Islamic design
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Introduction
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A brief introduction to these study notes

The towers at Umm Salal Muhammad, February 1976

This area of the site contains notes relating to Qatar and, by extension, to the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. However, there is much related to the subject of Islamic design in its wider sense, hence the title given to this section. The pages originated as architectural and planning notes for an intended academic study on housing in Qatar, but have been expanded to deal with other related areas. There is now considerable information here, the equivalent of six or more novels – though without their coherency and structure – buttressed by over five thousand photographs and 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 their original coherence, for which I apologise.

Different pages are likely to appeal 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 this page straight away. Incidentally, the photograph here – of the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain – is a 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, although it may appear at first not to be so. These pages constitute 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.

The notes were my understanding of these issues having spent many years learning from close association with various aspects of their planning and design. The notes 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 You should also be aware that some of the notes may now be well out of date, also that some may appear in different places in both the same wording or in amended wording, perhaps even contradictory…

The latest additions to the site can be found by following the links from the Updates page. The pages are a work in progress and should not be seen as formal essays or papers in an academic sense. They started 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. They 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 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. But a consequence of the agglomeration of notes has been the need to split pages in order for them to load more easily. This may have produced problems for the casual visitor for which, again, I apologise.

Another problem for the visitor might be that some of the notes may seem to be, or may be, out of date. 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, the traditional values and life of the peninsula and, because of this, 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 the 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.

However, in most 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. But I have been able to use a number of photographs here with the kindness of others; these are 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.

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.

Already, ‘Islamic design’ is discussed in the Gulf, and ‘new’ responses to it are being created relating, it is 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.

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

The next page discusses what it meant by ‘Islamic’ and ‘Arabic’ design or science. 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 Cordoba 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 I should make 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 where we are distinguished by age, social group, politics, class, education, nationality, profession and so on. These groupings overlap and create diversity. So, please excuse any perceived attempt 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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Islamic design
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