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Houses

By:
Juan Eduardo Campo
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Houses

Although scholars and architects in the past sought to identify an essential “Islamic house,” the dwellings that Muslims have actually constructed and occupied are as varied as the geographical, social, and cultural landscapes in which they have lived. For building materials, until the last quarter of the twentieth century, they have relied on resources readily at hand. In many parts of Africa, Arabia, and Asia, the primary material used by sedentary peoples has been mud and mud brick. In rocky regions, stone construction is widespread, as in Yemen, Mecca, Lebanon, and Palestine. Cut stone was the main material, often in combination with baked brick, used in the palace architecture of traditional elites in the Mamlūk, Ottoman, Ṣafavid, and Mughal empires. Wooden dwellings naturally have been most common in heavily forested regions such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, northern Iran, the Hindu Kush, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The marsh Arabs of southern Iraq have traditionally used reeds, while coral has been employed in Red Sea coastal communities. Nomadic peoples have manufactured their tents from woven grasses, branches, and the hair and hides of their flocks.

The courtyard house has been the vernacular architectural form most widely regarded as “Islamic,” because of the facility with which it can be adapted to religiously sanctioned norms of domestic privacy and gender segregation. It is also held to be well suited to hot Mediterranean and desert climates and responsive to a traditional preference for patrilocal residence of extended families. Yet to posit this form as the archetypal Islamic house rests on faulty premises. Various types of courtyard houses existed in the pre-Islamic settlements of Africa and the Near East. Moreover, since the appearance of Islam in the seventh century, not only have non-Muslims continued to use this house form, but Muslims themselves have adopted other dwelling configurations. Among these are the tower houses of Yemen, the Hejaz, and the Maghrib; the qāʿah- and maqʿad-based palaces of Cairo; and the ṣuffah-style houses in the Ottoman heartland. In Kerala (former Malabar), India, where about 20 percent of the population is Muslim, the vernacular courtyard house style known as the nālukettu is associated more with matrilineal Brahmanic joint families than with Muslims.

As Muslims migrated beyond the Middle East, they usually adopted the indigenous domestic architectural traditions of Africans, Asians, and Europeans. Whatever traditional architectural forms Muslims have used for their housing have generally allowed for the accommodation of extended families and varying degrees of interaction between public and private spheres of social life. There has been little evidence for an absolute separation of public and private spaces, and the same is true with respect to the segregation of men and women within the house. Rather, such divisions are often negotiated and situational, depending on the rhythms of daily life, as well as social and economic factors. The harem—a much-discussed and romanticized segregated domestic space for women—was originally created by ruling elites and wealthy landholders. It was not a product of Islamic religion per se, although Islamic norms have been invoked to legitimate and explain it.

Relations between the Islamic religion and houses are more appropriately considered in terms of the ways in which they are encoded in religious discourse, as well as the ways Muslims appropriate Islamic symbols and rules to constitute meaning and order within the spheres of everyday life. The Qurʿān and ḥadīth contain domestic discourses, based on the Arabic house-terms dār and bayt, that help symbolically to delineate the boundaries and relations between this world and the hereafter, God and humans, the Prophet Muḥammad and his community, and belief and disbelief. For example, the Qurʿān asserts that God created ordinary dwellings and furnishings to demonstrate his grace to people so that they would “submit” to him (16:80–83). On the other hand, it also states that God has punished disbelieving and immoral people by destroying them and ruining their houses (for example, 7:74–79, 27:45–52). Believers who give up their homes and emigrate to God and Muḥammad are promised great rewards (4:100). Elsewhere, the Qurʿān identifies the mosque in Mecca as the “sacred house” (5:97). Nearly one-third of the references to houses in the Qurʿān pertain to the rewards and punishments that await people in the afterlife. Paradise is called the “house of peace” (6:127), the “house of the god-fearing” (16:30), or simply “the house” (dār, 6:135). The people of paradise are promised dwellings and lofty apartments among its gardens and flowing rivers (for example, 29:58). Evildoers, on the other hand, will go to the Fire (hell), which is also called the “evil house” (13:25) and the “house of perdition” (14:28). The Qurʿān also expresses rules regarding domestic visitation, privacy, prayer, and hospitality (for example, 24:27–29, 35–37, 61; 33:53), which became incorporated into the legal canon, or which were assimilated in conformity—or opposition—to local customary practices.

Muslim domestic space has also been made meaningful through ritualization. Many Muslims have regarded their homes, or sections of them, as sacred areas where life-cycle rituals are observed and prayers are performed, which means that Muslims become attentive to upholding the rules of ritual purity. To enhance domestic blessing, repel evil forces, and please guests, they embellish sitting rooms with verses of the Qurʿān, the names of God, and pictures of the Kaʿbah or the Prophet Muḥammad's mosque in Medina. Shīʿī houses in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran display pictures of the imams and Karbala shrines, pictures of revered mullahs, and mementos from shrine visits. In Egypt it has been customary for house and apartment façades to be decorated with murals in celebration of the performance of the ḥajj, thus symbolically linking a pilgrim's dwelling with Mecca, Medina, and paradise.

In most Muslim lands traditional domestic architecture, and the customary ways of conceiving, organizing, and behaving in domestic space, have been profoundly affected by the forces of modernization during the twentieth century. Costly reinforced concrete, glass, steel, and baked brick are replacing indigenous building materials, while European and American architectural configurations and technologies displace native ones. Concomitantly, the forced settlement of nomads, voluntary rural migration to industrializing regions, large refugee populations (for example, Palestinians, Afghanis, Sudanese, and Iraqis), high population growth rates, and inefficient resource-allocation by national governments have created severe housing shortages in many countries. Large squatter settlements have grown on the outskirts of many large cities, such as Casablanca, Cairo, Istanbul, Tehran, Karachi, and Jakarta.

While government housing-ministries and international relief agencies try to alleviate these problems, other private, national, and international organizations have arisen to promote the preservation of Islamic monuments and vernacular architectures or to conjoin the vernacular with the modern. In this context, precolonial Islamic juridical rulings concerning domestic privacy and gender segregation have been applied to the planning of several modern housing projects. At the same time, neglected areas of substandard “informal” housing have become centers of unrest and recruiting grounds for radical Islamist groups, which have sought to attract youthful members with promises of assistance in locating spouses and housing, and with visions of recovering the sacred Islamic solidarity of the past. Recent studies have also shown that Muslim immigrant minorities and African-American converts have employed Islamic symbols and ritual practices to construct religiously meaningful dwelling places for themselves in Europe and America.

See also ARCHITECTURE and URBAN PLANNING.

Bibliography

  • Campo, Juan Eduardo. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S.C., 1991. Historical inquiry into the domestic symbolism of the Qurʿān and ḥadīth collections, and how Muslims use Islamic symbols and practices to ritualize domestic space and imbue it with religious meaning.
  • Frampton, Kenneth, Charles Correa, and David Robson. Modernity and Community: Architecture in the Islamic World. New York and Geneva, 2002.
  • Hakim, Besim S.Arabic-Islamic Cities: Building and Planning Principles. New York, 1986. An architect's inquiry into how Islamic principles are encoded in the design of Muslim dwellings and settlements, based on architectural field surveys in consultation with medieval legal texts. Limited to the North African region.
  • Hanna, Nelly. Habiter au Caire: La maison moyenne et ses habitants, aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Cairo, Egypt, 1991. Brilliant study of the social, economic, and architectural history of urban middle-class housing in Arab Muslim lands on the eve of European colonization, based on Islamic court archives, architectural field surveys, and travel literature. Extensive bibliography.
  • Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam. Oxford, 1999. A sober treatment of the variety of ways Muslim daily life has been embodied in the artifacts of material culture, including mosques, culinary practices, trade goods, clothing, and funerary practices. One chapter discusses material aspects and cultural significance of domestic space.
  • Lal, Ruby. Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World. New York, 2005. Includes a discussion of the varying ways in which the domestic sphere was defined by the engagement of powerful women in the affairs of state, including a critique of Western stereotypes of harem life.
  • Mazumdar, Shampa, and Sanjoy Mazumdar. “The Articulation of Religion in Domestic Space: Rituals in the Immigrant Muslim Home.”Journal of Ritual Studies18, no. 2 (2004): 74–85.
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, ed.Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley, Calif., 1996. Excellent collection of papers, including treatments of African-American domestic space by Aminah Beverly McCloud and of Maghribi migrants living in French workers’ tenements by Moustapha Diop and Lawrence Michalak.
  • Université de Provence, Group de Recherches et d’Études sur le Proche-Orient. L’habitat traditionnel dans les pays musulmans autour de la Mediterranée. 3 vols.Cairo, Egypt, 1988–1991. Valuable collection of articles by specialists on the precolonial domestic architecture of Muslim Mediterranean lands, supplemented by comparative studies of Arabian Peninsula and Ottoman Turkish housing. Includes detailed annotations, bibliographies, and glossaries.
  • Waines, David, ed.Patterns of Everyday Life. Vol. 10 of The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, edited by Lawrence I. Conrad. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2002. Useful collection of articles first published between 1958 and 1990 on various forms of domestic architecture, including Egyptian, Iranian, Andalusi, Omani, Berber, and Bedouin.
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