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Islamic Cities — The Past as a Key to the Future

Could a revival of Islam's urban legacy transform modern Muslim society?

June 1, 2003

Could a revival of Islam's urban legacy transform modern Muslim society?

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.

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 Mohammad 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.

The Prophet Mohammad 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.

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. Mohammad 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.

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.

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.

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 — Bahá'ís, Jews, Coptic Christians, Armenians, Assyrians — have fled for Los Angeles, Detroit, Paris or London, often establishing successful colonies there.

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 Greco-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."

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."

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 and child mortality to access to the Internet and development of sophisticated industry.

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." 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.

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 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.