Every time I start a book review I ask myself why I bought the book. In this case, I think I had been intrigued by the name, and I decided to ‘buy’ it once I realized it could be downloaded for free (legally), without me chasing the publisher to have a review copy.
The full title of the book, edited by Trinidad Rico, reads The Making of the Islamic Heritage: Muslim Pasts and Heritage Presents. I did not know exactly what to expect, but since heritage studies about the Islamic past are not always easy to find, I decided to read it.
The aim of the book is clear just from the start: the goal is shaping the ‘Islamic heritage’ as a field of studies, with all the difficulties it means. Not only because the heritage, as emerges in the book, is not absolute and fixed, but also because the adjective Islamic is as always quite problematic. The editor and the authors of the volume, anyway, do not hide the problems in terminology and concepts: in fact, the discussion is focused on ‘what is Islamic’ and ‘why something can be defined Islamic heritage’. Once again, the problems of the Western cultural hegemony, that have invented the label ‘Islamic’ is discussed, but not solved.
In fact, a clear definition of the ‘Islamic heritage’ does not emerge: in the various chapters that compose the book, the reader is presented a wide variety of subjects, all related to or labeled as ‘Islamic heritage’. From the Buddha production in Pakistani workshops to the representation of the pyramids, from the frescoes of Qusayr ‘Amra to the design of new urban spaces in Iran, from the Hejaz Railways to the Mosque of Isfahan: the chapters tackle themes and artifacts far from each other temporally, culturally and geographically. This underlines how diverse and multifaceted are the Islamic pasts and how varied the representations of the heritages in the ‘Islam’.
At the end of the day, what’s the heritage? It is not simply a monument or an artifact. The heritage is the interpretation of the monument or the artifact as part of a valuable past that should be preserved. It is the way a people sees its own history and legacy, it is how a community represents itself. This is why the heritage is diverse and changing. As written in the introduction: ‘Rather than validating the imagination of a monolithic and temporally cohesive Islamic past, the chapters in this volume encourage an awareness of multiple forms of the pasts that are strategically utilized in the construction of heritage in multiple present contexts’ (p. 8).
It is a good book, clear and to-the-point, that explains with simple words the point of view of the editor and the authors and provides a valuable source for the discussion around the Islamic heritage. I enjoyed a lot reading the chapter on the urbanization in Iran and the idea of ‘Islamic housing’. I read with contrasting feeling the chapter on the frescoes of the Qusayr ‘Amra, bored in the beginning, but much more interested in the final part, when the author examines how the monument is perceived differently, as being part or not of an ‘Islamic heritage’, by different groups. I particularly liked how the author explains how the monument cannot be defined only by the academics studying it, but it needs to be understood also as defined by the local communities and the stakeholders. The only part I did not like much was Ömer Can Aksoy’s contribution about the representation of the Hejaz Railway. I did not particularly like the parallel the author drew between the Neolithic stone carvings and more recent graffiti, but for the rest, I enjoyed this article too.
Do I recommend The Making of Islamic Heritage? I do, particularly to those who think that Islamic art and culture are static entities. This book teaches the reader how everything in the cultural history is negotiated and challenged, and how nothing can be seen as monolithic. The book portrays the reality of the so-called ‘Islamic heritage’, showing how its univocal definition is complicated.