Sitting down with Kishwar Rizvi

Associate Professor Kishwar Rizvi is a scholar of Islamic art and architecture and associate professor in Yale’s Department of the History of Art. A trained architect, Rizvi’s writings and research interests range from the imperial art of Safavid Iran to discussions of gender and religion in the modern Middle East. The week of her interview with the Herald, Rizvi presented at the Yale Architecture School from her latest book project, “The Transnational Mosque: Architecture and Historical Memory in the Contemporary Middle East,” due to release this fall. Rizvi was selected as a Carnegie Foundation Scholar for the project, which explores government sponsorship of mosque construction across national boundaries in the region. Rizvi sat down with the Herald to discuss these mosques and share stories from her time in the field.

YH: Could you talk a little about your latest project and some of the research you’ve been conducting as part of that effort?

Rizvi: The book is coming out in November, and it’s been a part of a project that started six years ago. I had been asked by the Carnegie Foundations to submit a proposal. It’s a nominated award that they have for scholars, and they had a 10-year mandate to give awards to scholars working on the modern Middle East, but modern Islam in general, which isn’t what I usually work on. Most of my dissertation and my research has been on the 16th century on Safavid Iran. I’m interested in religion, politics, art ritual, and so on. But it’s one of those awards that you think about, and I felt as a historian, what could I contribute to this discussion about the modern Middle East? And the question was that of history. If you travel anywhere in the Middle East you’re going to see these Revivalist mosques being built, which is curious, because this is 2015—why are you building things that look they’re from 500 years ago? They’re anachronistic. What is it about this conception of time and this monumentalizing of that time that is going on? So it really began as a question of history—as a historian, trying to see why history is such a malleable but also such a contested aspect of these mosques that are being built.

YH: I suppose that architectural structures are something of a special kind of historical bridge—they’re built to last.

Rizvi: Exactly, and there’s a weird aspect to it because you have those monuments right there. They’re a part of the present but also of the past. So, when you’re building something new, what are you projecting both forwards and backwards? So, backwards, it’s easy to say they’re referencing these great moments in Islamic history—the Mamluks, the Turks, these great Ottoman buildings. But in a sense they’re also painting what the world of Islam will be in the future. And that’s where I’m really curious. The situation in the Middle East—we all know the news. Religion is contested, and I think religion is one of those things that projects forward. It’s where we want to be not only in this life, but in the afterlife. It has a different time than the present. When these mosques are being built, I think they’re telling us about how these communities are imagining their futures.

YH: Your new project is based around the title concept of “transnational mosques, and you’re careful to avoid qualifying these mosques as “global.” Could you define the term “transnational mosque” and clarify that distinction?

Rizvi: It’s not to take away what the term “global” is—I think it is sometimes overused, and it doesn’t really apply to what I’m trying to do. What I argue in the book is that the nation is in the center of the decisions that are being made. But at the same time, these [mosques] do not stay within the sovereign nation. They are being gifted, they are being disseminated, they are being propagated beyond national boundaries, which is where that idea of moving beyond the nation comes in, hence the term transnational.

YH: The function of the mosque as a community institution— has that evolved in response to this transnationalism?

Rizvi: In Islam, you’ve never had the separation of state and religion. The way it’s defined and continues to be defined is as a political entity. It’s never been that the church will take care of one part of your being and the state will take care of the other things—they are the same. The mosque has always been a space of political action, from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and that continues to be the case. What has changed is the way in which it’s adapted to particular communities. For example, in Turkey, [the Kocatepe mosque] has a parking garage and a supermarket, which is actually a very traditional way you would have had mosques. They were often a part of the bazaar, and you would have income from the bazaar, and that would be fed back into the mosque. The place where I saw the institution had changed the most was in the United Arab Emirates, because that’s where they’ve opened up the mosque to non-Muslims.They [once would never] use the mosque as a bridge to invite people of different religions and communities to come and learn about Islam—that was never the role of the mosque. Before it was always, you know, you stood outside or you came inside. There was no conversation about it.

YH: Your latest presentation at the Architecture School was almost a kind of journal of your travels throughout your fieldwork in Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Could you tell me more about what it was like to visit these sites?

Rizvi: One of the nice things about being an architectural historian is you have to travel, and I do most of my thinking when I’m traveling. I really like to travel and to be able to meet people and be able to see a building in its own context. When you’re conducting fieldwork, you come in with ideas, thoughts, questions and things you’re going to look for. And when you get there, it’s completely different because of the people you meet and the access that you have. So in some sense, it was a very organic process of going, adapting. You keep your eyes and your camera available. That’s part of what you’re doing when you’re conducting fieldwork. And in each of these contexts, my engagement with the fieldwork was different. In Saudi Arabia, it’s much more limited in terms of where I could travel or how I could travel, as opposed to Turkey. But you negotiate, and you figure out how to have it work.

YH: Entering one of these impressive spaces for the first time—what is that experience like?

Rizvi: I didn’t want to be coming in from the outside and look at this and have a preconceived idea of what it would be like. Each experience was predicated on me going in, in some sense, to understand, and to experience the place. In Beirut, for example, at the Al Amin Mosque, which was completed recently—it’s a city that was fought over by different factions, by different religions. It’s a city that has gone through a lot of trauma. And you get to this mosque, and you have to go through a parking lot, and it’s really an unpleasant experience getting in there. But when you’re in there, it’s actually quite peaceful, and in a city like Beirut it creates a particular atmosphere that is very different than the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, where there were children coming in and out and there were classes going on. Each of these spaces had such a different ambience that ultimately needed to be taken seriously and understood. Ultimately, the building is just a shell—it’s the people who are using it that tell us what it means.

YH: How would you say art history fits into the broader conversation about understanding politics and cultural change?

Rizvi: It brings a completely different complexity that when we only look at texts we miss. We miss the nuances sometimes about where materials are being brought from, who was bringing them, who was paying for them, or what kinds of memories are they evoking. Very different questions, I would argue—I’m going to get in trouble for that. Especially now, when because of the media we are so exposed to images and objects and things that move around so much, and we move around so much, I think having critical insight into what art history can bring into our intellectual growth as scholars is important. But art history also has to change. We have to tackle the contemporary, we have to tackle politics, and we have to engage with our public in a way I don’t think we always do. I think we also have to be relevant. It has to be both ways, if you want to appeal or to teach somebody, you have to find a language to teach them in that makes sense.

—Interview condensed by the Herald

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