The assassination of Muhammad Said al-Bouti, one of contemporary Islam’s most distinguished scholars and impressive minds, represents one of the great losses of the devastating Syrian civil war, a loss that remains all but unnoticed in much of the West.
A suicide bomber murdered Dr. al-Bouti and many others in a mosque located in one of the supposedly safest neighborhoods of the Syrian capital of Damascus, while the scholar, as was his custom for more than forty years, gave a morning lesson on March 21, 2013, to an educated and faithful audience; many of these devoted students also died in the bombing.
The crime remains officially unsolved to this day: Syria’s warring factions blamed each other as they washed their hands of the blood that stained the carpets and walls of the Iman Mosque and dripped on the pages of the Qur’an that Dr. al-Bouti held as he discussed the verses of Surah al-Imran that fateful morning. As a scholar, he was prolific, leaving behind a legacy of more than sixty books and countless recordings in which he addressed innumerable controversies and challenges related to Islam, Muslims, and our recent times.
One book in particular, Dialogue About Civilizational Issues, wrestles with one of today’s most pressing questions: Can Western culture and Islamic culture be reconciled? The struggle for identity, which dominates virtually every aspect of life in a troubled region the world has called the Middle East, lies at the root of this question.
As a Syrian architect, I have been occupied with this struggle ever since I was a student trying to understand a parallel problem all architects, even those in the West, grapple with in this new era: In which style should we build? The question remains unanswered after modernist architecture and globalization appropriated any attempts to define an authentic architectural style; the Middle East, meanwhile, remains a region where even the application of modernism has failed.
The clash between the old Islamic city and the architecture of colonization remains evident all over the Middle East. In Syria, during the early twentieth century, French colonial authorities, using urbanization principles alien to the Syrian context, re-planned the old Islamic cities to enforce control and compartmentalize society. In the 1930s, the French assigned architect Michel Ecochard the task of “modernizing” the Syrian Islamic “vulgar” city as part of their urban colonial strategy.
As in post-revolution Paris, colonial urbanization introduced the Haussmann principles of wide-open streets and boulevard planning and pushed the city’s growth outside the old city’s walls. Newly created modern boulevard housing created class division by luring the wealthy away from the old city and also encouraged sectarian division, as economic and political favoritism pitted one sect over the other, consequently isolating neighborhoods.
Colonial urbanization proved neither subtle nor nuanced, it required blowing up entire Damascus neighborhoods, making clear-outs in various parts of the city, and relocating entire monuments to thin the traditionally uncontrolled, closely knit urban fabric. To maintain these wholesale changes, administrators tailored building and planning laws and legislation to better fit the task of modernization as a form of political control and a fulfillment of economic interests.