Study – Terms and Definitions of Islamic Art and Architecture 1

Before I carry on yapping about these Islamic art and architecture, It would help should we have some knowledge about the Arabic terms and definitions, and perhaps their etymology. Most of the terms are Arabic but some of them also have roots in Persian, Turkish or any other language in the Middle East area.

1. Islamic Architectural Features –

  • Minaret – comes from the Arabic word Minara (منارة), in turn, a derivation of another Arabic word Nur, meaning Light. Hence Minara in essence means Tower of Light. It is a generic term, referring to any towers, from lighthouses to mosque towers. In Islamic Architecture, it refers to the tower that stands near a mosque where the Muezzin (The person who calls for prayers) recite the Azan to call the faithful to prayer.
  • One of the Minarets of the Holy City of Makkah, Saudi Arabia.

  • Mihrab – (محراب) Prayer Niche. Refers to the niche in a mosque on one wall where it faces the Qibla (The direction to the Holy City of Makkah) . It literally mean Special Room . Originally denotes Prophet Muhammad’s special room for prayers, it is by time refers to the wall  that faces the Qibla and subsequently a niche carved on the wall itself. Parallels in other religions include the Torah Ark in Synagogues and Haikals of the Coptic Churches.

The Mihrab of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.

  • Iwan -Taken from the Persian eyvān (إيوا). Described as “Vaulted halls or space, walled by three sides with one end open. It is a gateway heavily decorated with ornamentation. Mostly characteristic to Islamic architecture of Central Asia, It is also done in the Middle East.  However, the styles are much different from of their Central Asian counterparts in terms of colour and ornamentation whereas the Middle Eastern ones have minimal decoration and neutral colours while Central Asian have heavily ornamented Iwans and utilizes greater colour pallate. Iwans typically opens to a courtyard, and used in public or residential places.

Iwan of Taj Mahal, India

  • Sahn – Taken from the Arabic  صحن essentially means courtyard. It is a central courtyard usually before the main prayer hall of a mosque or the main hall for public buildings. Typically, most mosques have Sahns and in Central Asia it have a central pool called Howz for ritual ablution (Wudhu) or for drinking, or for aesthetics. It is surrounded usually by arcades all around. Some, especially for private buildings have gardens.The Sahn of the Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo, Egypt
  • Masyrabia – مشربية is a window that is projecting off a wall usually with carved wood latticework located on second floor of a building or higher, often lined with stained glass. It is built usually facing the streets, but sometimes it is also built overlooking Sahns. It is a common feature in homes and palaces in Middle Eastern Architecture. Sometimes it also decorates public buildings such as government buildings, hospitals and the like.It is also spelled moucharaby.

    Egyptian Style Masyrabia

  • Qubba – from the Arabic term قُبّة‎, meaning domes. It is a prevalent architectural feature in Islamic Architecture, usually decorates the rooftops of mosques. The earliest example of Islamic dome is the Dome of the Rock, dated around 685 to 691.The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Palestine
  • Minbar – taken from the Arabic word منبر , the pulpit where the Imam (Religious leader) delivers his sermons or Khutbah. It is a fundamental part of a mosque, usually shaped like a small tower with stairs leading up to it. It is also spelled Mimbar.

Minbar of Sultan Hassan Mosque , Cairo, Egypt

  • Muqarnas -( مقرنص) meaning Stalactite Vault in Arabic is the term used for the decoration in the form of small niches in a honeycomb like pattern stacked in tiers set in small projections. It is often set in the void spaces underneath domes, pendentives, cornices, squinches and the undersides of arches and vaults.
  • The Muqarnas decoration above a doorway of a Caravanserai (roadside inn ) in Aksaray, Turkey

  • Mocárabe – a variation of the above Muqarnas. This variation is more characteristic in the Spanish Andalus. It is a stalactite/honeycomb designed ornamentation utilizing prisms arranged to resemble stalactites. Usually build underneath arches, doorways or domes.
  • Mocárabes decorations in the Spanish Alhambra

This list is about Islamic / Middle Eastern Architectural features. I will add another regarding the terms and definitions of Islamic Art later on.



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8 responses to “Study – Terms and Definitions of Islamic Art and Architecture 1

  1. Pingback: Study – Terms and Definitions of Islamic Art and Architecture 2 « Stars in Symmetry

  2. Amel Afify

    Impresive collection of the islamic architecture

  3. rene

    thanks alot writing history of architecture tomorrow any the drfinichions are much clearer here than in me notes

    • rene

      sorry about the spelling errors it bin an long night what about the bab,mardarasah, maidan and ziyada?

      • I did not include Bab and Madrasah because these terms simply means Door and School, respectively. Maidan is a persian word for town square, I have obviously forgotten about this one. Ziyada is almost the same as Sahl. I will look into the last two terms and I will update with another post. Thanks!

  4. Catherine

    What is Tashbiq mean in Islamic architecture. And Mashra?

    • Thank you for your reply. As far as I know, there is no Tasbiq in Islamic Architecture. As for Mashra, I think you are referring to Mashrabiya, the pieced screen, as Mashra would translate to bad place or people, if my Arabic is correct.

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