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Islam, Architecture, and Energy Consumption

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 3762 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Islam, Architecture, and Energy Consumption

Abstract. The rapidly diminishing fossil fuel reserves in the recent past have raised concerns over the high energy consumption by modern day buildings. Buildings alone consume approximately 20-40% of the total energy consumption in the residential and commercial sector in developed countries, which is expected to go even higher in the future if the present practices continue. This has presented the designers with a challenge to find a balance between modernity and energy conservation. In order to achieve an energy efficient design, architects and designers are gradually shifting back to passive techniques and adapting them in their designs in a way that suits the present climate. These passive design elements have existed for several years and feature extensively in the traditional Islamic architecture. The Islamic scriptures written centuries ago hint at a lifestyle that is moderate and consumes only what is required. These teachings translated into the architecture and planning of the structures in the Islamic world. However, with the recent trends of modernization and marching towards a ‘universal modernity’, the essence of Islamic architecture has diluted. This paper looks at the features that make up the Islamic architecture and study them in the light of the dire need of energy efficiency. The intent is to determine how wasteful or efficient the Islamic world is in comparison to the rest of the world when it comes to utilizing the limited resources available. The research draw parallels between the Islamic world and the modern world of the 21st century. A brief comparative assessment of the Western countries with the traditionally Islamic countries is done to find out the standings in terms of energy efficiency. This paper aims to build a foundation for future improvement by analysing what exists on ground.

Keywords: Islam · Islamic Architecture · Sustainability · Energy Consumption

1               Introduction

The discussion on energy consumption, GHG and CO2 emissions, coal and petroleum is commonplace worldwide, what with the increasing energy demands and diminishing fossil reserves. Buildings alone contribute to about 20-40% of the total energy consumption in the residential and commercial sector in developed countries [1]. In fact, with only 5% contribution in world’s population, the US consumes as much as 25% of the total energy [2]. These statistics are expected to go only higher in the coming years. The scenario in other developing countries is similar, with their increasing population and energy demands. This could possibly be the reason for recommendations to frame energy efficiency policies by various countries. It is reported that buildings hold a great potential for energy efficiency. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the energy savings potential in this sector in 2009 could be in the range of 20 exaJoules (EJ) per year by 2030 [3]. Moreover, buildings and their design can be completely controlled by the designers and building occupants, therefore, it makes sense to invest more time and resources in practices to bring down the energy consumption by buildings.

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The concepts of energy efficient design have been in practice for several years. However, with the concerns over high energy consumption and the adverse effects of climate change, it is only recent that the energy efficient building design has become primary. A study done by IEA in 2009 suggested that if all the recommended energy efficiency policies are implemented successfully, the baseline emissions (40Gt) can be tackled by 2030, leading to savings of as much as 7.6 Gt CO2/yr. by 2030 [3]. Figure 1 shows the total CO2 savings potential from energy efficiency recommendations in the IEA report. Energy efficient building design contributes up to 25% of the total emissions savings (Figure 1).

Figure 1 CO2 savings potential from energy efficiency measures (Source: IEA)

Various studies have shown that the adoption of passive design measures can result in high energy efficiency in buildings ( [4], [5], [6]). These passive design features or a form of their derivative is an integral part of what is commonly referred to as Islamic architecture. The distinctive typology and guiding principles of architecture are evident in the Muslim-Arab architecture; moreover, their buildings were shaped by a conceptual framework, which developed an understanding of conscious responses to environmental, urban and societal conditions of existence [7]. Given that most of the Islamic countries have a hot-dry climate, the resulting architecture and planning reflects the conscious use of such elements that cool up the spaces, or cut down on the heat entering the interiors of the building.

The Islamic scriptures written centuries ago hint at a lifestyle that is moderate and consumes only what is required. These teachings translated into the architecture and planning of the structures in the Islamic world. However, with the recent trends of modernization and marching towards a ‘universal modernity’, the essence of Islamic architecture has diluted.

2               The Concept of Sustainable Development in Islam

As many as 750 verses in the Holy Qur’an can be interpreted as numerous rules to protect nature and the environment. These refer to various aspects of nature, the relationship between man and nature, vegetal and animal organisms and their environment [8]. The environment is not our property and the human beings have a duty to take care of it and preserve it for all future generations [9], [10].

The responsibility of man is not confined to one single generation, with everything having to be passed on in good condition from one generation to another.                                                                                       (Qur’an 2:22)

Years before the Brundtland report [11] gave the world the best known and most cited definition of sustainable development – ‟Sustainable development is aimed at the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to address theirs”; this sustainable approach has been supported in the Holy Quran, in the 22nd verse of the 2nd Surah, approximately 1300 years before the report. The concept of sustainable development is not new to Islam, however it was only in the 20th century that Islamic ideologies translated into a modern context. Islam, for example, warns in the Holy Qur’an and Hadiths against excess and over extension of natural resources. Islam calls collective as well as individuals to refer to God’s Shariah. Islam calls for a sense of responsibility and awareness of the reason of humankind creation. All these are natural outcomes of the Shariah rules [12].

The Qur’an has various verses that encourage the mankind to protect the nature and all its elements [10] and specifies that people are not superior to any other species (Qur’an 6:38). The Holy Qur’an mentions that there is a close relationship between the behaviour of people and the state of the environment [10], [13] & [14]. A righteous and moral behaviour will lead to positive results (Qur’an 7:96; 11:52). Similarly, a number of Hadith recorded by various Muslim scholars talk about the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) wherein Muslims are encouraged to save the resources and must not be extravagant in any sense [15]. It is evident from Islamic teachings as recorded in Qur’an and various sources for Hadith that Islam propagated the idea of resource management and minimum wastage; the idea which has become rather imminent in the present day.

The teachings of Islam clearly advocate the concept of sustainability and sustainable development; the reflection of these ideas is mildly visible in the architecture of predominantly Muslim countries. The architecture in these countries was shaped by keeping the functionality of spaces at the centre (which is primarily religious) and evolving the idea of passive design as per the local context. However, very few of these countries exhibit this traditional architecture in the present day, since most of these regions shifted from traditional to modern to participate in the global trends of modernization resulting in an architectural style that is neither traditional nor contextual.

3               Energy Consumption by Regions – Comparative Assessment

In order to assess how energy efficient is a particular country, the total energy consumption data is the primary metric against which their performance can be compared with that of other countries. However, energy consumption data alone is not sufficient to conclude if a particular country is doing well in terms of energy efficiency; it is likely to depend on a number of other variables such as population, type of economy and economic growth, reliance on renewable and non-renewable sources of energy, etc. Since the current data available on energy consumption gives the overall energy consume, it is difficult to assess accurately if one part of the country is consuming more energy in comparison to its counterparts. This paper is based on the overall energy consumption data available only, and does not consider the abovementioned metrics.

Figure 2 Energy Consumption (Mtoe) distribution in the world in 1990. (Source: Enerdata)

Figure 3 Countries with highest Primary Energy Consumption per Capita (Source: The Shift Project Data Portal)

The region-specific data available on energy consumption indicates the high energy consumption by developed countries, which has only increased over the past 20 years [16]. Figure 2 shows that the United States had the highest energy consumption (1910 Mtoe) globally in 1990. Most of the Islamic countries consumed 50-100 Mtoe, with a few consuming even less than 50 Mtoe. However given the difference in population sizes of these countries, the total energy consumption data can be misleading, as evident by Figure 3. Five countries in the World top 20 countries with highest primary energy consumption per capita in 1990 (Mtoe per million people) are Islamic states, or countries with Islam as the majority religion [17]. In fact, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain have a higher per capita energy consumption that United States, which has the highest overall energy consumption. However, Iraq and Iran are among the lowest energy consumers globally [17]. Figure 4 shows the comparison between various Middle Eastern countries in terms of per capita primary energy consumption from 1990 to 2014. It is clearly evident that whereas Qatar has the highest per capita energy consumption globally, Iraq and Iran consume the lowest.

Figure 4 Per Capita Energy Consumption by Middle Eastern Countries (Source: The Shift Project Data Portal)

Figure 5 shows the total primary energy consumption globally in the year 2017. There is a marked increase in the overall energy consumption by most of the Islamic countries mentioned above, as compared to the 1990 data.

Figure 5 Energy Consumption (Mtoe) distribution in the world in 2017. (Source: Enerdata)

However, the primary contributor to the energy consumption data are still the developed economies of the world. In comparison to another developing economy that is India, most of the Islamic countries have remained stable in terms of their primary energy consumption [16]. This could be attributed to the more stable population and growth levels of these countries as compared to India. Figure 6 shows a clear picture of the increasing energy demand of India as compared to the Islamic states under discussion.

The figures for per capita energy consumption still however reflect that Islamic countries like Qatar, UAE and Bahrain remain the top 3 consumers of primary energy globally. In fact, Figure 7 show that United States has managed to improve its position globally [17]. Therefore, in order to assess the performance by a specific country in energy consumption or energy efficiency, it is essential to rely not only on the primary energy consumption data, but also on the per capita consumption, GDP, investments in renewable sources of energy, and measures taken to counter the effects of a global climate change. Islamic countries, based on the study of Islamic teachings and principles should display an efficient environment which is holistic and sustainable, however, the reality as obvious from the above statistics shows otherwise.

Figure 6 Primary Energy Consumption (Mtoe) by Islamic countries in comparison with India, from 1990 to 2017. (Source: Enerdata)

Figure 7 Countries with highest Primary Energy Consumption per Capita from 1990 to 2014 (Source: The Shift Project Data Portal)

4               Discussion

Even though Islamic scriptures and teachings preach about sustainability, efficiency and conservation of resources, but as evident from the above data, these have not actually translated on ground, or have not sustained the test of time. Most of the countries to compete with the global trends of modernization have resulted in an environmental setup that does not suit the need or the context of these places. On the other hand, countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Iran which have been resilient to change, are still doing comparatively well in terms of energy efficiency. Countries like Kuwait (Figure 8) and Qatar are in a constant race to match their skylines with those of other developed nations that are in no way similar in any context.

Figure 8 Skyline of Kuwait City. (Source: Flickr)

Figure 9 Amir Chakhmaq Complex in Yazd, Iran. (Source: https://hiveminer.com)

A number of studies have argued the energy saving capacity of various passive measures found in Islamic architecture viz. Jali screens, Wind towers, Iwans, etc. [7],[15]. These features are still very common in the historic cities of Iran like Yazd (Figure 9), Isfahan, and Shiraz among others. Historically, the architecture and planning of Islamic cities took shape around the ideals of Islam. The instances of these are still visible in the historic towns of many Islamic states. However, the evolution of these places has not seen a very coherent shift, but a rather universal façade of ‘development’. Over the past few decades, there has been a usage of modern interpretation of the Islamic architectural elements in various buildings, but most of the time it is done to match the imagery rather than utilise the energy efficient potential of these elements (Figure 10).

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This study found its basis in the notion that Islamic teachings have been very vocal about sustainability in all forms, and the role of humans to utilize the resources moderately and judiciously. However, the hypothesis that Islamic countries, based on the principles they function, must perform efficiently cannot be held true. The data available shows that if not wasteful, these countries have resulted in an architecture and planning pattern that is not appropriate to the setting of these regions.

Despite the evidence that shows Islamic architecture being successful in being energy efficient and functional, there is a clear lack of coherence in Islamic regions and their architectural syntax. When a number of European and other western counterparts are modernizing the elements of Islamic architecture and using them in their context to fully exploit their potential in energy savings, it is rather unfortunate that the Islamic states have led themselves into an unfamiliar and inappropriate territory.

Figure 10 (Top) Mashrabiya Screen in Al-Bahr Towers, Abu Dhabi. (Source: Pinterest), (Bottom) The Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, Doha. (Source: CNN).


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[16]  Enerdata, “Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2018,” Grenoble, 2017.

[17]  The Shift Project Data Portal, “Countries with highest Primary Energy Consumption per Capita,” Paris, 2014.

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