The Light of God: The Importance of Light in the Ottoman Mosques of Istanbul

When trying to understand the importance of light in the Ottoman mosques of Istanbul, should we not endeavour to apprehend a sense of what that light represents, so that we may be able to connect form and meaning in a concrete manner? We should try to understand the what? before asking why? Referring to the teachings around light in scripture may allow us to comprehend its use as a representation of God. It seems reasonable also to evaluate the use of light through a strictly formal prism, in terms of the ways it visually transforms a space from day to night. Using Ottoman monuments such as the Süleymaniye Mosque, The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, shall bring together the points of the argument to see the extent to which it is possible to understand the seismic importance of light in Ottoman mosque architecture. Throughout the discussion, notable scholars on the subject such as Gülru Neci̇poğlu bring some interesting interpretations, which, based on the semantics of an “interpretation” already begins to give us evidence of how individual a debate of this nature might be.[1]  Our more distinct reasons for believing in a great extent of possibility is that there is a universal understanding of God as light in religion and the second being the ability of the sun to essentially change our perception of space and form.

Light is perhaps as central in religion as the sun is in our solar system. Within Abrahamic faiths, there is a strong emphasis on this natural phenomenon that transforms spaces as the day passes. There are specific passages within the Qur’an, which directly address the power of God as the literal light of the world. “The Light Verse” depicts Allah as “the light of the heavens and earth” (Qur’an 24:35).[2]  From this, we receive a physical description of this everlasting flame, “His light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a shimmering star” (Qur’an 24:35).[3]  Essentially, we are given a digestible way of understanding the importance of light in the Islamic faith; this teaching could be what has filtered down, into an almost ethereal blueprint of how one should feel being in the presence of Allah. The light, which penetrates the windows on a building, entering in and filling the space, is like the presence of God entering the body. In the context of the Ottoman Empire, the topic of which this essay concerns itself, that key principle is actualised by Sinan in the construction of the Süleymaniye complex in Istanbul, Turkey (fig.1).

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Fig 1. Mimar Sinan, The Süleymaniye Mosque, a distant view of the full complex, c.1550-58 (please acknowledge conservation work over the centuries). Istanbul, Turkey. 

As a whole, The Süleymaniye Mosque is a visually astonishing piece of architecture. The exterior of the building gives a suggestion of the sheer size and grandeur but does not make us aware of the openness provided by the central and accompanying domes. Upon arrival into the mosque, the eyes are forced upwards to view the extreme height of the ceiling and the ethereality conveyed through the weightlessness of a dome that seems suspended in mid-air (fig. 2). When looking at the interior, we find ourselves contemplating the structural capabilities of the edifice, considering its size, the weight of the dome and the number of windows pierced into what would otherwise be considered load-bearing walls. The use of light here could be argued as being pivotal for a true understanding of the space.

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Fig 2. The Süleymaniye Mosque, the interior facing the qibla wall, which also included the dome and multiple fenestrations, Istanbul, Turkey

Gülru Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar presents extensive research into the compound itself and other functional meanings behind the mosque; the arguments in her “interpretation” of the Süleymaniye are rather convincing.[4]  For example, when Neci̇poğlu uses the same verse on light, she also provides contextual evidence from the “Süleymaniye’s waqfiyya” to legitimise the idea that the space is being “Illuminated by divine light” in a spiritual and literal sense. [5]   Physically the light itself creates a certain tonal modulation, which highlights certain architectural features, like the muqarnas in the qibla wall making them more pronounced (fig. 3). Here again, we begin to grasp how important it is to understand the different qualities of light both physically and scripturally. For the most part, a window is generally used in the mosque as a portal for light to come in and for worshippers to peer out and be at one with Allah. Looking closer at the qibla wall we see an alternative use for the fenestrations aside from this primary function. On either side of the mihrab, there are the only stained-glass windows in the building, which work to further articulate this emphasis on light.[6]  Artistically, the stained-glass creates a visually pleasing spectacle but spiritually, a worshipper may use it to focus their attention when prayerfully contemplating the qualities of God. Neci̇poğlu’s interpretation provides more evidence on the scriptural importance of light. The windows describe “the attributes of God, as well as phrases of the light verse, are inscribed on them.” [7] Now we can appreciate why a scriptural understanding of light as a representation of God adds value to the importance of the light used in the Ottoman mosques of Istanbul. If this is only one aspect of the use of light then one could argue that, yes, to a great extent, it is possible to understand the importance of light, because it is exemplified between the physical and the scriptural.[8]  Neci̇poğlu’s arguments are well received in the context of this essay because they give a research-driven and self-aware “interpretation.” Interpretation and opinion are perhaps quite similar things, which exemplify an understanding that knowledge of the past unless it is heavily documented, is never absolute. Though the visual analysis and evidence is convincing in itself, based on the argument on the importance of light, more work needs to be done in close relation to the Süleymaniye’s employment of light.

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Fig 3. The Süleymaniye Mosque, the interior facing the qibla wall (detail of the Mihrab) and stained-glass windows, Istanbul, Turkey. 

Light in holy spaces is not dissimilar to a world understanding that features the worship of the sun. We receive a greater contextual understanding of Ottoman mosques when we see how similar the concepts are to other holy buildings. Many scholars have grappled with the concept of divine light in the Christian world, however statistically speaking, far fewer have dealt with it in the Muslim faith. Though there are scarce amounts, there are still relevant and specified sources which allow us to prove that to a great extent it is possible to gain an understanding of the importance of light in a general context that will help create a well-rounded and useful view of light in Ottoman mosques. H.S Arel and M. Öner find the “meaning and practice [of light] in three different cases.”[9]  In concept, the argument focuses more clearly on the structural or physical uses of light in mosque architecture. The specificity in section “1.2 Lighting in Islamic Architecture”, which states “by means of light, internal spaces, which are formed by man, are connected to exterior space, which is God’s physical realm.” [10] With this in mind, we can link this idea of light not only representing God, but also his creations. The Al Jannah or heavenly paradise is at the forefront of an ambitious worshipper’s mind; so, when one walks into a mosque, which has enough windows to give them an almost completely uninterrupted view of the sky, then the mind has even more stimulation that evokes devotional contemplation.

The authors present a well-structured argument on the mosques of Cordoba, Edirne and Isfahan; the fact that these are not precisely in line with our commentary on light in Ottoman Istanbul proves a significant point. Light within devotional spaces, when viewed with a basic understanding of religion, ostensibly brings about the same conclusion, which is that of the presence of God.[11]  Looking at mosques and churches you can understand the use of light in highlighting the physical room itself. However, when trying to understand the importance of a specific material, one would perhaps benefit from further research into the religious practice conducted in such a space and then from there, we can begin to evaluate how much we can understand of the function of light in this specific environment. There are, however, some shortcomings in this debate. The specificity of “the Ottoman mosques of Istanbul” is perhaps too precise for the context of the Süleymaniye Mosque due to the mosque’s origins. Yes, it is an Ottoman mosque in Istanbul, there is no argument to that, but when placed side by side with an earlier monument such as the Hagia Sophia, there are some parallels (fig. 4). Specifically, with the interior structure and layout, which show us that Sinan sought to make what he thought were improvements on the Hagia Sophia (figs. 2 & 5). In another publication, Necipoglu states, “Sinan translates the layout of Hagia Sophia into the Ottoman architectural idiom, which he critically revises, distils, and refines.” [12] The challenge we face with our argument on understanding the importance of light in Ottoman mosques is that the Hagia Sophia is known for being established as a church. For a mosque, (one of the most famous in Istanbul for that matter) modelled after a church to be used as an example for this discussion brings about some religious debate. We do understand that the Hagia Sophia was later transformed into the image of a mosque, but at its roots is a church.

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Fig 4. The Hagia Sophia, external distant view, c.537, Istanbul, Turkey. This monument has gone through such substantial changes throughout over a millennium of its existence. 
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Essentially the reason we can say that there is a lesser extent to understanding the use of light in Ottoman mosques specifically is because of two things. One being that the famous examples in Istanbul: The Süleymaniye and The Blue Mosque (figs. 1 & 6) bear great resemblance to an originally Christian monument. The second is that there is far too much based on interpretation to confidently say that one understands everything there is to apprehend on the importance of light in Ottoman mosques of Istanbul. To further this, one could say that the light on its own is not capable of explaining itself materially, it seems to work harmoniously with other physical elements of the monument. Yes, there are more windows in Sinan’s Süleymaniye mosque than the Hagia Sofia, but without its blueprint, we would not be able to see how the light interacts with the space and experience, or indeed understand it in the way we do.

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Fig 6. The Blue Mosque, a distant view of the exterior, Istanbul, Turkey. 

To conclude, though our research into the topic shows that there is a great extent to which one could understand the importance of light in the Ottoman Mosques of Istanbul, but upon evaluation, it seems more fitting to say we might perhaps strive to understand some of the importance. This essay has proven itself to just be the tip of the iceberg in a much larger discussion. We have accomplished a highly specified understanding of the spiritual properties of light with rich scriptural sources even discussed by leading scholars on this topic such as Gülru Neci̇poğlu.[13]   Neci̇poğlu makes clear in her “interpretation” of the Süleymaniye mosque that perception is very much individual, so the same principle on understanding applies herein. There are less concrete, as it were, understandings of the importance of light beyond the religious significance and the simplistic formal capabilities of the sun within a room. So, to finalise, it is only to a personally identified extent that one can understand the importance of light in the Ottoman Mosques of Istanbul. 


1. Gülru Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar, “The Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul: An Interpretation” Muqarnas Vol. 3 (Leiden: Brill, 1985), pp. 92-117

2. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: A New Translation (New York: The Oxford University Press, 2004), p 222. 

3. The rest of this ayah goes on to explain that the star is “fuelled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it.” This passage is incredibly significant in giving more context to the origins of the light itself, but for the purposes of this essay and the specific attention to the metaphorical element of this, I will not be focusing on this section. See, Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: A New Translation (New York: The Oxford University Press, 2004), p 222. 

4. Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar, The Süleymaniye Complex: An Interpretation, 92-117.

5. Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar’s translation of the Qur’an is lexically dissimilar, however, the essence of the message is carried through most versions translated into English. See, Gülru Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar, The Süleymaniye Complex: An Interpretation, 100.

6. Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar, The Süleymaniye Complex: An Interpretation, 100.

7. ibid. 

8. Looking further into the interpretations on the scripture, the verses on either side of the metaphorical “lamp” that is Allah discuss a juxtaposition or contrast with the darkness that one must pull themselves out of in order to bask in the true glory of God. This perhaps creates a further note on the importance of light when it comes into contact with its opposite. In formal composition, they modulate and create forms, but in the mind of a worshiper, it is very much one or the other, light always being the favourable choice. See, Gerhard Bowering, “The Light Verse: Qurʾānic Text and Sūfī Interpretation.” Oriens vol.36 (2001): 113-44.

9. Arel, H. S., and M. Öner. “Use of daylight in mosques: Meaning and practice in three different cases.” (2017) p 421-29.

10. Arel and Oner, “Daylight in Mosques” 421. 

11. This may seem sweeping, but to explain, in general knowledge of religion we tend to relate the sun or the light it gives to life, and in specifically Abrahamic religions there is a belief that God is at the centre of all living things.

12. Gülru Necipoglu, The Age of Sinan (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), p 140.

13. Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar, The Süleymaniye Complex: An Interpretation, 100.

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