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). 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. 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.
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 (b) ʿAjāʾib 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. 91–141; King 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. 65; King 2020, p. 165).
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).
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).
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. 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.
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. 106; Morkoç 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.
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).
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.” Several contemporary time-lapse photographs of the ṭawāf site show shadows of pilgrims moving in the way shown by the artist. 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.