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How Islam shaped British architecture

Quintessential Landmarks From Big Ben To The Durham Cathedral Owe Their Inspiration To Muslim-designed Buildings Centuries Ago.


Cathedrals, parliament buildings, royal palaces and stately homes are among the many UK structures that have been inspired by Muslim architecture from Andalusia, the Mughal Empire in India, the Ottoman Empire, and the Arab world.

Some of these buildings even hold stolen monuments from these lands, and the owners are having to acknowledge their role in the looting of these objects.

The Islamic world has long inspired architecture and design in the Western world and scholarship in recent years has started to tell a more holistic history, which depicts the influence and pivotal role the Muslim world has had on civilisations across the globe, especially in the West.

The presence of Islam in the UK goes deep, and has been there for centuries. It can be seen across the board, but one of the most striking visual examples is in British architecture.

Islamic architecture has historically adapted to local building traditions, and developing these further with Muslim principles and teachings.

Brighton Pavilion

One of the most striking examples of Muslim-influenced architecture in Britain is the Brighton Pavilion.

It was supposed to be a seaside villa retreat for fun-loving, extravagant King George IV when he was Prince Regent.

In 1815, King George appointed architect John Nash to turn the villa into an exotic palace, mimicking the visual styles of Mughal India and the Islamic world.

One of the most striking examples of Muslim-influenced architecture in Britain is the Brighton Pavilion. (Getty Images)

It is interesting to note that the Brighton Pavilion was used to house wounded Indian soldiers (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) from World War I.

More than one million Indians fought alongside the British and the Indian Army provided the British with the largest number of troops from anywhere in the British Empire.

Big Ben

The world-famous clock in Westminster is a striking sight. I worked in Parliament many years ago and was lucky to soak in the beauty of the whole complex almost everyday.

But did you know that Big Ben, completed in 1856, was inspired by Muslim buildings that came way before?

There are undeniable similarities between the famous London landmark and the minaret from the Great Mosque of Aleppo, built in 1090, but sadly destroyed by the Syrian war in 2013.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament were built in the Gothic style. In fact, the pointed arch, the trefoil arch, ribbed vaulting and many other features used in Gothic architecture, do not originate in Europe, but come from the Muslim East. Architectural elements such as trefoil arches are credited to Muslim empires dating back to the 7th century.

There are many similarities between Big Ben and the minaret from the now demolished Great Mosque of Aleppo in Syria. (Getty Images)

Sir Christopher Wren (born in 1632), an acclaimed English architect, wrote in the 1700s: “Modern gothic… from all the marks of the new architecture, it can only be attributed to the Moors; or what is the same thing, to the Arabians or Saracens”.

Saracen was a derogatory term used for Muslims at this time, and even to this day. Its original Arabic meaning is linked to the word “to steal”, and was supposed to reference Muslims as thieves and looters.

Diana Darke, author of ‘Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe’ writes extensively about the origins of Gothic architecture in Europe and the western world, in her book. She says in an interview with the Guardian: “Against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia, I thought it was about time someone straightened out the narrative.”

Leighton House

Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) was a Victorian artist who travelled extensively in the Muslim world, and built his home in Holland Park, London as a visual representation of his travels.

The most stunning room in the house is the Arab Hall, which was inspired by Middle Eastern Islamic architecture and motifs.

He collected the most beautiful Islamic tiles and art, and this specific room was supposed to have been inspired by the 12th century La Zisa Palace in Sicily, which also has Arab roots.

Leighton House's Arab Hall was inspired by Middle Eastern architecture and motifs. (Getty Images)

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral was built in the late 11th to early 12th century, and is a fine example of Norman architecture. What is less known, however, is the influence of Islamic architecture on this Christian place of worship.

The cathedral has elements of Andalusian architectural style with direct inspiration from the Jafiriyya Palace in Saragossa, in Northern Spain and the Great Mosque of Cordoba completed in 987.

Many cathedrals in Europe, in fact, incorporate features such as pointed stone arches and soaring ribbed vaults which are not Christian in origin but can be traced back to a seventh-century Islamic shrine in Jerusalem and the Cordoba Mosque.

Durham Cathedral has elements of Andalusian architectural style with direct inspiration from the Jafiriyya Palace in Saragossa. (Getty Images)

The Arab Room at Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle was built around the 11th century on the site of a Roman fort. The Arab Room was added to this historical building by its Victorian owner, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute.

The expertise of architect William Burges (1827-1881) was employed to create this Muslim-inspired space, in which he used Moorish designs in particular, as well as other elements from the Islamic world.

The jewel in Cardiff Castle’s crown is a decadent room with gold leaf ceilings and Middle Eastern influences. (Wikimedia Commons)

These are just some of the examples that have been inspired by Muslim architecture, but there are many more.

Unfortunately, Muslim origins are not always clearly explained or documented. What you may often find is terms like Orientalist, Moorish or Eastern which are often euphemisms referring to Islamic or Muslim.

British history is a part of world history, and we often forget that there has always been an interaction with the West and the Muslim world since the early days of Islam. 

When Muslim empires were in their Golden Age, they dominated the world stage and their power, wealth and influence was far-reaching. As a result, there has been an intrigue and fascination with the Muslim East, as well as a historic rivalry.

Rediscovering these stories that are being unearthed or told by alternative voices are a vital bridge to reconnecting Muslims to the global landscape of history.