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Apartments in Hell: The Forgotten Art of House Design


By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

30 Mar 2017

Kashmir’s architecture recalled the glory of God and both dignity and humility of man.

The question of our attitude towards the Sacred is a question of life and death and if doesn’t figure anywhere with the seriousness it deserves in our dwellings or city planning, it is a choice of which all those who are thereby affected need to be informed about. How little do architects, not to speak of masons and carpenters and people that work for know about the significance of Symbolism and other largely forgotten aspects of traditional art of architecture say colours, directions, dimensions, is known to us all. Architecture is today mostly engineering and hardly art form. Ours is the ugliest age in history and our sense of beauty so impoverished, as those like AKC who are better qualified to talk about our standards of beauty would say.

Costs Of Forgetting God While Building Houses

      Traditionally, houses are to be built at the Centre of the world or should  so fix our orientation as has traditionally been the case across traditions. Houses are communication spaces with the higher world or are subject to a whole range of influences we would ordinarily not countenance for being too occult for our consideration. Traditionally houses are required to be, like mosques or temples, as Eliade notes in his first chapter of The Sacred and the Profane.

The first thing the Prophet, upon whom be peace, that he sought to descend on us by our proper orientation to the higher cosmic rhythms, built was a mosque and philosophers like Heidegger remind us of his insistence to work himself for house construction, to visit graveyards – a space we wish were never mentioned in our presence and we know how badly managed our graveyards are compared to Christian ones –, openness to sky, and emphasis on our earthly origins and acceptance of our finitude as creatures. He didn’t allow mistreatment of Christian icons when pagan idols were cleared from the sanctuary of Mecca. He allowed even “alien” religious/secular art forms in his house cum mosque space.

      How forgetful of God/Sacred we are may be gleaned from our large scale ignorance of numbers, sacred geometry and its significance besides outright dismissal of traditional astrology and other sciences that seek to connect man to higher realms. We no longer talk about architects as priests. Architecture of houses, public spaces and much of what is covered under city excluding purely religious architecture is now a secular affair. It is hardly recognized that the responsibility of architecture to the sacred is, “truly solemn. Architecture interprets holiness and offers it to the people. Whether they choose to inhabit this category or not, perhaps all architects have the capacity to be priests, designing spaces that call for a meeting between earth and heaven.”

      Mircea Eliade’s classic study The Sacred and the Profane has been highly influential in these debates and we turn to it to explain what is the sacred dwelling and in its light we can well see how desacralized is our habitation today. To quote from Eliade: “Two methods of ritually transforming the dwelling place (whether the territory or the house) into cosmos, that is, of giving it the value of an imago mundi: (a) assimilating it to the cosmos by the projection of the four horizons from a central point (in the case of a village) or by the symbolic installation of the axis mundi (in the case of a house) ; (b) repeating, through a ritual of construction, the paradigmatic acts … by virtue of which the world came to birth...

In all traditional cultures, the habitation possesses a sacred aspect by the simple fact that it reflects the world.”

      We build houses but our forefathers built homes. What we miss in our dwellings is dwelling space/home as Heidegger pointed out.  A dwelling, he argued, is characterized by sparing and preserving – preserving relates to the “fourfold.” – “one lives on earth, under the sky, before the divinities, and belonging to men’s being with one another.” Everything in its free sphere is preserved. Since instrumental rationality and technological culture rule, we have houses and not homes. Now we miss art, poetry and mystery, otherworldly beauty, space for fellowship of spirit – a living space of inter-human, ecstasy, consciousness of human dignity and healing touch of life and death. We miss emotions, a symbolism, a sense of attachment and commitment to place/house, We miss profound touch with living traditions that our ancestors bequeathed us. To illustrate the costs to modern man, we may focus on those who have been most vocal about their faith and have tried to resist secularism at all fronts including the political.

Muslims Have Lost:

Living connection with Islam. How many Muslim architects and engineers and Ulema can appreciate and explain the following statements from Khaled Azzam’s descriptiion of Islam vis-a-vis architecture that mostly build on Burckhardt’s masterly explication of Islamic artistic tradition: “Architecture is central to Islam because it represents a formalization of virgin nature; it is symbolic of the highest place of worship created by God. Architecture is seen as the art of ordering space not only on a physical level but also on the metaphysical plane-placing man in the presence of God through the sacralization of space.”

Lessons in even the basics of house design and decorum of dwelling

The following, for instance, is Greek to most Muslims:… “although the architecture of the house is different from that of the mosque in terms of planning, it is similar in terms of style. The same rites that are performed in the mosque are also performed at home. This being the reason why the floor of a house is considered sacred and shoes are removed when entering, and why the rooms in the traditional Islamic house remain devoid of any fixed furniture.”

The Case of Kashmir

      Traditionally, in Kashmir, building a house was like an intention to marry – one married for life. One couldn’t imagine changing it under ordinary circumstances, not to speak of building for sale. Privacy was an objective but not an obsession or fashion. Obsession with privacy was not there for even young people and a room of one’s own wasn’t demanded even in well off households.

Guardian angels had to be cared for. Before purchasing a land for house, it has to be determined if it is suitable, not haunted, not this or that. Cosmic signs would have to be read to see appropriate date and site. Sacrifices were offered at the times of beginning of house building and declaring it open. No important activity could be done without visiting sacred space first – mosque/shrine/graveyard. One couldn’t afford to leave a house empty – it was believed to be occupied by djinns. Shops were not part of houses, generally speaking. Market was usually a separate space.

For the well-to-do exquisitely carved wood and meticulous attention to beauty in designing roofs of rooms, windows, doors etc. has been a hallmark of Kashmiri dwelling. One felt answerable for every action to local community, to priest and to God. The government came into picture only occasionally. In short one could say that God was consulted, neighbor taken into consideration and the elders of the community were part of the process of consecration of the dwelling place. Guests were almost never absent at a given time and some would stay for days and weeks.

Now what suffices for almost all these reports from and sacrifices for Heaven are feasibility reports and court papers. Interestingly court papers or papers showing transference of land or ownership of house weren’t a concern in most cases. The classic case of large scale destruction of traditional spaces in comparatively a short span of time in Ladakh has been documented in a classic study Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World by Helena Norberg-Hodge.

      One needs to remark here that it is development ideology that wrecked havoc on traditional architecture. Time consuming, difficult to replace or sell, eco-friendly, indigenous, more attuned to the requirements of spirit, simple but graceful and elegant, consciously rooted in traditionally received symbolism, uniformity of style and antithesis of vainglorious Promethean sensibility that has made deep inroads recently, Kashmir’s architecture recalled the glory of God and both dignity and humility of man. Nothing was superfluous and nothing was out of harmony. There is certain “deficiency” of light but that seems to contribute to a sense of mystery. And one can’t keep out a strange aura flowing from the sacred ambience of the whole building. In contrast today it has one thing missing – sacred. 

      The question of the Sacred has to be asked while designing dwellings and cities. The sacred has its own way of speaking to us and our refusal to listen is our problem. And now that this problem is widely recognized and there is haunting nihilism – we are in hells of our own making – it remains a difficult question to see how we don’t fail in our response to the demands of the sacred. Walls between houses, invisible walls within houses, concrete jungles, conversion of housing into an industry that seeks to maximize profit at the cost of demands of the spirit or beauty, rejection of wilderness, forgetting of symbolism of gardens, courtyards, flora and fauna, colours and dimensions, orientation and landscaping – all need to be taken note of if we can call our city design responsible or sacred conscious – which imply one another.