The Making of Islamic Heritages: An Overview of Disciplinary Interventions

  • Trinidad Rico
Open Access
Part of the Heritage Studies in the Muslim World book series (HSMW)


This chapter introduces the challenge that brought together the contributors to this collection of essays, describing the trajectory that heritage studies has had in the face of established discourses about Islam and heritage in order to suggest ways in which these perceptions can be disrupted. In this introductory chapter, I define the value of involving different disciplinary conversations and forms of expertise that entangle specific languages, boundaries, categories, and concerns in the shaping of “Islamic heritage” as a subject of study. I propose that a consideration of alternative modes of thinking and established biases may be an essential tool to rupture the current problematic trajectory in critical heritage work about Muslim communities and their construction of heritage value.


Expertise interdisciplinarity critical heritage 

Making Heritages

In a space of definitional ambiguity and through an appeal to inclusivity, both Islam and heritage have been said to be “all things to all people” (Ahmed 1998, xi; Larkham 1995, 85). In consideration of this simultaneously privileged and inconvenient proposition, this collection of chapters takes the intersection of these complex concepts—Islamic heritage—as a challenging site of construction, where different viewpoints, in the form of disciplines, their sources and methods of analysis, shape both a subject of study and a process of heritage recognition. This collection does not aim to promote the existence of a discrete category of “Islamic heritage” or characterize or authorize what is “Islamic” about this construct; contributors do acknowledge, however, that Islamic heritage as a category is often constructed and circulated as a discrete, identifiable designation. Therefore, these chapters are not addressing heritage from a teleological position—they neither prescribe how to maintain or define a relationship between religious, sacred, and secular values in the work of tangible and intangible heritage in Muslim contexts,1 nor do they aim to promote or endorse any specific iteration of Islamic heritage.2 Rather than doing this type of definitional work, this concise collection of essays takes a processual approach, considering practices of designating (or erasing) value that can be conceptualized—but may not be explicitly referred to—as “heritage” in the context of Islam and the disciplinary viewpoints that mediate these processes.

This emphasis is motivated by a positional challenge that is core to advances in critical heritage studies. On the one hand, it considers whether practices for heritage preservation in Muslim contexts can be productively discussed in opposition to (Western) dominant heritage practices (or AHD, see Smith 2006); and on the other hand, it remains considerate of the imposition of reductionist conceptual orthodoxies that are embedded in the very notion of “heritage” and what is expected of heritage practices. Therefore, the focus of the chapters in this collection lies on the way that different disciplines facilitate specific heritage debates as they navigate the concept of Islamic heritage through their particular methodologies, sources, languages, and boundaries. In doing so, each disciplinary viewpoint enables specific genres of stakeholders that may be instrumental to understanding the construction of Islamic heritage in the present and in the past.3 The inclusion of nondisciplinary stakeholders in particular has been central to the development of critical heritage approaches worldwide, which promote inclusivity of subaltern voices as a way toward decentralization of authority and a pluralization of heritage histories and methods (see, for example, Meskell 2011; Shackel 2009; Shepherd 2002). However, considering a form of agency that cannot be dissociated from disciplinary constructions of heritage but which remains largely un-problematized (Rico 2017), I have encouraged contributors to suspend momentarily an emphasis on the prioritization of stakeholders and their voices. I asked them instead to tackle reflexively the ways in which their discipline constructs and promotes instruments and platforms for the inclusion of plural “Islamic heritages,” relying on assumptions about the way that the past and the present are mediated. In so doing, these chapters contribute to our understanding of the way that heritage is implicated in the work of “othering” (Butler 2006, 463), differentiating, and ordering populations (Bennett 2006; Bennett et al. 2017).

The subtitle of this edited collection, Muslim Pasts and Heritage Presents, presents an intentional asymmetry in terms, hinting at the diverse and nonlinear ways in which the past and the present are made to connect through constructions of Islamic heritage. Whereas there have been plenty of definitions proposed for heritage, the centrality of the present in its process of construction makes heritage best understood and managed as “a contemporary product shaped from history” (Turnbridge and Ashworth 1996, 20). However, the nature of the “present-centeredness” of heritage is not thoroughly addressed by the discipline of heritage studies (Harvey 2001, 3), enabling the circulation of established thematic restrictions and temporal biases in the construction of disciplinary histories—undiscerningly and against the objectives of a critical turn for the discipline. In his article “Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents,” David Harvey (2001) argues that heritage has always been produced and consumed in contextually appropriate ways. He questions the persistence of a surprisingly linear history of heritage—or “heritage of heritage”—and argues that it is the product of restricted geographical and temporal information with an uncontested point of origin in nineteenth-century Europe. Furthermore, he contends that there has been little effort to pluralize heritage practices in consideration of shifting presents that should result in extremely diverse heritage histories (Harvey 2001, 6). Therefore, a consideration of the restrictions brought about by disciplinary modes of seeing brings them to the foreground for further examination. In this book, we begin the dual work of charting additional geographical and temporal engagements in the improvement of disciplinary histories of critical heritage studies and of mapping Islamic heritages as active constructs that are negotiated in specific contexts and beyond the dominance of present-day themes of conflict and destruction (Rico 2014).

With this temporally dynamic focus in mind, this volume brings together different disciplinary vantage points and considerations on the construction of Islamic heritage as a subject of study. This effort considers, for example, the way that a predominantly visual appraisal of heritage value relies on and does definitional work through aesthetics, resulting in a heritage resource that is documented predominantly, if not exclusively, through its aesthetic value. Likewise, a historical appraisal of heritage leads to the creation of a heritage construct that is defined extensively through its historicity, and so on. Overlooked possibilities of inquiry include an examination of the circumstances under which construction, destruction, and mobilization of heritage value in Muslim contexts and sources occur as well as the channels of authority and expertise that are deployed in these processes. Different disciplinary engagements with Islamic heritage reiterate and authorize established patterns and themes of discussion—informing and appealing to concerned heritage audiences internationally at a time of widespread tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities and state actors worldwide.

Therefore, the work of critically reappraising Islamic heritage in this volume considers not only what the construct of Islamic heritage authorizes and perpetuates but also what different disciplines that contribute to heritage studies allow Islamic heritage to authorize and perpetuate through their practices, values, and standards. The chapters in this volume confront many of the preconceptions involved in addressing Islamic heritage as a construct that foregrounds heritage as a material and monolithic category—an indicator of the powerful dominance of notions attached to “heritage.” This materialist construction of Islamic heritage is the subject of a number of misconceptions that have persisted over time and that have had significant influence on disciplinary approaches to this type of material culture from within the heritage industry, including: that historical Islamic narratives must be understood from a past-centered perspective; that Islamic heritage serves an Islamic past; and that Islamic values are static and perceptible (see Bashir 2014). When considered as an overlapping set of truth claims, these preconceptions help us to understand the fleeting nature of any definition of Islamic heritages as an analytical construct that should be addressed in the context of changing contemporary notions of Muslim material culture. With this problematic in mind, contributors face the challenge of exploring how disciplinary interventions effectively create Islamic heritages, with the aim of addressing—or rather, redressing—the place of Islamic heritage within their own disciplinary practices and in order to redirect discussions of this topic in more varied and constructive directions.

Disciplinary Interventions

Attending to the most visible issue in the study of heritage as the product of disciplinary intersections, the contributors to this collection feature case studies that support significantly different constructions of heritage as a subject of study. For example, Shahzad Bashir argues through the lens of religious studies that heritage is that which is made valuable in a given context, a “valuable past” that is based on assessments of worth and which can be observed to be a factor of continuous significance in Islam. His contribution ( Chapter 2) considers the production and circulation of this value in dynamic association with Islamic historical identity. He considers the diversity of relationships with the past that can be read, observed, and otherwise deduced from documented engagements with subjects of “Islamic heritage” at different times, in order to demonstrate that this process cannot be settled into a single narrative. In this work, Bashir argues that attention be paid to the constructive role of text in the creation of and attitudes toward heritage. Consequently, what is to be regarded as Islamic heritage depends fundamentally on today’s understanding of the frame within which it was produced, and to this effect, he advocates that we take note of the particularities of the Islamic evidence that we encounter while remaining mindful of our own interpretive commitments.

On a related argument, R. Michael Feener’s discussion ( Chapter 3) offers a historical perspective that characterizes the variety of Muslim experiences with and appreciation of pre-Islamic cultural legacies as processes of making meaning in terms of Islam. Feener examines these processes through a series of historical vignettes describing medieval and early modern encounters between Muslims and the material remains of past civilizations that remained visible in the lands where they lived, ranging from Egypt to the Indonesian island of Java. Taken together, the historical data presented in this chapter compellingly demonstrate that there is no single, normative “Islamic” approach to the cultural heritage of pre-Islamic civilizations, as there are different types of engagements with and appreciations of elements of pre-Islamic pasts.

There are also different types of outcomes during the cultural encounters that contextualize these approaches. In parallel to calls for “authenticity” that are central to many preservation discourses, Feener argues that hybrid or vernacular products in the Muslim world may be subject to calls for “purification.” Ali Mozaffari and Nigel Westbrook’s contribution ( Chapter 4) addresses such a process by examining the “model community” of Shushtar Noʾw in Iran. Shushtar Noʾw was intended to bridge the gap between Iranian culture, its heritage, and modern urbanism through the mobilization of architectural motifs and images that were used to evoke and perhaps invoke “authentic” traditional life. Mozaffari and Westbrook examine the construction of this site in the context of a twofold process that destabilizes the way in which this Islamic architectural heritage discourse is formed: on the one hand, they bring attention to the complex networks that constructed “Islamic housing” in a process that implicated colonial governing of “indigeneity” in French North Africa, and on the other hand, they consider the way in which this particular site was constructed to become an icon of Islamic heritage preservation through the designation of value by powerful forms of expertise, which had the ability to turn otherwise dissonant and vernacularized heritage constructs into authentic and exemplary forms of heritage preservation and management.

In a different example of the coexistence of dichotomous frameworks, Ömer Can Aksoy’s work ( Chapter 5) challenges the validity of the identifier, “Islamic,” in the construction of Islamic heritage, while considering its use in institutional designations across Saudi Arabia. Considering the mastering of chronological hierarchies in Islam through archaeological and museum sources, Aksoy argues that, while Islamic heritage is used to define tangible and intangible heritage institutionally, it is simultaneously problematized through the view that all pasts can be made into Islamic pasts, beyond chronological and geographical particularities. The absence of contrast against which things can be made Islamic, he suggests, results in a peculiar situation: one in which no period of the past is framed as Islamic within the context of the Islamic world. He examines this articulation through an exploration of Saudi Arabian museums and the Hejaz Railway, both of which are presented as products of an official Wahhabi historiography and heritage management despite archaeological evidence that may suggest an emphasis on other chronologies.

Focusing on the role of conservation’s intervention in the authentication of chronologies, Gaetano Palumbos’s contribution ( Chapter 6) considers the way in which images define the “Islamic” authority of a site. He summarizes the history of interventions in Qusayr’ Amra, Jordan, as a process that simultaneously clarifies the phases of production of a site across its periods of occupation while also obscuring a disciplinary ability to clearly designate the “Islamic value” of this heritage place in the face of the uncovering of features that could be seen as “un-Islamic.” While conservators and archaeologists at the site consider the potential and actual tensions involved in this palimpsest of imageries and what it means for the place of Qusayr’ Amra in the formative history of “Islamic art,” the relatively recent involvement of nondisciplinary stakeholders reveals that a variety of interpretations of the site are able to coexist through the ambiguous lens of Islamic heritage—a construct that extends beyond the authority of the designation “Islamic art,” which is specific to disciplinary discourses. As Palumbo highlights in this chapter, this plurality may complicate the management of this heritage site for conservators and archaeologists who would benefit from a clearer articulation of value systems.

Echoing the tensions expected from the multiple and dissonant heritage values of different groups in Qusayr’ Amra, the final chapter of this collection ( Chapter 7) considers the widespread misconception that Muslim communities actively refuse to coexist and engage with non-Muslim heritages. Hassan Asif and I offer a discussion of the ways in which individuals and groups negotiate their engagements with Gandharan Buddhist art as a non-Islamic art form in consideration of their own faith and societal rules, and against widely circulated examples and debates on the merit of iconoclasm of Buddhist heritage in the region. This ethnographic case study demonstrates a way in which artists partake in the production of “Islamic” stone sculpture in the public realm, and “Buddhist” heritage in the private realm, while successfully negotiating the heritage value of an archaeological past, the responsibility of maintaining secrecy in their own Muslim society, and the demands of an international market for Buddhist art. Rather than conceptualizing the work of these artists in terms of redressing a widespread notion in heritage studies of dissonant or conflicting values, this chapter encourages a more nuanced understanding of the vital ways in which disciplinary modes of seeing can differ from local ways of negotiating participation in Islamic and non-Islamic heritage making.

This final chapter, in particular, draws attention to the way that disciplinary involvements may disrupt otherwise coherent ontologies within and about the production of Islamic heritage in the present. Furthermore, this discussion suggests that we should work to identify ways in which disciplinary interventions create or enhance conflicting encounters themselves, even while they claim to reveal them. To this end, the authors in this collection bring much-needed complexity to global preservation history itself, which has often simplified the encounter of Muslim subjects with non-Muslim material culture in light of contemporary geopolitics and biases. What we learn from Bashir’s perspective is that overlapping and competing discourses about the past coexist, as he urges that we embrace the problematization of temporality in order to avoid reading different contexts as simple continuations of one another that cohere in a linear chronological development for Islamic attitudes toward the past. Feener’s chapter demonstrates that culture contact between Muslim and non-Muslims results in interesting vernacular and cosmopolitan heritages. Mozaffari and Westbrook argue that what is discussed as vernacular and “syncretic” heritage can be nonetheless transformed into authentic forms of heritage that exist simultaneously as the product of various reactions to culture contact and as forms of resistance to forces of globalization. Aksoy’s discussion highlights that the very ability of Islamic heritage to exist is negotiated contextually through a resistance to acknowledge the existence of anything outside of “Islam.” We learn from Palumbo’s contribution that the coexistence of a palimpsest of “Islamic” and “non-Islamic” art is not easily resolved by disciplinary interventions that rely on linearity of time and coherence of style in the search for “authenticity,” but that the inclusion of diverse nondisciplinary stakeholders enables the coexistence of multiple viewpoints.

Taken together, these chapters demonstrate that a deeper examination of the texts, narratives, standards, methodologies, and modes of inquiry that are used to understand the mobilization of Islamic heritages is needed. Moreover, these discussions suggest that agents of heritage construction, which include heritage experts, scholars, and nondisciplinary stakeholders alike, problematize the ideas of “heritage values” and “Islamic values” in ingenious ways, fitting different narratives of the past to different purposes in active modes of production. Hence, it is important to understand the connections and roles involved in the examination of a material culture that is constructed to act as the heritage of Muslim communities. 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. Despite the diversity of case studies and approaches, the contributions collected here argue in unison that values ascribed on specific heritages across the Muslim world are associated with the ways of seeing of disciplinary frameworks, informed by social and political milieus that contextualize them and circulated as artifacts in conversation with broader disciplinary debates and sources.


  1. 1.

    See the critical work on issues of material religion by Morgan, “Introduction: The Matter of Belief,” and Meyer and Houtman, “Introduction: How Things Matter.”

  2. 2.

    Discussions in this volume unanimously address Islamic heritage as a temporally, spatially, and disciplinarily situated construct. As such, it would be preferably addressed within quotes, as “Islamic heritage,” as a way of explicitly recognizing that the term is used as an analytical construct that should be conceptualized within discussions offered by each author. However, considering the numerous times that this term is used throughout this collection, I have taken the editorial decision to keep the term without quotes, except where authors use them to highlight specific issues they are discussing.

  3. 3.

    For example, see Assi, Islamic Waqf and Management of Cultural Heritage Palestine, for discussions of the historical construction of architectural heritage, and Peutz, Bedouin “Abjection”: World Heritage, Worldliness, and Worthiness at the Margins of Arabia, for an ethnographic example of the significance of subaltern voices in the construction of heritage value.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Trinidad Rico
    • 1
  1. 1.Rutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA

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