Creativity in the Perspective of Islamic Architecture: A case of dealing positively with constraints and limitations

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Presented in Artepolis 3 International Conference on Creative Collaboration and the Making of Place: Bandung, 22-24 July 2010


From ancient cultures to modern civilizations across the world, we can evidently see traces of creativity in every human-made object. Creativity has taken an important place in the process of creating new objects or producing new ideas. Creativity also has affected a large part of our today’s lives through innovations and inventions in technology, art, science, etc. Therefore, creativity can be considered as a key to the development of our civilization.

Despite the importance of creativity, the definition of creativity itself is vague and complex (Robinson, 2008: 3). There is a lack of agreement about what the term creativity means. Torrance note that some definitions are formulated in terms of a product, while others are formulated in terms of a process, a kind of person, or a set of conditions (Torrance in Robinson, 2008: 3). In general, creativity is often described as an ability in making something uncommon, or something common in an uncommon way.  In other words, creativity is an ability to use the imagination to develop new and original ideas or things, especially in an artistic context (Encarta Dictionaries, 2008). According to Webster’s Dictionary the definition of creativity is artistic or intellectual inventiveness. Creativity is marked by the ability or power to create or bring into existence, to invest with a new form, to produce through imaginative skill, to make or bring into existence something new (Robinson, 2008: 6). Random House Webster’s College Dictionary 2nd Edition even stated that creativity is defined as “the ability to create meaningful new forms, etc.” (Robinson, 2008: 6).

Unfortunately, this lack of adequate definition of creativity has also affected in the way people practicing it. In architecture, the above Random House’s definition of creativity is often misunderstood as an ability to make certain unusual or distinct shapes and forms of buildings. The more eye-catching and striking the building, the more creative the architect will be judged by his surroundings. This kind of mindset may lead to a destructive competition between architects in order to create new amazing buildings with the intention of seeking fame or recognition from others. Nowadays, we can easily set our eyes on those kinds of buildings all over the world. They are designed and built with a hidden agenda to flourish the image of their owners and architects.

Furthermore, this definition of creativity as an ability to create meaningful new forms is also frequently associated with freedom of expressions. Some architects and artists love to use these phrases to justify their ‘unique’ and eccentric designs. One of the mainstream in art is also known by their l’art pour l’art jargon. This jargon reflected their disputes on limitations, whether by law, morality, religion, or anything else outside art itself, in their creativity process. Faisal Ismael, for example, mentioned in his book, Paradigma Kebudayaan Islam, that one of the effects of  correlating art and religion is  the limitation of freedom and creativity in art itself (Ismael, 1996: 65-66).  This statement indicates that there are certain way of thinking that considers constraints as a bound for creativity.

Such opinions, even in some sort of situations are quite tolerable, seem to indicate problems when creativity has to deal with constraints or limitations. Constraints, as has been generally known, are never absent in any circumstances of design. Unfortunately, architects and artists, consciously or unconsciously, often perceived constraints or limitations as a bound for their creativity in design. This mindset takes effect in negative attitude towards constraints as opposed to creativity. Thus, the negative perspective will strike their mind and influence the way they face those constraints along the process of design.

This paper is intended to show that both constraint and creativity are conjoined in a positive notion. Islamic architecture is used as a viewpoint, because in the perspective of Islamic architecture, there is no such thing called total freedom. When we talk about Islamic architecture, we will have to deal with some constraints that arised from Islamic values and worldview. It is noteworthy to explore how Islamic architecture can be developed creatively while people think that there are so many constraints in this field of study.


First and foremost, it is very important to make a well-recognition about the position of creativity and constraints in Islam. This is so because certain people thought that there is no creativity at all in Islam and that this religion is nothing but a number of restrictions and instructions. These judgements need to be corrected because Islam as a comprehensive worldview signifies not only prescribed rituals at appointed times, but also comprehensive articles of faith, philosophy, ideology, culture, civilization and all life’s systems: personal, family and societal (Omer, 2009a: 2).

Therefore, in Islam we can place creativity at the appropriate position based on two categories of activities: ibadah and muamalah. Ibadah in this term stands for ibadah mahdhah (prescribed ritual worship or belief system), while muamalah (worldly matters) is another word for ibadah ghairu mahdhah (all worldly matters that considered as non-ritual worship). One of the well-known principles in the study of Ushl Fiqh is the principle of muamalah, saying that the initial tenet in muamalah (al-ashlu fil muamalati) is permissive (ibahah) as long as something does not come about causing it to infringe some of the divinely-prescribed norms, hence renders it either recommended against (makruh) or prohibited (haram) (Omer, 2009b: 6). This principle is a sign that Islam gives a large space for creativity in Muslims’ worldly life. On the other side, when it came to ibadah, there was no room whatsoever for any slightest compromise or disregard in terms of their proper interpretation and application (Omer, 2009a: 318). The principle of ibadah in Ushl Fiqh is that the initial tenet of ibadah (al-ashlu fil ‘ibadati) is prohibited unless what had been taught and informed by Allah and the Prophet (pbuh).

From the principles mentioned above, we can learn that there are balances between creativity and constraints in Islam that provide a clear basis for Islamic architecture. Since Islamic architecture is a synthesis of the permanent spiritual disposition of Islam and the relative exigencies of the corporeal world, it had to demonstrate carefully the Islamic ways of dealing with things and issues brought about by the assertion of Islam on the world stage (Omer, 2009a: 319-320). Upon basic rules of humanity and general principles which had been provided in Islam, Muslims can creatively develop their worldly life, include architecture, in line with their own times and places.

Furthermore, it is interesting to study how these constraints can cope perfectly with creativity in some objects of Muslim architectural heritage. One of rules in Islam that treated as constraint in this topic is a restriction in Islam to draw living creature such as animal and human being in its natural form. This restriction -despite all various interpretations of it from the later age of Islamic world- is a good example to illustrate how creativity arise from constraint, while both creativity and constraint are frequently attributed as opposites.

Unique unifications between constraints and creativity can be observed in some two and three-dimensional decorations that fully developed within the spirit of loyalty to this restriction. The architects and artists of that day never wasted any of their time and energy to try to cross over the boundaries or limitations, yet they did their best to improve the quality of their work of art within those boundaries. The constraint turned into an opportunity and challenge in their hands. In fact, their seriousness in exploring their creative ability had resulted in unique and aesthetic decorations called arabesque and muqarnas. Nowadays, we can still notice high appreciations from all over the world for their great artistic works.

An arabesque (the above picture) is one of treasured products created within the spirit of Islamic values. It consists of a structure of infinitive pattern inspired by flowering shrubs and hedging plants with their branches intermingled each other. This decorative structure is also combined with calligraphy of Qur’anic verses and geometrical pattern. The intermingling lines spread through the area of walls and ceilings. Its infinitive and continous pattern seems to bring the observers along the path to find the unseen end of the lines. Its complexity, precision and accuracy is very amazing for a product that was produced before the Age of Industry.

Likewise, a muqarnas (the above picture) is another example of the product of the architects and artists’ creativity in the corridor of Islamic value. Muqarnas or stalactite dome is one of the best three-dimensional decoration at that time. These vivid work of art can also be considered as an example of the application of chaos and fractal theories in architecture. The structure of muqarnas is possibly inspired by the beauty of stalactites in the deep caves or by the beauty of beehives on the treetop. Amazing play of light is also provided by small windows around the muqarnas. Small concave moduls were organized in a symmetrical pattern to make a large concave ceiling that take its observers along to a different experience of space. Again, the complexity, precision, and accuracy of this work of art is surprisingly produced before the Era of Industrial Revolution.

Most of all, the highest appreciation for the architects and artists of that day should be dedicated to their exploration in creativity that have made them reach far ‘beyond’ constraints and limitations. From the works they had inherited, we can actually learn a lot more than the physical appearance and the visual beauty. We have seen that they had found and explored many beautiful natural objects as their inspiration, outside what is forbidden for them. This is a very valuable lesson that creativity is not merely an ability to make a unique and beautiful objects, but also an ability to manage things in constraints in order to get the best result at the end of the process.


There are at least three lessons that can be summarized from the description above. First, that architects and artists in fact need constraints and limitations within their design circumstances to examine their creativity level. An architect or an artist will be considered as creative when he or she is able to create an excellent art or architectural object in the middle of existing constraints. A small example of this illustration is like a football game that could only be regarded as entertaining and interesting when it is constrained by its strict rules, fair referees, limited time, and skilled rival-players. Thus, creativity is unreasonably bounded by constraints, instead it is actually arisen by the presence of those constraints.

The second is that a positive viewpoint about any constraints could enhance a designer’s creativity level. This lesson related closely to the fact that our mind-settings influence the way we act or behave. Since creativity is not merely an ability to create some ‘eye-catching’ forms, the chance of gaining creativity is wide-opened to all of us who have a positive point of view on any constraints in any circumstances of design.

Third, if we look further, any constraints in fact played an important role in generating uniqueness of each design. As an example, constraints in Islamic architecture as explained above make it different from other set of architecture. The same condition happens to almost all circumstances of design. Constraints could come out as site specifics, local climate, economic condition, building technology and materials, etc. It provides a great opportunity for architects to create ingenious and honorable architectural designs. At this level, we can conclude that the richness of architecture is, more or less, due to these constraints.

Finally, we can also conclude that both creativity and constraints are very important in the world of design. They are not struggling each other to be the winner, instead they are working together to promote us, architects or artists, as the real winner through our responsible qualified designs. It depends on the architects and artists themselves now, will they use that chance by dealing positively with constraints, or will they throw the chance away by perceiving them as a boundary of creativity.


ISMAEL, Faisal (1996) Paradigma Kebudayaan Islam. Yogyakarta: Titian Ilahi Press

OMER, Spahic (2009a) Islamic Architecture: Its philosophy, spiritual significance, and some early developments. Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen

OMER, Spahic (2009b) Islam, Architecture and Urban Planning. Selangor Darul Ehsan: Arah Pendidikan

ROBINSON, Joyce R. (2008) Webster’s Dictionary Definitions of Creativity. Online Journal of Workforce Education and Development. Volume III, Issue 2, Summer. Accessed 10 April 2010


One thought on “Creativity in the Perspective of Islamic Architecture: A case of dealing positively with constraints and limitations

    kamalinev said:
    February 22, 2011 at 5:25 am

    well done, good job bu 😛

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