Taking up themes and methods often associated with Islamic art history and applying them to the contemporary era, Kishwar Rizvi's The Transnational Mosque serves as a timely reminder of the multifaceted and complex outcomes of modernity and its ever-changing relationship with history. Through well-researched and detailed analyses of major mosque projects that have altered cityscapes from Rome to Lahore, Rizvi examines how transnational interests have used architecture in the service of political Islam, transnational capital, and international dominance. Recognizing contemporary religious architecture not simply as retrograde or populist reprisal of historical styles, she identifies how architecture continues to serve its function of articulating public policy through mass expenditure within a religious guise.
In recent years, a lack of scholarship in this area has increasingly been addressed through the study of modernism in the Middle East, both in architecture and in the visual arts. In keeping with the dominant association of modernity with secularism in the late twentieth century, religious works have largely been excluded from this study. Yet since the rise of populist Islam in the 1950s, a movement that accelerated in the 1980s and flourishes in our era, monumental mosque architecture has returned. Like the monumental religious architecture of earlier generations, monumental mosques serve to publicize power and naturalize ideology. Unlike their earlier counterparts, they are often not the efforts of single dynasties; rather, they are the products of a complex system of power that reflects shared histories, contemporary political alliances, and the flows of transnational capital. Thus, the study of the transnational mosque renews an old vantage point on the Islamic world, in which a focus on public architecture enables insight into the role of religious monumentality in economies of power.
In The Transnational Mosque, Rizvi examines how projects transpire over time and space, respond to delays and political exigencies, and employ diverse communicative tools. Sometimes a mosque begins as plans created in one country and ends up being constructed in a new form in another. Many such mosques have apparent inspiration in references that are geographically displaced or partially invented, and at times their references are obfuscated in order to avoid sectarian misapprehension. Although often presenting themselves as community centers offering a wide range of services, including education, sports, and shopping, mosques serve the globalized proliferation of local interpretations of Islam, particularly the Wahhabi interpretation, favored by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and Twelver Shiism, favored by Iran.
Using maps and anecdotes about the process of her site research, in each chapter Rizvi engages the reader with the urban spaces remodeled by monumental mosque projects. She traces complex networks of mosque construction and financing across Bosnia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jerusalem, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates and creates a new mode of mapping the Middle East, focusing on the economic and ideological flows represented in architectural programs rather than on national boundaries. Rizvi presents the Islamic world as determined not by the geographies of Islamic power so much as by the financial flows that express themselves in public space. Her emphasis on the patrons, architectural firms, and individual architects and artisans involved from design to completion underscores her point that these mosques constitute sophisticated architectural programs that knowingly draw on historical precedent from the Middle East and on modernist architectural discourse. Throughout the text, personalized descriptions of the author's first impressions upon arriving at the sites provide exemplary contextualization, not only for the architectural projects but also for their urban environments.
The first chapter presents a subtle analysis of three mosques that summarizes the long-standing emergence of transnationalism in mosque architecture through a comparison of modern mosques in Berlin, Germany; Ankara, Turkey; and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Rizvi frames Turkey's transnational investment in mosques in Berlin (the Şehitlik Mosque, 2005) and Ashgabat (the Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque, 1998) against shifts in the nation's architectural politics. Her discussion of the nonmonumental, modernist Grand National Assembly Mosque (1989) and the Kocatepe Mosque (1989) reflects the opposite poles of the reemergence of political Islam in Turkey: one evoking secular universalism and the other Ottoman revivalism.
Rizvi's research and detail-oriented approach emphasizes documentary description of the transformative processes enabling contemporary monumental mosque architecture and refrains from political analysis. This leaves some discursive implications unexplored. For example, in the first chapter, Rizvi discusses a shift in Turkey from the high modernism of the mid-twentieth century to the neo-Ottomanism initiated in the 1980s. She mentions the close relationship between capitalism and religion under the current regime, demonstrated by the inclusion of a shopping center in the Kocatepe Mosque of Ankara (completed in 1987). Pointing out the ironic difference between the mosque's monumental front entrance and the billboards in back, Rizvi suggests there is something new in this association. Ottoman-era mosques were often financed by adjacent bazaars, but by the time of the Kocatepe Mosque, the relationship had become far more global in nature: the neoliberal economic system had given rise to the transnational capitalism that underpins the transnational mosque and the various financial and political alliances that it represents. By sticking to local examples, Rizvi chooses not to discuss these mosques in terms of the larger economic processes that give them meaning on the global stage. For example, since the 1980s, neoliberal economic policies have functioned hand in hand with populism and the growth of Islamism, leading to the confluence of commercialism and monumental revivalist architecture seen at the Kocatepe Mosque. This convergence has only grown stronger with the rise of Islamism, informing recent monumental Ottoman revival mosques in Turkey, such as those in Güneysu (in the province of Rize, 2015) and Çamlıca (Istanbul, 2016).
The tension between Islam as implicated in modernity and Islam as invested in tradition becomes all the more palpable in chapter 2, which addresses the globalization of Salafi Islam fostered through Saudi Arabian investment in new mosques in Islamabad, Pakistan; Cairo, Egypt; Beirut, Lebanon; and Jeddah, Riyadh, Mecca, and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Rizvi compares the modest traditionalist exterior and startling function as the backdrop for public executions of the Floating Mosque in Jeddah (1995) with the technological dexterity informing the architecture of the Great Mosque in Riyadh (1985). She cogently grounds a preference for technology over beauty in Salafi “fear of the monument” as a potential site of worship (84). She also offers a clear analysis of the largely fictive relationship with history established through the appropriation of Cairene architecture as a ground for Saudi Arabian legitimacy, set against the backdrop of the Wahhabi destruction of historical sites of Islam since the nineteenth century and continuing in contemporary Mecca and Medina. Designed by a Turkish architect and complementing the Wahhabi-inflected Islam of General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad (1988) is discussed as an example of the transnationalist model introduced in the first chapter. Delicately traversing time as well as geography, Rizvi compares this modernist evocation of Orientalist associations with Islam, such as the tent, with the neo-Ottomanism of the Saudi-funded Muhammad al-Amin Mosque in Beirut (2008). Through these examples, she points to the universalization of a depiction of Ottoman architecture as the predominant icon for “mosque,” as indicated in anti-mosque symbols used in Cologne, Germany, as well as in an anti-minaret initiative undertaken in Switzerland in 2009 (which Rizvi does not mention).
Rizvi expresses clear discomfort with the monolithic view of Islam promoted by Saudi Salafism, but nonetheless she undermines her implicit critique by asserting that “Salafism holds great appeal for modern believers” (87). In implying a voluntary appeal without expressing the reasons behind it, she underplays the effects of the unlimited oil-based financial resources that enable global proselytization through mosque construction and sponsored activities that take place through the mosques, outlined on the very next page. As in her examination of Turkey, the focus on mosque projects stands in place of a broader examination of how economics informs power politics that often promote ideological efforts in the guise of religious generosity.
Rizvi gives limited space to the processes through which transnational capital, represented here in mosque architecture but also informing educational and social services in mosques, delocalizes the administration and interpretation of religion. Transnationalism not only brings shared architectural projects but also serves to undermine local differences in religious interpretation. Rizvi critiques the universalism implicit in the universal forms of the mosque in Rome, associating it with the much-critiqued “unity of one in many” approach fostered by the 1976 Festival of Islam in London (102). Yet her exposition of the globalized deployment of mosques as ambassadors of particular interpretations of Islam does not critique a parallel essentialism engaged by powerful actors who mix transnational capital with religious ideology to universalize what were, at one time, limited and local interpretations of Islam. By focusing on the large-scale projects of recent decades, Rizvi devotes little discussion to the issue of how transnationalism influences tensions between universalist and pluralist interpretations of Islam and local self-determination.
Chapter 3 focuses on the complex interplay between the Sunni transnationalism described in the first two chapters and Iran's support of Shia mosques and shrines in Iran as well as in Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Here Rizvi offers a succinct analysis of the complex interplay among religiosity, revivalism, and architecture across Iranian history and after the revolution of 1979. She thus underscores the ideological importance of shrine architecture as a symbol of the Iranian state, both within the country and through the underwriting of shrines in Sunni-majority regions. In contrast with many superficial contemporary understandings of Sunni and Shia Islam as engaged in perpetual conflict, Rizvi's description of the Shiite shrines widespread in the region underscores the long-standing interplay between various competing interpretations of Islam. The map presented in this chapter bespeaks a transnationalism preceding modernity, reinscribed through the globalization of capital and architectural patronage.
Whereas the first three chapters focus on transnational architecture as a means of reinscribing various claims to historical leadership in Islam, chapter 4 discusses the role of transnational capital in defining architectural identity and power in relation to the modern economic rise of the United Arab Emirates. More than monumentality as an expression of a distinct ideology, here a diversity of inspirations, deployed both in the UAE and abroad in Jerusalem and Shymkent, Kazakhstan, bespeak a relationship with the Islamic world based less in history than in the desire to conserve a collective heritage, evinced also in the development of museums. In the UAE, globalism emerges through contemporary economic relations that transform a diversity of historical inspirations into the legitimation of transnational leadership.
Perhaps indicative of the breathtaking complexity and intricacy of her project, in the book's conclusion Rizvi continues to provide example after example, leaping from Istanbul to Doha, Jaipur to Bhong and Visoko. In the process, she almost marginalizes the very important conclusion that she comes to in the end:
The transnational mosques examined in this book are important indicators of trends in architecture, politics, and Islam at the turn of the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, these buildings can be criticized for falling short of engaging with their historical moment…. A truly modern transnational architecture, of mosques in particular, would gain relevance by envisioning a future where historical agency was distributed among varied publics and communities of beliefs. Thus history would not simply be a stylistic choice but a provocative enabler, creating a new discourse for Islam in the twenty-first century. (210)
Whereas the documentary approach followed in most of the book allows for little critique, this ending provides a tantalizing glimpse of the flattening of interpretation implicit in the power of transnational finance to reform historical memory into any shape it desires in order to promote its own power. Providing an astonishing range of information about investment in mosques as expressions of transnational power and influence, Rizvi leaves it to her readers to interpret the local histories that might wither in the shade of these new monuments to transnational postmodernity.
The Transnational Mosque represents an extremely timely return to the study of religious architecture as part of our contemporary cultural landscape. It provides a well-researched and articulate narration of architectural projects that exceed national borders, grounded in remarkably cogent summaries of local politics and histories. Yet in avoiding the broader context of the mosques under discussion—the politics of transnational capital in its association with the streamlining of religion into hard, sectarian divisions; the shift from European political imperialism to corporate transnational imperialism; and the role of religion in the naturalization of political alliances—Rizvi misses an opportunity to use these fascinating examples as part of a wider discussion of how architecture constructs power in the contemporary world and our of role as historians in reflecting upon it.