Society and Architecture

Islamoyankee gave me the opening by speaking of urbanism, so I am going to
commence by walking through the door of architecture. It is probably apparent
to those who have read my previous postings that I am not a scholar of Islam.
I am infact an architect by training and an project administrator by profession.
It is through my affiliation with architecture that my understanding of the
problems that afflict and affect the Muslim world are framed. I would like to
share with you some readings on architecture that may also help the reader understand
the current crisis in the Muslim world today. Architecture is a culmination
of all of the arts and humanities. Therefore, by reflecting on the buildings
we create and the cities we inhabit, one can gain an understanding of the civilisations
and values that produced the work. We can also see where we lack that understanding
to create complete works today. It is this lack of understanding that is common,
whether in politics, history, or in the sciences, that has cut us from our tradition.

Mohammad Arkoun in his article "Muslim
Character: The Essential and the Changeable
" quotes a verse from the
Quran: All that is on the earth will perish, and only that will survuive which
is under the care of the Lord, Majesty and Magnificence" (LV, 27-28). This
verse in Arabic contains the words fana and baqa. Arkoun goes
on to address the meanings of these two words. Fana is the annihilation
of all existing beings on earth. Baqa means duration. eternity which
applies to God. Arkoun considers that this is way of framing our existence in
a religious way. He equates baqa with the permanent and unchangeable.
It represents the way man viewed his existence.

Arkoun goes on to discuss modernity. He states, "What we call modernity…brings
a historical way of looking at our problems which is a rupture with the ontological
framework in which civilisations have developed according to the teaching of
the revelation as they received it from the Bible, the Gospels, and of course
the Quran. This change is fundamental. The problem for us is to face this rupture
which is imposed on us from outside Islamic history. How do we face this rupture
in terms of our own thinking? Do we face it with rich and original munazarat
like the Muslim thinkers when they had to face . as we do today, modernity coming
from the West? They had to face the the philosophical thought coming from classical
Greece which had nothing to do with the ontological framework of the revelation.
Muslim thinkers faced this intellectually. But what do we do in our Muslim thinking
and social behaviour today? He goss on to speak about the essential character
of the city of Cairo and argues for the need for architects to develop concepts,
which have very precise contexts, as instruments of thought.

Arkoun ends by stating the following: "Islamic thought is cut-off from
two dimensions which it is absolutely essential to restore and revitalise…We
must first rehabilitate our tradition of thinking. We are cut-off from our tradition
of thinking as it was established by Muslim thinkers in the classical age of
Islam…It is also a problem of historical research. We have not yet acquired
historical knowledge of all the dimensions of thinking developed in the classical
ages in what we call the turath, the legacy of Islamic thought".
This crisis of thought is reflected in the buildings we as Muslims build for
our societies today. It is also reflected in the societies themselves.

In his essay entitled "Spirituality
and Architecture
", Arkoun argues for a critical approach to religious
architecture. He states: ‘This critical approach to spirituality is particularly
absent in Islamic contexts today; political scientists and sociologists speak
of the ‘return of religion’, the ‘awakening of Islam’, the struggle of an emotional,
unthought sprituality opposed to ‘western materialism and positivism’. Within
these confusing idealogical discourses, which are disguised with religious claims
and vocabulary, architects are commissioned to revitalise, restore, and preserve
‘Islamic’ cities; to design ‘Islamic’ urban patterns, not only with select,
often stereotypical ‘Islamic’ features…all important architectural achievements
contribute either to strengthening the dominant ideaology in any given historical
tradition and political order, or to creating a breakthrough in the inherited,
imposed system of values and beliefs…the built environment in contemporary
Muslim societies is under the influence of a generalised ideaological bricolage,
which can also be described as a semantic disorder." In both essays, Arkoun
insists that Muslims are confused about the concept of sign and symbol. Instead,
he argues that we tend to use other concepts: those of signs and signals. We
do not pay enough attention to this rupture between the symbolic and the ideological
expression of existence;the latter is becoming more powerful .

Oleg Grabar tackles this subject in his essay entitled "Symbols
and Signs in Islamic Architecture
". He states " What, if anything,
within contemporary Muslim countries can legitimately be considered Islamic.
Furthermore, can this something be defined with sufficient clarity to be used
as a criterion for evaluation… In proposing a system to deal with signs and
symbols the assumed social and psychological need to symbolise provides a different
framework within which to consider Islamic architecture". Grabar goes on
to propose the following questions:

1. Is there a Islamic system of visually perceptible symbols and signs?
2. How universally Islamic is such a system and what are its variants?
3. What are the sources of the system, the revealed and theologically or pietistically
developed statement of the faith, or the evaluation of visual forms over 1400
4. In what fashion and how sucessful were signs and symbols transformed into
buiding forms?
5. How valid is the experience and memory of the past for the present and the

With slight edits, these questions can be addressed to all those involved in
the study of Islamic societies today. Ismail Serageldin speaks about decoding
the symbols of the past in his essay "Architecture
and Society
". In this essay, Serageldin states: "Architects must
acquire the sophistication to read the sybolic content of this heritage in a
manner that enriches their ability to produce relevent buildings for today and
tomorrow…This sophistication can only come through a strengthened educational
process which engenders in future architects the critical sense required to
decode the symbolic content of the past in a realistic, as opposed to a ideaologically
mystifying, fashion."

Continuing this theme, Serageldin in his essay "Faith
and the Environment
"argues for a Muslim approach to the environment
by returning to sources. This systematic review of the sources should produce
a general set of principles that would help guide one to an appropriate response
to the problems confronting Muslim societies today. He goes on to state: "As
the Muslim world shakes and stirs in fitful search to reaffirm its independent
identity, it confronts the cultural as well as the political realities of a
world dominated by the West generally and the United States specifically. This
has led many in the Muslim world to define their identities by emphasising the
‘otherness’ of the Muslim being form the hegemonic world context. Doubtless
there is much truth to this ‘otherness’, but emphasissing it at the outset leads
to a ‘rejectionist’ approach which, to my mind, is narrow and constrictive and
in fact does not do justice to the richness and variety that Muslim cultures
have achieved in the past, and can achieve again, by the more self-assured process
of adaptive assimilation that characterised its confrontations with the Greek
and Roman cultures at the time of the early Muslim conquests…" Serageldin
goes on to identifying general principles from an architectural perspective,
but which can be taken at a much broader context. These principles are as follows:

Stewardship of the Earth; the intended role of man in this world

Relationship with Nature; the role of man in dealing with nature is guided
by two principles 1.) There is an order and a balance in the cosmos and in this
world which must be respected. 2.) It is the role of man to develop natural
resources in this world nad the benefit from the rewards of this development.

Relationship between Men; The domain of Mu’amalat (transactions) that
covers the relationships between humans in the context of a societal organisation.

Individual Behaviour ; The call for humility in individual behaviour.

He concludes by stating: "This self-knowledge,thus developed through painstaking
analysis of past achievements and present realities, must then go to enrich
the collective intellectual resources of architects practising in the Muslim
world. The myths, images, and stimuli that they can bring to bear on any design
problem must be enriched with the type of concepts that transcend the simplistic
physical reading of a monumental heritage and promote a deeper understanding
of self and society within the context of an Islamic world view."