The Humanity of Islamic Architecture and Urbanism

This article is taken from a talk at the ‘Islam, Science and Scientism: International Conference’ at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester, UK, on the 27th – 28th April 2013.

Speech written and delievered by Dr Subhi Azzawi

Mr Chairman, Professor Robert Morrison, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, As-salaamu alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuhu.

I should like to thank the management and organisers of this international conference on Islam, Science and Scientism for their kind invitation and hospitality, especially my brothers Dr Saleh Zaimeche and Dr Salim Ayduz.

It is always a please and honour to be at the BMHC and to speak about subjects of aspects of my specialized subjects on Islamic architecture, culture, urbanism, as well as climate and the environment.

Subjects which have been so close to my heart and mind, for forty years in research, teaching, lecturing and publishing in addition to practising as an architect as urban designer, climatic and environmental design specialist as well as being consultants to British and American architects working in the Islamic world.

I should also like to salute and pay tribute to our sisters in Islam who form the backbone of this organization. They seem always to be in the background and the backbone of the BMHC organization for their hard work and dedication in making sure of this conference is really run smoothly so I salute them.

The title of my paper as you see is “the humanity of Islamic architecture and urbanism” and with particular reference to courtyard houses whether in Iraq or anywhere else in the Arab world, in the Muslim world. And it is really what I call concepts in common and this is one of seven papers, under the same heading of concepts in common. Houses for the rich and houses for the poor which would include this one is only and the conceptually and the spatially, the other one is functionally and purposefully, climatically and environmentally, structurally and constructionally, religiously and socially, materially and aesthetically, archeologically and culturally. But today I shall only concentrate only the conceptual aspects and these spatial elements as well.

I would like to start with probably two quotations from the Holy Qur’an by humanity I really mean equality in Islam and that is in equality in where you locate your house and equality of what sort of spaces you have in Islam. ”We have created you as nations and tribes so as to know each other and those who are closest to God and are those who are very pious.” [Qur’an. 49:13 Surah al-Hujurat]. And “la iqraha fid-deen”, [Qur’an. 2:256 Surah al-Baqara]. which means you don’t have to really believe if you do not want to that is a choice to me that is equality.

And then two sayings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him: ”Arabic” ‘al kullu siwaysiayah’ All are equal and then there is the other one ”la farqa baynul arabiyyin wa ‘ajamiyyin illa bit taqwa”; there is no difference between an Arab and non-Arab except in piety. And that to me that concept of equality. And if that is what he says as far as religion is concerned how is this actually converted into the practise. How is this actually being practised in the musallah in the masjid in the Jami in the masjid-i jamii. While Muslims are praying in there, they stand together side by side without any difference in wealth, in health and age in status and political power, economic power in terms of the position within society and also in government whether in military or otherwise. So they stand side by side on equality and you and they actually go and join the first line in the mosque according to on the basis of the first come first served and I usually first come first occupy. And whether you are a poor or an ordinary person or very famous one you would have to take you a place in that way and therefore to me that is really equality in the best sense of the word. In otherwise no one is going to move you from your position in one line facing Mecca. While you are praying because you have come first and because someone else is of a higher status than you are. And you could see that in the Jami al-Qarawiyyin you could see the lines of columns in there and this is in where the Muslim would actually face Makkah and you see the praying men side by side and one after the other.

I would like to see how actually this is reflected in urbanism, you could see in there this is the map of Baghdad 1830, 1853 – 54 by two English gentlemen, a perfect survey. And you can see the alleyways in there. It’s really just to take you very quickly so that, this is the work of two German archaeologists: Sarah and Hirsfield just before the First World War and they have actually drawn the map of Baghdad and you can see the round city of Baghdad of 762, in there. This is Baghdad in 1971 and the areas I shall be concentrating on is really the central area, the area of Kadhimiya, the holy shrine of Kadhimiya and the area around it, then you have Adhamiyah and Bab Elsheikh where Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani is buried there. As we saw the people actually stand in one row you could see exactly in the same thing in urbanism in terms of the traditional areas of Baghdad. Wide alleyways and narrow alleyways it is really resembling like the transport system but what I’m trying to show you in here is that they are courtyard houses side by side of the rich as well as poor. The small ones belonging to poor and the larger ones belonging to rich not only that in the same alleyway they face each other as well. So within the neighbourhood as well as within the alleyways there is the choice of where you go irrespective of how much you can afford. This is exactly complete contrast not only what’s happening in modern architecture in the Islamic world now but we could also see it in the Europe in the UK you have places for the poor, the working class, the middle class, and then you have the upper class as you progress from the railway station from the park itself. And to me this is really equality, as it is shown here and there is another one to it. And that’s one of the areas I actually measured and put a scheme for it and you could see the alleyways here representing various things and there are no special places for rich people or for poor people.

Now how is that implemented in terms of architecture? We see courtyard houses therefore the central, the focus of the house, is the courtyard. The courtyard is really a family living room open to the sky. It provides the habitable room and spaces around it with sunlight, daylight, natural ventilation, cross ventilation, communication between the various rooms physically, visually and orally as well as contact with the weather outside and a view of the heaven above.

All that is achieved within the courtyard itself. It also it isolates you from what is happening outside. So we could see with a large house in here, and then you have got the tarma, which is a covered area in where you can have shelter even around midday itself. So you come in from the street, into what is known as majaz; permissible, which is normally at right angles in order to preserve the privacy of the courtyard itself and the habitable rooms around it. So really, it so happened that the courtyard preserves the mandatory functions in terms of respecting and reflecting religious demands of privacy of the family as well as performing all the qualities of microclimatic and environmental design. We see it in a smaller house, the smaller house in here is 5,5 metres wide by 9,5 metres long, 50 square metres the plot area. It has the entrance hall majaz, the covered area, the courtyard itself and it has two rooms what is known as jam-khana; a place covered in glass itself, which is over the sub terrain an semi home.

So this is almost the same thing in here as it is in the big one. The larger house is about 338 square metres, yet the master builder has given the same things to the poor as well as to the rich, each according to his own means and in his own affordability. I shall have to run very quickly as I do not have enough time.

In summer, it is very hot and very dry, 50 degrees Celsius in the shade. Relative humidity 12 degrees, 12 per cent in the shade so people go down in the ground. They go to what is known as sard-ab or nîm-sard-ab in this case sard-ab; cold water, two Farsi words. And in the case of the large house it’s about 2,5 meters below the ground and it’s got windows overlooking the court yard itself and it’s in cooperate bad-gir; bringing air. Gir is jalib and “bad” is “air”. And therefore it is an air scoop and the same thing is happening in small house itself with cloister windows overlooking the courtyard itself. And therefore in terms of environmental quality which I will show you later on with graphs they have achieved the same thermal comfort. And believe you me and I have as I said yesterday measured this with the instruments by University College of London who bought for me, that the temperature inside the semi sub-terrain room is 32 degrees and on the roof terrace it is 48 to 50 degrees Celsius. And the relative humidity instead of being 12 it is 30 to 40 percent. When you combine the two you get an effective temperature. It is the temperature your body feels and that is between 24,5 and 26. The Americans have done research, the Heating and Ventilating Society in Washington in 1923 in a laboratory and they discovered that thermal comfort is between 22 to 27. Therefore, these achieved thermal comfort conditions naturally whereas the Americans did it in a laboratory condition changing the air temperature, the relative humidity and the air speed and not in actual buildings.

The first floor we’ve got the void of the courtyard itself and again habitable room and spaces. On either side whether each in the small house or in larger house with a memshah a walkway all the way around it in order to give access to the rooms so that the privacy of the rooms are actually maintained without having to go from the one room to the other. There are many differences between the two but can I point something out in here is that the larger house believe you me, 1850 it in cooperates double glass windows. 130 years before Britons started to adopt double glass windows. And you see the projection into the alleyway at first floor in order to increase the floor area itself and therefore when it actually overhangs the alleyway it gives you protection from the heat in the summer and from the rain in winter and these voids in here are actually the bad-girs themselves. And these in the smaller houses obviously you would have either bedrooms or they are mainly multi-purpose habitable rooms.

On the roof terrace it’s a habitable space because the Iraqis spend five months of the year sleeping on the roof from mid-May until mid –October. They spread their beddings just after sunset after it’s being sprayed with water in order to evaporative and cool and then the bedding themselves would lose heat to this coldest part of the sky which is the zenith by outgoing radiation. By the time, you come to sleep at nine or 10 o’clock it is lovely and cool and you get so cold around 4 o’clock in the morning you start shiver and you pull the blanket from the foot of the bed in order to cover yourself. And all this is really because of the concept of the design. And also the roof terrace projects into the alleyways to give you the further protection. And there are the sections. You have the big house you have the Nîm sard-ab the semi basement the courtyard and then the rooms on other side with walkway the only difference between the large one and small one is that they’ve got ”medsini ” level because the floor on the first floor is 4.5 meters while in the smaller house it’s only 3 meters. Because of the proportion, these master builders they also know their aesthetics. If it’s a large room you have to raise the ceiling so as not to actually feel that you are clamped down as though you’ve got a … in there as well.

And you could see the way, incidentally, just you could see the aesthetics. In fact, the symmetry you could see it in here between the ground floor and the first floor. A `tharma` which is a wooden structure on the ground floor and the first floor to give you shade itself muqarnas. And that is the nîm sard-ab in the larger house and this is the done the araq chin araq sweat chin is collecting and therefore it is this skullcup while we are praying and this is the concept of it. And this is another concept the hannayah the way the corners are turned so that you convert the square into an octagon and therefore it is easy to make it a square. And the hannayah is an Islamic invention and there is the larger house I have to spread very carefully that’s the medsini level I was talking about. These are the two tharmas look at the aesthetic the columns are tree trunks and just simply made into octagon. And then they have the taj and the capital which is the mukarnas again and mukarnas is an Islamic invention hasn’t been invented by anyone else but Muslims. And this is an aesthetic as well as the structural because you want to make the top of it wide enough to receive a double beam right across. There is the qashqan itself the medsini level and there is the main room in the larger house with the double glazed windows and double glazed panel above as well, with the mother of pearl. And that’s that is the inside double glazed windows and double glazed. What happens you get the centre of the window is clear so that you get the light and the margin of it is decorated with colour glass in order to reduce the glare of this comfort level and then you have the column. This is exactly the same function as the shutters in a Georgian window in London. The concept is the same it reflects the light. And there is the alleyways which is the projection of the first floor in making the Shāh-Nashīn, Shanāshīl, the seating of the King and in this case the seating of the head of the family itself and then you’ve got the roof terrace with the wall 6 feet high in order to preserve the privacy between the neighbours.

This is the alleyways 1930s houses and when the alleyway is at an odd angle with the building plots they produce these teeth like windows in order to correct it so that you have square or rectangular rooms on the first floor. Now that is one of the differences in the larger house in medsini level. Yes, I will give you another larger house because you could see everything is in cooperated there and in case of nîm sard-ab and this one have got a sard-ab a semi-basement right under the floor of the courtyard. Look at it, five meters below the courtyard and it’s nine meters above the courtyard itself and there you have actually even much better thermal comfort conditions in there with skylight musammaya. Yes, and that in terms of elevation you’ve got the ground floor obviously absent with any windows at all in order to prevent any overlooking as well as protection for the family in terms of invasions and the only opening in the ground floor is really the front door. And the front door is put on one side of the elevations in order to preserve the privacy of the courtyard itself. Yes, and on the first floor you have the shah – nashiin and in this case you see the medsini level and in the small house, it’s exactly the same. The Shah-nashin with the absence of windows itself. Can I say one thing, when you have a courtyard you have all the windows inside for the rooms facing inwards when they face inwards it means you do not need to have external windows. When you do not have external windows it means you can make them blank wall. When you have blank wall it means you put houses side by side. When they put houses by side and back to back you create parting walls. These parting walls become internal walls when you build rooms on either side and therefore because they do not receive any sunlight they become a cooling element. In exactly the same way in this country, we used to have concrete and heat the concrete in order to have some warmth in winter in this country. It’s called m7, etc. This one works in exactly the same way but in the opposite way. When you sit against it, you feel the coolness of it. Now because they are cool, they do not receive any sunlight you have the bad-gir inside them; the air scoop and therefore they cools the air as it comes in.

This is the citadel of Arabeel to see whether it’s old or new, Damascus 1921-24 and you could see the same thing in alleyways so that I don’t concentrate on Baghdad itself and again the same alleyways this is Damascus believe it or not, the same concept. And you could see it in here in Damascus the large and small courtyard houses side by side back to back these are Muslim standing in the mosque facing Mecca. You substitute the courtyard houses with people and it’s exactly the same concept irrespective of how wealthy you are or how poor you are and what your status in society is.

Aleppo, there is again Aleppo; I do not really want to do too much. And this is the Cairo 1924 and you could see the courtyard houses as well as the larger and smaller ones in Cairo. Again in Cairo, and this is I believe it’s Saleh and again you can see aerial photographs of small houses next to larger houses either back to back. I think that is Saleh, does it say Saleh, yes, okay. Another city and you could see the same concept of the alleyway, etc.

I’m trying to tell you that I don’t only study the courtyard houses of Baghdad but actually do most of the old cities in the Arab world and the Islamic world and I also do Greece, Italy and Spain as well as India, Pakistan and even China in order to make a comparison.

There is again another city with the same concept. Believe it or not this is the Kazbah in Algiers, the very first city I have ever visited to study these courtyard houses in 1964. And when I did the scheme this with other students the teacher says we have no idea of what you’re doing. Because they were thinking in terms of concrete, etc. And I thought I was going to fail the project. A year later, I did them my thesis of the planning of history in Baghdad they were delighted and in 68 I actually did my thesis on Baghdad on housing. This is the Kazbah. These are old photographs. And the nice thing about the Kazbah it taught me another thing because Baghdad is flat the Kasbah is high, it is Hawaba.

Again, you see the same concept in North Africa, large houses next to small houses and the same alleyway itself. Again, I want to, this is Qarawiyyin, sorry this is Fez, and Jamia al-Qarawiyyin you could actually see in there. Al-Karaouine it should be called. I am trying to finish very quickly. Just to tell you about the temperatures you could see the measurements I have actually done, these are from the airport and it is normally like that so you have the summer temperature and the valley is the winter and you could see these are averages and there is relative humidity and this is how it should be really because the temperature is not like a staircase. It goes in a graph and even that is not good enough so I invented this, its each day it goes up and down, up and down, it’s the same concept and the same thing with relative humidity if you put them together you get like that. That is the concept of a hot/dry climate and as an architect and designer, I have to reduce the temperature and raise the relative humidity. Yes, and that is the analysis of the wind. This is Kuwait. These are the instruments I was talking about yesterday they were clamped by the Iraqi authorities and I had to pay the same amount of money to them for deposit for two years before I was able to do them and I designed all these things. And that’s what you get in all these houses I want to show you the actual temperature – instruments do not lie and therefore you see the top on the roofs 47 degrees Celsius and the minimum is 30. In the nîm sard-ab there not that bottom one, the next one, 32 degrees relative humidity is 30 to 48.

This is what the Americans did and I actually used them. This is one of 36 for each house, yes, and there is the one I invented and you can see the effective temperature and the roof. Just to say again this is Baghdad this one is the holy shrine of Kadhimiya and that’s Shaikh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani’s is exactly the same thing and therefore my whole thesis is not what is not said in Islam, what is said in writing is implemented in the mosque and it is implemented in architecture and urbanism and this is the humanity of Islam. And it is In contrast to what’s happening nowadays in Iraq and other Arab countries as well as in Europe.

And thank you for your time and thank you for your patience.

Thank you very much.