Shadowing an Aga Khan Professor!

Anyone who reads or researches about Islamic architecture must have known Aga Khan architectural awards for Muslim communities, or the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture in Harvard and MIT (AKPIA). Throughout my readings, I have wondered how the program approaches Islamic architecture, being in such prestigious schools in the US, and being affiliated to one of the pioneering institutes that celebrate contemporary Islamic architecture it was important to investigate their philosophy and approach. 

Prof. Nasser Rabbat, has been one of the admired scholars that I have been reading for. In his work, he investigates the history of architecture and art professions in Islamic world. He has also spoken about how the terminology "Islamic architecture" as a field of knowledge came to light. 

On Saturday afternoon, I took the train down to London, and met with Prof. Rabbat over lunch, in one of the busiest neighborhoods in South Kensington, we had a great conversation talking about my research, art scene of the Middle East, even politics and education. 

What was beautifully shocking is how Rabbat views Islamic architecture, art, or design... as "should be" freeed from rules or constraints... He challenged every thought I had about what I wanted to do in my research... and I liked that! When I asked him about the foremost element of all; unity, he answered:  

"Unity is a word that has to be taken out! Unity of what?! What’s the unity that brings together someone who designs a man and a woman in a very realistic way making art in the Qajar period and someone who says “I don’t design figures at all!” what’s the unity? WHERE is the unity? Unity is actually the problem! Unity IS what makes us so LIMITED! Because the other living arts around the world don’t speak about unity! They speak about inter-textuality, they speak about inter-connectedness. [...] Can you imagine that every living artist will all have to work under a unifying theme!? No artist will accept that! "


Prof. Rabbat, invited me to join him for the rest of the afternoon as he would meet one of his former students to "catch up"... 

"I will take as much of time with you as you can offer! Not everyday you get to shadow an Aga Khan Professor" I said.  

So we continued our conversation in another cafe, then checked the temporary exhibition happening at the V&A at that time... something that provoked the question of tradition and there it was another valuable conversation busting out. 

It is one thing to read for one scholar with critical mind, or interpret his arguements on written texts, and it is another thing when you put a face and a character to the words you have read. After meeting him, his writings made so much sense, Rabbat was indeed, in many ways, a scholarly rebel! 


By the time we said out goodbyes by the station, it felt like meeting an old friend.  

 "Talk soon Prof.!" 




Meeting Seyyed Hossein Nasr

I had the pleasure of meeting one of the most influential scholars in my thesis, Prof. Sayyed Hussein Nasr. In his office in George Washington, DC... He welcomed me and started asking about my research and then he immeadiately recommended people and books for me not to miss. 

"A traditional person can live and still ran his traditional life to a certain extent... he can accommodate himself, but as a total philosophy it cannot be."

Nasr is indeed a traditional man in heart.  


Prof. Nasr's passion about the philosophy of Islamic arts and its spiritual dimensions can be felt right away from the way he talks about it. He was very fond of the renovation of Minbar Salah-i-din as one of the successful architecture examples - in his opinion- on maintaining the traditional approach and the respecting the sacred in art and architecture.  

Coming from profound theological and philosophical background I was interested in what Prof. Nasr can say about the idea of reconciling the traditional philosophy with contemporary design thinking... When I asked him can he see a way that these two reconcile he immeadiately responded "NEVER!": 

"Tradition is God-centered, modernism is man-centered. No matter how is the argument you are giving, [...] there cannot be a synthesis of them, there can be an accommodation [contemporary] that's quite something else..." 


It is rather obvious that Prof. Nasr is supporting the Sufi teachings, with the lack of references to the philosophy of Islamic arts, the hidden gems of Sufi writings are arguably the only references that touch upon this subject from symbolic and conceptual point of view.  

This meeting has left me wondering whether is what I am approaching in my research is doable... applicable? Or am I asking an impossible question... ? The direct and clear approach of traditional school seem to be rigid in some way to be broken, or informed... Can tradiotional art be seen in some form in design practice today? Or is it only appearing in renovation or restoration  projects?