agency of invocation. Depiction centers on the divine word revealed in the form of a human being, as in the case of Christ, demanding direct visual engagement with the depicted image. By contrast, invocation centers on the divine word revealed in the form of a book, as is the case of the Quran, demanding direct auditory engagement with the invoked text.

On a practical level, Muslim clerics have considered some techniques for concentration that would enhance the experience of praying. Since closing the eyes in prayer is undesirable in Islam, they searched for ways to reduce visual distractions.

In the Ihya’, for example, al-Ghazâlï advises that one should restrict one’s sight to the spot on which one is standing, which can be achieved by standing near a wall or by drawing a line on which one’s gaze is fixed throughout the prayer. In doing so, he says, one shortens the range of one’s sight and consequently enhances one’s concentration. Whereas vision is regarded as distracting in prayer, hearing is considered to be engaging. In any case, one cannot do away with one’s hearing in the same way one can with one’s vision by simply closing one’s eyes.

Sufis associate hearing with invocation (dhikr), an act that creates a sense of divine presence necessary for prayer. “Whoever invokes God, finds himself in the presence of God,” Ibn ‘Arabï writes, referring to the holy tradition that says: “I witness the invocation of he who invokes me.”

Dhikr means “recall” and “remembrance.” When identified with prayer, dhikr becomes the recalling and remembering of God in order to converse with him.

Having the ability to invoke is only one side that must be complemented by the ability to “hear” the divine reply. If one is unable to hear God’s reply in the prayer, Ibn ‘Arabi stresses, then one is not “lending his hearing while witnessing” (50:37); that is, one is not present in front of one’s Lord and can neither hear nor see him.

Thus understood, it is not the eye and the sense of seeing that enhance the creative imagination in prayer, but rather the ear and the sense of hearing. Hearing engenders the experience of a presence, and the oral-aural participation activates the inner sense of vision, enabling one’s visualization. “He who makes himself present to whom he invokes, being one with insight, sees his companion,” Ibn ‘Arabi explains, “this being both a visualization (mushahada) and vision (ru ya).” If one cannot attain such visualization, however, one should worship God by faith as though he sees him, that is, imagining him in his qibla while conversing with him and lending his hearing to what he might receive from him.

Prayer and Acoustic Space

Islamic prayer thus understood does not depend on the eye and the sense of seeing and, therefore, bears poor relationship to pictorial or visual space. Rather, it depends on the ear and the sense of hearing, bearing a stronger affinity with auditory or acoustic space. The main characteristics of acoustic space derive from sound’s essential feature of invoking an unlocalized presence. “Because of its association with sound,” Ong observes, “acoustic space implies presence far more than does visual space.”

Sound suggests a presence without location, a presence that occupies the entire space rather than being located in it. This is very much like God’s presence in the qibla of the faithful, which, though physically in front of him, is in reality everywhere around him: “Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God” (2:115).

Unlike visual space, auditory space is not spread out before us with a fore, middle, and background but is diffused around us as a boundless bubble, as a sphere that has no precisely defined boundaries.

Sound can be heard equally well from any direction, front or back, left or right, above or below, and in any position, lying down, sitting, or standing up. Accordingly, the space apprehended by the ear has neutral spatial characteristics: neither does it have any favorable point as a center, nor does it relate to any particular direction more than others. Every point in it is a center sufficient to itself, and every spot entertains the sense of spatial entirety. In an acoustic space every participant is situated in the center of his or her own acoustic field, regardless of the location or the number of participants.

Furthermore, auditory space is not a pure or empty, boxed-in space but is an “essentially inhabited space.” This means that one cannot simply be independent of it; one cannot stand outside it and experience it but has to be within it in order for such space to exist.

Acoustic space cannot be frozen in the matrix of matter; it cannot be preserved, as in a photographic form, and made to passively endure in the memory. For there is no way to preserve sound as sound; when sound stops, its opposite, silence, prevails.

Accordingly, acoustic space is not a passive, static space in the sense that its inhabitant adds virtually nothing to its quality; rather, it is an active, dynamic space, “always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment” and always in transformations, corresponding to the states that one may attain during one’s presence in it.

The characteristics of acoustic space provide an ideal environment for the performance of Islamic prayer, in which every participant is invested with the dignity of the imam and acts as his own priest. A reported prophetic tradition says that every worshiper is an imam, for the angels pray behind him when he prays alone.153

 The interior of the great Umayyad mosque of Damascus.

The tomb of the prophet Yahya inside the prayer hall of the great Umayyad mosque of Damascus.

Theoretically, every Muslim praying constitutes an independent center directly connected to the supreme center, the Ka’ba, in the same way that every participant in an acoustic field finds him- or herself directly related to the sonic source.

Although architecture can enhance the acoustic qualities, auditory space is not a tectonic space. It is a space that can virtually exist anywhere, as a prophetic tradition asserts: “God has blessed my community by giving them the face of the whole world as a sanctuary.

But Muhammad did not pray anywhere. As we have seen, he did project a choice.

Examining the spatial characteristics of a prayer hall of the early hypostyle model from the standpoint of acoustic space, the following spatial characteristics emerge: short visual field, no visual center, and neutral spatial characteristics. The most conspicuous quality one observes is that the space does not beckon the eye in a particular direction. Looking in a direction parallel to any row of columns, the eye neither rests on a terminating element nor is invited to any point of special significance. Looking diagonally, however, one encounters a forest of columns, rendering the visual field very limited. Mosque spatiality lacks orientation toward a liturgical center comparable to the one found in a church, which acts as both a spatial and a visual focus.

It includes no starting or terminating point that may evoke a sense of progression. As a result, a space of this kind can be extended in practically any direction, as had actually happened in many mosques; it can accommodate varying ranks of pillars without affecting its internal spatial order or changing its essential characteristics. “In this respect,” Grabar observes, “the early mosque was a remarkably modern building which could be expanded and contracted according to the needs of the community.

A prayer hall can also include large structures, such as the large tomb of the prophet Yahya in the great Umayyad mosque of Damascus, without disturbing the sense of spatial cohesion and continuity.

Thus viewed, the spatial characteristics of the prayer hall of the early hypostyle mosques provide a suitable ambience for praying, through the sense of neutrality, nonprocession, repose, and equilibrium it reveals, allowing every point in the space to be a center of equal significance.

Such an ambience tends to generate an encompassing sense of presence that is consistent with the Islamic idea of universal sanctuary.Through oral-aural participation in prayer, this ambience helps evoke one’s own inward auditory space, which is “in a way a vast interior in the center of which the listener finds himself together with his interlocutors.” This, however, should not be taken to suggest that this was intentional in the prophetic model. Yet the indifference the function of praying presents toward architectural forms might be seen as having helped the adoption, adaptation, and perpetuation of a prophetic model in wherever form it happened to be.

The Spatiality of Prayer

Acoustic space, as we have seen, cannot be dissociated from the individual who is the center of this space. The experiences and meanings associated with this space, therefore, derive from the actions of the one who at once unfolds and oc-cupies this space. In the course of prayer, each individual defines a spatial field by his or her bodily movements that have spiritual significance.

It is, therefore, important to know the bodily and oral performances involved in prayer as well as their sequence to fully appreciate their spiritual significance.

Islamic prayer comprises a prescribed set of gestures and recitations, performed in the same way individually or collectively while standing at a fixed point in space. It involves a series of bodily postures rhythmically re-peated in one place with no processional rituals.

There are four principal postures: standing (qiyâm), bowing (rukü’), sitting or resting (julüs), and prostrating (sujüd). The movements associated with these bodily postures reveal four tendencies: upward, associated with the standing posture; horizontal, associated with the bowing posture; downward, associated with the prostrating posture; and stillness, associated with the resting posture. When repeated in a certain sequence in association with an oral recitation, these postures constitute the so-called rak’a (from rukü’, “bowing posture”), the prayer’s repeated unit or cycle.

Each complete rak’a (cycle) consists of seven distinct acts: six repetitive ones and a terminating one every two cycles, as shown in the diagram. When a prayer is of three or five cycles, the seventh act is also repeated in the last odd cycle.

Sufis see in the spatial tendencies of the prayer an expression of the three-dimensional cross, the underlying divine structure of both human and cosmic formation, and the basis of spatial ordering. Ibn ‘Arabï explains: “Since Being became known through an intelligible movement that transferred the world from nonexistence to existence, the prayer involved all the movements, which are three: the rectilinear movement which is the worshiper’s standing posture, the horizontal movement which is the worshiper’s bowing posture, and the reversed movement which is the worshiper’s prostration. Man’s movement is rectilinear, the animal’s horizontal, and the plant’s reversed; the mineral has no movement of its own, when a stone moves it is being moved by other forces.”

Thus viewed, the three movements of the prayer reenact the primordial process of existential unfolding, which, according to al-Qâshânï, occurred by way of three intelligible or cosmic movements. They also retrace both the movements of spatial expansion from the center and the natural growth of the human body from the sacrum.

Accordingly, by the tendencies of their bodily movements, a Muslim in prayer unfolds—in principle—a sphere that defines the spatiality of the boundless bubble of their acoustic field. Ibn ‘Arabï describes an experience he once had in a prayer wherein he visualized himself as being transformed into intense light wherein he could no longer distinguish his directions.

The postures of the prayer together with their associated tendencies are seen to correspond to the threefold origin of humanity. Through the prostrating posture and its downward tendency humans seek the origin of their body, water and earth; through the standing posture and its ascending tendency they seek the origin of their spirit, God; and through his bowing posture and its horizontal tendency they seek the origin of their imaginative and mental faculties, the isthmus (al-barzakh).

The horizontal, bowing posture mediates between standing and prostrating and thus includes in its form the qualities of both: ascending spirituality and descending materiality.

This isthmian characteristic, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, is expressed through the phrase the Muslim utters on God’s behalf while rising from the bowing position: “God hears him who glorifies him. The bowing posture also corresponds to the isthmian verse of al-fatiha: “It is you whom we adore, and it is of you that we beg assistance,” which God and man share and which divides the seven verses of al-fatiha into two halves: three relating to God and three relating to man.

The postures of prayer are also viewed to correspond to the form of the Arabic letters. The standing posture corresponds to the letter alif(A), whose verticality is seen to represent the original position from which other postures derive. Calligraphically, the straightness of the alif is taken to represent the principal form of the various curvatures and bending of other letters.

Considering the ritual prayer during the pilgrimage, Ibn ‘Arabi constructs another level of cosmological significance based on the spatiality of prayer.

The pilgrimage rituals prescribe the performance of two rak’as after the completion of every seven laps around the Ka’ba.

The main reason for this, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, comes from the very act of circumambulation. In circumambulating the Ka’ba seven times one assumes the role of the revolving planets in generating and ruling over the earthly conditions. The planets are cosmic agents with which God regulates the worldly affairs through their influences on the four natural elements.

In reenacting the “days” of the divine “week,” the ritual circumambulation assumes the function of the celestial agents, and the human body assumes the place of the four elements.

This cosmological resonance necessitates the two rak’as, since the human formation has two components, material and intellectual. “God also rendered for every cyclical movement of this week a trace in the prayer,” Ibn ‘Arabi further explains. “In the prayer there manifests seven bodily and spiritual traces, one trace from the movement of every cycle of the week of circumambulation . . . The seven bodily traces in the formation of the prayer are first standing, bowing, second standing, which is rising up from bowing, [first] prostration, sitting between the two prostrations, second prostration, and sitting for testimony. As for the invocations associated with these seven bodily movements, they are their spirits. Thus payer was composed as a perfect formation.”

Unity and Community

In communal prayers individuals are required to be perfectly aligned in straight lines with shoulders rubbing so that no spaces are left between the participants. The perfect alignment is seen as a spatial expression of the equality all wor-shippers have to God. God asks humans to pray in order to commune with them as a community. As earthly creatures bound to space, humans express their equal connection to divinity spatially though their perfect alignment, which images the way in which angels stand in God’s presence: “And your Lord shall come with angels, rank on rank” (89:22), “on the day when the angels and the Spirit stand arrayed” (78:38). The imam, however, leads the prayer from his stand-alone position. Here the spatiality of the imam and the aligned crowd involve a double resonance.

In standing alone, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, the imam represents the totality of the worshipers, constituting a row on his own. No one else is allowed to do so. If one finds oneself alone one is required to either squeeze in the last row, or, if it is already well-packed, invite one from the row to make a pair.

Standing alone, the imam’s prayer projects God’s “unity of totality” (ahadiyyat al-majmu’), whereas standing in aligned rows, the prayers of individuals project God’s “totality of unity(majmu’ al-ahadiyya).

The inversed resonance reveals an awareness of the spatiality of visualizing and projecting divinity by the imam and the community in the course of prayer. The spatial design of the prayer hall of the hypostyle mosque seems to reflect this reciprocal relationship. The pillared hall tends to express architecturally the congregation’s “totality of unity,” whereas the imam’s position marked by the mihrab and sometimes a dome positioned directly above it, or even the central dome, tends to express the imam’s “unity of totality.”

Creative Hearing

Finally, hearing (sama`) recalls the creative act of divine utterance and the process of existentiation ( ijad). In Ibn `Arabi’s cosmology, utterance and hearing are the two generative principles of existentiation.

Every determining agent is a father, every determined thing is a mother, every act of determination is a marriage relationship, and every resultant is a child. The speaker is a father, the listener is a mother, the act of speaking is a marriage relationship, and the understanding or the vision produced in the listener is a child.

The Quran often describes God as “the Hearer, the Knower” and “the Hearer, the Seer.” Hearing is associated with Knowing and Seeing, but hearing always comes first. Ibn `Arabi says that this is because hearing was the means by which existents first knew of their Lord when they responded to the creative command “Be!”

Hearing, as we have seen, was also the first faculty possible beings received concurrently with the first temporal motion, engendered by the attribute of Hearing, whereby the first day of the divine week occurred. The “hearing” of possible beings is what brought them into existence and enabled them to then see and know their creator.

Hearing, Ibn `Arabi explains, is of three kinds: divine hearing (sama` ilahi), spiritual hearing (sama` ruhani), and natural hearing (sama` tabi`i).

Divine hearing is the unconditioned hearing (al-sama` al-mutlaq) of the “ears of the heart” that relates to the transcendental sound of the divine creative command heard from everything, in everything, and with everything, as expressed in the verse: “Never comes there unto them a new reminder from their Lord but they listen” (21:2). It is the hearing of one for whom existence is the inexhaustible divine words, and of whom God says: “I am the hearing wherewith he hears.”

Spiritual hearing is the cosmic hearing (al-sama` al-kawni) of the “ears of the intellect” that relates to the scratching sound (sarif) of the supernal Pen as it inscribes the divine words upon the Preserved Tablet of existence. It is the hearing of one who sees the traces of the divine words in the cosmic forms.

Natural hearing is the hearing of the “ears of carnal soul” that relates to natural sounds.

Natural hearing reflects spiritual hearing, which in turn reflects divine hearing. They are all based on the pattern of quadrature.

Divine hearing involves the Essence (dhat), relation (nisba) or attribute, turning toward the listener (tawajjuh) or will, and utterance (qawl) or power.

Spiritual hearing involves the Essence (dhat), hand (yad), pen (qalam), and the scratching sound of inscription (sarif).

And natural hearing involves the four principles of nature: heat, cold, moistness, and dryness.

By the quadrature of divine hearing Being (wujud) manifests; by the quadrature of spiritual hearing the Universal Soul manifests, and by the quadrature of natural hearing natural existence, to which the human sensible body belongs, manifests.

Ibn ‘Arabi says that those who belong among the people of the divine hearing observe the metaphysical order of the divine names; their hearing and consequently their knowledge derive from there.

Those who belong among the people of the spiritual hearing observe the traces of the metaphysical order in the cosmic order of both the higher and lower worlds; their hearing and consequently their knowledge derive from there.

As for those who belong among the people of natural hearing, they can only feel and respond to the effect of natural sounds; natural hearing does not produce knowledge; it only produces an effect in the soul.

The Sense of Unity : The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture

e386d6_8ed1082b0c4b469c9de825e2be7b0177~mv2Despite its extraordinary richness, Islamic architecture has rarely been studied for its conceptual and symbolic significance. In the Sense of Unity, a handsomely illustrated volume and the first extended work of its kind, Nader Ardalan and Laleh Bakhtiar examine the architecture of Persia as a manifestation of Islamic tradition and demonstrate the synthesis of traditional Persian thought and form.


The most fundamental principle of Sufism, the inner, esoteric dimension of Islam, is that of unity in multiplicity. This view sees in every aspect of reality a reflection of a transcendent source which is given symbolic expression through all of man’s activities, most directly and importantly through his works of art.


The authors of The Sense of Unity show how all the elements of the Islamic architecture of Persiafrom the simplest architectural unit to a complex urban environmentare woven around this central doctrine and thus are best understood as multiple manifestations of unity. The Sense of Unity is illustrated with photographs, drawing, charts, and tables which are an integral part of its argument and which exemplify, in abundant and striking detail, the principles discussed in the text. Presenting to the Western reader for the first time the insights of the Iranian cultural tradition, the book also offers a stimulating new way of thinking about man and his relationship to his milieu. Read more here