TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Space and Text: Written Representation of Islamic Architecture in the Sixteenth-Century Arabic Manuscript of Qotb el Din

This paper was presented at the 2012 Telos Conference, “Space: Virtuality, Territoriality, Relationality,” held on January 14–15, in New York City.

It is almost impossible to consider architecture independently from space. Indeed, the definition of architecture should implicitly or explicitly include this concept. The first role of architecture is to create and manipulate space. Any architectural object is not only a contained element in space but also an element that participates in the orientation of space and therefore in the making of a place out of a space. Moreover, the architectural object makes space act within a performing stage and defines it as a closed or open space. There is no architecture or architectural action without space. The human use of space and values with which society imbues spatial relations signifies the ground of architecture.

This concept of space, which had been the locus of the modern movement in architecture since its beginning and the various pictorial tendencies that once derived their inspiration from it, has been given many significations, values, and usages. Consequently, we might find mental space, true space, false space, social space, architectural space, concrete space, abstract space, conceptual space, sensible space, represented space, space of representation, Euclidian space, geometrical space, spiritual space, stage space, cosmological space, neutral space, active space, positive space, negative space, hyperspace, digital space—there are as many concepts of space that imply the prime idea of space in architecture. Space has indeed become not only the ultimate expression of the architectural action, but also the support of this action and its “raison d’être.”

Treatises were written by Muslims during the middle ages, and people consult them in libraries where they believed they could find solutions to social and political problems. The Muslim scholars of the middle ages were, in general, greatly attached to libraries and considered them a repository of wealth (khzanah). These manuscripts covered a range of subject matters, including art, architecture, astronomy, law, language, literature, medicine, music, pharmacology, and philosophy. The Islamic manuscript is divided into many chapters, and each chapter covers a unique topic such as history, literary art, poetry, and so on. Muslims organized knowledge into three main groups:

1. Islamic systematic knowledge
2. Greek systematic knowledge with the Muslim advances
3. Literary arts

In the Islamic cultural tradition, physical structures such as buildings and urban structures were sacred objects of great magical power, and through the cultic worship, they were crucial for the smooth continuity of the process of biological and social life, as well as its harmony with the universal order of things.

Qotb el Din was a member of the sixteenth-century Islamic literati who wrote a book entitled Information on the Personages and Landmarks on God’s Sacred Territories. As the title suggests, the book covers the chronicles that dealt with the city of Mecca, including the Kaaba, the sacred mosque that surrounds it, and to a certain extend the city of Djedda and Madina. This work focused mainly on the city of Mecca and has a great deal of information on its developmental process through time. The chronicles of Qotb el Din include the geographical location of Mecca, its construction, its conservation, its renovation, its hydraulic system, its reconstruction after a fire or flooding disaster, as well as the judicial process that is required before these actions.

In his introductory chapter, Qotb el Din introduces the subjects for which he showed a great interest, the study of ilm el athar and ilm el akhbar, the science of the conservancy and the enquiries of traces and information, and the art of history, a whole set of knowledge about the city of Mecca, Djedda, and some other places in Saudi Arabia. Arkoun wrote in regards of these topics, “The inquiries and conservation of information (akhbar) and the traces (athar) and oral transmission that accompanied the texts and later will take a written form or recitations (riwayat), of traditions (hadiths, sunan) gave birth to a rich literature of historical essence.” He added that “the study of these documents is crucial because they constitute our only link with the inaugurating age and the formative period of Islamic thought. Arkoun states that the study of these documents and manuscripts should not be a study of the mythical past, but should be viewed in a critical and historical way. Furthermore, as far as knowledge is concerned, the study of these subjects through Islamic manuscripts and treatises leads us to discover new visions and reinterpretations of knowledge at the light of the twenty-first century conception of knowledge and our relationship with our encompassing world. The work of Qotb el Din encompasses knowledge in a global sense of the term; the interrelatedness of the disciplines consists in his monism of science.

This work manifests a great deal of interest in the observations of Mecca’s landmarks and the historical and chronological retrospective of their construction. Qotb el Din shows that the moral and religious norms were part of the architectural action that includes the building and principles that shaped and transformed the traditional city of Mecca. Although devoid of pictorial art or technological illustration, the text’s expository prose shows the process in which the description of the action of construction and renovation of buildings went through. It was an impression associated with the order of words, “a scriptural . . . one that leaves a mark in a surface or in the thickness of a substrate (of traces),” in Jacques Derrida’s words, dealing with the notion of archive and what he also calls a genealogy of ideas. This process is based on the authority that was based on the validation of absolutes, the archetype, whose “point is to be like the key, a key to reveal the cosmic code, and it is only if one possesses the key that door will be opened. . . . So one can already see why mathematics was to make such a strong appeal to the Muslim: its abstract nature furnished the bridge that Muslims were seeking between multiplicity and unity. It provided a fitting texture of symbols for the universe—symbols that were like keys to open the cosmic text,”[1] and its interpretation and implementation were in the hands of ritually qualified experts. Qotb el Din judges his proximity to the ultimate truth to the depth to which it takes him to the sacred heart of reality, which can be visible to the initiated who can see with their perception, the eye of the intellect. In this regard, Qotb el din wrote:

If I missed to see the houses with my eyes,
I would see them with my hearing.

“Hearing” is used here by means of intellectual inquiries, using the eye of the intellect, a form of knowledge that falls into the proceedings of the science of ilm el-atthar. Furthermore every distinctive inquiry has a particular perception and process. Qotb el Din had used the process in accord with historical witness, as well as with parables and sensations. In fact the Arabic term for hearing, sama’, is an important Soufi mystical path in which one raises one’s consciousness to align oneself more perfectly with the nature of reality. Physical environment in this case is seen through the text. With regard to this point, Qotb el Din wrote: “Through their writing (by means of text) of information on traces, our ancestors gave us the benefit of full knowledge to see what we could not see with their sights or (eyes).”

Man has lost his capacity for wonder, which is part of the traditional ideology. This ideology is based on a homology in which ritual, space, poetry, words, action, person, and object come to be in a single order of totality. Numerous studies were made with regard to the history of Islamic art and architecture, but these studies have focused on the most impressive physical manifestation of the Islamic architecture dealing with its esthetic dimension and ignoring its conceptual structures, found in the long historical textual tradition. My contention is that there is nothing inherently wrong with the study of Islamic architecture’s esthetic dimension, but the problem occurs when that dimension is represented as a mere decorative veneer and is not understood as a profound form of knowledge, as a genuine, intersubjective interpretation of reality. In other words, plastic representations were not only a translation into stones of the cosmological myths, but also, in Paul Wheatley terms, a construction of which art was not an aesthetic adventure, but a technic in the service of the liturgy.[2]


1. Oliver Leaman, “The Search for Tradition: Islamic Art and Science in the Thought of Seyyed Hossein Nasr,” in Mohamed H. Faghfoory, Bacon Of Knowledge: Essays in Honor of Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2003), p. 306.

2. Paul Wheatley, “City as Symbol: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at University College, London, November 20, 1967” (London: H.K. Lewis & Co., 1969), p. 10.

Comments are closed.