Islamic Architecture on the Move

Motion and Modernity

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Christiane Gruber
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , October
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Can we think of a railcar as a moving building? Can the same wagon be categorized not only as an architectural type, but also—by virtue of being designed and decorated to accommodate prayers—as Islamic architecture? What system of classification can account for Ottoman tents? Why have curators and museums always had so much trouble with cataloging artifacts associated with Islam? Edited by Christiane Gruber, Islamic Architecture on the Move: Motion and Modernity offers novel ways of thinking about Islamic architecture. For those interested in art and architecture beyond Orientalist formulas, or fascinated by interpreting contradictory expressions in architecture, this volume offers fresh insights for thinking about space, representation, and power.

Comprised of eight well-researched and meticulously illustrated essays, the book distinguishes itself from much of recent scholarship through its alignment with the “mobility turn.” The exaggerated fascination with “roots” and “origins” is often followed by a presumed reciprocity between originality and authenticity. Something is authentic if it is rooted in an uncontested origin. Islamic Architecture on the Move shatters this very myth. Instead of privileging “originals” and “unadulterated essences,” the essays presented here turn the gaze toward routes and networks. The cultural anti-racism undergirding the logic of the book regards originality not as affiliation with a pure origin, but in the creative ways in which multiple and often contrasting identities have been negotiated.

The problem with the category of Islamic architecture is not only that Orientalism has lumped distinct architectural traditions into a single entity, or that essentialist approaches have imposed blatant pronouncements—“It is all about ornament,” it is said, or, “all is governed by ‘the sense of unity.’” Rather, the problem is structural, that is, Islamic architecture is an impossible category precisely due to its ontological openness. As an ongoing historical process, it is subject to constant transformations and thus generative of infinite variations. By historicizing the subject, this volume breaks free from common epistemological fixities.

Although the book focuses on the 18th century onwards, it suggests that forms and ideas in “the lands of Islam” have always been on the move (3). In the introductory chapter, Gruber explains how certain iconic forms, whether Ka’ba, Jerusalem, or tents of Karbala, have not only been “metaphorically uprooted from [their] territorial locus” but their replication in space and across borders has augmented their “symbolic capital” (6). Elise Kamleh and Katherine Bartsch follow James Clifford’s emphasis on “routes” over “roots” in discussing the “logic and circumstance of the Nawabi architectural programme” (37). Instead of a contemptuous gaze toward what might appear as “unintelligent vulgarity” and “loose and careless handling of classical details,” hybridity of Nawab architecture has been interpreted as an emblem of religious tolerance and cultural openness. David Simonowitz portrays the Hijaz Railway and its characteristic “mosque wagon” as “delineation of sovereignty over a sacred landscape” (82). Ashley Dimmig shows that the openness of the royal tents symbolized the accessibility of the sultan to its subjects, while simultaneously setting him “apart as the authoritative sovereign” (128). To understand exchanges between the Khedival architecture of Egypt and the “French Second Empire style” during the second half of the 19th century, Marwa El-Ashmouni thinks through “routes” and the notion of “contact zone.” El-Ashmouni is able to show that the Gezira Palace’s eclectic style is a symptom of Ismail’s imperial ambitions in renegotiating a new national identity. Moya Carey explains how Safavid era tileworks from Isfahan have been relocated or replicated in London’s South Kensington Museum. The paper also complicates the relationship between museums’ pedagogic missions and the public distrust in replicas. Finally, the chapter associates the Pahlavi era’s penchant for Safavid architecture with the rise of nationalism in 20th century Iran. Doris Duke’s collection in Hawai’i has been brought into new light with Olga Bush’s emphasis on gender and matronage. Against the Orientalism’s erotic fantasies of female body, Duke’s collection offers an entirely different spatial logic. Still, Sam Bowker demonstrates how the stylistic shifts in Egypt’s tent traditions corresponds to the transitions in the political sphere. The return of the decorative elements of pre-Ottoman Mamluk architecture, as well as a reappearance of “Egyptian vernacular motifs,” may signify the rise of a nationalistic agenda in Egypt (238).

Islamic Architecture on the Move appeals to audiences across disciplines. Postcolonial thinkers can see connections to Homi Bhabha's notion of third-space and Spivak’s subalterity. Architectural historians may find similarities to Critical Regionalism or “politics of bricolage.” For cultural studies, the coexistence of irreconcilable identities in a single building echoes Daryush Shayegan’s “La conscience métisse.” There are, nonetheless, explicit associations with discourses in religious studies. The particular attention to cultural exchanges evokes Shahab Ahmed's “Balkan-to-Bengal complex” and the anti-essentialist core of the book reverberates with Carl Ernst’s emphasis on cosmopolitanism. One can also hear resonances with W. C. Smith’s "cumulative tradition," and Asad’s genealogical method, in addition to a more general critique of the category religion by McCutcheon, Masuzawa, and Fitzgerald. The question of mobility and ritual also evokes Tuner’s liminality as well as J. Z. Smith’s distinction between map and territory.

Instead of dedicating a separate chapter to an introduction, Gruber sets the tone for the rest of the book in a short preface within the first essay. Perhaps reading more of Gruber’s philosophical way of thinking—as well as a more elaborate idea of how the book is organized—in a separate chapter would have been preferred. Within the notes for the first chapter, there are brilliant references to scholarship on cultural translation, globalization, Liquid Modernity, and so forth, yet their connection to the subtitle, “Motion and Modernity” could have been discussed in greater depth. Although the few opening pages suitably position the volume within larger conversations, it would have been relevant to acknowledge forty-years of scholarly contributions by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture on Islamic architecture.

Any course on Islamic art and architecture should consider this book in its syllabus. The volume is certainly helpful in courses that aim at disrupting the category religion or problematizing normative assumptions about cultures—whether in geography, anthropology, or cultural studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ehsan Sheikholharam is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christiane Gruber is Associate Professor of Islamic art in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


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