Mosques are enduring architectural and institutional features of Muslim communities throughout the world, and thus it is natural to encounter large mosque complexes that occupy prominent positions within the cityscapes of the Middle East and beyond. Yet among the many historical mosques and buildings in the region’s oldest cities, there are also buildings of surprisingly recent provenance and many old sites with newly renovated interiors and facades, such as the Blue Mosque in downtown Beirut or the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara. These buildings are examples of what Kishwar Rizvi calls “the transnational mosque,” a particular place of worship constructed by nation states of the Middle East—namely Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—both at home and abroad as a vehicle of political expression and ideological influence.
In the inaugural episode of Ottoman History Podcast Season 6, we sat down with Professor Rizvi to explore this phenomenon and her new book The Transnational Mosque (UNC Press, 2015), which "aims to analyze the role of mosques in the construction of Muslim identity through the lens of their political, religious, and architectural history." For the naive traveler, the transnational mosque may be a novel artifact “hiding in plain sight” behind an historicist guise; for pious pilgrims and picnickers alike, these mosques are vital spaces intended to be received as expressions of political presence and sincere commitment to supporting Islam’s basic institutions. As Rizvi explains in her work, transnational mosques forge imagined and physical connections that cross political boundaries. Mosques built by the Turkish state in Germany foster understandings of nationalism and a link with the Ottoman past among Turkish migrants and their descendants. Mosque construction and renovation by Iran in Syria and elsewhere facilitates the expansion of Shi‘a pilgrimage networks and travel.
In our conversation, we focused heavily on the case of Turkey and what Rizvi identifies as a neo-Ottoman aesthetic. Much of the mosque construction supported by the Turkish state has taken as its prototype the classical Ottoman mosque, typified by the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century works of Mimar Sinan and his students. While Ottoman architectural style varied according to region and changed considerably over the course of many centuries, the current invocation of the monumental mosques associated with the height of Ottoman imperial prowess belies the political project of Turkey’s current government. But in a broader perspective, the example of the neo-Ottoman mosque demonstrates the surprisingly under-studied links between nationalism and religion in the Middle East not only in Turkey but also in states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where narrower conceptions of the nation-state seem inadequate to encompass local understandings of belonging and the increasingly transnational populations of the Gulf.
While written by an author specializing in the history of art and architecture, The Transnational Mosque raises important questions about the present for researchers interested in the intersections of space, identity, and religious practice among Muslims. It is a rare glimpse into the history of an architectural movement that is distinctively modernist while deeply rooted in an understanding of Islamic history and aesthetics. As Rizvi noted in our conversation, The Transnational Mosque may be a useful starting point for those interested in the ways in which non-state actors also participate in the ongoing redefinition of Islamic aesthetics, which while not limited to the realm of politics, is inextricable from the larger debates surrounding what it means to be Muslim today.
Kishwar Rizvi is Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at Yale University. She writes on issues of religion, politics, and self-representation in the early modern period, as well as on the intersection of nationalism and architecture in the modern Middle East.
Chris Gratien holds a PhD from Georgetown University`s Department of History. His research focuses on the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region from the 1850s until the 1950s.