Chicago, Babylon

The Sears Tower in Chicago, renamed the Willis Tower in 2009, was once renowned for being the tallest skyscraper in the world, outstripping even the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in its bid to reach the heavens. It too stands fantastically high—an awesome testament to human ingenuity, American power, and hubris.

"Sears Tower" by Zulema (zoblue) (, used under CC BY-NC- SA 2.0.

In his musical homage to Illinois, the American songwriter, Sufjan Stevens, weaves together a collection of allusive, often dark and beautiful vignettes about the Prairie State subtly suffused with a spirit of Biblical mysticism. In the haunting song, “The Seer’s Tower,” evoking images of the Tower of Babel, Stevens intones ominously about the “tower above the earth [...] built for Emmanuel.”

Seven miles above the earth,
There is Emmanuel of mothers.
With his sword, with his robe,
He comes dividing man from brothers.

Like God’s fateful decision to alienate the living from one another at Babel by creating intractable differences between them, the earthly arrival of the son of God, foretold in the prophecy of Emmanuel, also presaged division and conflict in the city of man. Once God is among us, a sacred unity is broken. Between the believers and the damned, the harbingers of divine truth leave only violence in their wake.

The play on the words, “Seer/Sear,” in the title of Stevens’s song conjures up prophetic visions and the violence they portend as much as the God’s eye view of the city from the top of the Chicago landmark. It is perhaps fitting then that his own forename, Sufjan, was also inspired by a kind of religious wordplay redolent of conflict in its reference to Abu Sufyan, a divisive figure in the tribal politics of early Islam whose name also holds particular significance today in the sectarian wars raging in Syria and Iraq. An avowed opponent of the Prophet Muhammad for much of his life, Abu Sufyan is revered by Sunnis as a repentant sinner, a cousin of the “Rightly Guided” Caliph Uthman, and the father of Muawiya I, founder of the Umayyad dynasty. He is despised, however, by the Shi’a who view him as the instigator of the rise of the Ummayads who was jealous of the Prophet’s power, and the grandfather to Muawiya’s son and heir, Yezid, on whose orders the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussain, was martyred at Karbala.

In the cradle of civilization, where the water of life and the blood of martyrs flow, today’s religious battles imbibe their ancient pasts. The town of Babel (Babil), location of the mythical tower evoked obliquely by Stevens, lies very near to Karbala, barely an hour’s drive in today’s Iraq—a land riven, once more, by religious violence. Across the border from Iraq where Syria meets Turkey, Abu Sufyan’s purported dreams of Caliphate are being resurrected. The new Caliph, Ibrahim, and his Islamic State (IS) legions await the fulfilment of apocalyptic prophesy at the town of Dabiq where Jesus’s followers will be vanquished only to hasten his own return. Paradoxically, this renders Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi both savior and anti-Christ, divinely-guided yet Satanic. But, given his titular duality, perhaps this ambivalence is not so surprising. In the end-times battles in which Al Baghdadi is engaged, it is narrated in some Islamic traditions—both Sunni and Shi’a—that a Muslim tyrant figure called Sufyani, believed to be a descendant of Abu Sufyan, will emerge, only to be defeated by the Muslim messiah, the Mahdi. Might Al Baghdadi’s arrogation of the title of Caliph serve not simply as a hollow form of legitimacy, but as an expedient way of deflecting more problematic associations with figures in Islamic eschatology?

Al Baghdadi’s affected donning of the garb and comportment of an Islamic leader, and his adoption of the grandiose title of Caliph, suggests a preoccupation with the superficial aesthetics of power rather than anything remotely transcendental. More so than its apparently novel modus operandi as a hybrid insurgent and terrorist jihadi force, which has been much discussed, what really marks IS from Al Qaeda is Al Baghdadi’s material obsession with the spiritually vacant vessels of temporal power, embodied in the institution of Caliphate and his capricious exercise of brute force. Far from being nihilistic in his ambition, one gets the impression that Al Baghdadi would be more than content to erect a grand mosque with matching sky high tower in honor of his own caliphate and its heavenly pretensions. Osama Bin Laden, on the other hand, who had offered his own allegiance to Mullah Omar, a mystical Afghan peasant, had ample opportunity to project his power by erecting palatial towers, being a scion of a Saudi Arabian construction magnate. But he chose instead to tear them down.

In its heyday, the Sears Tower also projected an aesthetic of power, of a sacred secular kind, like a futuristic ziggurat. Like ancient Mesopotamia, a chronicle of religious geography and conflict also pervades Chicago, only its story reveals more about the political economy of modern Islamic aesthetics than any age-old religious enmity. Beyond the curious religious etymology of Sufjan Stevens’s forename, and his ode to man reaching for the divine via the metaphor of foreboding towers, the Sears Tower harbors other, more worldly connections to Islam. It was built in 1973 by Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Bengali-born structural engineer who later constructed the Hajj Terminal in King Abdulaziz International Airport at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. As a Pakistani citizen before the 1971 Bangladesh War, Khan had been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he gained a Ph.D. in the 1950s. While he died in Saudi Arabia, he was buried in Chicago, a city he knew well, in the same cemetery as the arch-modernist designer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, his celebrated peer at the Illinois Institute of Technology where both Khan and Mies helped to fashion the development of the Second Chicago School of architecture.

Though they never worked together on a project, Khan’s and Mies’s was perhaps the first meaningful intellectual encounter between Islamic and modernist conceptions of architectural aesthetics on a grand scale, suggesting a synthesis of civilizations and values between these worlds could be achieved. Both men were no strangers to the alienation born of God-given ethno-national divisions, having both left arenas of violent conflict in their respective homelands to enter the land of the free: Khan departing the tumult of the Subcontinent and Mies joining the exodus of creative talent from Nazi Germany. Echoing the tenor of this dialogic sentiment, in his 2009 Cairo speech aimed at mending bridges with the Islamic world, President Obama invoked Khan as an American Muslim of whom the country could be proud. Khan had put on record during his lifetime that his Muslim faith was integral to his work and that, as he saw it, science and art were not mutually exclusive. But as a Muslim was Khan more engineer or aesthete? Islamic intellectual and cultural history is often read back as a binary of sorts—a canon of great scientists and philosophers who shaped its Golden Age, on the one hand, and an insurgent presence of poets, mystics, and heretics, on the other. While much has been made of the Muslim character of Khan’s synthesis of science and art—for example, in his daughter Yasmin’s hagiography, Engineering Architecture: The Visions of Fazlur R. Khan (2004)—it is perhaps a third category, neither engineer nor aesthete, often associated with the Prophet himself—that of trader or entrepreneur—that fits Khan’s Islamic legacy best.

“Burj Khalifa” by Walid Mahfoudh (, used under (CC BY-NC 2.0).

As a structural engineer, Khan’s greatest design contribution was his use of a bundled tube system in skyscraper construction. The main benefit of this innovative method, and the key to its subsequent phenomenal global success, was its economic efficiency. By opening up the way for skyscrapers to be built bigger for cheaper, Khan helped to usher in a new phase in large-scale commercial architecture which has since enabled global corporations to both build and inhabit the behemoths of steel and glass which populate the world’s global cities. In its modernist leanings, the legacy of Khan’s rational architecture evaded politics by reducing aesthetics to a minimal, disciplined, and functional form. In its reproductive efficiency it also embodied Walter Benjamin’s insight into art’s increasingly mechanical role: characterized by their ease of replication, technology emptied Khan’s buildings of mystique rendering them purely instrumental objects. Mies also believed that architecture could bypass politics. As head of the Bauhaus during the 1930s, he chose to remain in Berlin under the Nazis for a time, convinced he could stay true to this belief, which has led to accusations of his collusion with the regime. In light of its functionalist conformity, it is perhaps no coincidence that there is now a flourishing mass trade in replica Mies furniture, much of it to be found in corporate lobbies.

Seen through the prism of rigid orthodoxy and by virtue of its iconoclasm, Islamic art has also often been characterised as having a minimalist and austere quality; this despite the elaborately decorous examples which abound in Islamic history. Nonetheless, the rather hackneyed symbolism of the sacred simplicity of the mosque—open spaces, pure water, clean lines, symmetry, and ornate but geometric tiles—has come to personify the idea of unity and devotion to the One, where heresy is seen as extravagant. It is not surprising then that Islamic orthodoxy shares deep affinities to aesthetic modernism even as debates rage about Islam’s apparent incompatibility with the West’s rational, secular order. In her recent book, At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (2014), Sadia Abbas has called those aesthetic formations which fall outside the ideological proscriptions of orthodox Islam, “Cold War Baroque,” which “emerges in response to the cultivation by American and Saudi Arabian anti-communist and various third-world anti-nationalist and postcolonial praetorian governments of intensely iconoclastic and anti-aesthetic brands of Islam.” Taking Pakistan as her point of departure—where Khan was once a citizen and where US and Saudi interests and influence have so often coincided since—Abbas invokes the subtle and critical art of protest in the work of novelists Mohammed Hanif and Nadeem Aslan, and the painter Komail Aijazuddin who draws on the “Christic iconologies” of Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque painting.

Did Khan unwittingly anticipate the ineluctable synthesis between Islamic orthodoxy and aesthetic modernism in the form of the Sears Tower in 1973, at the very point at which the Muslim world was again poised to enter conflict with the West? The opening of the Tower also marked the year of the global oil crisis, which pitted the Gulf monarchies, notably Saudi Arabia, against America and its fellow Western economies. But there remained an intimacy between America and Saudi Arabia beyond the tension. One based on an alliance of strategic and business interests that came to outflank the ongoing oil crisis but that was also bound by the rationalistic discipline which has characterized the uncompromising and missionary zeal shared by both the American and Saudi states. Such ideological confluence has also harbored commercial archetypes: where the frontier trader of the American West—embodying the spirit of classical liberalism—mirrors the proto-capitalist ideal of the Prophet as itinerant Arab merchant.

Perhaps this is also why, while it may appear that, more recently, the Muslim world has outdone the West with its own temples to Mammon in the building of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in Dubai, and Mecca’s Royal Clock Tower, the world’s third tallest, like their strategic and economic alliances, the buildings reflect a symbiosis which cuts across such competition. The Burj Khalifa was built by the same architectural company that constructed the Sears Tower—Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)—where Khan was employed, while Mecca’s Royal Clock Tower was constructed by the Saudi Binladin Group which continues to make towers the prodigal Osama would dream of razing and the Caliph Ibrahim might dream of possessing. Following his completion of the Sears Tower, Khan himself spent much of his professional career working on projects for the Saudi Arabian government, and, in doing so, facilitating the projection of the Kingdom’s power, religious leadership, and legitimacy.

If the affinities between aesthetic modernism and Islamic orthodoxy reflected in Khan’s oeuvre expose the intimate political economy of US-Saudi relations in unexpected ways, their deeper significance lies also in moving beyond the purely formal similarities which link religious iconoclasm and modernism. Away from the tired debates about compatibility that have come to dominate discussion of Islam’s engagement with secular modernity, recognition of these aesthetic affinities opens up new dimensions in thinking about this vexed relationship. This is illustrated, for example, in the way modernist conceptions of space invariably collapse into projections of future time: for the modernist architect, while space acts as a pristine receptacle for such Spartan aspirations as the parsimony of form and sublime precision, it is also a vehicle for publicizing faith in the inexorable progress of history enabled by technological advances. At times, this is expressed in an impatient, even impetuous need for change and the smashing of idols.

Repulsed by the past and the dead weight of ossified traditions, it was the Italian Futurists who took this modernist impulse in more violent, fascistic directions through their destructive obsessions with war, technology, and speed. It is perhaps no accident then that IS’s recent obliteration of ancient artifacts in Iraq and Syria and its killings in Tunis echo, if only obliquely, the belief in the eradication of museums enunciated in Marinetti’s founding “Manifesto.” There is, of course, also much that differentiates them in time, place, and objectives even as they share a rigid conviction in manipulating the future via an aesthetic of power grounded in the technologies of modernity. But, from ransacking the relics of antiquity at the Mosul Museum to hastening end-times battles at Dabiq, it is perhaps IS’s quintessentially modern awareness of time itself as an ideological commodity that is the real innovation which lies at its dark heart. For despite the surface focus on the “mediaeval” barbarism of its rule which suggests it is intent only on reviving a brutally imagined Islamic past, IS seems ultimately impelled to fixate on the future and on instigating society’s lightning transformation precisely because it must reject so much that has come before it in order to legitimize itself.

IS’s austere ideology is, of course, in many ways a parasitic outgrowth of the puritanical Saudi Wahhabism with which Khan was also all too familiar. And, like the legacy of the visionary tower Khan engineered in Chicago, it too cannot escape the authoritarian seductions of modernity even as it reaches toward the infinite heavens to transcend it. But the merchant spirit which binds the American and Saudi visions of architecture for which Khan was a conduit has deeper roots still. The Oil Crisis of 1973 also helped to facilitate a period of rapid global expansion in Islamic banking and finance with Saudi Arabia at its helm, exposing the seemingly odd ambivalence between the Kingdom’s political authoritarianism at home and its sponsorship of economic liberalism abroad, which continues to this day. While conceived as a spiritual alternative to the Western ideologies of both socialism and capitalism in its quest for Islamic authenticity, primed with Gulf petrodollars at its outset and increasingly assimilating to classical liberalism in its practices since, Islamic banking has always been deeply embedded in the structures and flows of global capitalism. Like Khan’s life and work, and the intimacies between Islamic orthodoxy and aesthetic modernism they reflect, such global practices serve to further highlight not only the enduring corporate fellowship but the paradoxes of freedom which continue to lie at the heart of US-Saudi relations.


Zaheer Kazmi

ZAHEER KAZMI is an Associate Member of the Faculty of History at Oxford University and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University.