In Islam, the city phenomenon signifies the ground for people’s submission to Allah Almighty, and for their relentless interactions with space, animate and inanimate life realities, and, of course, with themselves at various levels, given that the city is a scene where people live, work, play, learn, worship, rise and fall. The outcome of these and other activities which people engage themselves in in cities — and in other settlements of theirs — is what we call cultures and civilizations. The substance and moral fiber of those cultures and civilizations greatly vary, though, due to the principles, beliefs and value systems on which they rest, as well as due to the objectives and goals intended to be achieved thereby. In other words, the city in Islam is a microcosm of Islamic culture and civilization in that individuals, families and virtually every other unit in the hierarchy of the Islamic socio-political, economic and religious structures and systems are bred and nurtured therein. Regardless of which is the cause and which is the effect, Islamic civilization and Islamic urbanism seem to be destined for rising and falling together. Hence, the city is called in Arabic “madinah” which is derived from the word tamaddun, which denotes civilization.
An ideal Islamic city is the one whose morphology, design and functions are inspired primarily by Islam, are permeated with the Islamic spirit, and stand for the embodiment of Islamic principles and values. It facilitates, fosters and stimulates a Muslim’s ceaseless ‘ibadah (worship) activities entrusted to him by his Lord, helping him thus to elevate his status over that of the angels and honorably live up to his reputation as the vicegerent on earth.
|The skyline of the city of Khiwa, Uzbekistan.|
Central to the standards by which a city may be categorized as Islamic is the sanctity and purity of its philosophy, vision and functions, accompanied by convenience, efficiency, security, sustainable development and anything else that Islam reckons as indispensable for living a decent, honorable and accountable life. The sheer physical appearance therefore is inferior and matters only when it comes into complete conformity with the said criteria.
Since it accounts for both a worldview and a comprehensive way of living, Islam draws no distinction between the religious and secular realms along ideological lines. Allah’s words of guidance are bidden to be evenly exalted, adhered to, implemented, and made supreme in each and every department of human existence. The word ‘Islamic’, as employed before ‘the city’, thus does not denote a mere cultural phenomenon, philosophy or just another religious conviction, but a genuine faith and its abiding all-inclusive belief and value system. The word ‘Islamic’ is an adjective delineating a phenomenon that is vital for human socio-political, economic, psychological, moral and spiritual advancement. That phenomenon is an urban settlement that imbibes and reflects the special qualities inherent in Islam, and whose framework, design, form and function, therefore, to a large extent, are dictated by the latter. In view of that, the idea of the Islamic city (Madinah), in its broadest sense, encompasses its conception and philosophy, policies, amenities, facilities, services, resources and economy, planning, art and architecture. The Islamic city is an all-inclusive phenomenon. Its complex and multifaceted urban fabric is made up of both religious and secular buildings and institutions, such as mosques, government buildings, educational institutions, numerous other religious structures and establishments, private dwellings, markets, hospitals, recreational facilities, gardens, street networks, open spaces, etc. Religious and secular functions are not separable in Islam, and, as such, not in the Islamic city either. Islamic urbanism never drew a wedge between man’s physical, psychological and spiritual needs.
|Madinah, the Prophet’s city, seen from the Uhud Mountain.|
If one genuinely wants to understand and appreciate the Islamic city phenomenon, one must, first and foremost, possess an intimate knowledge of Islam whose major precepts and values it exemplifies. Next, one should disengage oneself for a moment and as much as one can from whatever one has formerly perused or has been told about the Islamic city and make an earnest effort to experience it in its totality as if one were among its users/inhabitants. One should try hard through one’s hands-on experience if one wants to feel the spiritual and sensory aura that the Islamic city exudes within its realm. One’s comprehension and appreciation of the Islamic city should not be restricted to just one, or a few, of its aspects, nor to a single and static moment of time. Rather, one’s thoughts and interests should encompass all its aspects and dimensions, showing due respect in the process to its remarkable spirit and dynamism which are conditioned by neither time nor space factors. Finally, whatever one’s approach in studying the Islamic city might be, one should never try to extricate it from the contexts which governed its commencement, rise, dominance and survival. The Islamic city should be viewed as a revolutionary world phenomenon as universal, omnipresent, perpetual and revealing as the standards and values that gave rise to it. True, the Islamic city was as responsive to the climatic, geographical, technological and cultural requirements as any other urban settlement; nevertheless, it never treated them apart from the exigencies of a higher order. By means of skills, creativity and imagination, on the one hand, and by its distinctive combination of aesthetic and utilitarian ends, on the other, the Islamic city never, even by a whisker, dissociated man’s corporeal, psychological, cerebral and spiritual needs.
|The skyline of a section of old Cairo, Egypt.|
Life in every city is dynamic and diverse. Consequently, the city must cope with the demands of ever increasing changes and developments, if it were to live up to the purpose of its establishment, and if it were to fulfill the trust “assigned” to it and, in consequence, be of assistance to man in discharging that which he has been created for. Thus, it can be safely asserted that the Islamic city is a transformational, educational and training ground or axis. The solitary aim of its numerous functions and institutions is to produce in concert with each other a people qualified to be dubbed as true servants of Allah and His vicegerents on earth. Regardless of minor disparities in their intellectual, spiritual and socio-economic commitments and so accomplishments – which, when all’s said and done, are unavoidable and inexorable – the same people’s efforts will enforce and rely on each other, holding together in unity and strength, with each part contributing strength in its own way.
Among every people there must always exist a group of exceptionally devout, enlightened and visionary individuals, capable of transforming entire communities to which they belong. Thence, the same persons will contribute somehow or other their decent shares in making this earth a better place for living. Without a doubt, the larger this group, the smaller and thus less troublesome is the group on the diametrically opposite side of the scale. The latter group stands for the community’s liabilities rather than its assets, and so recurrently gets in the way of the community’s spiritual and material progress. On the other hand, the smaller the group of extremely devout, erudite, committed and visionary persons in a community, the more favorable the conditions become for mediocrity, incompetence, backwardness and ignorance to triumph and hold sway over people’s affairs. So therefore, if misconstrued and its role perverted, the city has a potential to become a breeding ground for diverse social and psychological ills and disorders, which, if left unchecked, could proliferate and one day paralyze entire communities – the whole of mankind – indeed, dragging them to the bottommost. In this case, the only remedy for the predicament will be the restoration of the original position and role of the city, that is to say, the recognition and restoration of the position and role of individuals, the family, and all the other notions, establishments and institutions which constitute the city phenomenon and its authentic urban development.
|An entrance to the city of Fez, Morocco.|
Certainly, it was because of what we have said thus far about the character of the Islamic city (Madinah), that the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, while starting off the mammoth project of building the city of Baghdad in the year 145 AH /762 CE, by placing the first brick with his own hand uttered: “In the name of Allah; praise be to Allah; the earth is Allah’s, to give as a heritage to such of His servants as He pleases, and the end is best for those who are righteous.” The message conveyed in the supplication appears very clear: everything belongs to Allah – the only Creator, Sustainer and Ruler. He is the only Creator, the rest is His magnificent creation, His servants. Moreover, He is the real Owner of everything. Man possesses de facto nothing; everything around him has been subjected to him, not that he may “own” it, or in the worse scenario play “god” with it, but that he, in a responsible and unhindered manner, may carry out his duties of vicegerency, returning then to his Creator pure and honorable – no more than that. Even his very self, i.e., his life, man does not own. It belongs to his Lord, and if needed, he is to sacrifice it for Him and His cause.
What’s more, the prayer of caliph al-Mansur indicated that whatever Muslims may build, and at whatever scale, the appropriated space will never be regarded as exclusively for man, nor will its owner(s) and tenant(s) do. Rather, the appropriated space will be viewed as something temporarily loaned to man, so as soon as he goes back to his Creator, nobody but he alone will be held accountable for what he did to the loan, how he handled it, and what he managed to achieve with it. Thus, it is not surprising that the Muslims often store in their hearts and minds the following Qur’anic supplication: “Say: “O Allah! Lord of Power (and Rule), Thou givest Power to whom Thou pleasest, and Thou strippest of Power from whom Thou pleasest: Thou enduest with honor whom Thou pleasest, and Thou bringest low whom Thou pleasest: in Thy hand is all Good. Verily, over all things Thou hast power. Thou causest the Night to gain on the Day. And Thou causest the Day to gain on the Night; Thou bringest the Living out of the Dead, and Thou bringest the Dead out of the Living; and Thou givest sustenance to whom Thou pleasest, without measure.” (Alu ‘Imran 26-27)
|The city of Yazd, Iran.|
The Muslims keep their tongues busy reciting this supplication in their daily prayers, as well as during their individual and collective dhikr (remembrance of Allah) sessions. They even adorn their private dwellings and public buildings and spaces with it, thereby reminding themselves constantly of this substantial – albeit often disregarded by many – truth. The same is true with other Qur’anic verses containing the similar message, such as: “Allah! There is no god but He, – the Living, the Self-subsisting, Supporter of all; no slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth… ” (al-Baqarah 255); or: “To Allah belongeth all that is in the heavens and on earth. Whatever ye show what is in your minds or conceal it, Allah calleth you to account for it… ” (al-Baqarah 284)
Surely, due to such an inimitable heavenly dimension, which Islam instituted in the field of architecture and urbanization, did caliph al-Mansur engage a group of people endowed with virtue, integrity and fidelity, from different regions, in order to supervise the project of building the city of Baghdad, apart from one hundred thousand craftsmen, engineers, architects, masons, carpenters and blacksmiths whom he had hired from every province. The most prominent among the caliph’s workmen were Abu Hanifah of Kufah, one of the four most illustrious jurists in Islam, and al-Hajjaj b. Artah, a traditionalist and jurist who lived in Kufah along with Abu Hanifah and later served as the judge of Basrah. The latter was, furthermore, the architect of the Baghdad’s principal mosque, laying its foundations by himself. He also played a prominent role in planning the northern suburbs of the city of Baghdad.
Also, when Mawlay Idris decided to build the city of Fas (Fez) in northern Africa (Morocco), having sketched the groundplan of the city and before construction got underway, he recited the following prayer: “O my Lord! You know that I do not intend by building this city to gain pride or to show off; nor do I intend hypocrisy, or reputation, or arrogance. But I want You to be worshipped in it, Your laws, limits and the principles of Your Qur’an and the guidance of Your Prophet to be upheld in it, as long as this world exists. Almighty, help its dwellers to do righteousness and guide them to fulfill that. Almighty, prevent them from the evil of their enemies, bestow Your bounties upon them and protect them from the sword of evil. You are able to do all things.”
Dr. Spahic Omer, a Bosnian currently residing in Malaysia, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design, International Islamic University Malaysia. He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and philosophy of the Islamic built environment. He can be reached at spahico yahoo.com; his blog is at www.medinanet.org.