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Mediums of Belief: Muslim Place Making in 20th Century Turkey


This dissertation explores the contemporary place of Islam in urban life through a mixed-methods project based in Istanbul, Turkey. In cities around the world, the form and practice of Islam is being reshaped by new kinds of political governance, economic development, and cultural consumption. At the same time, debates about religious authority, social integration, and communal identity often revolve around questions of how people move through, transform, and inhabit the public and private spaces of the city as Muslims. Istanbul is a city in which those questions and debates have particular relevance.

On the one hand, Islam is an unmistakable part of the city’s landscape. Istanbul’s mosques and minarets articulate a Muslim urban identity rooted in the very stones of the city. On the other hand, everyday practices of being Muslim in Istanbul today are also inextricable from a rapidly changing set of political, social, and economic transformations. These two dimensions –an Islam rooted in the city and an Islam woven through local, national, and transnational networks – come together in the Istanbul district of Ey?p, long known as one of Istanbul’s most important Muslim shrines. In this dissertation, I argue that Ey?p’s built environment functions as the key medium of connection through which both residents and visitors link themselves to the world around them, an act at the heart of making a place for Islam in the city. I show that the form of the built environment and the meanings it carries are not rooted and unchanging but the outcome of debates and contests between unequally positioned individuals and groups.

Drawing on both archival and ethnographic methods, I show how, why, and with what consequences Ey?p’s built environment has mediated different connections over the course of the 20th century. In Chapter One, I explore three different buildings in Ey?p that connected Islam to the modern in different ways: the construction of a new Halkevi (People’s House), the restoration of the Zal Mahmut Paşa Mosque, and the expansion of Ey?p’s road network. By placing Ey?p’s religious landscape in a particular relationship to the modern city, these projects helped create a new image of urban Islam. Chapter Two turns to the 1990s, a period in which Ey?p’s landscape was configured not as modern but as Ottoman. Excavating the cultural politics of the local municipality and the constellation of institutions, laws, and agendas that made Ey?p’s redevelopment possible, I argue that making Ey?p Ottoman involved the articulation of new connections between past and present even as other connections between residents and the district’s working-class landscapes were erased. Chapter Three focuses on the geography of observance that characterizes Ramadan in Ey?p. Avoiding simple mappings of religious versus secular space, I argue that this geography of Ramadan is best understood in terms of the overlapping connections that link private and public space, internal piety with external observance, and this one district with the world around. In Chapter Four, I examine the normative rules of place that govern how the Mosque of Ey?p Sultan should be used, moved through, and experienced. Rather than be rooted in place, I find that these rules are in fact the product of interconnections between people, places, and narratives. Focusing on three groups typically seen as out of place in the mosque – foreign visitors, tourists, and women – I argue that the greatest tensions are located not in the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims but in the different forms of being Muslim in this mosque.

My archival and ethnographic study of the Istanbul district of Ey?p shows how Islam’s place in the city is made through contested acts of connection. Although these connections take multiple forms and make use of diverse materials, the built environment functions as the key medium through which people articulate meaningful connections with the world around them. This dissertation brings together scholarship in cultural geography, cultural anthropology, urban studies, and Middle East area studies to provide a rich account of how Islam is lived, experienced, and articulated in relation to the changing city of Istanbul.

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