Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

What Is Islamic Architecture Anyway?

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

What Is Islamic Architecture Anyway?

Article excerpt

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 whiffof 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 two dominant factions in the field are indeed the aesthetes and the partisans, although neither side would agree to those appellations. Nor would either faction claim total disengagement from each other or exclusive representation of the field. The story of their formation and rise and the trajectories they have followed is another way of presenting the evolution of Islamic architecture as a field of inquiry since the first use of the term 'Islamic architecture' in the early nineteenth century. This is a fascinating story in and of itself. In the present context of a volume dedicated to the historiography of Islamic art and architectural history, tracing the genesis of these two strains in the study and practice of Islamic architecture also allows me to develop my own critical position vis-à-vis the 'unwieldy field' of Islamic art and architecture, to use a recent controversial description.1

To begin with, the study of the architecture of the Islamic world was a post-Enlightenment European project. It started with architects, artists, and draughtsmen who travelled to the 'Orient' in the wake of the first European interventions there, in search of adventure, employment, and the thrill of fantasy associated with that mysterious land. They visited cities and sites - primarily in Spain, Turkey, the Holy Land, Egypt, and India - where they measured and illustrated buildings and ruins and published impressive catalogues that began to introduce to Europe that rich architectural heritage which was hitherto almost totally unknown (figure 1).2 But having no model with which to understand and situate the architecture they were studying, they toyed with various Eurocentric terms such as 'Saracenic', 'Mohammedan', 'Moorish', and, of course, 'Oriental', before settling on 'Islamic architecture' sometime around the end of the nineteenth century. Thus was the stage set for the development of an architectural historical discipline that cast Islamic architecture as a formal expression of Islam - which was itself not so homogeneously defined. This was to become the first contentious issue in the self-definition of the field of Islamic architecture.3 It still forms the background of every major debate within the field, or in the larger discipline of art history as it tries to accommodate its structure and epistemological contours to the age of postcolonial criticism and globalization.4

The second contentious issue in defining Islamic architecture is its time frame.5 Two generations ago, scholars viewed Islamic architecture as a tradition of the past that had ceased to be creative with the onset of colonialism and its two concomitant phenomena, Westernization and modernization, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Somehow, a degree of incongruity was accepted between Islamic architecture and modernism, so that when modern architecture (and by this I mean the architecture of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) arrived it immediately eclipsed Islamic architecture and took its place. Consequently, the architecture built under colonialism and after independence was not considered 'Islamic'; it was seen as either modern or culturally hybrid. …

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