Islamic Cities: Can the Past Be the Key to the Future?

Category: Faith & Spirituality, Life & Society Views: 6081

The current weakness of the Muslim world may well be best understood as a failure of urbanism, the inability of a culture to adapt to an era that is dominated more and more by cities. Joel Kotkin explores the strengths and weaknesses of the cities of the Muslim world.

In overcoming a society that has become utterly hostile to modern civilization, one major source of strength may be found in cultivating the strong urban legacy of the Muslim world.

Riches to rags

In contemporary times, Muslim cities have, to a large extent, become utter failures. That is true from the sprawling, impoverished expanses of Lagos and Cairo to the war-shattered ruins of Beirut and Baghdad.

This is particularly odd because for almost a millennium, the religion of Muhammad provided the rationale and order for the world's most impressive urban centers. Reviving this model of urbanism could well be the key to creating a template for Islamic success in the new century. From its origins in the 7th century, Islam has always been a profoundly urban faith. The need to gather the community of believers required a settlement of some size for the full performance of one's duty as a Muslim.

Out of the desert

The Prophet Mohammed did not want his people to return to the desert and its clan-oriented value system. Islam virtually demanded cities to serve as "the places where men pray together."

This urban orientation came naturally for a religion that first sprang to life in a city of successful merchants.

Bringing order

Mecca, a long established trading and religious center on the barren Arabian peninsula, had long been influenced first by Hellenistic - and then by Roman rulers. Its varied population included pagans, Jews and, after the 2nd century, Christians as well.

Mohammed himself was a member of the Qurayshi family, one of the more powerful clans established in Mecca. He saw the need to end the blood-drenched feuds that prevented the establishment of a just and enduring society. By the same token, any urban society, as well as the growth of trade or rational governance - whether in Arabia, Italy or China - requires a sense of order and security.

Paradise lost?

Over the ensuing centuries, Islam provided this framework for a remarkable constellation of cities, from Cordoba in Spain to Delhi in India. Many of the capital cities of modern times - Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad - all had their greatest success in the first centuries of Islamic rule.

As the Arab poet Ibn Jubayr wrote:

If Paradise be on earth, Damascus must be it; if it is in heaven, Damascus can parallel and match it.

Turn back to tolerance?

Few people would say such things today about these cities. But history does provide some clues about how they can revive themselves. Perhaps most important would be the restoration of tolerance.

Under Islam, Jews and Christians were both tolerated as "peoples of the book." Allowed to practice their faiths, Jews and some Christians - particularly those dissenting from the Orthodox faith of the Byzantines - actually favored, and even abetted, Muslim conquests. This contrasts with the current situation in Islamic cities. From Jakarta to Beirut and Teheran, Baghdad and Cairo, once cosmopolitan populations have become less so, even as these cities have swollen to unprecedented size.

Minority "brain drain"

Islamic regimes, and the presence of fanatically intolerant groups like al Qaeda, have driven the diversity out of these cities.

Minorities once honored in administration and trade - Bahais, Jews, Coptic Christians, Armenians, Assyrians - have fled for Los Angeles, Detroit, Paris or London, often establishing successful colonies there.

Cosmopolitan culture

Along with the cosmopolitan character of Islamic urban life, the cultivation of the arts, science and commerce - have also suffered. In the first 500 years of Islam, the Arab suq often improved on the Graeco-Roman agora or forum.

Rulers developed elaborate commercial districts, with large buildings shaded from the hot desert sun, with storerooms and hostels for visiting merchants. The new rulers also built large libraries, universities and hospitals at a pace not seen since Roman times. Cordoba, wrote one German nun, was "the jewel of the world, young and exquisite, proud in its might." So great was the cultural pull in Cordoba, complained one 9th-century Christian scholar, that even few Christians could write Latin adequately but could "express themselves in Arabic with elegance and write better poems in this language than the Arabs themselves."

Crossroads of the world

Baghdad, the capital founded by the Abbasid Caliphate in the late 8th Century, emerged as the greatest of these early Muslim cities. By 900, it was likely the largest city in the world.

Its very location suggested its importance - between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, close to the site of ancient Babylon, and nearby as well to Ctesphipon, the former capital of the Sassanid Persian empire. Not surprisingly, a contemporary observer, al Ya'qubu, described Baghdad as the "crossroads of the world."

Getting bad grades

In sharp contrast, today's cities in the Muslim world offer little culturally or economically to the rest of the world except for what can be pulled out of the ground.

Arab society today, according to the recent United Nation's Arab Human Development Report, lags not only behind Europe and America in the West, but also Asia in the East. This is true for all indices of modernity - from degrees of literacy, to child mortality, access to the Internet and development of sophisticated industry.

Bigger - but not better

The result has been cities that have grown in size, but not in cultural influence or economic importance. As key minorities have left, so have many of the educated portions of the population, leaving a large portion of the population poorly prepared for modern urban life.

"The cities have grown but have become less cosmopolitan," suggests Iranian-born geographer Ali Modarres. "The growth of the cities has been primarily made up of rural, provincial people. So you have had stagnation in these cities - even as they have expanded."

Cause of decline

The causes of decline of this urban world have been hotly debated. Some scholars like Bernard Lewis see an unwillingness to change - in contrast to Europe, America or more recently East Asia - as the primary reason for the precipitous decline of the past three to four hundred years.

Others, like Edward Said, tend to blame the racism and cruelty of the West for Islamic setbacks. Ultimately, determining the causes of decline is secondary to reversing the downward slide. The glories of the great cities of the Islamic past can provide some guideposts, suggests Ali Modarres, who teaches at California State University in Los Angeles.

Spirit of enterprise

Mr. Modarres and other scholars even suggest that there is much Islamic societies could still teach westerners about cities. He points to a legacy of graceful architecture, the brilliant use of shading to lower energy use in hot climates, the creation of excellent systems of water, the gardens and sanitation systems of earlier Islamic cities.

The key problems facing Islamic cities - and the West that must deal with the consequences of their failures - do not lie in anything intrinsic in Muslim history or culture. What has been missing is the will - and self-confidence - to recover the spirit of enterprise, toleration and rule of law that, for once made Islamism and urbanism a synergy capable of greatness.

Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University, is writing a history of cities for Modern Library.

  Category: Faith & Spirituality, Life & Society
Views: 6081
The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Older Comments:
Blessings be to all children of God. The problem seems to be because of the international communication of all the political propaganda used to undermine the religious. The internet is a good tool for leaving messages to your friends, but it has been udes to spread hate and corruption among the innocent children that read the words and make judgement in their young minds that the words they read are true and the path that must be taken. The teachings of the relgious leaders have been twisted into a confused misunderstanding that often becomes the root of hatred and rebellion against the world. The minds of followers of God have but one choice, that is to follow with all their heart that inner peace that God gives, not the turmoil that the devils spread, the truth is the peaceful means of action, the devil loves to create confusion of the written word in all minds of people so that early death is the answer to the problems, under the promises of God the lowly devils tell the future to be uncertain and to cause widespread discontentment. If we as followers of the ONE GOD stand up to the communication failure and provide to our children the positive light that they need to become faithful members of peaceful resolutions there may still be a chance to free the world of the political propaganda spread by the devils advocates. The creation of democratic means for societies to flourish is not as specific as the creation of laws made to announce that ONE GOD is the only way people can unite together and vote the undesirables out of political existence and allow them to feel the wrath of individual lifestyle brought about by the increased pressures of the new world order.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

Muslims should stop blaming the "West", "East", N or S... take responsibility for their actions and learn to understand we are all of the same race on this tiny planet of ours.... I'm very bored of the self-rightousness of so many people..
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

i thik its because lots of muslims are not following the religion correctly now a days ... we all need to b together not against one another and help every one come to the right path together .. we r not going to gain any thing by harming any one ... we need to use the way of love and respect ... we need the feeling of being one and follow our religion correctly .
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

It was the Prophet (peace be on him) and his Sahaba that put the Muslims in the position they were in 1400 years ago, so inorder for us to do the same we must copy them !
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

There is a lot to learn from Islamic history. Islamic people the world over have been hijacked by well meaning zealots. Islam is a beautiful faith and way of life. Islam under the Holy Prophet freed the masses not constrained them.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

Alsalaam alaikum, what is been typed in this article is not about Islam at all, Islam is first of all not hostile to modern civilaization but also not for it; what am trying to say is that if the western countries do not involve us and trying to put us in something we don not like, example that woman should not wear covers on their head,If they would really raed about our prophet's biography Muhammad saws and about Islam and what it is all about, if they raelly like their freedom and doing whatever they want than also face the consequenses of this freedom. And i totally disagree with this article.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

The current weakness of the muslim world is due to the many muslim not following the guidance of the Qur'an and Hadists. nothing whatsoever to do with the failure of urbanism. Many muslim have been blinded by this worldly life. Take Saudi Arabia for instance, the government was willing to give a military base for the US to attack Iraq whose citizens are mainly muslim, their own brothers and sisters. When one looks back at the golden age of Islam, he will realise that people then were obedient to Allah, spending their lives to please Him. That's why we succeeded. Wassalam.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

To be successful we cannot afford to be less than 100% muslim be it in our actions, what we say aloud or hold in our minds. Our religion is true and true faith will make us shine once more if and only if we once again become true muslims. So help us God.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537


The article misses the point COMPLETELY!!!! AS

Muslims we should realize that this is just a

phase that we are going through, as we know what

Prophet Muhammad, SAW, informed us from among

the 500,000 hadiths he left behind for us


You know why Beirut is in ruins today?? It is

because Ariel Sharon and his army of murderers

enjoyed the slaughter

of thousands, and the destruction of one of hte

most beautiful places in the world!! Go and

read some history and you will see how beautiful

Beirut was 30 yrs ago, and why now it is not.

The author failed to mention what happened after

the first world war, how the fall of the khilafah

happened, through British/American pitting


instilling jealousy in the hearts of our

leaders, against one another just because

one leader is turkish, and hte other is

arab. Do not blame all the people! It's

not fair and definitely not accurate

concerning the current situation of extremist

views among the Ummah. These are problems

that have a number of different reasons! One

perfect example, that disproves your entire

argument, is the training of the Mujahideen

in Afghanistan. Why are all these vague,

nonsensical compilations of historical facts

being thrown together to explain why Muslim

cities are in such shambles? The reasons in

this article are not correct, please I can't

believe this really. And to the individual who

said "Islam is democracy," you are really

confused, because most obviously more so than

any other thing, you should realize that

democracy is a wannabe of Islamic LAW, and is

not Islam. Democracy involves MAN-MADE

LAWS....SHARIAH(Islamic Law), depends on the

central laws put down from GOD! Do not

say false things like that, it's incorrect.

Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

Well, The fundamental mistake made by non Muslims who attempt to evaluate the problems of the muslim world always look for a political or an economic or moderniztion to be the answer to what ails the Muslims. The answer is under neither of the places they all look. The answer is in the Noble Qur'an and the Way of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) and the way of his rightly guided predecessors. Allah(The Creator) says in the Qur'an, "Never does he changes the condition of a people until they change that which is in themselves" We, the Muslims must go back to the guidance given to them over 1423 years ago. This quote, unquote modern civilization is full with crime, oppressions, filthy dress of the sexes, prostitition, rape, robbery, war crimes, decline in moral values, greed, man inhumanity to man, mass hunger, refugees, arrogrance of power, and wealth and we are looking and saying that Islam is backwards and anti modern. This is a code that alludes to the political correctness of going along with whatever. This is what is is to be modern, But dont despair world, The Muslims are coming back in full glory with Islam as its banner and way. We will again come in the leadership of the world, where we will establish true justice, equality, freedom, peace, security and build a society that is just balanced. Allah (SAW) never lies. Be patient its just a matter of time, and you will see the tyrants and unjust systems dissipate and the true just society in in the womb of the mother, in 9 months the baby must come out of the womb.
All power, belong to Allah, Lord of all the worlds.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

The author is exactly right about the power of Islam to promote economic progress through the use of establishing cities. Those who disagree totally misunderstand his point of view. He is not attacking Islam, but rather saying that the Muslim world needs a revival of the Islamic ideas that once created a successful civilization that was an example for all mankind.Tolerance needs to replace extremism. If the existing governmnets can tolerate the wishes of their people then extremism will surely be eradicated. As a result, tolerance towards people of all faiths can also be accomplished. The West must allow this to happen and if they don't, the so-called Muslim governments must defy the orders of the West and think about governing under the precepts of Islam.Islam is a progressive religion. It encourages growth, education, technological advancement, scientific exploration. The Muslim world needs a modern renaissance in which Islamic ideas are revived and the Islamic spirit is born again. This is the only solution to the current problems facing the Muslim world.Muslim society began to decline economically, socially,and politically when it also declined spiritually and instead of looking within its own borders for an awakening, it turned to the West and became its most valued customer. Now the West is suppressing any Islamic uprisal and preventing any form of democracy although it pretends to be endorsing democracy. ISLAM IS DEMOCRACY.We must look to the past in order to secure a better future for the next generation of Muslims and all people. In a world which is hurting from a degeneration of morals, values, ideals that only involve money,Islam needs to be the driving force behind restoring peoples dignity. We need to start teaching the West about a perfect system instituted by a perfect God that wants Man to aim for perfection even though he/she will never achieve it. There is no reason why Muslims are being oppressed other than ignorance and lack of a strong will.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

I see the resident Islamophobe "alain jean" is up to posting nonsense and senseless screed again. This person is obviously a FOX news fan having never set foot out of the US. I guess using the name "john norman" just wasnt getting him the attention he craved. You little man need a rabies shot ASAP.
Claiming that "extremists" take over in cities really shows the lack of any concrete thought, but rather loopy and loony conspiracy theories about Muslims which find many takers in the West.
The author unfortunetly only scratches the surface, not going further...but doing that might reveal info that would demolish his argument....cant have that.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

The writer errors in the most fundimental way. He assumes that because the majority population is moslem, that a failure of any sort is due to Islam.

He makes this assumption as he is a paun of the press. Moslems today are the universal villan in the western press. If a bomb goes off someplace the first guess is 'moslem terrorist' in every newspaper in the west. Nobody knows for sure that anybody is to blame unless the terrorist stays by and admits it! So it is just as accurate to say "
jewish terrorist" or "christian terrorist" it could be any kind of religious terrorist and NOBODY knew for sure WHO that terrorist was. BUT if the press says jewish terrorist the ADL sues the very next day, Christian terrorist, 600 people call in and cancle their subscription.

the USA has almost all the money. Small decisions and attitudes in the USA bring lives to chrises the world over. Today there is strong bigotry against moslems, the only open bigotry I know of. Why is obvious, bad press. The important question is "why did moslems allow it"??? I know moslems in my town feel the suffering of children the world over in thier hearts. so it is not the lack of compassion. I know that they are succesful in business and life, so they have the money.


It is high time we moslems joined hands and hired a laywer! When ever we read in the press "islamic terrorist" we FILE SUIT as a class action THE VERY NEXT DAY! Make the bastards PAY, first for our lawyer, then free ads to promote Islam, then for harm they do the children of moslems the world over, unless they can show IN A COURT OF LAW that the terrorist was a Moslem and his terror was done in the name of Islam, the day they published the offending article!
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537

This sounds just like the contrary of what reality is teaching us. In cities, Islam almost always favors extremists, because they are more violent, stronger, ambitious, pretending. Moderate (reasonable) Muslims are not welcome in Islamic cities, unless they stay quiet and humble. You will find them outside urban environment, in the country, where people have to live with more down-to-earth realities, and are thus wiser.
Warning: Attempt to read property "comment_date_gmt" on string in F:\inetpub\wwwroot\Accounts\\wp-content\themes\plain-child\content.php on line 1537