Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2018
Kishwar Rizvi The Transnational Mosque: Architecture and Historical Memory in the Contemporary Middle East University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 296 pp.; 25 color ills.; 78 b/w ills. Hardcover $37.50 (9781469621166)

When one thinks of architecture in the contemporary Middle East, a mosque is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Today, critics and journalists are more focused on the starchitect museums of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island or the record-setting towers of Dubai and Kuala Lumpur than on places of communal worship. In her volume The Transnational Mosque, however, Kishwar Rizvi counters this perception and contends that mosque architecture is equally a space where the sociopolitical dynamics of the region can be observed and evaluated, especially considering religion’s comeback in social discourse around the world over the past few decades. With this book, Rizvi offers an innovative study in which she marshals political, religious, and architectural history to analyze the construction of mosques and their role in the formation of Muslim identity from the 1980s to the present day. This volume stands as an important update to existing scholarship on the architecture of the modern Middle East, which has tended to concentrate on the first half of the twentieth century, when architects and their patrons looked to emulate Western modes of modernism (think of the White City in Tel Aviv or the spread of Hilton Hotels in the postwar periods). Rizvi extends this discussion to the more recent past, the age of postmodernism and neoliberalism. The cover image of the book cleverly evokes this dual coexistence of traditionalism and commercial speculation by juxtaposing the Imam Husayn Mosque with the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The mosque’s twin minarets are wrapped in blue-and-white tile mosaic, a clear reference to Safavid architecture, while the glass-encased “neo-Futurist” spire of the Burj Khalifa rises up like a specter in the background—interlocking pieces that together form a cogent reflection of contemporary urban landscapes.

What makes a mosque transnational? Rizvi defines the parameters of her investigation as buildings constructed “through government sponsorship, both in the home country and abroad, whose architectural design traverses geographic and temporal distances” (5). She argues that, over the last forty years, state mosques have emerged as effective symbols of a particular nation’s link with a distinctively Islamic past, often conveyed through the selective revival of various historicist styles. Additionally, the construction of what Rizvi terms “ambassadorial mosques” from Europe to South Asia extends this claim to an Islamic past beyond the geographic boundaries of a country to communities in diaspora or to potential client states. Indeed, one of the most successful aspects of this book is the way Rizvi is able to draw intricate diagrams of international political networks, lending context to structures that may seem at first surprising or out of place—like a Turkish-sponsored mosque in Tokyo or an Islamic cultural center in Rome funded by the Saudi government.

The volume is organized into four main chapters, which offer different perspectives on how the transnational mosque is deployed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Rizvi explains that she selected these four countries because they are all leaders in forming a particular vision for Muslim identity that extends beyond their national borders. The main chapters present a series of case studies—four to five architectural complexes both within and outside the respective country’s geographic confines—that are illuminated by discussions of the story behind their commissioning and construction, the siting of these buildings within the wider topographic context, and subsequent receptions of these spaces. Each of these case studies is accompanied by a sensitive reading of the building’s structural and decorative programs, especially epigraphic inscriptions. Rizvi supports her arguments with numerous plans and stunning photographs, many of which were taken by the author herself, evidence of the extensive fieldwork conducted for this volume.

Chapter 1 ties interest in classical Ottoman architecture with the neo-imperial politics of contemporary Turkey. Rizvi argues that the current preference for state mosques in the Ottoman style can be interpreted both as a break with the country’s secularist past (as can be seen in the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara) and a reflection of the government’s expansionist ambitions. The latter case can be seen especially in Germany, where there is a sizable Turkish immigrant community, or in Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, which ally themselves with Turkey based on a perceived ethnic unity. Chapter 2 explores how mosques constructed by Saudi Arabia serve as rallying points for that country’s particular brand of Wahhabi Islam. Overall, the national mosques within Saudi Arabia do not partake in a coherent historical style, but rather draw on a number of sources, from Mamluk Cairo to nineteenth-century eclecticism. These mosques also show a certain restraint in terms of design and lack of epigraphic programs, a reflection of political tensions in Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi resistance to idolatry. Meanwhile, Saudi ambassadorial mosques in both Pakistan and Lebanon refer one way or another to the Ottoman Empire, establishing a connection between Saudi Arabia and the great Sunni dynasty.

In Chapter 3, Iran stands as something of an outlier in that the government has focused its energies not only on mosques but also on shrines, specifically pilgrimage complexes that attract worshipers of notable Shi’i religious figures. Rizvi explains that, after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the shrine became an important symbol of the regime, as the new administration was composed of clerics who congregated in these spaces of religious education and commemoration. The transnational shrines built by Iran, whether the tomb complex of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran or the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, clearly look to a classical “Persian” style of blue tile work and arched portals that draws on Timurid and Safavid architecture. Yet it remains unclear who exactly is behind these design choices—a noticeable absence considering the cast of strong architect personalities throughout the rest of the volume—and it would have been helpful if the author had directly addressed this contrast. Finally, Chapter 4 demonstrates how the UAE have concentrated their mosque-construction activity within the confines of this monarchial federation, instead of maintaining a parallel building program abroad. However, these mosques could still be interpreted as transnational in that they speak both to Emirati citizens and to the immigrant workers and expat foreigners who comprise 80 percent of the population in the UAE, a phenomenon that Rizvi calls an “embedded transnationalism” (159). Like Saudi Arabia, mosques in the UAE are quite heterogeneous in terms of their historical references, from Cairo to South Asia, and this is partly due to the self-conscious lack of an indigenous dynastic architecture. What unites these buildings, however, is a mission of architectural diplomacy, that is, a conscious effort on behalf of the government to render a palatable and progressive image of Islam to non-Muslim foreigners through an open-door policy and educational programming.

Central to Rizvi’s interpretation of these architectural monuments is the concept of historical memory. In the Middle East during the early twentieth century, Islamic architecture from the “classical period” was banished to the realms of art-history textbooks and tourism boards. Yet, in the transnational mosque, the past is conjured in a manner that “is at once mutable and ever-present” (1). In other words, the architects of most of the buildings presented in this volume deliberately cite historical styles from the great eras of Islamic architecture. This practice lends these buildings a timeless quality, yet at the same time, Rizvi points out, the mosques in question are also deeply shaped by the contingencies of the recent histories of each nation-state. One striking example that makes an appearance across several chapters of the book is a mosque designed by the Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay. A grand work of modernist forms that recalls in an abstract manner both Ottoman architecture and nomadic tents, the design was originally conceived for the Kocatepe Mosque competition in Ankara, but was ultimately rejected in favor of a more traditional proposal. Dalokay’s modern design was eventually adopted, however, for the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, initiated by the eponymous Saudi king in 1976. Thus, a building that was not Ottoman enough for the Turkish government eventually found a home in Pakistan, where it was celebrated for its ability to connect the Saudi government with the history of the Ottoman Empire, as well as its incorporation of decorations by local Pakistani artists. Of course, the fact that historical revivalism is a key characteristic of the transnational mosque places these buildings in dialogue with wider scholarship about postmodern architecture movements around the world. Despite this obvious connection with broader trends in architecture and design, it is interesting to note that several of the architects responsible for the construction of transnational mosques, such as Hilmi Şenalp of Turkey and Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil from Egypt, see themselves as outside the mainstream architectural establishment because of their interest in traditional, historicist styles.

The Transnational Mosque invites several new directions of research for the architectural historian. For example, Rizvi mentions that in several cases the construction of grand state mosque complexes was often accompanied by programs to build smaller community mosques throughout the country in question. Rizvi mentions in passing that neo-Ottoman mosques are popping up throughout the Turkish countryside, and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia constructed a number of small mosques in Pakistan, their green domes a reference to the mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Although not as impressive as a state mosque complex, these serialized structures would be an interesting avenue to pursue in terms of how political ideologies are further disseminated in a transnational context. Additionally, after having read this volume, one wonders whether a similar narrative can be written for other countries in the Middle East, such as Egypt or Azerbaijan. Likewise, the question remains if this is an exclusively Islamic phenomenon. How would the concept of transnational religious architecture play out for countries such as Israel, or Italy? At any rate, Rizvi has produced an intellectually stimulating volume that introduces understudied material and actors to the scholarship on contemporary architecture. The project’s cross-disciplinary nature means that it should be required reading for a diversity of scholars and their students, from historians of Islamic architecture to postmodern theorists.

Emily Neumeier
Assistant Professor, Temple University