“Materiality and Preservation in Islamic Contexts” is an interdisciplinary research project, launched in January 2015, to investigate and understand the ways in which heritage is constructed and preserved in Qatar, and how this fits with Islamic values in the country. The research is a two-year UCL Qatar project in conjunction with Texas A&M University at Qatar and the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, and it is supported by the Qatar National Research Fund (NPRP 7-551-6-018). The team of researchers is led by Dr Jose Carvajal Lopez, Lecturer in Islamic Archaeology at UCL Qatar. Other researchers taking part in the project are Dr Stavroula Golfomitsou (UCL Qatar), Dr Trinidad Rico (Texas A&M University at Qatar) and Dr Remah Gharib (QFIS).

The aim of the “Materiality” project, as it has come to be known in UCL Qatar, is to consider and investigate alternative ways of heritage construction and preservation tuned up to Islamic values, as understood and practiced by different stakeholders. As it is well known, “heritage” emerges in the Western world out of a particular system of concepts linking history, different forms of value and material elements that work as deposits of those values (like monuments, archaeological sites, special objects, etc). There is a tacit consent in that this system of concepts can be universally applied, and this is the consent in which organisations as important as the UNESCO are based. Can we even think of heritage in an Islamic context if this system of concepts is altered or deleted? This question has been already addressed in other cultural contexts, particularly in Far East Asia, and although the Western system of concepts of heritage was put under question, the end result was the implicit establishment of an opposition between a Western and an Easter system of values. This could be considered another form of Orientalism, and clearly requires re-examination.

Islamic contexts are an interesting case study, not only because we are in Qatar, but also because it is understudied. I want to make emphasis on the plural, because there is not a single Islamic context, but many. It is also important consider that although the opinion of Islamic scholars is usually considered as the fundamental one in interpreting values and principles, the lack of a hierarchical structure or official clergy in Islam implies that opinions between scholars are greatly varied. To this the different opinions potentially held by communities and governments should be added. In summary, this project aims to take into account the difficulty in addressing Islamic values as dependant on many different social factors.

This project has been set up as a structure of research divided in three paths: heritage, conservation and archaeology. My own work, teh part of archaeology, is the object of this presentation. I will present a brief review of the historiography of Middle Eastern archaeology to understand how Islamic values have been considered, and in particular the role of Islamic archaeology. It is interesting to see how Islamic values seem to be completely outside of the archaeological debate, even, or more particularly, within the community of Muslim researchers. In principle, this seems to be the result of the academic consideration of the Middle East as a no-place, a geographical areas existing only in the past; scholars, even if Muslims, are forced to take this consideration as unquestioned in order to get credit in academia, and that eventually means adopting views, theories and procedures which are very different to those of interest to the communities living in there. The configuration of political power is also relevant. In a period of national construction as the one we live in, archaeologists are of course more prone to focus on the particular themes and periods than enhance national construction. Besides these two factors, another element that precludes the development of the discipline of archaeology in relation to eminently Islamic values is the different consideration of time and history in Islamic societies, which is very different from its Western equivalents. Where Western historical constructs depend heavily on the physical materiality, Islamic values are more connected to the particular historical connections surrounding objects and places.

In my presentation, I will focus on one question. How is it possible that archaeology, which was developed in Middle Eastern countries and which has nowadays so many Muslim practitioners, has not engaged earlier with Islamic values. I will do a review of the history of archaeology in Middle Eastern countries, and in particular I will search in the origins of Islamic archaeology. I will suggest that Archaeology has been purposefully only kept separate from these Islamic values in the pursuit of an approach to the past which is not the same as the one that the societies under question have.


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