When the Swiss minaret ban first broke, I noted that minarets were often expressions of Islamic political dominance. Many dismissed this as an “Islamophobic” idea. But now it has been affirmed by Tarek Kahlaoui, assistant professor of Islamic art history and history at Rutgers University — no doubt a dyed-in-the-wool “Islamophobe.” To be sure, Kahlaoui then denies that minarets are assertions of dominance, but only after he has provided examples of their being just that.
“Misunderstanding the minaret,” by Tarek Kahlaoui for Arab News, December 12 (thanks to James):
[…] So the more serious discussion is not about one single political statement at one single point in time but about the significance of the minaret throughout time. It is true that Muslims began the tradition of adhan (call to prayer), which is frequently and wrongly seen as the minaret’s primary function, even before minarets came into existence. It should be noted here that the Swiss objection does not seem to be primarily focused on the function of prayer calling, for none of the four existing minarets in Switzerland is actually used for that purpose.
But what is perceived now as exclusively Islamic minarets are in fact inherently pre-Islamic, notably Christian. Minarets were introduced in the process of conquest such as in the earliest surviving imperial mosque — the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus — in the beginning of the 8th century. Minarets were in this case an appropriation of a Byzantine church’s bell towers.
Slowly minarets became one of the elements asserting the grandeur and influence of big mosques financed by the early Islamic states, notably between the 8th and the 10th centuries. The Damascus Mosque’s minarets seem to have been imitated later in the 10th century when the rulers of Andalusian Cordoba were aspiring to rival the major Islamic eastern caliphates. The helicoidal 9th century minarets in the mosques of the Abbasid city of Samarra, which are the largest mosques in pre-modern history, seem to have been imitated in Egypt in the same century. Yet minarets were not a constant element. In the eastern Islamic lands, especially within the Persian space, minarets seem to play a minor role. At some point in the 14th century minarets in Iran were simply decorative accessories for huge portals with big domes in the background.
It is probably with the Turkic dynasties, culminating with the Ottomans since the 15th century, that minarets would be equated with Islamic images in the Western European imaginaire. It has been widely reported in the European travelogues that one of the first acts of Ottomans after conquering Constantinople in 1453 was the insertion of a minaret at one of the corners of the Byzantine church of Haghia Sophia. In fact, the Ottomans seemed to have used the minaret as one of the elements to visually appropriate conquered Byzantine churches and convert them to mosques. They tended also to build monumental minarets, sometimes four, in their new mosques….
It thus appears that the historical significance of the minaret was not homogenic. It seems that the dominant tendency, especially within the Muslim diaspora, was the construction of minarets as an act of cultural affiliation and remembrance rather than of expressing dominance. It is utterly simplistic to assign to the minaret the intention of politico-religious conquest, for even in the case of Muslim hard-liners, their specific understanding of one single architectural element is defined by the dominant modern view of their community that is of cultural affiliation and remembrance rather than by their explicit political views….