Monday, December 14, 2009

Misunderstanding the Minaret--Arab News

LINK to the published version of a longer and still to be re-edited article

Tarek Kahlaoui | Arab News

THE controversy over the Swiss vote against the construction of new minarets seems to emphasize political and constitutional issues, notably the restructuring of many right-wing parties around the issue of a “European-Christian” identity standing against an “Islamization of Europe” and the possible conflict between the democratic right to make decisions by voting and the constitutional principle of freedom of faith. Yet the main argument suggested to support the ban position is rarely discussed.

The basic reasoning of the ban position is presented in a flyer prepared by the “Federal Popular Initiative Against Minarets”, which is initiated by a provincial “Egerkinger Kommittee”, and it focuses on the significance of the minaret. The key idea lays in the following assertion: “The minaret is an expression of willingness to have politico-religious power.” The two-page flyer suggests that this is the case because the minaret “has nothing to do with faith,” and also because of what Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in 1997 when he compared, playing with the words of a 1912 Ottoman poem, the minarets to “the bayonets” in an Islamist march to power.

Rejecting Erdogan’s statement as irrelevant to this discussion or especially to use it as proof that building minarets signify an intention of politico-religious conquest by Switzerland’s Muslim diaspora is the easier part. Since Erdogan also suggested then that the domes of mosques are their “helmets”, then it would be incomprehensible not to include the “domes” in the referendum. Then the “Egerkinger Kommittee” should include the “believers” themselves as a forbidden entity because they are characterized in the same quote as Erdogan’s “soldiers”. Obviously what is said rhetorically by a man at a time when he was still part of an Islamist hard-core group involved in a heated debate in the Turkey of 1990s should not be even considered as a statement of any worth in the debate over the meaning of the minaret for more than one billion Muslims.

So the more serious discussion is not about one single political statement at one single point in time but about the significance of the minaret throughout time. It is true that Muslims began the tradition of adhan (call to prayer), which is frequently and wrongly seen as the minaret’s primary function, even before minarets came into existence. It should be noted here that the Swiss objection does not seem to be primarily focused on the function of prayer calling, for none of the four existing minarets in Switzerland is actually used for that purpose.

But what is perceived now as exclusively Islamic minarets are in fact inherently pre-Islamic, notably Christian. Minarets were introduced in the process of conquest such as in the earliest surviving imperial mosque — the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus — in the beginning of the 8th century. Minarets were in this case an appropriation of a Byzantine church’s towers.

Slowly minarets became one of the elements asserting the grandeur and influence of big mosques financed by the early Islamic states, notably between the 8th and the 10th centuries. The Damascus Mosque’s minarets seem to have been imitated later in the 10th century when the rulers of Andalusian Cordoba were aspiring to rival the major Islamic eastern caliphates. The helicoidal 9th century minarets in the mosques of the Abbasid city of Samarra, which are the largest mosques in pre-modern history, seem to have been imitated in Egypt in the same century. Yet minarets were not a constant element. In the eastern Islamic lands, especially within the Persian space, minarets seem to play a minor role. At some point in the 14th century minarets in Iran were simply decorative accessories for huge portals with big domes in the background.

It is probably with the Turkic dynasties, culminating with the Ottomans since the 15th century, that minarets would be equated with Islamic images in the Western European imaginaire. It has been widely reported in the European travelogues that one of the first acts of Ottomans after conquering Constantinople in 1453 was the insertion of a minaret at one of the corners of the Byzantine church of Haghia Sophia. In fact, the Ottomans seemed to have used the minaret as one of the elements to visually appropriate conquered Byzantine churches and convert them to mosques. They tended also to build monumental minarets, sometimes four, in their new mosques.

Whatever its meaning in the premodern era, the minaret’s signification seems to have been reshaped starting from the end of the 19th century. In the various Exposition Universelle, especially those held in France, we could see the creation of a fixed Orientalist architectural identity where a “Muslim building” would have certain elements indicating its Islamic nature. At the corners of manufactured models that are meant to represent the French colonies in predominantly Islamic territories we would see rounded or octagonal minarets even in what seem to be secular buildings. Paradoxically, this is exactly how the earliest Islamic, notably Ottoman Turkish, buildings looked like by the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Mirroring the Orientalist models, modern Muslims tended to assign to themselves specific architectural elements in order to create an identity that is visually recognizable.

When the Islamic postcolonial nation states emerged, especially since the 1950s, some actually opted for less typical models blurring the boundaries between secular and religious buildings. But the tendency created in the Orientalist 19th century context emphasizing a fixed architectural identity was reinforced in many other cases. This is the example, especially of the mosques that were built in or financed by Gulf states. Even in the more vernacular architecture by the Egyptian Hasan Fathy, the minaret was selected along the dome.

It is within the latter tendencies that we should understand the mosques of the Muslim diaspora. As has been demonstrated by Renata Holod and Hasan-Uddin Khan in their voluminous and well researched “Contemporary Mosque”: “The development of a Muslim diaspora has meant that the mosque has become a repository of identity and authenticity for those who have found themselves distanced from their home countries... The newly developed ‘global mosque’ allows for little movement away from the use of the formulaic dome and minaret.”

It thus appears that the historical significance of the minaret was not homogenic. It seems that the dominant tendency, especially within the Muslim diaspora, was the construction of minarets as an act of cultural affiliation and remembrance rather than of expressing dominance. It is utterly simplistic to assign to the minaret the intention of politico-religious conquest, for even in the case of Muslim hard-liners, their specific understanding of one single architectural element is defined by the dominant modern view of their community that is of cultural affiliation and remembrance rather than by their explicit political views.

The opposition to the minaret by a majority of Swiss voters is certainly due to some complicated factors. Cultural assumptions shaped over centuries and only reinforced by current political events and by dominant Islamic self-representations play a more profound role to make a majority of people assign a certain “willingness to have politico-religious power” to the minaret.

Yet in this case the most apparent meaning, especially in the case of a diaspora, seems to be rather defensive. As much as the Swiss are in need of historicizing their understanding of Islamic visual representations, Muslims should engage more with their visual context and refrain from unidimensional self-representations. Because if it is misleading to assume that their insistence on the presence of the minaret is suggestive of intentions of domination, it is probably true that the rigid affiliation to one single architectural model (the dome-minaret model) is representative of an isolated and meager visual imagination, which is not very helpful for any diaspora.

— Tarek Kahlaoui is assistant professor of Islamic art history and history at Rutgers University, NJ. He can be contacted at:


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