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Public Presence of Mosques and Muslim
Identity in Postcolonial Delhi


Hilal Ahmed


There are two interesting images of Delhi's urban landscape. The first image is simply 'official': huge modern buildings situated next to historic mosques and tombs! The second image is typically 'unofficial': big green minarets of recently rebuilt mosques sharing the city sky with flyovers, Metro tracks, DTH dishes, and hoardings. There is nothing unusual in these images-existence of various old and new buildings and of 'religious' and 'modern' icons can be found in almost every modern city of the world. Yet, the manner in which mosque as a symbol is marked in these images makes them highly significant. Mosques as official monuments seem to evoke a memory of a Muslim past, while mosques as urban icons underline the noticeable 'Muslim presence' in globalized Delhi. Is it appropriate to invoke the conventional secular argument that the 'cultural-religious symbols of Muslims are not adequately represented in India' to understand this mosque-centric urbanity of Delhi? Or, is there something more in these images, which need to be examined carefully? The mosque, we have to remember, is not merely an architectural object or place of worship; it has a figurative/commemorative capacity of its own, which is shaped by the socio-political profile of Muslims, shifting nature of religious practices and the everyday engagements of local communities (Grabar, 1966). In fact, there is an intrinsic relationship between the making of Muslim communities in Delhi and the symbolism of mosques. In this sense, the complex urban landscape of Delhi can also be taken as a point of reference to reconsider a serious intellectual concern: the 'postcolonial' Muslim identity. 'What is a mosque?'1 This simple question introduces us to two different perspectives, which shape and constitute the dominant discourse on Islamic built environment. There is a legal-technical perspective, which focuses on the architectural attributes, archaeological significance, historical values and/or legal status of mosques and attempts to map out their placing in the secular discourses of law and history. Although this perspective originates in the writings of Orientalist scholars of Islamic art and history in 19th century, it still influences the debates on Islamic architecture, conservation of Islamic monuments and the legal discourse on religious places of worship. There is also a religious-ritualistic perspec-tive, which offers a functional meaning of a mosque. This perspective establishes a link between Islamic principles and the actual built space of a mosque. The waqf character of a mosque, demarcation of sacred ...


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