Some Initial Reflections on the Idea of “Islamic Cities”

Can Walls be Islamic?

This semester I’m sitting in on a course entitled “Islamic Urbanism,” taught in the Art History department at UNC. My program of study is not focused on Islam, but I am interested in the relationship of religious thought to architecture and city life. Our very first reading is by a scholar named Tarif Kahlidi, whose highly philological 1981 article on Islamic cities seeks to remedy what is basically an Orientalist approach the subject (wherein Islamic cities are cast either as implicitly inferior to Western ones or as exemplary of some static notion of Islamic ideals). He ends up arguing that much of early Islamic thought portrayed the city as a “necessary evil” — permissive of debauchery but also conducive to a better sort of community life for those with good motives. He documents this ambivalence in the Qur’an, early sectarian commentaries, Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), and other sorts of scholarly literature from the Islamic world.

According to Khalidi, these early traditional sources ask practical as well as spiritual questions in pursuit of some central questions about what constitutes a morally/spiritually good city: should cities be purified and exclusive to pious believers, or should they act as “schools” for Muslims hoping to live well, and a home for all who wish to life pious lives? Here’s where a reader might begin to interpret these debates as debates over the nature of an “Islamic City.” Yet those two questions, which are fundamentally about belief, mindset, and practice, do not fully encapsulate early-Islamic discussions of cities (that is, the discussion of cities in general by scholars we have deemed “Islamic”). Geographic works, histories, literary scholarship, all maintained a kind of ambivalence similar to the Qur’anic and Hadith sources, but seem to have distinguished more specifically between moral and spiritual questions associated with city life, and practical questions associated with the built environment and daily life. What the texts Kahlidi references do not do very specifically is distinguish between the religious and non-religious elements of a city’s urban fabric. Notably, and maybe obviously, the components of a city’s built environment (the buildings and infrastructures within and between which daily life in a city is lived) are not all “religious” in an obvious sense. The scholars Kahlidi cites discuss the placement of Mosques and the directional orientation of houses to the East, as well as the placement of walls, affluent clusters of dwellings on the urban periphery, the location of markets, of houses relative to the markets, and so on.

It seems that practical questions about city-building partially set aside, or at least complicate, the ways we might view a . But since the commentators in Kahlidi’s piece are Islamic, their commentary comes off as in some way “Islamic” regardless of what elements of the city they discuss. By extension, the urban forms they discuss are Islamic by association regardless of whether their use advertises as “religious” per se. In other words, the questions I find myself asking are: What is Islamic about these city walls? About markets? Is it that they’re part of a whole that is somehow “Islamic”? Is it that they, themselves, by virtue of being discussed by Islamic thinkers and religious commentators, begin to retain signification as “Islamic”?

Religious Signs, Religious Cities

If we asked Kahlidi those questions, I’m not sure what he’d say. Perhaps if we asked an Ottoman Muslim we would get a perplexed laugh. Would such a question have been comprehensible to early Islamic scholars and theologians? What if we pose a similar question in a Western context. The Judeo-Christian influence over the Western world is historically evident and presently immanent. Would I have trouble convincing a Western theologian or lay practitioner of Judaism or Christianity that New York City is a “Christian” city? How about Houston, Texas? I intentionally name these two cities because they are two major centers of the U.S. Jewish population. Many residents in both of these cities would have no trouble pointing me in the direction of “Jewish neighborhoods.” Yet a non-Jewish neighborhood in these places would rarely be called a “Christian neighborhood.”

All that to say, it’s pretty hard to get specific about how objects and spaces come to be known as “religious,” especially as you scale upward from buildings to neighborhoods, to entire cities (and even to nations, though on the international political scene we encounter the same issue when discussing “Islamic nations”). Can an object be religious if people observing a particular “religion” created it? What if they use it daily for both religious and non-religious activities (I’m referring, perhaps, to a house or a market). The qualifications could go on endlessly, and a scholar of religious studies might point out that the distinction between a “religious” and a “secular” activity is not always clear either. How could a religious signifier legibly describe a city? How does that meaning get assigned? Going back to Kahlidi, who’s assigning the label and why? Kahlidi’s piece reacts against scholars who see the label “Islamic” as a tidy indicator for an exotic metropolis containing pious inhabitants with static beliefs and a lively, esoteric, and unavoidably-religious culture. Kahlidi, by contrast, uses the adjective “Islamic,” and its ability to subsume a whole range of things, texts, people, and cities, as his main tool to inject nuance into that Orientalist body of literature.

Some historians of Islamic Art have attempted to avoid the problem of making entire cities or bodies of art “Islamic” in that bad, monolithic sense by using instead the term “Islamicate.” I’ve yet to learn the subtleties of the difference between the two — perhaps “Islamicate” is meant to signify the presence of Islamic imperial influence on art in places where not everyone was Muslim, or where works of art and architecture were created that are not “religious” in any obvious way. I expect that throughout the semester I will begin to wonder about how effective the distinction really is, and, surely, about how certain cities came to be known as “Islamic.” I suppose that most cities are more than the sum of their physical parts, and more than the demographic information of the people who inhabit them. If those suppositions hold water, than is it the city-synergy itself that breeds its signification as “Islamic?”

More to come as the semester progresses.

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