As much as I hate finding myself in the position of being an apologist for Rupert Murdoch, the truth is, identity has always been a dialogue. That is, you are never simply who you say you are, you are also what I say you are. This applies not just to Barack Obama but also to Chinese fashion and to Hindu eating habits. (All these years Hindus have complained about the world not being able to see them as anything other than cow-worshippers and yet today, they’re murdering each other over rump steak.)
The same goes for Islamic architecture.
A Moslem anesthesiologist practicing in Toronto has no more in common with a Chechen Islamic extremist than a Kennedy family scion does with a devout Catholic Filipina. But in one case, we’ve decided that the Islamic identity supersedes all other ties, and in the other case, it isn’t even an issue. Nobody talks about Catholic architecture, but we now have this thing called “Islamic” architecture, which is…what exactly? Any building with a dome and a minaret?
The blame for this confusing state of affairs can be laid at the feet of the Orientalists. This group included among its members the Byronesque traveller, Wilfred Scawan Blunt, who subscribed to a view of the Islamic world straight out of Aladdin and pushed the idea of a pan-Islamic identity. And then there was James Ferguson, the architectural historian who liked to bang on about the hybridity he saw in Indo-Islamic architecture being a sign of decay and corruption. Not to mention the French Orientalist Georges Marçais, who suggested that any educated person flipping through photos of buildings around the world could easily identify the Islamic buildings among them.
A wiser person, humble enough to recognise the limits of his knowledge, would have refrained from making such a sweeping statement. One only had to look at mosques from China, Indonesia and even parts of India, which have almost no architectural features in common with each other.
According to the orientalist colonials, Islamic architecture started with the Dome of the Rock in the seventh century and ended with the arrival of colonialism in the eighteenth. This was also the ossified frame of reference used by Western architects practising in these regions in the nineteenth century. And so you had architects like Denis Santry, who designed Singapore’s Sultan Mosque, using an Indo-Saracenic style, because it conformed to his idea of what an Islamic building should look like, regardless of the fact that it had no connection to the local Malay culture.
(This initial error is compounded today by the remaking of what was once Singapore’s Malay-Javanese Moslem quarter into an Arabian nights parody complete with a Baghdad street and hookah parlours in order to pander to tourist fantasies. Never mind, the local Moslems have taken their party elsewhere.)
Following independence, a new nationalist architecture emerged. It tried to anchor itself more in local cultures rather than in pan-Islamic fantasy, but fundamentally, it was still an exclusionary vision of identity. In that, it did not differ from the views of its orientalist predecessors.
The current iteration of Islamic architecture was born in the formerly nomadic communities of the gulf of Arabia, out of a combination of massive cash reserves, a deeply religious outlook, and a fervent desire for a distinct political and cultural identity. These new states bring in the best architects from around the world and demand modernist “Islamic” architecture that will put them on the international jet-set’s map. And so we have the Tom Wright-designed Burj Al Arab hotel, or I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
The result of all these developments is a definition of Islamic architecture that–to quote the scholar Nasser Rabbat–“works for those for whom Islamic architecture is an object to think with or one to aesthetically analyze. But it could not satisfy those for whom Islamic architecture is an object to identify with.“
If you’re interested in seeking the latter, I’d say forget the flashy buildings and start with a modest exhibition that is currently running at the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media in Singapore. Here, (I won’t call her “Moslem” since that just negates my entire argument) artist Aisya Mariah’s installation, Aleph, explores home and identity in our confusing age. To her, home is that place or state where you find solace. It can be a mosque where you seek some time for quiet introspection, but it can equally be your German classmate’s ratty apartment.