Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Studying Islamic Architecture: Challenges and Perspectives

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Studying Islamic Architecture: Challenges and Perspectives

Article excerpt


This article examines how the study of medieval Islamic architecture is currently being practiced. It explores the multiple implications of the much greater volume of scholarship devoted to Western architecture, which extend from library provision to job opportunities, from richer resources to a greater theoretical sophistication. It discusses the specific problems encountered by those who study Islamic architecture, for example the paucity of documents, the range of languages required, the near-monopoly of this subject (until recently) by Western scholars operating outside their cultural comfort zone, or the unfamiliar privileging of epigraphy and vegetal or geometric ornament rather than sculpture or painting. It highlights the glut of unpublished material available. Finally, it outlines the types of research that most urgently need doing in a context of mass tourism and rampant urban development; and the pleasures and rewards, notably the scope for original work, which the study of Islamic architecture brings in its train.


historiography of Islamic architecture, teaching models

Opportunities to attempt a bird's-eye view of a field are rare,1 and my thanks go to the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain for providing the forum for just such an exercise.2 Most scholars, after all, spend the research part of their academic careers doing what seems best suited to their tastes and abilities and hoping to make a good job of it. There is little time for navel-gazing; and besides, most people have little time for it. Certainly scholars will consider the kind of methods to follow in order to bring their research to a successful conclusion: the 'how' in both practical and intellectual terms. But unless they are naturally of a theoretical turn of mind, they are more likely to spend their time with the what than with the why, let alone the whence and the whither. It is those issues that will form much of the substance of this paper. There is no intention here to peddle some theory; instead, the focus will be on how work on Islamic architecture and its history has been, is being and should be done. The approach will thus be more practical than theoretical.

At the very heart of the enquiry is the question of how, in practical terms, the study of Islamic architecture differs from that of Western architecture. It seems sensible to set up this dichotomy in the clearest binary terms from the outset, simply because the vast majority of the world's architectural historians concern themselves with Western architecture. It is worth stopping to ponder that fact. Is Western architecture really so much more intrinsically interesting or otherwise more worthy of study than the architecture of 'the non-Western world'? Incidentally, that latter phrase, which is in common use - not, of course, by people from that world - is itself a somewhat offensive rubric, for (in the present context of buildings) it subsumes into one vague portmanteau term the architecture of, for example, ancient Egypt, pre-Columbian America, Japan, Hindu India and the Islamic world. And the phrase defines all those cultures not in their own terms but by using the West quite blithely and unapologetically as the obvious benchmark. It is surely worth asking oneself how the study of Western architecture has achieved such dominance, and what is implied by that. It is hard not to recognize here, in all their distorting power, the long shadows of colonialism and Eurocentricity

In particular, what message is being transmitted to students learning about the history of architecture if they can reach the end of their degree without ever having had to grapple with any 'non-Western' tradition? Yet nowadays young people in particular, but also tourists of all ages, travel far more widely than did any previous generation. It is surely a pity that, precisely at a time when the world, with all its manifold architectural treasures, has indeed become smaller, people should view the architecture that they encounter in their global travels with an uneducated eye. …

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