Islamic design
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A brief introduction to these study notes

The towers at Umm Salal Muhammad, February 1976

This area of the site comprises some of my personal notes relating to Qatar in the 1970s to 1980s and, by extension, to the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. It should be borne in mind that, with the process of setting down and developing the notes, the wider aspects relating to Islamic design became more apparent, hence the reason for giving the phrase to this section of the site.

The pages originated as notes on architecture and planning for an intended academic study on housing in Qatar, but have been expanded to deal with other related areas. At the stage when it was intended to refine the notes and focus on a suitable subject for developing into a useful course of study – in the late 1980s – the notes comprised forty-four artificial chapters; there are now – in the 2020s – sixty.

Essentially the notes relate to the more physical aspects of the design of buildings for Qataris, and you should be aware that there is no commentary on religion, politics or security, though all of which have a significant role in the development of any country and its inhabitants. There will also be areas which need more information, such as in the areas of medicine, licences and paperwork, different expatriate attitudes, and so on.

Bear in mind that reading the notes today there is likely to be little real understanding of the conditions of the time they mainly relate to, the 1970s. In those days, there were few telephones, certainly no mobiles, no computers, most communication was face to face, communication abroad was expensive by telephone with much information being relayed by the postal service. Not everybody had a car, there was no public transport other than taxis and schools’ and contractors’ lorries or buses. Nearly everything, including food was imported and of variable quality, infrastructure was not yet developed, women were scarcely seen and it was easy to meet Qataris.

Within these pages there is now considerable information, the equivalent of six or more novels – though without their coherency and structure – buttressed by over six thousand photographs – some mine and some through the courtesy of others – as well as original illustrations. These are, essentially, personal notes that I placed here originally as a relatively easy way of organising my thoughts. Since then they have lost much of their original coherence, for which I apologise.

A detail of the interior of the Mezquita, Cordoba, Andalucia

These pages are likely to have content suited to different interests so, for those coming here for the first time, it might be advisable to browse through them rapidly in order to see something of the character of the information contained on each page rather than read the notes on that page straight away. Incidentally, the photograph here – of the mihrab of the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain – is a visual reminder of a common view of Islamic design. The point here is that it is not, of course, representative of architecture in the Arabian peninsula.

The original background notes to these studies

Above all, please bear in mind that this is a working area even though it may appear at first not to be so. These pages are the development of notes I began a long time ago on a subject that very much interests me. At that time they were intended to form a background for those not knowing much or anything about Qataris and their relationships with housing in its widest sense and reflect a country very different from that which we see today.

The notes were my understanding of these issues having spent many years learning from close association with various aspects of the planning and design processes. They are now being constantly added to, and no page or subject should be taken as being in any way complete; nor should any page be read as a continuous essay. You should also be aware that some of the notes may now be well out of date, also that some may appear in different places in both the same wording or in amended form, perhaps even contradicting what might appear elsewhere…

The latest additions to the site can be found by following the links from the Updates page. As menmtioned above, all pages represent personal work in progress and should not be seen as formal essays or papers in an academic or scholastic sense. The notes began life as jottings made over a period of time. Please remember when you read these pages that they are only a small part of the notes I have, and that they’re a temporary resting place for work in progress. Regrettably I made an early decision not to make proper references, a decision I now regret. The notes are not properly structured; they will be re-structured, added to, amended from time to time when, and as, something comes to mind. Or what’s left of it. Right, I think that’s enough repetition of the warning, but if you have any questions relating to the notes, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

It follows that the notes are not being worked on in any logical order. The ad hoc system of recording is triggered by things I see or recall which may mean I have a number of subjects being considered at the same time. Generally, the notes are amended in small increments rather than being the result of focussed research and considered structure.

Another problem for the visitor might be that some of the notes may seem to be, or may actually be, out of date. Sometimes significantly so. I am aware that when writing about certain subjects, particularly projects, I may not revisit that note for some time, if at all. Please be aware that there is no easy way for me to keep these notes up to date.

A transient Badu hut with camels

Compounding this is my intention to use as many of my own photographs as possible, the difficulty here being that I took them in the nineteen seventies and eighties. In this sense much of what I write here will focus on the past, its traditional values and life of the peninsula. Because of this it may be understood as historical. For this I don’t apologise as the general thesis here is that much has or is being lost not just physically, but in wider socio-cultural aspects. This may be seen as a romantic Western view, but there is much that is and was good about traditional cities.

In most if not all of the Gulf the traditional cities and their social connections have gone and a new start has been made based on modern construction and, in many cases, Western values and their organisational and government structures which, obviously, are not based on Islamic values or principles. There are wide areas that I have not been able to illustrate with photographs, particularly relating to the socio-cultural aspects of life in the area, though I have been able to use a number of photographs here with the kindness of others; these are generally the modern illustrations and many of the historical black and white photographs. Permission has always been sought for this material and, in all cases, generously given.

Related to socio-cultural aspects are those developing with the steady process of establishing standards, licensing and permits, codifying and regulating areas such as nationality and the development of national organisations to regulate and police these operations. There is little or nothing on this site of these important areas relating to development.

A detail of Qatar National Museum

Although I have titled these studies, ‘Arabic / Islamic Design Studies’, my main interest is in Arabic / Islamic architecture and planning with particular reference to the Persian / Arabian Gulf; even more specifically, Qatar. I have an interest in the traditional architecture of Qatar, and the lessons to be learned from its relatively limited architectural design. This is a fairly narrow subject with little written material I’m aware of. However, the issues raised by what is termed ‘Islamic design’ are fascinating and, along with other aspects such as the historical and socio-political background, need to be addressed by those looking at the narrower fields of architecture and planning in the region.

By the 1980s, the concept of ‘Islamic design’ was being discussed in the Gulf, and ‘new’ responses to it were being created relating, it was argued, to the traditions of the past. This has seen a burgeoning not only of architecture relating more to the larger centres of Islamic architecture, but also to other arts – Fine Art, Music and Dance spring to mind – which have little or no relationship to the traditions of the Gulf in general, and Qatar in particular.

The mihrab of the Mezquita, Cordoba, Andalucia

The following page attempts to discuss what might be meant by ‘Islamic’ and ‘Arabic’ design or science, and it is crucial to differentiate between the two. It is also important to understand the term, ‘Arabic science’, for instance, as it is often used wrongly. In essence works of science, for hundreds of years, were written in the Arabic language – but many scientists were not Arabs. Great advances were made during this period based on previous scholarship from Greece and India but it, too, was overtaken by external forces beginning with the invasion of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. While this important centre of scholarship was razed, Cairo and Córdoba continued for a time until they, too, were overtaken by external forces, notably epidemics, the Reconquista and colonial expansion, as well as through internal dissonance.

There is one final point to be made relating to the way I have written the notes on these pages. I am very much aware that I write about ‘Islamic’ and ‘Western’ values and issues in comparing and contrasting views. This is a form of shorthand. Of course people are not as easily characterised as ‘Islamic’ or ‘Western’ as we all belong to other groupings in which we are distinguished by age, social group, religion, politics, class, education, nationality, profession and so on. These groupings overlap and create diversity. So, please excuse what may be perceived as attempts on my part to draw unnatural comparisons, and consider my remarks in their general context of concern for the effects of Western values on those living and working in the Arabian / Persian Gulf.


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