Luke Nikkanen – Spirituality, Art, and Architecture in Mosques

The architectural structure of mosques expresses many notions of Sufi spirituality. It also serves as a communal space, one where the individual can feel like a part of something greater, thereby dissolving the divide between the other. Being inside a mosque evokes feelings of infinity, of the insignificance of man but at the same time, of the endlessly expanding internal states of each human. Both the design of the mosque itself and the art within it serve to further evoke spiritual ideals, serving as the construction of a nurturing environment where one can contemplate and examine their inner selves.

The Umayyad dynasty pioneered the earliest form of mosques known as the hypostyle. (Bosworth, Encyclopedia of Islam). Persians then expanded on these designs, introducing structures such as domes, and arched entrances. (Clarke, Development and Religion: Theology and Practice, 45)) Following the rise of Sufism, the four-iwan arrangement was introduced, giving precedence to large courtyards outside the mosque with large gateways on either side. (Clarke) These courtyards were intended to serve as gateways to the spiritual world. These gateways serve to highlight the accessibility of these realm, to instill awareness within the minds of worshippers in the mosque. The Ottomans brought with them large domes in the 15th century, which signified the realm of the heavens beyond the sky. These domes gradually occupied more and more ceiling space throughout the centuries, eventually taking up the whole roof above the prayer hall. The spherical nature of the domes conveys a sense of fluidity and a cyclical notion of the universe, that is, that the past and future are connected by the ever-shifting present. Another fundamental characteristic of the mosque is the mihrab, which is a niche in the wall that signifies the direction of Mecca, the city in which the Prophet was born. (Bosworth) Prayer within mosques is always conducted facing this niche. This architectural feature evokes the Sufi notion of dikr, of remembering. It expresses the notion that the past is something that is fluid and living, something that can be accessed anywhere, through the ritual of prayer.

In Islamic art, it is considered forbidden to depict human forms, especially when trying to explicitly show what the Prophet looked like. ( Instead, the art lining the ceilings and walls of mosques focuses on patterns, both geometric and floral, as well as variations on Arabic calligraphy. I find this to be a fascinating distinction between Christian and Islamic art. In churches and cathedrals, it is impossible to avoid graphic depictions of Jesus hanging from the cross, looking tortured and evoking visceral feelings of grief. The saints are depicted in explicit, human form. Even God is given a face and a form, instilling in the minds of Christians that divinity is something that can be understood in human terms. He is something that we can understand through art. These representations of divinity are believed to be quite literal, instead of the interpretive nature of Islamic art. I can’t help but feel that, walking into a mosque, as opposed to a church, I would be exposed to a completely different notion of how humans relate to divinity. Instead of feeling like I would have to worship out of a sense of guilt, being directly confronted with the sins that Jesus took on, through explicit art, I would feel a sense of unity with the universe.

These geometric patterns evoke a feeling of infinity. They churn and repeat into themselves endlessly, conveying, through a kind of expedient means, just how far God is beyond something we can comprehend. Islamic art cannot depict God directly, but rather, must depict how thinking about God makes us feel. It vocalizes the feeling of staring into the endless night sky, or swimming in oceans, or even looking into a friend’s face. Its form, therefore, brings forth notions of divinity in the every day. This art supplements the spiritually-driven architecture of the interior of the mosque to give a three-dimensional aspect of Sufi ideas. The art conveys the ideas and the architecture provides the context, anchoring it into our daily reality, making it a part of the space occupied by worshippers. These notions of ritual and prayer within the mosque  further enhance the meaning of the architecture, and are able to function with purpose within its structure. For example, communal prayer underneath the dome of the mosque, or next to its mihrab, serves as a means of getting closer to divinity. It allows for each individual to look inside themselves while at the same time dissolving the bonds they have with one another, united within this ritual. Rituals of purity are also enacted in mosques and are represented in the many fountains that can be found in mosque courtyards. (Bosworth) One is supposed to clean their bodies to place themselves in a state worthy of God. These unifying rituals, undertaken by people of all economic and social strata, thusly work in concurrence with the unique architectural features of the mosques. They build off of each other to further express notions of the accessibility of the divine, the infinite nature of the universe, and the presence of God in all.