The religion of Islam was taught by the prophet Muhammad early in the 7th century CE. Muhammad died in 732, but Islam spread with the new Arab empire. By the middle of the 8th century, it was established as the religion of the ruling elite in Iberia, North Africa, the middle east, and parts of central Asia. Ultimately it would extend as far as southeastern Europe, northern India, and the Philippines. It outlasted the empire that helped it to survive and prosper.
Although the Arabs had little architectural tradition of their own, they borrowed extensively from the materials, styles, forms, and methods of existing traditions. The Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanid empires were important sources. We should realize, however, that while a style or method may be taken from a pre-Islamic source, the result may be adapted and given a new meaning by Islamic architects and others.
At different times and to different degrees, the unity of religion and empire made Islam a cultural ecumeme - a large area in which abstract ideas, artistic forms, and articles of commerce could circulate. Thus we find both unity and diversity in architecture throughout the Islamic world. The mosque, for example, is the emblematic Islamic building, recognized throughout the world as the material symbol of a great religion. Although in principle it need only provide a place for prayer and submission, the mosque evolved into a more complex structure. The great congregational mosques were constructed by combining a number of standard elements: outer walls, courtyard, water, prayer hall, minaret, and mihrab. Yet within this unity, we find variety. Hillenbrand distinguishes three broad types: the Arab, Iranian, and Ottoman. Each of these types has its own unmistakable style. The Arab hypostyle, the Iranian courtyard with iwans, and the massive Ottoman domes and slender minarets are distinct variations that represent different regional histories.
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