金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下)

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金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

The courtyard of Süleymaniye Mosque, completed in 1557 A. D., Istanbul, Photo in Public Domain

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(上)

Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes: Images, Cosmology, and Circumambulation




Lindsay Jones developed the concept of “ritual-architectural event”, according to which the meaning of a sacred building depends upon the participant’s experience of it in the course of the rituals they perform. Starting from such approach, and taking the Islamic dome as my subject-matter, I examine the correlations that link architectural forms, ritual performance, and participants’ experience into a whole. I first survey a corpus of images related to domes in two types of manuscripts (poetry, and pilgrimage narratives), showing how these images suggest cosmological patterns. The second part unfolds these representations, proceeding from cosmology to ritual. The third and last part focuses on circumambulation as the ritual experience that best embodies the previously identified cosmological patterns. The connection between the three dimensions discussed here is ascertained by the fact that the combination of circle and square structures relates both to Islamic graphic representations and ritual practices. An aesthetic/spiritual experience is awakened both in the mind and in the bodily senses of the viewer/practitioner: When Muslims stand under a dome, in front of the mihrab, thus facing Mecca, and when they behold the dome under which they stand, the view of this circular space possibly translates into a kind of mental and spiritual circumambulation. The conclusion suggests that the meaning attached to sacred architecture places is triggered by a complex of interactions between patterns referred respectively to the mind, bodily actions, and cultural settings.

architectural experience; circumambulation; Islamic cosmology; Islamic dome; pilgrimage; sacred architecture

3. From Representation to Ritual

In his book Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam, Akkach combined cosmology with architectural symbolism through a premodern Sufi perspective. Akkach notably focuses on the Kaʿba, and notes: “According to premodern Islamic sources, Mecca was the omphalos of the earth, and the Kaʿba was God’s first house of worship. Being, so to speak, the first divine-sponsored architectural project, the Kaʿba is a key element in the interplay of cosmology and architecture.” (Akkach 2005, p. 179) He grounds his analysis of the order and symbolism of the Kaʿba into textual analysis. Following Akkach’s perspective, I will now mobilize some visual material to illustrate the fact that the symbolic/cosmological representation of the Kaʿba associates with the ritual circumambulation around the Kaʿba. This discussion will allow us to assert the fact that cosmological representations, on the one hand, and rituals, on the other, share common structures. Making use of the approach to “ritual-architectural event” propounded by Jones, I will analyze how the presence of the cube and the circle within cosmological patterns have induced Ottoman worshippers to look at the Süleymaniye mosque. An example drawn from the realm of contemporary art will then suggest that patterns of cube and circle continue to shape the vision of contemporary onlookers.

3.1. The Circle as the Cosmos

Islamic cosmology is primarily based on the Quranic verses. For instance, the imagery of the seven heavens is recorded in Qurʾan, “It is He who created for you all of that which is on the earth. Then He directed Himself to the heaven, [His being above all creation], and made them seven heavens, and He is Knowing of all things” (Qurʾan 2:29, also see Qurʾan 65:12).[8] The absoluteness of the One God and of His creative power makes Islamic cosmology rely upon the formula of Unity in orthodoxy (Rahman 1967). As Nasr writes, “the cosmological sciences are closely related to the Revelation” (Nasr 1978, p. 1). The understanding of human and social facts, which in turn influences religious commemoration, is similarly determined by Revelation.

As we know well, the Lunar Hijri calendar emerged for commemorating Hijrah the Prophet Muhammad’s migration (622 A.D.) from Mecca to Yathrib (Medina). And the month of Ramaḍān commemorates the revelation of the Holy Qurʾan from the Angel Jabriel [Gabriel] to the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim calendar combines the commemoration of religious events and lunar cycles. Catherine Bell notes: “just as rites of passage give order and definition to the biocultural life cycle, calendrical rites give socially meaningful definitions to the passage of time, creating an ever-renewing cycle of days, months, and years” (Bell 2009, p. 102). These calendrical rituals are profoundly inserted into everyday life, cover all the aspects of existence, and interlace with extensive astronomical and geographical knowledge. The Islamic calendar, based on a knowledge of astronomy, not only determines the dates of Ramaḍān and other festivals through the observation of the moon, but also, similarly, the measurement of the hours of day and night determines the time of the five daily prayers. Additionally, geographical knowledge helps one to accurately determine the direction of Mecca, orienting rituals such as worship, animal slaughter, and burial.

The development of Islamic science benefited from the quest for precision in ritual acts; it is well known that the earliest astronomical observatories appeared in Islamic science (Black 2016, pp. 26–28). To determine the orientation of Kaʿba, Muslims invented the qibla compass, endowed with capability for precise calculations. David King, a scholar of the history of Islamic science, points out this double origin: “folk science” derived from the astronomical knowledge gathered by the Arabs before Islam; “mathematical science” was deriving mainly from Greek sources. It was involving both theory and computation. The former was advocated by legal scholars and widely practiced over the centuries. A select few practiced the latter (King and Lorch 1992, p. 189).

In astronomical and geographical manuscripts, celestial bodies appear in the form of circles. In the 13th century, Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad ibn Maḥmūd al-Qazwīnī (d. 1283 A.D.) composed a book entitled “The Wonders of Creation and Strange Creatures” (ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharāʾib al-mawjūdāt), an encyclopedia that is one of the most remarkable books of Islamic cosmography. It has been translated from Arabic into Persian and Turkish, and transcribed and preserved in various libraries and museums.[9] The Wonders of Creation and Strange Creatures incorporates a wide variety of astronomical, geographical, geological, mineral, botanical, animal, and ethnological content. The first part of the manuscript includes the heavenly bodies, angels, and time. In the illustrations, the angel Rukh is holding the celestial spheres (Figure 5a,b). In the Islamic celestial theory, the representation of celestial bodies as being circular is based on the Ptolemaic model or on later theories developed by scholars such as Ibn al-Haytham (965–1040 A.D.), an Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist (Langermann 2007). In addition to the illustration of an angel holding a celestial body, ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt collected in Cambridge University Library (MS Nn.3.74) has multiple images of the celestial spheres in circles.

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Figure 5. The angel Rukh holding the celestial spheres, The Wonders of Creation and Strange Creatures; (a) Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, EA1978.2573. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 2022 (bʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt, 1566, Cambridge University Library, MS Nn.3.74, 33r. © Cambridge University Library. 2022.

3.2. Kaʿba, Geography and Prayer

Another constitutive element of Islamic cosmology is sacred geography, with the Kaʿba, the black square, located at its center. This type of sacred geography appeared in the 10th century, and it remained popular until the Ottoman period in the 17th century, alongside geographical science based on precise calculations. David King researched these manuscripts in detail (King 2020, pp. 91–141King and Lorch 1992, p. 189). King has astutely noticed that architectural details were used to define cosmological subdivisions. (Akkach also noticed it, see Akkach 2005, p. 188). Thus, while the four walls and four corners of a building indicate a division of the world into four or eight sectors, giving rise to a number of four- and eight-sector schemes, features such as the waterspout on the northwestern wall and the door on the northeastern wall were used to demarcate smaller sectors. In this way, the sacred geography of the inhabited parts of the earth comprised a variable number of sectors (jihah or hadd), all directly related to the Kaʿba (King and Lorch 1992, p. 190) (Figure 6a,b). We can find a number of these sacred geography diagrams constituted by circles around the cube in the center (Porter 2012, p. 65King 2020, p. 165).

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Figure 6. (a) Four-sector schemes of the Islamic sacred geography (King and Lorch 1992, p. 191); (b) eight-sector schemes of the Islamic sacred geography (King and Lorch 1992, p. 193). 2022.

Maps used for determining the direction to be observed while praying directly to the Kaʿba, as do the qibla walls in all mosques. And Muslims who worship under the dome in front of the mihrab undoubtedly head towards Mecca. Qurʾan (2:144): “We have certainly seen the turning of your face, [O Muḥammad], toward the heaven, and We will surely turn you to a qiblah with which you will be pleased. So, turn your face [i.e., yourself] toward al-Masjid al-Ḥarām. And wherever you [believers] are, turn your faces [i.e., yourselves] toward it [in prayer].” Besides orienting the prayer, the qibla is also used for directing burial and for implementing a taboo related to urinating. Simon O’Meara, in his book The Kaʿba Orientation, widely discussed material culture related to the Kaʿba, and marked the Kaʿba a as “tectonic zero” of the visuality in Islam; “Kaʿba is to Islam what the vanishing point of linear perspective is to modernity” (O’Meara 2020, pp. 123–24). These sacred maps, with the Kaʿba as a square in the center and the cosmos represented through circles around it, inevitably remind us of the illustrations of al-Masjid al-Haram in Futūḥ al-Ḥaramayn, discussed above: Kaʿba as the locus of orientation with all the buildings in the picture pointing towards it.

3.3. The Cube and the Circle as Structure of Pilgrimage

Futūḥ al-Ḥaramayn had a large number of transcriptions in the 16th–19th centuries, especially after the Ottoman Empire monitored a settled pilgrimage route to Mecca (Figure 7b). The diagram refers to al-Masjid al-Haram, which not only appeared in manuscripts but also in handscrolls of souvenirs and tiles. Several mihrabs in the Topkapi Palace’s Haram also contain this diagram (Figure 7a).

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Figure 7. (a) Mihrab in Topkapi Palace, photo of the author, Istanbul, 2020; (b) Memorial scroll of pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia, probably Mecca/Hijjaz, late 18th century paper; watercolor and ink, 61.5 × 85.0 cm, Aga Khan Museum, AKM529 © The Aga Khan Museum. 2022.

As noted above, two enclosures surround the al-Masjid al-Haram, and the names are signed in Persian or Arabic next to the arched gates. The hanging lights of the corridor direct towards the Kaʿba. All the small buildings inside the enclosure point to the black square. The outer part of the Kaʿba is distinctly drawn in the form of a circle, referring to maṭawāf, the place to practice circumambulation. The scheme shows the Kaʿba as the core and emphasizes the interior and exterior division, the interior being loaded with the utmost level of sacredness. The stress on such structural elements becomes even more potent in pilgrimage materials, generally more straightforward, sometimes rough, in their techniques of representation. One commemorative handscroll offers a most remarkable sample: The circular area of the maṭawāf is highlighted, and the passageways, painted in red color, lead from the enclosure to the maṭawāf and the Kaʿba (Figure 7a,b). Noticeably, the craftsman has added many red dots, such enhancing the orientation of the maṭawāf area in the image (Figure 7b).

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Mihrab wall in Topkapi Palace, photo by the author, 2020

Another pilgrimage book Dalʾil al-khayrāt was composed by a Moroccan Sufi scholar, Muhammad al-Jazūlī (d. 1465 A.D.). Using a familiar model, a double-page illustration, this prayer book offers a representation of Medina and Mecca. The Aga Khan Museum collection has three manuscripts of Dalʾil al-khayrāt, with illustrations in diverse styles. One of them has a bird’s-eye view composition to show the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina and al-Majid al-Haram in Mecca, and depicts the dome of the Mosque of the Prophet in blue (AKM382) (Roxburgh 2011, pp. 40–47; see also Porter 2012, p. 54). Another made in North Africa looks more like charts than full-fledged images, such as the ones found in the illustrations of Futūḥ al-Ḥaramayn (O’Meara 2020, pp. 122, 126–27). This double-page image of Dalʾil al-khayrāt applies contrasting colors of green and red and an intensive use of gold. The depiction of Medina includes a staircase, which refers to the minbar in the mosque of the Prophet; on the left are three staggered rectangles framed within an arched window-like scheme. Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca is depicted on the right page. The rectangular Kaʿba occupies the center; the four maqams or pavilions representing the four legal schools of Islam are drawn as crescent moons.[10] If we compare this four-sector schema to the 18th-century sacred geography diagrams (Figure 8), we find that they are similar in the way general orientation, the circles, and the four-sector area are underlined. Even though the illustrator may have not referred to geographical manuscripts, the symbolical space constructed by different texts (be they geographical or pilgrimage-related in scope) happens to be similar.

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Figure 8. Dalʾil al-khayrāt, 19th century (above). Manuscript of Dala’il al-Khayrat Prayerbook, North Africa, probably Morocco, 19th century, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, H. 13.2 cm × W. 13.8 cm × D. 5.9 cm, AKM535 © Aga Khan Museum. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.5 CA, Comparison between the image of al-Masjid al-Haram in Dalʾil al-khayrāt and the four-sector Islamic sacred geography (below).

The Ottoman world provides us with examples of the way viewers/participants experience architectural forms from the background of preexisting cultural patterns that awaken in them a specific flux of meaning: the Ottoman scholars Nişancı Mehmed, Mustafa ibn Celal, and Sai Mustafa Çelebi compared the Süleymaniye mosque to the Kaʿba. In one of his poems, Sai wrote:

This well-proportioned mosque became the Kaʿba

Its four columns became the Prophet’s four friends,

A house of Islam supported by four pillars,

It gained strength through Prophet’s four friends.

(Neçipoğlu-Kafadar 1985, p. 106Morkoç 2009, p. 205)

Both Neçipoğlu and Morkoç use this poetry to explain the importance of the four columns in the Süleymaniye mosque, and make inferences to Justinian, who had transported marble columns from antique sites to the Hagia Sophia. Morkoç applies Jones’ theory to the analysis of Ottoman narratives, associating architecture with human experiences embodied into different acts, rituals, opinions, and events (Morkoç 2009, p. 200). As interesting as is this approach is, it does not allow us to directly answer the question: what made the Ottoman viewers associate the mosque and the Kaʿba?

Hagia Sophia was sharing a similar architectural form with the Süleymaniye mosque. More precisely, Mimar Sinan learnt to build the mosque from his study of Hagia Sophia. In the Christian tradition, the dome suggests a cosmic tent, a heavenly vault, and the church is a replica as the universe, while the four arches were considered at that time to correspond to the four sides of the earth. Hagia Sophia, with its great dome with four arches, was providing an occasion to present a clear image of the celestial home when homilies on God’s creation were given (Smith 1971, pp. 88–89). It is worth noting that, in the early 16th century, after converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Ottoman writers compared the special sanctity of Hagia Sophia to that of the Ka’ba and of the Aqsa Mosque, and referred to Hagia Sophia as a second Ka’ba for the poor who could not afford the pilgrimage to Mecca (Neçipoğlu 1992). The Ottoman viewers had a different experience than other Muslim believers of similar forms of building, namely a different experience of the mosque as the Kaʿba; this is because of contextual specificities.

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Alexander Visits the Ka‘ba, Folio from a Copy of Firdawsi’s Shahnamah, mid-16th century, Iran, The Khalili collections

In the poem by Sai Mustafa Çelebi that compares the Süleymaniye mosque with the Kaʿba, the comparison is based on the architectural form and on the surrounding environment, which is a fact also shown by visual materials. First, the baldaquin of the mosque, a dome with four pillars, constructed the space with circles and the square. Second, as Neçipoğlu pointed out, “Enclosing the mosque in a wide outer precinct where caravans would pitch their tents and surrounding it with four madrasas resembling those he built around the Kaʿba and dedicated to the four Sunni schools of law reinforced the analogy” (Neçipoğlu-Kafadar 1985, p. 107). This circle, square, and the four-sector setting is like the diagram of the Kaʿba in Dalʾil al-khayrāt (Figure 8). Therefore, I suggest that this presence of the same pattern in different visual materials goes beyond the mere reference to a “context”, and evokes a specific architectural experience.

The imbrication of the cube within a circle remains present in contemporary imagery. Ahmed Mater made a photogravure etching titled Magnetism in 2011, which forcefully expresses and reinterprets the traditional iconography of ṭawāf (Figure 9). The material used for producing the photographic effect is a square magnet. Around it are iron filings attracted by the magnet. Several Arab art galleries and collections such as the Khalili foundation of Hajj Art include this artwork, seen as exemplifying contemporary Hajj art. The artwork was also shown in the exhibition “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam”, organized by the British Museum in 2012 (Porter 2012).

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Figure 9. Magnetism IV, photogravure etching, Ahmet Mater, 2011. © Ahmet Mater 2022.

Magnetism is reminiscent of the power attached to the Kaʿba in Mecca, particularly for Muslim viewers. The artist describes his work as follows: “Iron filings radiate around a black cube, an emanation of attraction that evokes a congregation of pilgrims thronging the Kaʿba. The unseen pull of Islam’s holiest site is made manifest in this moment of absolute equilibrium. The elusive draw is faith-driven, suggestive of the deeply spiritual force felt by the millions who pray in its direction five times a day, as well as those who circle during ṭawāf.”[11] Several contemporary time-lapse photographs of the ṭawāf site show shadows of pilgrims moving in the way shown by the artist.[12] The simplicity in colors and form (black and white; the circles and the square without any other element) highlights the structure of Islamic cosmogony. Note that the circle symbolizes an architectural pattern whilst at the same time it simulates the circumambulation accomplished by the believers.

Summing up, the circle and the square constitute the dominant forms in Islamic cosmology. The celestial bodies are illustrated as concentric circles; in sacred geography, the cube is located at the center, surrounded by concentric circles. It is not a coincidence that Haft Paykar registers a cosmological correlation between architecture (the dome), astronomy (the planets), calendar (the days of the week), and geography (the princesses coming from different regions); a mental ring structure underlies the whole, and the same structure appears to determine ritual evolutions. Still, we will need to further understand and detail the way imagery, cosmology, and ritual practices are concretely correlated.

4. Circumambulation and the Spiritual Experience Evoked by Domes

4.1. The Experience of Circumambulation

The artwork Magnetism clearly hints at the fact that sacred geographical maps and ritual practices such as prayer and circumambulation obey a common schema: the Kaʿba as the cube and the cosmos as the circle. Circumambulation in Semitic tradition possesses a lengthy history: circling the “House of God’ is circling the Axis Mundi (Fenton 19961997). Circling the Kaʿba (in Arabic “ṭawāf”) is a compulsory ritual, repeatedly performed during the Hajj, which directs the way Muslims circumambulate the Kaʿba seven times in a counter-clockwise direction. The Qur’an (22:26) (2:125 it contains) mentions circumambulation: “Do not associate anything with Me and purify My House for those who perform ṭawāf and those who stand [in prayer] and those who bow and prostrate.” Hajj and ṭawāf are so central that, in many Islamic countries, ṭawāf is broadcasted live on television. The site where circumambulation occurs is called “maṭawāf (the place of ṭawāf)”.

The great Sufi master Ibn al-‘Arabī, who elaborated on ritual as mystical experience, completed The Revelation of Mecca (Futūḥāt al-Makkīyah), a vast encyclopedia of Islamic science comprising 560 chapters in the year 1260; this was shortly before he reached the end of his life (Chittick 1989, pp. x–xv). Eric Winkel published a new English translation of The Revelation of Mecca in 2019, including the description of ṭawāf it contains. After Ibn al-ʿArabī introduces the book’s purpose as to convey to the reader “the mysteries between me and him”, the opening lines of the poem read as follows:

during the ṭawāf,

‘Why shall I circle,

as it is blind to perceiving our inner selves–


Petrified, an unintelligent rock with no recognition of

my circling movements?’

Then was said: ‘You are totally confused, you

have lost out!


Just look at the House! His light streams

to purified hearts, bared, exposed to the light.


They see him by means of God without a veiling


as his inner self begins to shine forth, elevat-

ed, lofty.


He shines brilliantly with tajallī to the hearts from

the horizon of a majestic

true Moon which never experiences eclipse

…… (al-ʿArabī 2019, p. 132)

In the mystical experience of circumambulating the House as described by Ibn al-ʿArabī, several images often used in Islamic mysticism emerge, such as light, veil, and moon. The light of Allah illuminates the person who circumambulates the celestial room; his heart reaches the Sublime, the veil of Allah is lifted, and the truth comes out. In another word, the circumambulation of the Kaʿba in its core is a mystical ritual directed towards the communication with the Divine.

Ibn al-‘Arabī’s spiritual teachings and mystical texts are often combined with embodied experience. James Morris remarks: “Chapters 66–72—one of the most fascinating and potentially valuable sections of the entire Al-Futûhât offer what is almost certainly the most detailed and exacting phenomenology of spiritual experience in the Islamic tradition” (al-ʿArabī 2002)[13]. Chapter 72 narrates the fact that, during the circumambulation of the Kaʿba, Ibn al-ʿArabī witnessed the miracle of the manifestation of God as a youth, the divine companion. When the circumambulation was over, the two entered the Kaʿba together (Corbin 2008, pp. 328–33Fenton 1997, p. 363). O’Meara listed more medieval Muslims who had mystic experience from ṭawāf in his discussion on Ibn al-ʿArabī’s experience of ṭawāf. (O’Meara 2020, pp. 91–94). Meanwhile, O’Meara mentioned “the ritual-architectural event” to emphasis the physicality required by ṭawāf, which is “widely regarded as bodily demanding” (O’Meara 2020, p. 96). I agree with this statement, nevertheless, reiterating the representation of Kaʿba in the pilgrimage and sacred geography manuscript, and the Ottoman’s view of the Süleymaniye mosque’s dome already discussed above, I suggest that there is a specific pattern shared between rituals and buildings that provide the context for these embodied experiences. A mental habit or a visual memory inscribes a common pattern into different materials. This structural feature goes beyond the specificities of a given cultural context. And it is this structural feature that enables the association between the Kaʿba and the dome.

4.2. Circling Back to the Dome

In the early Islamic period, circumambulation did occur in buildings other than the Kaʿba, the pilgrimage to some shrines sometimes replacing the pilgrimage to Mecca (Fenton 1997, p. 360). When Umayyad Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik (d. 705 A.D.) built the Dome of the Rock, he also built up a ‘maṭawāf’ around the rock, an area for circumambulation, and constructed Jerusalem as a primary place of pilgrimage (Fenton 1997, p. 361). The ritual directly requires a specific architectural form, and the architectural form symbolizes the ritual. We also see this from the illustration of al-Masjid al-Haram in Futūḥ al-Ḥaramayn (Figure 2a,b) and the Kaʿba diagram in Mihrab and Memorial scroll of pilgrimage (Figure 8a,b), all of which evidently use a circle to indicate the ‘maṭawāf’.

It has been suggested that the design of the dome and the spiral figuration of the mosque complex together point towards rotation, and the meaning attached to this particular movement. The Turkish historian of architecture Jale Nejdet Erzen has such written:

“The first [function] would be that sacred or religious spaces are not properly entered directly, but only after respectfully circling around them. Another more subtle meaning concerning the use of spiral forms would be how the movement of the body and its experience could refer to both cosmic and spiritual movements.” (Erzen 2011, pp. 129–30.)

Erzen has used as an example the complex of the Süleymaniye mosque, which contains different public buildings, such as the mosque, the medreses (colleges), the hamam (bath), the hospital, the hospice, the soup house, the stables, the latrines, and several courtyards in between, arranged in an enveloping concentric circular form (Erzen 2011, p. 129). This concentric circular form does not appear very clearly to us. However, for the Ottoman viewers, who compared the mosque to Kaʿba, the surrounding of the mosque could be abstracted to the figure of a circle (Figure 8).

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

The praying hall of Süleymaniye Mosque, completed in 1557 A. D., Istanbul, Photo in Public Domain

In the light of the insights brought by Islamic cosmological iconography, bodily movements around the mosque would evoke the experience of circling the Ka’ba, this particular experience deriving from the circular design of the dome. The viewing of the dome already points towards (and may awaken) the sacred experience linked to circumambulation.

We ascertained the symbolism of the Islamic dome in connection to Islamic cosmology, looking first at the poetry of Nizami. Seeking cosmological clues in the images of sacred maps and pilgrimage manuscripts, we further discovered that the combination of the circle and the square structures Islamic graphic representations. Not only is the Axis Mundi reflected in the images, but it also impacts the actions of the believers. This points towards an experience that may be awakened in the mind and the bodily senses of the viewer/practitioner: when Muslims stand under a dome, in front of the mihrab, thus facing Mecca, and when they behold the dome under which they stand, the view of this circular space possibly translates into a kind of mental and spiritual circumambulation.

5. Conclusions: Experiencing Sacred Architectural Places as a Structure of Meaning

We remember that Lindsay Jones has proposed to see the meaning awakened by a sacred building as a “ritual-architectural event”, which incorporates building and viewer in a ritual situation. In Jones’ theory, this corresponds to a total hermeneutical situation—the ritual-architectural event being constituted by (1) a human being, (2) an architectural monument, and (3) an occasion that draws the person and this monument into interaction (Jones 1993a, p. 214).

The “ritual-architectural event” can be seen as a triangular model of the interplay between people, ritual occasions, and architectural forms (Scheme 1). In this model, Jones argues that meaning arises from the interconnection between the ritual situation, the architectural space, and the viewer/participant within “a continuity of tradition”.

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Scheme 1. The model of “ritual-architectural event”, by the author.

Although “Humans” occupy only one corner of the “human-ritual-architecture” triangle, they are the subject of the ritual and are at the centre of the event that occurs in a given cultural context. Meanwhile, there are separate linkages between ritual and building, human and ritual, human and building:

  • The ritual determines the function and layout of the building, and the building provides the place for the practice.

  • Humans look at sacred buildings even when rituals do not take place.

  • Humans also perform some rituals outside designated buildings.

With this model, the “architectural-ritual event” generated by a domed mosque would be represented as in Scheme 2, the specific situation of this specific “ritual-architectural event” being characterized by the fact that Muslims under the dome pray towards the Ka’ba.

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Scheme 2. “Ritual-architectural event” generated by a domed mosque, by the author.

However, the consideration developed in this article, the association between images, cosmology, and circumambulation, suggests a more complex structure of meaning. Scheme 3 “constructs” meaning by taking into consideration the importance of the presence of a dome in the mosque:

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Scheme 3. The structure of meaning created by the presence of a dome in front of the mihrab, by the author.

What has just been said for a specific architectural form linked to the performance of a specific ritual can be generalized in the following way:

In the model (Scheme 4) here suggested, the connections between ritual and action, on the one hand, and building and mind, on the other hand, are organized into symbolic structures that support the performance of “ritual-architectural events”. An implication of this model is that “ritual-architectural events” are not isolated, random occurrences, but rather are produced within an established symbolic pattern of meaning production. In other words, “ritual-architectural events” happen in the continuity of a tradition: the new experience happens within already existing patterns. Note that our approach differs from the ones that merely focus on the symbolic meaning of religious building (Kieckhefer 2014, p. 210Smith 1971 on the symbolism of domes). While it recognizes the importance of identifying the symbolism located into the patterns, it clearly identifies the focus on the participant/viewer as key for determining the meaning taken by a building in the context of a particular event.

金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

Scheme 4. The structure of meaning generated by the correlation between sacred architecture and ritual performance, by the author.

This model presents the participants as located at the center of the production of meaning: any one of the four triangles shaped by this model can be considered independently: human–ritual–building, human–ritual–action, human–building–mind, and human–action–mind. The consideration of these triangles will inspire my three final remarks:

  • In the structure of meaning generated by the interaction with sacred buildings, the epicenter lies in the “human–action–mind” triangle, a given cultural/religious context that determines the imaginary triggered by looking at the building and performing rituals within it.

  • The triangle “human–ritual–action” does not only refer to rituals performed in religious buildings; it also applies to ritual acts held in other settings. In this particular dimension, the stress is on a specific structure of action that determines a ritual performance.

  • Conversely, the triangle shaped by the relationship “human–building–mind” does not focus upon ritual performances but rather upon certain ways of looking at architecture.

Said otherwise, it is the taking into action of our four triangles that specifies the set of specific occurrences that this article has endeavored to study. The meaning attached to sacred architecture places is triggered by a complex of interactions between patterns referred respectively to the mind, to bodily actions, and to cultural settings. Specific “ritual-architectural events” actualize the encounter between these different patterns, but such events cannot be understood outside the patterns that preexist them.


[8]All citations of the Qurʾan in this article refer to Saheeh International English Translation, see https://quran.com, (accessed on 1 April 2022).
[9] A number of libraries and museums collect ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharāʾib al-mawjūdāt, for example, the British Library Or 14140, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford EA 1978, Cambridge University Library MS Nn.3.74, Aga Khan Museum AKM 367, Metropolitan Museum of Art 45.174.17. The research on the manuscripts of this book is rich: see (Berlekamp 2011, pp. 6–8, 17–18Zadeh 2010, pp. 21–48Carboni 1989, pp. 15–312015, pp. 13–22).
[10]Deniz Beyazit, Dalʾil al-khayrāt Prayer book: https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/collection/artifact/dala-il-al-khayrat-prayer-book-akm535, accessed on 1 April 2022.The artist’s personal website: https://www.ahmedmater.com/artworks/magnetism, accessed on 1 April 2022. The artwork’s explanation is also cited in The Art of Hajj (Porter 2012, p. 252).
[11]The artist’s personal website: https://www.ahmedmater.com/artworks/magnetism, accessed on 1 April 2022. The artwork’s explanation is also cited in The Art of Hajj (Porter 2012, p. 252).
[12]The time-lapse photographs or video of the ṭawāf site are available online, for example, https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/kaaba-mecca-gm601375684-103413957 (accessed on 1 April 2022).
[13]James Morris wrote the Introduction of the translated and edited version of The Mecca Revelation in 2002 (al-ʿArabī 2002). Also see Online resource: James Morris, “Introduction to The Mecca Revelations”, Online source: https://ibnarabisociety.org/introduction-to-the-meccan-revelations-james-morris/, (accessed on 1 April 2022).


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金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客


金舜华 | Representing and Experiencing Islamic Domes(下) 崇真艺客

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