Timur Hammond, Placing Islam: Geographies of Connection in Twentieth-Century Istanbul (University of California Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Timur Hammond (TH): Like a lot of “first books,” this book grows out of my dissertation, which I completed in 2016. I went to graduate school at UCLA and was lucky to benefit from a strong geography department and an incredibly vibrant Middle East area studies community. One initial impetus for the book was my desire to bring geography’s concepts and insights into better conversation with topics in Middle East area studies. Although over a decade has passed since I started research on this topic, expanding the disciplinary connections between geography and Middle East area studies continues to be a core goal.
At the same time, my book’s geographical focus—the Istanbul district of Eyüp, now officially known as Eyüpsultan—also reflected a conscious choice to provide a different account of twentieth-century Turkey. We had a rich scholarly literature on processes of modernization, secularization, and urbanization, but many of those books seemed to focus on Islam when it was “out of place.” While they provided us with a nuanced account of struggles over public space and urban meaning, they seemed less equipped to tell us about a district like Eyüp that has “always been” religious. Part of the book’s goal was to use geography to rethink some of those assumptions.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
TH: The book’s core conceptual argument takes its point of departure from Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? It suggests that rather than begin with the question “what is Islam?”, we ought to instead begin by asking “where is Islam?”. To answer that question of where, I introduce the concepts of “place” and “place-making.” Drawing on a large body of scholarship within geography, I point out that places are not merely static locations or neutral backdrops but sites of mediation where and in relation to which understandings and geographies of Islam are articulated.
One of the things that makes the book distinctive is how it spans multiple disciplines and issues, including conversations in history, art history, architectural history, anthropology, religious studies, and—of course!—geography. For example, Chapter 2, “Storying the Sahabe,” focuses on three moments when the story of Halid bin Zeyd, a Companion (or Sahabe) of the Prophet Muhammad, was told. The chapter draws on both geographers’ recent interest in “storytelling” (as opposed to “discourse” or “narrative”) and historians’ ongoing interest in the practices and politics of history-telling. By embedding these acts of storytelling in the city of Istanbul—and Eyüp in particular—this chapter helps us better understand how places are made.
At the same time, the book also addresses conversations in Istanbul and Turkish studies. For example, this literature has often explored questions about urban change, the politics of heritage, and the boundaries between “religious” and “secular” worlds. By engaging with those issues through a different geographical lens, Placing Islam provides a new way to think about some of the questions that scholars of Istanbul and Turkey have long asked. But in focusing on Istanbul—and one district of Istanbul in particular—I hope that Placing Islam also helps us step outside of the methodological nationalism that sometimes frames the study of Islam in Turkey. Rather than think of Eyüp as one “container” within the stable container of Turkey, I build on recent work that has sought to make sense of Islam—whether in Istanbul, Turkey, or the world—without insisting that everything must fit within the parameters of the nation.
Finally, the book speaks to geographers. While our discipline has a tradition of writing about worlds of Islam, much of that scholarship has either focused on Muslim-minority contexts or limited itself to contemporary debates. In its choice of sources, its historical perspective, and its engagement with a wealth of Turkish-language scholarship, I think that the book offers one model for geographers interested in writing about both place-making and Islam.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
TH: Because this book grows out of my dissertation, it is, in some respects, the product of my previous self. There have been moments where I have become quite frustrated with how long the process of a book can take; but I have also come to appreciate how the process of writing and revision—a process that, like my book’s subject, spans many times and places—helps me appreciate both what has remained the same in my observations and analysis as well as being open to revision and change.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
TH: One of the things I am most excited for is the book’s availability as an open access publication, thanks to the effort of Shahzad Bashir, the series editor, and the support of the University of California Press. I hope that helps the book to find a wide and diverse readership. For people who live in, visit, and research Istanbul, I hope that the book provides a picture of Istanbul that they recognize but also helps them to think differently about the city.
For scholars of Islam, I hope that the book does several things. First, that it provides an argument (an invitation? a provocation?) for thinking differently about geography. Our categories and concepts for the study of Islam often assume one kind of geography—that everything simply happens “in space”—and I hope that Placing Islam opens up an alternative approach to geographies of connection. Second, I hope that the book also models a form of interdisciplinary exchange. Sociologists, anthropologists, historians, political scientists, art historians, and religious studies scholars do not always work across their respective disciplinary boundaries. There are good reasons for this! But my book’s relatively narrow focus on a single district opens up possibilities for building new conversations.
Finally, I hope that the book speaks to my discipline of geography. Over the past decade, and in ways that parallel a broader shift, geographers have become increasingly interested in ways of theorizing and conceptualizing that depart from received Eurocentric traditions. While my book’s use of “place” absolutely owes a debt to those traditions, I also think that its engagement with Eyüp’s multiple traditions of Islam offers one model for answering my discipline’s core question of “where?”.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
TH: Over the past few years, I have been moving between this book project and three other projects. The first—which often overlaps with this book project—involves looking at the work of Ahmet Süheyl Ünver. A doctor, artist, and teacher, he was a crucial figure bridging the cultural worlds of late Ottoman Istanbul and a “new” generation beginning in the 1980s. This complements work being done by people like Hülya Arık on the “creative geographies of Islam” and Banu Senay on the interplay between musical practice and Islamic ethics, among many others. This also speaks to a growing interest in histories and geographies of Islam in twentieth-century Turkey that depart from static binaries of Muslim/secular.
Second, I have also written about the geographies and politics of commemoration that followed the July 2016 coup attempt. Looking at both new material landscapes—like the July 15 Martyrs and Democracy Museum in Kahramankazan or the memorial makam built beside the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul—and at highly mediated textual landscapes, I tried to track the emergence of what I termed a “memorial public.” Although I have stepped back from that project, I continue to follow where, how, and why the coup attempt is—or is not—commemorated in contemporary Turkey.
Finally, I am working on a project that follows the “ruderal” plants of Istanbul, particularly a species known in English as the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima; in Turkish, kokar ağacı, among other names). The tree grows widely in Istanbul but often escapes notice, a paradox that I have been trying to think with. How and why do some forms of life become noticeable? And what do we make of those species—like this tree—that take root at the margins?
J: Do you think our audiences are changing?
TH: One important shift in geography over the past decade has been the emergence of the subfield of “community geography.” This marks an important intervention in the politics of knowledge production. In many respects, I think it is part of a broader reflexivity about the “public” dimensions of our scholarship and is also closely linked to new digital publication avenues. Who are the publics for whom and with whom we produce our scholarship? Can those publics get imagined otherwise? Can they be open to change? I am excited and inspired by a range of new projects that continue to push at these boundaries.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 2, pp. 27-30)
In its basic contours, the story of Halid bin Zeyd is simple enough. He lived in a modest house in Medina and was fortunate enough to host the Prophet Muhammad in his home upon the Prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina. He was a devoted Companion of the Prophet and participated in all the major battles of early Islam. Halid bin Zeyd joined the Umayyad siege of Constantinople in the late seventh century, where he died and was buried. There are differing accounts of how his grave was venerated by the Byzantines. In many accounts, the grave was protected and even became a devotional site for Constantinople’s residents. Others relate that a Byzantine threat to defile his grave was only forestalled by a warning that Christians and their churches living under the rule of Muslims would suffer. Similarly, there are a range of opinions about how well known his grave was and at what point—if at all—it was lost from view. The miraculous discovery of his grave confirmed the religious significance of Constantinople’s capture in 1453. Ever since, the story goes, this place has been venerated by Muslims.
Yet stories always require an act of storytelling. Their messages can never fully be separated from the materials and contexts of their telling. In ways large and small, storytellers emphasize some details while obscuring others. They can emphasize their position as storyteller or undercut it, and the choice of which story to tell and which to withhold often depends upon questions of audience, incentive, and goal. To focus on storytelling helps us to consider “the relations between personal experience and expression and its broader context, and upon the interpretation of those relations.”
Scholars of medieval Islam and the Ottoman Empire have already shown us that the politics and practices of telling this story varied over time. This chapter focuses instead on three twentieth-century tellings of this story. It does so to develop two linked arguments. First, situating acts of storytelling in their urban and temporal context provides us with a richer sense of the modes of transmission through which people develop a sense of themselves as Muslim. Second, reading stories in this way challenges a tendency to extract certain stories from their context and hold them up as “essential truths.” By historicizing the practice of storytelling (and, by extension, place making), we can better understand the work that these stories do and their complexity. Storying the sahabe can do many kinds of work.
This is especially important in the context of twentieth-century Turkey, as stories of Islam are often flattened or simply folded into political stories. The political dimensions of these stories matter, but we need a richer account of how Islam is enacted in the world. The Muslim-ness of these stories does not simply follow from the fact that they’re told by self-ascribed Muslims; these are stories about Islam because they engage in acts of place making that establish relations between the present and the past that are oriented toward the future.
I begin with Yahya Kemal (Beyatlı)’s essay, “The Eyüp That We Saw in a Dream,” originally published in May 1922, when Istanbul was still occupied by a combination of British, French, and Italian forces.12 I read his essay against a rapidly shifting political, cultural, and urban context involving the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a shifting geopolitical and religious map, a still uncertain War of Independence in Anatolia, and debates about the precise relationship between national, ethnic, and religious identities. In a moment when past, present, and future had become new objects of public debate, Yahya Kemal’s act of storytelling wove popular narratives with the genre of the city letter to define Eyüp as a new “national” place of Islam.
I then turn to the 1950s, focusing on Hacı Cemal Öğüt’s two-volume book about Halid bin Zeyd. Blending biography with hadith commentary, Öğüt tells a story of Halid bin Zeyd that focuses much more on a doctrinal religious account that relies on textual commentary and the transmission of hadith. His book centers on the practice of rivayet, a term that refers both to the practice of transmitting events across time and place and to the specific act of hadith transmission. Reading Öğüt’s discussion against the rapidly changing social and material landscape of 1950s Istanbul helps us to consider the practices, politics, and anxieties that surrounded Islam in a modernizing city. In his account, storying the sahabe becomes a way to establish a kind of continuity amid far-reaching urban and demographic change.
I end the chapter in 2013, listening to Muhammad Emin Yıldırım deliver a public lecture to an audience crowded into the Mosque of Eyüp Sultan. Organized by the religious foundation of which he was the head, Yıldırım’s lecture calls our attention to the changed context for stories of Islam in Istanbul in the early 2010s. These changes included both a new political relationship between civil society organizations and local municipalities and a reconfigured definition of Islam that linked what Lara Deeb has called “authentication” with an affective register and experience of place. Following these acts of storytelling helps us understand the generative tension that defines Eyüp, between its powerful story linking person and place and the always changing context in which that story has been told.
CITY LETTERS FROM OCCUPIED ISTANBUL
In May 1922 there might have been many reasons for Istanbul residents to pick up a daily newspaper like Tevhid-i Efkâr. The city itself was under occupation by British, French, and Italian forces. The victors of World War I were busy negotiating a postwar settlement. And, above all, there was a war in Anatolia between Turkish forces, led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), and their Greek opponents. But were they to turn past those events, they would have found an essay situated closer to their homes:
Eyüp, the Turks’ city of the dead, lingers verdant like an Islamic garden of paradise on the shore where Europe ends. Do those who enter this city of the city, when they felt lost in a dream of cypress trees and tiles, know that they are truly in a dream? Because Eyüp was a dream that the Turkish army that had come to conquer Istanbul in the spring of the year 857 saw before the walls.
In a city under occupation, one in which many ostensibly certain truths were up for debate, Yahya Kemal’s choice to begin his essay with a retelling of the city’s conquest thus made a particular claim about Eyüp and Istanbul more generally in a period of rapid change.
Istanbul had been under the joint occupation of British, French, and Italian forces since November 1918. For some, the city’s occupation was experienced as a cause for celebration. For others, it was an occasion for despair. Yet regardless of residents’ evaluation of the city’s occupation, the cultural geographies of the city’s everyday life were reconfigured in far-reaching ways. Although the Ottoman Empire still existed as a political entity in 1922 and was ostensibly governed by Sultan Mehmed VI and a succession of cabinets from Istanbul, it was clear to everyone involved that the future of both Istanbul and the empire would bear no resemblance to the empire that entered World War in 1914.
What would the city’s complex social, religious, economic, and linguistic landscapes look like in the event of a nationalist victory? What would the city’s future look like in the event of a nationalist defeat? In newspapers, the satirical press, and the broader urban culture of 1922, writers, intellectuals, artists, residents, refugees, and visitors alike both critiqued the city’s present and imagined many possible futures. The city was home to nationalists, internationalists, liberals, conservatives, refugees, exiles, itinerant Sufis, South Asian migrants, Islamists, Communists, pan-Turkists, and more. Newspapers were published in Ottoman Turkish, French, Greek, Armenian, and English, addressing a multilingual audience across the city. There were fliers pasted to walls, a vibrant magazine trade, bustling coffeehouses and reading rooms. Live music and records connected Istanbul’s streets—and above all the bustling center of Beyoğlu—to the world.
Although these debates were especially urgent in 1922, they were by no means new to the city. Istanbul had long been a city located at the intersection of multiple geographical imaginaries, but the nature of their intersection shifted markedly over the course of the nineteenth century. Political, cultural, social, religious, and economic changes helped to place Istanbul in relation to the world in a new way. For example, the articulation of new “traditions” across Europe during this period spurred projects within the Ottoman Empire to define a new kind of relationship between citizen and state. The expansion of communication and transportation networks provided new opportunities to move and reimagine themselves. In this context of migration, transformation, dispossession, and exclusion, the connections that defined the worlds of Islam also shifted in profound ways…. Istanbul’s relationship with the broader world had been changing over the course of the nineteenth century, but the period between the Second Constitutional Revolution in 1908 and Yahya Kemal’s 1922 essay was even more consequential. The Balkan Wars of 1912–13 and the utter devastation of World War I called into question what the empire was, what it meant to be Ottoman, what it meant to be Turkish, and what it meant to be Muslim.