Of all the recognizable periods of Islamic art, this is by far the most difficult one to explain properly, even though it is quite well documented. There are two reasons for this difficulty. On the one hand, it was a formative period, a time when new forms were created that identify the aesthetic and practical ideals of the new culture. Such periods are difficult to define when, as in the case of Islam, there was no artistic need inherent to the culture itself. The second complication derives from the fact that Muslim conquest hardly ever destroyed former civilizations with its own established creativity. Material culture, therefore, continued as before, and archaeologically it is almost impossible to distinguish between pre-Islamic and early Islamic artifacts. Paradoxical though it may sound, there is an early Islamic Christian art of Syria and Egypt, and in many other regions the parallel existence of a Muslim and a non-Muslim art continued for centuries. What did happen during early Islamic times, however, was the establishment of a dominant new taste, and it is the nature and character of this taste that has to be explained. It occurred first in Syria and Iraq, the two areas with the largest influx of Muslims and with the two successive capitals of the empire, Damascus under the Umayyads and Baghdad under the early ʿAbbāsids. From Syria and Iraq this new taste spread in all directions and adapted itself to local conditions and local materials, thus creating considerable regional and chronological variations in early Islamic art.
From a historical point of view, two major dynasties are involved. One is the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from 661 to 750 and whose monuments are datable from 680 to 745. It was the only Muslim dynasty ever to control the whole of the Islamic-conquered world. The second dynasty is the ʿAbbāsid dynasty; technically its rule extended as late as 1258, but in reality its princes ceased to be a significant cultural factor after the second decade of the 10th century. The ʿAbbāsids no longer controlled Spain, where an independent Umayyad caliphate had been established; and in Egypt as well as in northeastern Iran a number of more or less independent dynasties appeared, such as the Ṭūlūnids or the Sāmānids. Although research in the late 20th century tends to make the conclusion less certain than it used to be for the Sāmānids and northeast Iran, the initial impulse for the artistic creativity of those dynasties came from the main ʿAbbāsid centres in Iraq. While in detailed studies it is possible to distinguish between Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid art or between the arts of various provinces, the key features of the first three centuries of Islamic art (roughly through the middle of the 10th century) are the interplay between local or imperial impulses and the creation of new forms and functions.
It is possible to study those centuries as a succession of clusters of monuments, but, because there are so many of them, a study can easily end up as an endless list. It is preferable, therefore, to centre the discussion of Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid monuments on the functional and morphological characteristics that identify the new Muslim world and only secondarily be concerned with stylistic progression or regional differences.
The one obviously new function developed during this period is that of the mosque, or masjid. The earliest adherents of Islam used the private house of the Prophet in Medina as the main place for their religious and other activities and muṣallās without established forms for certain holy ceremonies. The key phenomenon of the first decades that followed the conquest is the creation outside Arabia of masjids in every centre taken over by the new faith. These were not simply or even primarily religious centres. They were rather the community centres of the faithful, in which all social, political, educational, and individual affairs were transacted. Among those activities were common prayer and the ceremony of the khuṭbah. The first mosques were built primarily to serve as the restricted space in which the new community would make its own collective decisions. It is there that the treasury of the community was kept, and early accounts are full of anecdotes about the immense variety of events, from the dramatic to the scabrous, that took place in mosques. Since even in earliest times the Muslim community consisted of several superimposed and interconnected social systems, mosques reflected this complexity, and, next to large mosques for the whole community, tribal mosques and mosques for various quarters of a town or city are also known.
None of those early mosques has survived, and no descriptions of the smaller ones have been preserved. There do remain, however, accurate textual descriptions of the large congregational buildings erected at Kūfah and Basra in Iraq and at Al-Fusṭāṭ in Egypt. At Kūfah a larger square was marked out by a ditch, and a covered colonnade known as a ẓullah (a shady place) was put up on the qiblah side. In 670 a wall pierced by many doors was built in place of the ditch, and colonnades were put up on all four sides, with a deeper one on the qiblah. In all probability the Basra mosque was very similar, and only minor differences distinguished the ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ mosque at Al-Fusṭāṭ. Much has been written about the sources of this type of building, but the simplest explanation may be that this is the very rare instance of the actual creation of a new architectural type. The new faith’s requirement for centralization, or a space for a large and constantly growing community, could not be met by any existing architectural form. Almost accidentally, therefore, the new Muslim cities of Iraq created the hypostyle mosque (a building with the roof resting on rows of columns). A flexible architectural unit, a hypostyle structure could be square or rectangular and could be increased or diminished in size by the addition or subtraction of columns. The single religious or symbolic feature of the hypostyle mosque was a minbar (a pulpit) for the preacher, and the direction of prayer was indicated by the greater depth of the colonnade on one side of the structure.
The examples of Kūfah, Basra, and Al-Fusṭāṭ are particularly clear because they were all built in newly created cities. Matters are somewhat more complex when discussing the older urban centres taken over by Muslims. Although it is not possible to generalize with any degree of certainty, two patterns seem to emerge. In some cases, such as Jerusalem and Damascus and perhaps in most cities conquered through formal treaties, the Muslims took for themselves an available unused space and erected on it some shelter, usually a very primitive one. In Jerusalem this space happened to be a particularly holy one—the area of the Jewish temple built by Herod the Great, which had been left willfully abandoned and ruined by the triumphant Christian empire. In Damascus it was a section of a huge Roman temple area, on another part of which there was a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Unfortunately, too little is known about other cities to be able to demonstrate that this pattern was a common one. The very same uncertainty surrounds the second pattern, which consisted in forcibly transforming sanctuaries of older faiths into Muslim ones. This was the case at Ḥamāh in Syria and at Yazd-e Khvāst in Iran, where archaeological proof exists of the change. There are also several literary references to the fact that Christian churches, Zoroastrian fire temples, and other older abandoned sanctuaries were transformed into mosques. Altogether, however, those instances probably were not too numerous, because in most places the Muslim conquerors were quite eager to preserve local tradition and because few older sanctuaries could easily serve the primary Muslim need of a large centralizing space.
During the 50 years that followed the beginning of the Muslim conquest, the mosque, until then a very general concept in Islamic thought, became a definite building reserved for a variety of needs required by the community of faithful in any one settlement. Only in one area, Iraq, did the mosque acquire a unique form of its own, the oriented hypostyle. Neither in Iraq nor elsewhere is there evidence of symbolic or functional components in mosque design. The only exception is that of the maqṣūrah (literally “closed-off space”), an enclosure, probably in wood, built near the centre of the qiblah wall. Its purpose was to protect the caliph or his replacement, for several attacks against major political figures had taken place. But the maqṣūrah was never destined to be a constant fixture of mosques, and its typological significance is limited.
Three great mosques
During the rule of the Umayyad prince al-Walīd I (705–715), a number of complex developments within the Muslim community were crystallized in the construction of three major mosques—at Medina, Jerusalem, and Damascus. The very choice of those three cities is indicative: the city in which the Muslim state was formed and in which the Prophet was buried; the city held in common holiness by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, to which was rapidly accruing the mystical hagiography surrounding the Prophet’s ascension into heaven; and the ancient city that became the capital of the new Islamic empire. A first and essential component of al-Walīd’s mosques was thus their imperial character; they were to symbolize the permanent establishment of the new faith and of the state that derived from it. They were no longer purely practical shelters but willful monuments.
Although the plans of Al-Aqṣā Mosque in Jerusalem and of the mosque of Medina can be reconstructed with a fair degree of certainty, only the one at Damascus has been preserved with comparatively minor alterations and repairs. In plan the three buildings appear at first glance to be quite different from each other. The Medina mosque was essentially a large hypostyle with a courtyard. The colonnades on all four sides were of varying depth. Al-Aqṣā Mosque consisted of an undetermined number of naves (possibly as many as 15) parallel to each other in a north-south direction. There was no courtyard, because the rest of the huge esplanade of the former Jewish temple served as the open space in front of the building. The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus is a rectangle 515 by 330 feet (157 by 100 metres) whose outer limits and three gates are parts of a Roman temple (a fourth Roman gate on the qiblah side was blocked). The interior consists of an open space surrounded on three sides by a portico and of a covered space of three equal long naves parallel to the qiblah wall that are cut in the middle by a perpendicular nave.
The three buildings share several important characteristics. They are all large spaces with a multiplicity of internal supports, and although only the Medina mosque is a pure hypostyle, the Jerusalem and Damascus mosques have the flexibility and easy internal communication characteristic of a hypostyle building. All three mosques exhibit a number of distinctive new practical elements and symbolic meanings. Many of those occur in all mosques; others are known in only some of them. The mihrab, for example, appears in all mosques. This is a niche of varying size that tends to be heavily decorated. It occurs in the qiblah wall, and, in all probability, its purpose was to commemorate the symbolic presence of the Prophet as the first imam, although there are other explanations. It is in Damascus only that the ancient towers of the Roman building were first used as minarets to call the faithful to prayer and to indicate from afar the presence of Islam (initially minarets tended to exist only in predominantly non-Muslim cities). All three mosques are also provided with an axial nave, a wider aisle unit on the axis of the building, which served both as a formal axis for compositional purposes and as a ceremonial one for the prince’s retinue. Finally, all three buildings were heavily decorated with marble, mosaics, and woodwork. At least in the mosque of Damascus, it is further apparent that there was careful concern for the formal composition—a balance between parts that truly makes this mosque a work of art. This is particularly evident in the successful relationship established between the open space of the court and the facade of the covered qiblah side.
When compared with the first Muslim buildings of Iraq and Egypt, the monuments of al-Walīd are characterized by the growing complexity of their forms, by the appearance of uniquely Muslim symbolic and functional features, and by the quality of their construction. While the dimensions, external appearance, and proportions of any one of them were affected in each case by unique local circumstances, the internal balance between open and covered areas and the multiplicity of simple and flexible supports indicate the permanence of the early hypostyle tradition.
Other classic mosques
Either in its simplest form, as in Medina, or in its more-formalized shape, as in Damascus, the hypostyle tradition dominated mosque architecture from 715 to the 10th century. As it occurs at Nīshāpūr (Neyshābūr) in northeastern Iran, Sīrāf in southern Iran, Kairouan in Tunisia, and Córdoba in Spain, it can indeed be considered as the classic early Islamic type. Its masterpieces occur in Iraq and in the West. The monumentalization of the early Iraqi hypostyle is illustrated by the two ruined structures in Sāmarrāʾ, with their enormous sizes (790 by 510 feet [240 by 156 metres] for one and 700 by 440 feet [213 by 135 metres] for the other), their multiple entrances, their complex piers, and, in one instance, a striking separation of the qiblah area from the rest of the building. The best-preserved example of this type is the Mosque of Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn at Cairo (876–879), where a semi-independent governor, Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn, introduced Iraqi techniques and succeeded in creating a masterpiece of composition.
Interior of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain, begun 785 CE. The building is now a Christian cathedral.
Alfonso Gutierrez Escera/Ostman Agency
Two classic examples of early mosques in the western Islamic world of interest are preserved in Tunisia and Spain. In Kairouan the Great Mosque was built in stages between 836 and 866. Its most striking feature is the formal emphasis on the building’s T-like axis punctuated by two domes, one of which hovers over the earliest preserved ensemble of mihrab, minbar, and maqṣūrah. At Córdoba the earliest section of the Great Mosque was built in 785–786. It consisted simply of 11 naves with a wider central one and a court. It was enlarged twice in length, first between 833 and 855 and again from 961 to 965 (it was in the latter phase that the celebrated maqṣūrah and mihrab, composing one of the great architectural ensembles of early Islamic art, were constructed). Finally, in 987–988 an extension of the mosque was completed to the east that increased its size by almost one-third without destroying its stylistic unity. The constant increases in the size of this mosque are a further illustration of the flexibility of the hypostyle and its adaptability to any spatial requirement. The most memorable aspects of the Córdoba mosque, however, lie in its construction and decoration. The particularly extensive and heavily decorated mihrab area exemplifies a development that started with the Medina mosque and would continue: an emphasis on the qiblah wall.
Although the hypostyle mosque was the dominant plan, it was not the only one. From very early Islamic times, a fairly large number of aberrant plans also occur. Most of them were built in smaller urban locations or were secondary mosques in larger Muslim cities. It is rather difficult, therefore, to evaluate whether their significance was purely local or they were important for the tradition as a whole. Because a simple type of square subdivided by four piers into nine-domed units occurs at Balkh in Afghanistan, at Cairo, and at Toledo, it may be considered a pan-Islamic type. Other types, a single square hall surrounded by an ambulatory, or a single long barrel-vault parallel or perpendicular to the qiblah, are rarer and should perhaps be considered as purely local. These are particularly numerous in Iran, where it does seem that the mainstream of early Islamic architecture did not penetrate very deeply. Unfortunately, the archaeological exploration of Iran is still in its infancy, and many of the mud-brick buildings from the early Islamic period have been destroyed or rebuilt beyond recognition. As a result, it is extremely difficult to determine the historical importance of monuments found at Neyrīz, Moḥammadīyeh (near Nāʾīn), Fahraj (near Yazd), or Hazareh (near Samarkand). For an understanding of the mosque’s development and of the general dynamics of Islamic architecture, however, an awareness of those secondary types, which may have existed outside Iran as well, is essential.
Other types of religious buildings
The function of the mosque, the central gathering place of the Muslim community, became the major and most original completely Muslim architectural effort. The mosque was not a purely religious building, at least not at the beginning, but, because it was restricted to Muslims, it is appropriate to consider it as such. This, however, was not the only type of early Islamic building to be uniquely Muslim. Three other types can be defined architecturally and a fourth one only functionally.
The first type, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, is a unique building. Completed in 691, this masterwork of Islamic architecture is the earliest major Islamic monument. Its octagonal plan, use of a high dome, and building techniques are hardly original, although its decoration is unique. Its purpose, however, is what is most remarkable about the building. Since the middle of the 8th century, the Dome of the Rock has become the focal centre of the most mystical event in the life of the Prophet: his ascension into heaven from the rock around which the building was erected. According to an inscription preserved since the erection of the dome, however, it would seem that the building did not originally commemorate the Prophet’s ascension but rather the Christology of Islam and its relationship to Judaism. It seems preferable, therefore, to interpret the Dome of the Rock as a victory monument of the new faith’s ideological and religious claim on a holy city and on all the religious traditions attached to it.
The second distinctly Islamic type of religious building is the little-known ribāṭ. As early as in the 8th century, the Muslim empire entrusted the protection of its frontiers, especially the remote ones, to warriors for the faith (murābiṭūn, “bound ones”) who lived, permanently or temporarily, in special institutions known as ribāṭs. Evidence for these exist in Central Asia, Anatolia, and North Africa. It is only in Tunisia that ribāṭs have been preserved. The best one is at Sousse, Tunisia; it consists of a square fortified building with a single fairly elaborate entrance and a central courtyard. It has two stories of private or communal rooms. Except for the prominence taken by an oratory, this building could be classified as a type of Muslim secular architecture. Because no later example of a ribāṭ is known, there is some uncertainty as to whether the institution ever acquired a unique architectural form of its own.
The ribāṭ (monastery-fortress) of Sousse, Tunisia.
The last type of religious building to develop before the end of the 10th century is the mausoleum. Originally, Islam was strongly opposed to any formal commemoration of the dead. But three independent factors slowly modified an attitude that was eventually maintained only in the most strictly orthodox circles. One factor was the growth of the Shīʿite heterodoxy, which led to an actual cult of the descendants of the Prophet through his son-in-law ʿAlī. The second factor was that, as Islam strengthened its hold on conquered lands, a wide variety of local cultic practices and especially the worship of certain sacred places began to affect the Muslims, resulting in a whole movement of Islamization of ancient holy places by associating them with deceased Muslim heroes and holy men or with prophets. The third factor is not, strictly speaking, religious, but it played a major part. As more or less independent local dynasties began to grow, they sought to commemorate themselves through mausoleums. Not many mausoleums have remained from those early centuries, but literary evidence is clear on the fact that the Shīʿite sanctuaries of Karbalāʾ and Al-Najaf, both in Iraq, and Qom, Iran, already possessed monumental tombs. At Sāmarrāʾ an octagonal mausoleum had been built for three caliphs. The masterpieces of early funerary architecture occur in Central Asia, such as the royal mausoleum of the Sāmānids (known incorrectly as the mausoleum of Esmāʿīl the Sāmānid) at Bukhara (before 942), which is a superb example of Islamic brickwork. In some instances a quasi-religious character was attached to the mausoleums, such as the one at Tim (976), which already has the high facade typical of so many later monumental tombs. In all instances the Muslims took over or rediscovered the ancient tradition of the centrally planned building as the characteristic commemorative structure.
The fourth kind of Muslim building is the madrasah, an institution for religious training set up independently of mosques. It is known from texts that such privately endowed schools existed in the northeastern Iranian world as early as the 9th century, but no description exists of how they looked or were planned.