Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | 21:55 WIB

Mosque architecture of Ridwan Kamil: a narrative of power and knowledge relations (part 1)

Jakarta, IO – Almost a year ago, I wrote a critique in this medium about the current outline of development of contemporary mosque architecture in Indonesia. To quickly recall, in this article I framed the latest narratives about mosque design, which have a very political nuance, including the presence of two large mosques in Java, namely, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Solo and the Al Jabbar Grand Mosque in Bandung. 

These two large mosques have attracted the attention of the public – and particularly Muslims – for at least the last 2 years, and appear to embody an architectural design that is very close to aesthetics derived from the cultural heritage of Muslims in the Middle East. In my criticism through this article, apart from the fact that mosque design is part of ijtihadiyah, I questioned the inspiration for design originating from Muslim civilization and culture in the Middle East. Why not develop a critical regionalist design concept, one based on locality? 

Before going any further, I will refresh our knowledge about how contemporary architecture works. Based on a postmodern cultural paradigm, the contemporary style certainly respects subjectivity, especially that based on logic and solid arguments from the architect. In some cases, even established architects can declare their work as their “manifesto”. Apart from that, contemporary architectural works are seen as a cultural text, where discussion not only relates to the realm of architectural theory, but is actually more interesting if viewed in a realm of cultural studies. 

Likewise, contemporary mosque architecture, regardless of the aspects of sharia and mosque law that must be fulfilled: its existence in society will never be separated from the above understanding. The ontological side of today’s mosque designs, especially those designed by certain architects with a certain scale of service, cannot be separated from the context and conditions of the era and society. Furthermore, in the architect’s design process, their epistemology will certainly be influenced by a subjective interpretation of what a mosque is and the non-religious intentions that spice up (or actually underlie) the process of imagination and creativity. 

Throughout history, mosque architecture has been part of a political statement of the power of rulers. The classic Turkish Ottoman mosques, which are also known as the mosques of Architect Mimar Sinan style if seen within modern Turkey, especially in the era of President Erdogan, are proof of the historical phenomenon. This mode is also evident in other regions of Islamic civilization throughout the world. In his book The Cultural Atlas of Islam (1986), Ismail Al Faruqi states that the history of Islamic teaching that created civilization in the world was spread more likely by conquest, except in East Asia, and especially Southeast Asia or Nusantara, where it was through trade and cultural acculturation with the locals, especially the Sufism mode. So, it is normal for regions from Central China to Southeast Asia to have mosque architectural traditions that are very different from the historical regions of other civilizations in the Islamic world. 

In contemporary Indonesian history, there are at least two major records within the history of mosque architecture that contain political statements. First is the development of mosque architecture during the time President Soekarno was in full power. At that time, the core emergent narrative was that of the liberation of the Indonesian people as an inferior nation, and the development of a national character that was independent of and equal to that of developed nations.

Doni Fireza
Doni Fireza, Architect, Lecturer and Researcher in Architecture from Podomoro University, PhD Candidate in Architecture from Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia

From the same perspective, the construction of mosques in this era was often associated with the “Pan Islamism Movement”. Regardless of whether this movement was successful or not, Indonesia is recorded as possessing one important mosque which is a monument from this era, namely, the Istiqlal Mosque. The design of the Istiqlal Mosque is believed to be a fusion of the views of modernism and Pan Islamism in mosque architecture, according to Soekarno’s perspective as the nation’s leader. Along with the name of the mosque, “Istiqlal” means “independence” in Arabic. 

The second note is the presence of hundreds of small mosques inspired by Javanese mosque architecture, through a program to build a thousand mosques throughout Indonesia sponsored by the Amal Bhakti Muslim Pancasila Foundation.

The political narrative of President Soeharto, as Chairman of this Foundation, was clearly visible in the design of the mosque, which later became known as the “Pancasila mosque”, as a form of domination of the history of Islam in Nusantara which began in Java during the Wali Songo era. This Javacentric narrative was then strengthened by building Javanese mosques in areas of Indonesia that were not dominated by Javanese ethnicity, or even far from Javanese cultural centers. It was actually a clever idea in conceptualizing an Indonesian version of Islamic architecture, although the generalization of its application throughout Indonesia is highly questionable. Seeing it as a political strategy is the easiest approach to understanding this action. 

There is one major keyword that emerges from these two precedents, namely, hegemony. What the two rulers of this nation accomplished in narrating the form of architectural design concepts for mosques in Indonesia could very well be seen as a hegemonic act towards the understanding of the nation.

Hegemonic phenomena frequently occur in people’s daily lives, especially in communities that are still based on certain social structures. It’s as simple as the structure in a classroom at school, when the teacher is basically in a hegemonic position over the students, where there is also potential as to whether that dominant position will be exploited or not. There are then major keywords that accompany the keyword hegemony as the basis of this cultural phenomenon, namely, power and knowledge. 

“Knowledge is power”, a phrase coined by the English philosopher Francis Bacon at the beginning of the era of modernism, at the end of the 16th Century, clearly states how hegemony can be exercised by those who are “smarter” over those who are “stupid”. This phrase was also later championed by the colonized nations to encourage improvement in their nation’s education, so that they could escape the colonialism of western nations who were seen as “smarter” in the perspective of modernity at that time.

Bacon’s concept can clearly explain how a stupid people will certainly be more easily dominated by a smarter one. Thus, mastering knowledge is an important strategy in the effort to balance power dominance, where a definition of “power” in the context of this phrase clearly cannot be separated from political domination. 

In postmodern culture, political power exerts a major influence on shaping the meaning of a phenomenon. Continuing from Bacon’s previous statement, in postmodernism power is no longer formed by knowledge, but more to the point, power is actually needed to produce knowledge, as stated by Michel Foucault, a great postmodern French philosopher.

Power historically originates from knowledge, in the form of hegemony, then develops into knowledge actually produced and maintained by certain elements. Projection of power manifests as hegemonic behavior, in controlling what knowledge will be consumed by a society. In the context of mosque architecture, the two examples of hegemony mentioned previously are actual events that have been experienced by the Indonesian people. Reflecting on the case of contemporary mosque architecture, this field cannot of course be separated from the phenomenon of the relationship between political power and control of knowledge. 

Nowadays, the postmodern paradigm has evolved into such new cultural phenomena as “post-truth”, “hyperreality” and “simulacrum”, resulting from the enormous onslaught following the emergence of the internet. Therefore, the relationship of power and knowledge becomes increasingly evident in the formation of public opinion, or even obscures the reality, which is basically the original identity of a culture. Postmodernism indeed blurs the distinction between reality and representation, so that people tend to no longer understand their real identity. 

In the context of the development of contemporary mosque architecture, the issue cannot be isolated from a discourse and tug-of-war between reality and representation concerning how mosque designs in Indonesia today should be displayed. Javanese traditional mosque architecture which, with the induction of mosque architecture from foreign cultures (such as from Arab region and Indian Moghul) formed part of the Islamic identity of this nation, does not reveal which should be the reality or the representation of Indonesian Islamic culture today. The very massive and expansive penetration of social media plays a major role in the formation of this relativity, so that those who cleverly play and control social media will exert a very strong force in shaping public knowledge and opinion. 

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When a cultural issue actively involves an important public figure and has a political agenda, the discussion will of course be very compelling. The Indonesian public certainly understands that over the last 10 years, mass media and social media in the country have been filled with popular news regarding the development of mosque architectural designs dominated by a famous architect and government official named “Architect Ridwan Kamil”.

The exposure of his works through social media and mass media on the internet is countless, whether in the form of official reports related to the development process, or related to the controversies swirling around him. This will inevitably affect the attitude of people regarding what a contemporary mosque should look like. Type “contemporary mosque architecture in Indonesia” into a search engine and the name “Ridwan Kamil”, along with pictures of his architectural works, will always come up on the first page. In the case of contemporary mosque architecture in Indonesia over the last 10 years, the hegemonic nuances resulting from narratives relating to relations of power and knowledge will certainly be interesting to discuss further in the next article.

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