The press, at least, gives the impression that similar radical attitudes exist in other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia.

You are right. There are parts of the Muslim world where those tendencies are present and parts of the Muslim world that have sustained the Taliban. That just goes to confirm that there is no unanimity in Islam with regard to this form of interpretation. Generally speaking, you will see as much diversity in the Islamic world as you do in the Christian world today. That is one of the big problems. The West does not really understand the pluralism of the Islamic world. Things will continue this way.

The Islamic world has been exposed to your pluralism; we have been colonised for decades. We know a certain amount about the different interpretations of the Christian faith. Take the example of the Iranian revolution. Was the word “Shia” in the common language of the Western world before that? If you went around the West and asked what the difference between the Shia and the Sunni interpretations is, how many people could answer? Reverse the question, go into the Muslim world and ask what basic differences there are between Catholicism and Protestantism, for example, and many people would know. There is a gulf of misunderstanding, which is very deep indeed. It is very damaging because the Western world tends to interpret things on the basis of a lack of information and understanding of what is really happening.

Interviewer: Philip Jodidio, Editor in Chief

Published in English and French (click here)

His Highness the Aga Khan, comments on the results of the Architecture Award that bears his name, and also on the “gulf of misunderstanding” that presently separates the West from the Muslim world, in this exclusive interview granted to Philip Jodidio.

Philip Jodido: Can you tell me which of this year’s Award selections you find the most significant?

His Highness the Aga Khan: I would not want my answers to be interpreted as giving a personal placet to certain projects, thereby giving the feeling that, by consequence, the others are not as good. What is important to note is that every three years, certain categories of buildings come within the scope of premiation and others drop out. In a sense, this reflects perceptions by the nominators in the field. There have been categories of buildings that I think the Steering Committee has felt have been missing. The Award is learning about this fluidity in the types of projects that are premiated. In this cycle, we had two projects premiated in landscape and environment, an area of traditional strength in Islamic design. This year’s jury clearly felt that there are new projects coming forward in the Islamic world that address issues of environmental concern at a high level.

The second area of challenge to which some of this cycle’s winners responded is how to impact the transformation process in the rural built environment. I do not believe that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture would be addressing the questions it seeks to address in an equitable manner if we remained blind to rural populations. Creating a high-quality portfolio of premiated projects in this area is very important indeed. The next question is then how to communicate the results to the organisations that are impacting rural environments. With village or women’s organisations, developmental organisations, one can start putting these high-quality rural projects on the table, impacting the way people think. The rural development projects this year are another category I find important. These are not just physical projects; they seek to enhance the capacity of men and women to transform processes outside of the direct periphery of the projects themselves. This happens by training people so that they can do the same things in other rural environments, for example.

As far as other categories of the Award are concerned, I feel that we are still weak in what I would call productive or industrial buildings. The promoters of enterprise in the Islamic world are still mainly concerned about the viability of the enterprises they are creating. I do not criticise their intent, I am merely trying to explain why we are not seeing many outstanding industrial projects brought forward.

PJ: Is it possible for fundamentally modest architectural projects to make a real difference in the life of those concerned? Can architecture truly improve the quality of life in areas that are disfavoured?

AK: One of the most important things we have to do is to make these projects available to the largest spectrum possible of organisations that are impacting the processes of change in the rural environment. I hope that Archnet (http://archnet.org, is an on-line community, electronic resource and archive established as a collaborative venture between the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a focus on the built environment of Islamic societies) will be one of the vehicles to carry this to the widest public possible. A healthy process of change in rural environments will be one of the factors that will impact the stability of these populations versus the pressures toward urbanisation.

If the physical environment in the rural context has at least a minimum level of quality, I think people will be less tempted to enter the instability, the poverty and the insecurity of the peripheral areas of the mega-cities.

PJ: Do you feel that the Award has made a lasting contribution to the understanding of the potential significance of architecture in Islamic countries?

People say that the Award has caused a significant new process of questioning. Most of the players who are impacting the process of physical change do so today with a new set of questions.

AK: It is difficult for me to answer that question. I can only repeat what others have said to me. People say that the Award has caused a significant new process of questioning. Most of the players who are impacting the process of physical change do so today with a new set of questions. Secondly, when I started enquiring about this field, the basic pedagogical material for architectural practices did not exist in terminology that was an expression of Islamic culture. There exists today, after nearly a quarter century of Award activity, a minimum critical mass of pedagogical information, of publications and of access to photographic or design material. Twenty-five years ago, the Islamic world was ostracised from this sort of material. The third dimension of the Award can be stated in terms of new sources of inspiration, new thought processes that were not as clearly articulated before as they are today.

PJ: Do you feel that the message of tolerance embodied in the Award has been sufficiently heard in the West?

AK: In the constituency in the West that is focused on architecture and the built environment, I would say yes. These persons are now sufficiently informed about the pluralism of Islamic cultures, about the historic legitimacy of pluralistic responses to various types of buildings. Outside of that group, perhaps not. The general media have not picked up on the Award as being anywhere near as important as the architectural professionals have felt it to be. Perhaps the processes of the Award could now be enlarged to other domains of human endeavour, but that is another question entirely.

PJ: Does the Islamic faith offer guidance in the treatment of the monuments of other religions, civilisations and cultures? This question is posed in Afghanistan, but also in Israel, for example. Is the tolerance that you have always defended an article of faith which you feel others must adhere to, or is it a question beyond religion that has more to do with the underlying values of any civilisation?

In peacetime, Islam has three sources of understanding on such subjects. The first is the Qur’an, the second is the Hadith or Tradition, that is to say accounts of statements and actions of the Prophet Muhammad as recorded over the course of history. The last is the example of the actions of the Prophet towards the Christian community or the Jewish community of his time.

AK: There are two answers. If you look at the historical processes of change in the Islamic world, they have been similar to those in the Christian world. One of the forces of change for all civilisations, unfortunately, has been war. Conflict situations are driven by concepts of victory, power and elimination of inherited culture, and not by the underlying values of civilisation. This was also the case in Eastern Europe recently. I would thus like to isolate the situation of war from that of peace. In peacetime, Islam has three sources of understanding on such subjects. The first is the Qur’an, the second is the Hadith or Tradition, that is to say accounts of statements and actions of the Prophet Muhammad as recorded over the course of history. The last is the example of the actions of the Prophet towards the Christian community or the Jewish community of his time. My answer is that in peace, there is sufficient information from these three sources together to say that cultural pluralism is absolutely acceptable to Islam. With regard to the Taliban attitudes towards the Bamiyan statues, for example, it is important to note the variety of attitudes that exist towards sculpture in the Muslim world. Indeed, one remarkable landscaping project, Bagh-e-Ferdowsi, premiated in the recent Award cycle, and which had been commissioned by the Municipality of Tehran, incorporated numerous elegant sculptures, which substantially added to the park’s quality and uniqueness, and to the enjoyment of its visitors.

PJ: Recent events, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, give the impression that art and architecture have been central, almost iconic, elements in what appears to be a religious war. Isn’t Islam pitted against Christianity or Judaism in a war of icons?

When you isolate the Taliban situation in regard to the Islamic world, and you try to find comparable situations in Christian history, it is as if the Muslims, looked back to the Inquisition and concluded that the Inquisition correctly reflects the ethics of Christianity. What we are talking about in reality is a strong minority of people committed to their own particular interpretation which they seek to impose on others.

AK: In Afghanistan, you make reference to a situation of war. Taliban attitudes toward the sculptures of Bamiyan, for example, concern a minute number of people who are interpreting Islam in a particular way and applying their interpretation to all aspects of civil society, not just the Buddhist sculptures. I want to be very frank. I think there is a massive gulf of understanding and knowledge between the non-Muslim world, and I mean particularly the West and the Islamic world. It is stunning to me that the under­standing of the history and faith of a billion people, is so totally absent from what you and I would call the general culture of the Western world. When you isolate the Taliban situation in regard to the Islamic world, and you try to find comparable situations in Christian history, it is as if the Muslims, looked back to the Inquisition and concluded that the Inquisition correctly reflects the ethics of Christianity. What we are talking about in reality is a strong minority of people committed to their own particular interpretation which they seek to impose on others. If we made that mistake vis-a-vis the West, I think Christians would say that we don’t know a thing about the Western world. Is that correct?

PJ: The Inquisition occurred long ago …

AK: Yes, but I am giving this example as a format for discussion. There are other examples in the developing world today. In all these cases, a minute number of people have tried to convince the rest of the world that their interpretation of the faith is the only acceptable one. And they attempt to impose their views with methods that are not acceptable. Let me get back to the basic premise. I do not believe that the totality of the Islamic world recognises the Taliban interpretation of the faith as being representative of their own view. We are not talking about conflicts of civilisation but rather of minute expressions, which exist in many different faiths. They exist in Hindu, Muslim or Christian groups, and indeed others. With regard to Afghanistan, many Islamic organisations, including the Islamic Conference, tried to encourage the Taliban to change their ways. It is not just the Western world that failed, it is the entire civilised world that has failed in Afghanistan.

PJ: The press, at least, gives the impression that similar radical attitudes exist in other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia.

AK: You are right. There are parts of the Muslim world where those tendencies are present and parts of the Muslim world that have sustained the Taliban. That just goes to confirm that there is no unanimity in Islam with regard to this form of interpretation. Generally speaking, you will see as much diversity in the Islamic world as you do in the Christian world today. That is one of the big problems. The West does not really understand the pluralism of the Islamic world. Things will continue this way. The Islamic world has been exposed to your pluralism; we have been colonised for decades. We know a certain amount about the different interpretations of the Christian faith. Take the example of the Iranian revolution. Was the word “Shia” in the common language of the Western world before that? If you went around the West and asked what the difference between the Shia and the Sunni interpretations is, how many people could answer? Reverse the question, go into the Muslim world and ask what basic differences there are between Catholicism and Protestantism, for example, and many people would know. There is a gulf of misunderstanding, which is very deep indeed. It is very damaging because the Western world tends to interpret things on the basis of a lack of information and understanding of what is really happening.

PJ: And that is the fault of the media?

AK: No, it is the education process that is at fault. If general knowledge at the beginning of this century can continue to ignore the basic dynamics of a billion people on the face of our planet, that is a phenomenal fact. But it is true. If you look at compulsory schooling at the primary or secondary level across Western Europe or North America, what is taught about the Islamic world? It is not part of general knowledge. It simply is not.

PJ: Aside from the Award, do you see other ways of bridging this gulf of misunderstanding?

There needs to be much more basic knowledge of Islamic peoples, their cultures, their countries, demographics and climates. My organisations have some programs that are working on that already, particularly in North America.

AK: Yes. It has to be done from within the Western world. I would hope that they would recognise this problem and that they would seek to address it. Secondly, they need partners from within the Islamic world. My sense is that it has to be driven within the academic context and not the theological context. There needs to be much more basic knowledge of Islamic peoples, their cultures, their countries, demographics and climates. My organisations have some programs that are working on that already, particularly in North America.

PJ: Is there not, after all, undoubtedly because of this gulf of misunderstanding of which you speak, a certain escalation of the conflict between Islam and the West, or does the Afghan problem merely create that impression?

AK: No, I don’t think that. What is happening is different. You are seeing the pullulation of political wounds. It you leave a wound open long enough, it will just infect more and more around it. Unless there is a consistent, vigorous, international commitment to address these issues, these wounds will continue to cause damage all around them. The worst, of course, is the Middle East. If you look into groups based in the Philippines, in Chechnya, or in Afghanistan, you can trace them back in one way or another to the situation in the Middle East. I do not see a purposeful conflictual attitude in the Islamic world with respect to the non-Muslims. The next example would be Kashmir. Here is another of these situations that has survived for decades, which has tended to pit a Muslim country against a secular country with a Hindu majority. I do not believe that there is a conflict of cultures. There are very sick foci that are infecting international relations as well as cultural and faith relations. I make a very vigorous difference between that fact, and the idea of a conflict of civilisations. I believe, on the contrary, that there is probably more inter-faith and inter-cultural harmony on subjects like the ethics of civil society today than there has ever been before. It is, as always, the foci of conflict that tend to dominate the media coverage.

PJ: Are only international organisations such as the United Nations able to bring the parties of the conflicts to which you refer to their senses?

[F]aith organisations can do more by talking to each other in more structured ways, and converting their dialogues into expressions of common purpose. Just talking is one thing; having a real effect on civil society is another.

AK: I think the UN is going to be very important. I would also like to see more investment by the Western world in sustaining pluralism in society. That is not criticism, but I think that there have been varying degrees of commitment to state or government support of pluralism. To me, the epitome of the countries that have moved in this direction is Canada, which expends significant amounts of central and state funding in support of pluralist emanations of Canadian populations. This has been a remarkable achievement, and one that deserves to be analysed to see if it can be adapted or re-utilised in other Western societies. Simultaneously, faith organisations can do more by talking to each other in more structured ways, and converting their dialogues into expressions of common purpose. Just talking is one thing; having a real effect on civil society is another.

PJ: And this attitude characterises not only the Award, but also your other activities?

AK: I believe so. I have done the best I could to move these ideas forward. I can’t say if I have been successful or not. Time and results are the only way to tell.

Original in French

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