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The Islamic city – Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance

  • Janet L. Abu-Lughod (a1)


At the present time of resurgence in Islamic beliefs, the question of the Islamic city has once again come to the fore. In many parts of the Arab world, and especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, urban planners with a new found respect for the great achievements of the past are searching for ways to reproduce in today's cities some of the patterns of city building that have been identified as Islamic. They have been influenced, whether wittingly or not, by a body of literature produced by western Orientalists purporting to describe the essence of the Islamic city. The purpose of this article is, in Part I, to examine and criticize some of the basic works in that tradition and then, after deconstructing the concept of the Islamic city, to build up, in Part II, a somewhat different, and hopefully more dynamic and analytic model. The article ends with a brief discussion of whether and in what ways it would be feasible or desirable to build contemporary cities on Islamic principles.



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1 Marçais, W., “L'Islamisme et la vie urbaine,” L'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lêttres, Comptes Rendus (Paris: 0103 1928), pp. 86100.

2 Marçais, G., “L'urbanisme musulman,” 5e Congrès de la Fédération des Sociétés Savantes de l'Afrique du Nord (Algiers, 1940), which was reprinted on pp. 219–31 of the collection of his works, Mélanges d'histoire et d'archéologie de l'occident musulman, tome I, articles et conférences de Georges Marçais (Alger, 1957).

3 Marçais, G., “La conception des villes dans I'Islam,” Revue d'Alger, 2 (1945), 517–33.

4 Marçais, G., “L'urbanisme musulman” as reprinted in Mélanges …, my translation from pp. 230–31.

5 Brunschvig, R., “Urbanisme médiéval et droit musulman,” Revue des Études Islamiques, 15 (1947), 127–55. I should point out here that the hierarchical arrangement of trades within the suq is ignored and Orientalists failed to see these as “economically determined.”

6 Spies, Otto, “Islamisches Nachbarrecht nach schafaitischer Lehre,” Zeirschrift für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft, 42 (1927), 393421.

7 See Ibn, al-Imam, translated by Barbier under the title, “Les droits et obligations entre propriétaires d'héritages voisins,” Revue Algérienne et Tunisienne de Législation et de Jurisprudence, 1 and 2 (19001901).

8 See Kit¯b al-i'lān bi-ahzkām al-bunyān.

9 von Grunebaum, G., “The Structure of the Muslim Town,” Islam: Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition, Memoir No. 81, The American Anthropological Association (Ann Arbor, 1955). Reissued in second edition in London in 1961.

10 von Grunebaum, G., Medieval Islam (Chicago, 1946). Quotation taken from p. 173 of the second edition, 1954.

11 von Grunebaum, G., “The Structure of the Muslim Town,” 1961 edition, p. 146.

12 Ibid., pp. 146–47.

13 Shades of Max Weber's The City, which will not surface until the work of Ira Lapidus, Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages, to be covered later.

14 See Massignon, Louis, “Les corps de métiers et la cité Islamique,” Revue Internationale de Sociologie, 28 (1920), pp. 473–87.

15 Hourani, Albert and Stern, S. M., eds., The Islamic City (Philadelphia, 1970), based on an Oxford University conference held in 1965, to be discussed below.

16 LeTourneau, Roger, Fès avant le protectoral. Étude économique et sociale d'une ville de l'occident musulman (Casablanca, 1949).

17 Coon, C., Caravan (New York, 1951). The chapter on “Town and City” appears on pp. 226–59.

18 LeTourneau, Roger, La vie quotidienne à Fès en 1900 (Paris, 1965).

19 LeTourneau, Roger, Les villes musulmanes de l'Afrique du Nord (Alger, 1957).

20 LeTourneau, Roger, Fez in the Age of the Marinides, Clemen, Besse, trans. (Norman, Oklahoma, 1961).

21 Berque, Jacques, “Medinas, villesneuves et bidonvilles,” Las Cahiers de Tunisie (1958), pp. 542.

22 Sauvaget, Jean, Alèp: Essai sur le développement d'une grande ville Syrienne, des origines au milieu du XIXe siècle (Paris, 1941). In two volumes.

23 Sauvaget, Jean, “Esquisses d'une histoire de la ville de Damas,” Revue des Etudes Islamiques, 8 (1934), 421–80.

24 Typical of this is de Planhol's, XavierThe World of Islam (Ithaca, 1959). Following an earlier distinction made by the Marçaises, de Planhol rigorously contrasts new towns (princely and otherwise) founded by Islamic dynasties, more likely to be found in North Africa, with older towns of Roman/Byzantine base, upon which Islamic characteristics were superimposed, more likely to be found in the Fertile Crescent. The question of which of these is the true city is never resolved.

25 See Lapidus, Ira, Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), reissued in a student edition by Cambridge University Press, 1984. The revised preface tries to place his cases in context.

26 First quotation comes from p. vii of the 1967 preface. The second quotation has been taken from p. 191. In all fairness, the sentence that follows the one we have quoted does limit the reference to Mamluk cities.

27 Abu-Lughod, Janet, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious (Princeton, 1971), although the writing had been completed by 1967. Among the sources I depended upon were those incorporated into Gibb, H. A. R. and Bowen, Harold, Islamic Society and the West, Vol. I, Part 1 (London, 1950), especially Chapter VI, “The City: Industry and Commerce,” pp. 276–313, which draws most of its examples from late Ottoman Cairo.

28 Albert Hourani and S. M. Stern, eds., The Islamic City, cited above.

29 See inter alia, my “Comments on the Form of Cities: Lessons from the Islamic City,” Janus: Essays in Ancient and Medieval Studies, Orlin, L., ed. (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1975), pp. 119–30;Wheatley, Paul, “Levels of Space Awareness in the Traditional Islamic City,” Ekistics, 253 (03 1977);Serjeant, R. B., ed., The Islamic City [on San'a], (Paris, 1980). See also Brown, L. Carl, ed., From Medina to Metropolis (Princeton, 1973). Nor is it only Westerners who are seeking the key to the Islamic city. Throughout the Arab world there are scholars seeking precedents for a new/old form of city building in tune with the culture and with Islamic values. See, for example, Islamic Architecture and Urbanism, edited by Germen, Ayden, and published by King Faisal University (Dammam, Saudi Arabia, 1983). By far the best of these has just been published. Although it is now too late to integrate this work in the present article, written before I received my copy, I strongly recommend it to anyone thinking or writing about Islamic cities. See Hakim, Besim Selim, Arabic-Islamic Cities; Building and Planning Principles (London, 1986).

30 Eickelman, Dale, “Is There an Islamic City?,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 5 (1974), 274–94. As revealed by the subtitle, we have again been promised too much since it describes only one Moroccan town. However, rather than attempting to generalize, the article actually tries to test some of the propositions about the Islamic city against the reality of one contemporary Moroccan town, a significant methodological breakthrough. The book whose discussion of the Islamic city makes most sense to me is one by another anthropologist studying a different Moroccan town. See especially the introductory chapter of Brown, Kenneth, People of Salé: Tradition and Change in a Moroccan City, 1830–1930 (Cambridge, Mass., 1976).

31 Many of my reservations about the Islamic city have been triggered by discussions and conferences with Muslims from the Arabian peninsula where, at present, the most serious and sincere attempts are being made to devise an operational definition of the Islamic city in order to build contemporary ones. Several students from that area, most recently at Northwestern University, have forced me to think about this topic, if only because they were charged with studying how to do it. I acknowledge their contribution here.

32 See, for example, Abu-Lughod, Janet, “Preserving the Living Heritage of Islamic Cities,” in Holod, R., ed., Toward an Architecture in the Spirit of Islam (Philadelphia: Aga Khan Foundation, 1978), pp. 2736; and “Contemporary Relevance of Islamic Urban Planning Principles” in Germen, Ayden, ed., Islamic Architecture and Urbanism, 1983, cited earlier. I take these points further in a paper on the “Semiotics of Space in Islamic Cities,” delivered May, 1984 to a conference on the subject held at UCLA. The section that follows draws heavily on that unpublished paper.

33 I would not necessarily attribute this to Islam, but I would note that such a pattern was all too often associated with its polities, for whatever reason.

34 Hunter, Albert, Symbolic Communities: The Persistence and Change of Chicago's Local Communities (Chicago, 1974).

35 (Cambridge, Mass., 1960).

36 Sjoberg, Gideon has argued, in his The Preindustrial City (Glencoe, 1960), that eastern and western versions were quite similar, due to their common levels of technology. However, this ignores the fact that tribalism—ethnicity was seldom the organizing principle of spatial structure in western medieval towns, nor was there as much separation between residence and business as there was in cities where gender segregation was the rule (i.e., in ancient Greece and in Islamdom).

37 Hakim, Besim S., in his Arabic-Islamic Cities, argues this in convincing fashion, but he draws his empirical evidence almost exclusively from Tunis. I doubt whether Islamic law can be the sole explanation, for the cellular structure of communities in that climate and culture region long predates the appearance of Islam, and the alternative to the “hara, mahalla, huma,” etc. system found throughout the Fertile Crescent and North Africa, namely, the tall qasr or apartment building found in Yemen, southern Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, is equally Islamic, in being indigenously developed and suited to the cultural and geopolitical climate.

38 See, for example, Munson, Henry, The House of Si Abd Allah (New Haven, 1983).

39 Khalaf, Samir and Kongstad, Per, Hamra of Beirut (Leiden, 1973).

40 Khuri, Fuad, From Village to Suburb: Order and Change in Greater Beirut (Chicago, 1975).

41 See, for example, Fawaz's, Leila study, Merchants and Migrants in Nineteenth Century Beirut (Cambridge, Mass., 1983).

42 Lane-Poole, Stanley, The Story of Cairo (London, 1902), pp. 1217.

43 See Chapter two of Altorki's, SorayaWomen in Domestic Groups: Ideology and Behavior of Jiddah Elites (New York, 1986).

44 See, for example, my article, “Contemporary Relevance of Islamic Planning Principles,” Ekistics, 47 (0102. 1980), 610. One should note, however, that this “privatization of public space” is not exclusively a phenomenon of the Arabo-Islamic or Middle Eastern city.In fact, I have taken the term from Lofland, Lyn H., A World of Strangers: Order and Action in Urban Public Space (New York, 1973), who uses it to describe how Americans develop proprietary interests in public space.

45 Quoted from p. 174 of Nadim, Nawal, “The Relationship between the Sexes in a Harah of Cairo,” Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University (Bloomington, 1975).

46 See Chapter one of Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Berkeley, 1986).

47 Nadim, Nawal, “The Relationship between the Sexes,” p. 180.

48 Fernea, Elizabeth W., A Street in Marrakech (New York, 1975).

49 Nadim, Nawal, “The Relationship between the Sexes,” pp. 187–88.

50 Newman, Oscar, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention through Urban Design (New York, 1972), pp. 23.

51 Suttles, Gerald, The Social Construction of Community (Chicago, 1972), p. 21.

52 Ibid., pp. 31–32.

53 Comparative studies are always valuable because they prevent us from jumping prematurely to the conclusion that our case is unique. In this connection it is interesting to note the parallels from an entirely different case, Santa Domingo, during the 1965 revolution. The social organization within a defended neighborhood is graphically portrayed by participant observer sociologist, Moreno, José. See his Barrios in Arms (Pittsburgh, 1970).

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The Islamic city – Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance

  • Janet L. Abu-Lughod (a1)


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