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The Muqarnas: A Key Component of Islamic Architecture

The Muqarnas: A Key Component of Islamic Architecture


The muqarnas, a Muslim variety of stalactite vault, is a primary characteristic of Islamic architecture. Developed during the mid-tenth century in both northeastern Iran and central North Africa, two ends of the sprawling expanse that constituted the Dar al-Islam, the muqarnas, with its honeycomb texture, became a common feature in palaces and temples. Indeed, it became a prominent feature in nearly all Islamic structures from the eleventh century on, persisting as a key element of the Islamic architectural vernacular until modern times.

The muqarnas is a form that embodies the ideals of Islamic civilization: its physical form, characterized by fluidity and replication, is based as much on Islamic theological principles as it is on the more mundane principles of structural engineering.


There are four main attributes of the muqarnas that distinguish its appearance. First, it is three-dimensional, thereby providing volume in built structures. Second, the degree of this volume is variable. As a result, this variability allowed architects to implement the muqarnas as a purely architectonic intended to provide support to a structure, or as an ornamental device. As a third characteristic, the muqarnas knows no logical or mathematical boundaries. None of its elements are a finite unit of composition; as a result, there are no logical or mathematical boundaries limiting the scale of the composition of a muqarnas. In that sense, perhaps it is useful to liken the tiered honeycomb patterns of the muqarnas to a figure such as the fractal. The fractal, the shape of which is determined by a simple algebraic equation, also knows no limitation and can conceivably stretch to infinity. Likewise, the complexity of the muqarnas is limited only by the skill of the architect and the builder. The fourth characteristic of the muqarnas is that, because of its variable volume, a three-dimensional unit can easily be transformed into a two-dimensional figure.


The muqarnas is one of the key components of Islamic architecture. It is as much a component of the vernacular of Islamic architecture as the Ionic column is of Greco-Roman architecture. Likewise, the muqarnas became a standard architectural feature at a moment when the Islamic architectural style exerted its greatest influence. As a result, medieval buildings from Cordoba, Spain, to Damascus, Syria, exhibit the intricate lattice work of the muqarnas.

The Dar al-Islam was the preeminent power structure of the Muslim world from about the eighth century until the thirteenth century. The great influence of the muqarnas in the built environment of cities from the Atlantic to China is testament to the political might that the Islamic juggernaut exerted over the medieval world. Indeed, the muqarnas was developed as the Islamic power structure developed. After the prophet Mohammed's death in 632, the Islamic power structure expanded rapidly. Indeed, in 732, only 100 years after Mohammed's death, the Arabs had extended from the desert to central France, where they suffered a decisive defeat at Poitiers. An Islamic culture, evident in art, literature, and architecture, developed as an Islamic empire became reality.

Islamic art and architecture are characterized by their reliance on decoration and repetition. The role of decoration in Islamic art helps to characterize it. This extends to architecture as well. The extent to which a form has an architectural and decorative function helps to determine its overall value in an Islamic context to a degree unknown to Western aesthetics. For Western art and architecture, form and function are separate categories, and a building must not necessarily be both functional and aesthetically pleasing. For Islamic art and architecture, however, these two components are synonymous.

The style of decoration used by Islamic artists and architects resulted in buildings and objects overlaid with decorative elements. The buildings themselves were often structural cores that were covered, coated, and enveloped with different materials. The bricks of a muqarnas, for instance, may have been covered with wood or tiles that added additional depth and complexity to an already-complex core.

While Westerners often hold the mistaken belief that Islamic art is limited to two dimensions, Islamic art is capable of transforming the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional through the repetition and interlacing of patterns. Interlaced designs create the illusion of different planes. Furthermore, the textured surfaces of building materials such as stucco and brick multiply the possibilities available to artists and architects. Indeed, the masterly control that Islamic designers exhibit over geometric patterns enables them to manipulate two-dimensional patterns in order to produce three-dimensional, optical effects. The complexity of the muqarnas, for instance, allows designers to balance positive and negative areas of space, thereby creating buildings that are functionally and aesthetically whole.

Indeed, in the Islamic world, the role of the architect-engineer was closely associated with the mathematician. In the West, on the other hand, the role of the architect came into existence through a process whereby designer-builders slowly distinguished themselves from the ranks of builders and craftsmen. The Islamic architect Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Hasib, for instance, was referred to as al-hasib, which means "the mathematician." Issues of geometric complexity were the province of the Islamic architect.

These fundamental components of Islamic decoration are not without philosophical and theological significance, however. Indeed, Muslim philosophical concepts are embodied in their architectural forms. The relations between these forms are determined by what we may refer to as a spiritual mathematics. Islamic spirituality is linked with the variety of qualitative mathematics developed by Pythagoras (580?-500? b.c.). For Pythagoras, numbers were the ultimate elements of the universe. In other words, numbers were divine: for a Pythagorean, an understanding of relations between numbers can only result in an understanding of the nature of the universe.

Islamic spirituality, then, sees a direct link between the intellect and the spirit. These relations are, essentially, transcribed into spatial metaphors. The intellectual and the spiritual are ways of comprehending, respectively, the corporeal and invisible worlds that overlap. The mathematical structure of Islamic art and architecture reflects the point at which the intellectual flows into the spiritual. As such, repetition serves a conceptual function. It is intended to provide a space where tensions are resolved: despite the intricate complexity of the muqarnas, its form is also determined by constant rules dictating the relationships between its components. Consider the definition of the muqarnas given by the fifteenth century Timurid mathematician al-Kashi (1380?-1429):

The muqarnas is a ceiling like a staircase with facets and a flat roof. Every facet intersects the adjacent one at either a right angle, or half a right angle, or their sum, or another combination of these two. The two facets can be thought of as standing on a plane parallel to the horizon. Above them is built either a flat surface, not parallel to the horizon, or two surfaces, either flat or curved, that constitute their roof. Both facets together with their roof are called one cell. Adjacent cells, which have their bases on one and the same surface parallel to the horizon, are called one tier.

Al-Kashi uses geometric terms, indicating that the muqarnas is the space in which a particular mathematical problem is enacted. In this problem, the possible number of permutations is determined by variations on the 90° angle. As al-Kashi indicates, the angle at which two facets intersect can be any conceivable angle, as long as it corresponds to "a right angle, or half a right angle, or their sum, or another combination of these two." The type of combination permissible is not limited: only the elements that may be used in such a combination are predetermined. These components are variations of the right angle. The rules that guide the design of the muqarnas remind us of the architectural function of the device. The muqarnas is, in essence, little more than a squinch, or an interior corner support. Corners are made of 90° angles. Corners often need additional support because that is where stress is concentrated. The muqarnas reminds us, over and over again, that it supports weight directly. Indeed, the more ornate it is, the more weight it can hold. Each additional tier creates a greater surface area of the structure, adding increased support. In terms of Western architecture, this seems paradoxical. For the Westerner, form and function are divorced: frequently one is sacrificed at the expense of the other. Elements such as the muqarnas, however, reveal that in Islamic architecture practical applications and aesthetic considerations frequently overlap.

The elaborate possibilities available to the designer of the muqarnas also serve to obscure its physical function. Furthermore, its appearance is meant to call to mind divine associations for the viewer as well. The stalactite structure raises the eye upward. In this sense, the large precise forms closest to the viewer congeal into a single form higher up in the vault. This can represent earthly reflection of supernatural archetypes: the earthly forms and angles with which we are familiar in the material world are imperfect approximations of unknowable heavenly forms. Conversely, the downward movement of the muqarnas implies the descent of the heavenly towards the earth and the encasement of the divine in material forms.

This connection between mathematics and theology is not specific to Islamic art and architecture, however. The mathematical focus of these disciplines reflects the mathematical nature of the Muslim religion. Indeed, the Koran, the Muslim holy text, is noted for its numerological significance. The Koran features a bewildering mathematical structure; Muslim scholars seek to decode the numerical significance in its letters and words. In this sense, intellectual mastery of mathematic subtlety leads to spiritual illumination. Architectural forms reveal the structure of the divine because, in the Pythagorean sense, architecture is one of the most godly of all arts. Like music, architecture is an art based on numbers, and the possibilities offered by numerical proportion come closest to emulating the divine proportions of God's physical creation. While words often speak plainly, for mystics, numbers reveal divine proportion.


Further Reading

Creswell, K.A.C. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1958.

Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Art and Architecture. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Michell, George, ed. Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Art and Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

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