Tiling Theory studies how one might cover the plane with various shapes. Medieval Islamic artisans developed intricate geometric tilings to decorate their mosques, mausoleums, and shrines. Some of these patterns, called girih tilings, first appeared in the 12th Century AD. Recent investigations show these medieval tilings contain symmetries similar to those found in aperiodic Penrose tilings first investigated in the West in the 1970’s. These intriguing discoveries may suggest that the mathematical understanding of these artisans was much deeper than originally thought. Connections like these, made across the centuries, provide a wonderful opportunity for students to discover the beauty of Islamic architecture in a mathematical and historical context. In this paper [published in 2009], Raymond Tennant describes several geometric constructions for Islamic tilings for use in the classroom along with projects utilizing girih tiles as construction templates. Open questions, observations, and conjectures raised in seminars across the United Arab Emirates are described including what the medieval artisans may have known as well as how girih tiles might have been used as tools in the actual construction of intricate patterns.
I have been teaching Islamic architecture at MIT for the past twenty-one years. My classes have by and large attracted two types of students. There are those who see Islamic architecture as their heritage: Muslim students from abroad, Muslim-American students, and Arab-American non-Muslims. Then there are the students who imagine Islamic architecture as exotic, mysterious, and aesthetically curious, carrying the whiff of far-distant lands. They have seen it mostly in fiction (Arabian Nights for an earlier generation, Disney’s Aladdin for this one) and they are intrigued and somewhat titillated by that fiction. These two types of students are but a microcosmic – and perhaps faintly comical – reflection of the status of Islamic architecture within both academia and architectural practice today.
The mosque is Islam’s most emblematic building, as well as an expression of collective identity. By exploring the built form of mosques around the world and prevalent architectural trends in mosque building, this article (published in 2008) considers what makes mosques identifiable to Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as the ways architecture represents the identity of a community and also shifts in accordance with changing social and cultural contexts.