Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Approach of Akkach, and The Fundamental Error of Perennialism

My own research into Medieval architecture, cosmology, and theology shares similar goals with Samer Akkach’s book, “Cosmology and Architecture in Pre-modern Islam”. Akkach sought out to see how pre-modern Islam could help us to understand out present conditions, and how pre-modern Islam could enable us to penetrate into worlds of meanings that seem completely closed to contemporary architects. The focus on pre-modern Islam was determined by the possibility it could “enable us to conceive of a significant possibility of being, one wherein architecture can be seen to interconnect intrinsically with all aspects of being.” His reading is not concerned with formal, stylistic, or aesthetic qualities but rather with the intricacies of the conditions of being.

Furthermore, Akkach’s study shifts focus away from style and history to ontology and cosmology, in an effort for architecture to become a useful tool to access new literature, engage different sources, and organize knowledge about profound topics, rather than being the prime target of explanation. “By this shift I aim to use architecture to make the reader aware of certain patterns of thought within the pre-modern Islamic tradition, instead of the normal scenarios where conceptual patterns are constructed to explain the nature and particularity of architecture. This has two advantages: first, shifting focus away from architecture itself liberates architectural forms from the burden of historicity and causal interpretation, that is, finding causes (including meanings) to explain formal qualities; second, it enables one to access a wider spectrum of literary material, breaks disciplinary boundaries, and unfolds new interpretations. This approach tends to emphasise the cogency and significance of the constructed narratives, whereby architecture becomes a suitable tool to understand the working of a pre-modern spatial sensibility and its coherent cosmology.”

Akkach adopts a “symbolic” approach, and situates himself critically within the perennialist camp of scholars. An important approach of the perennialists involves the use of symbols, and the interpretation of symbols. Mircea Eliade benefited extensively from the use of symbols in his exploration of religious symbolism and my research has rested on the understanding of sacredness presented by Eliade in “Sacred & Profane”. Thankfully, Eliade wrote from outside the perennialist camp, even though his studies were instrumental in refining the methodological tools of symbolism within the perennialist camp.

I say thankfully because the perennialist camp presents a problem when considering the theme of world religions. Essentially, the perennialists maintain that a certain ‘transcendent unity’ is present in all religions; all religions lead to a summit at which they all converge. The perennialist argument, intentionally or not, disregards the uniqueness and difference inherent within each religion. It is that uniqueness and difference that allows any sort of ‘transcendence’ or ‘summit’. To forget the unique mystery of any of the religions in question is to preclude ‘transcendence’ or ‘summit’.

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