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Name: Ayman Zaidi

Student ID: 604645

Course Name: The Muslim World: Unity in Diversity
Course Code: 155901258
Course conveyor: Hugh Kennedy

Assignment 2
Essay title: ‘Is the term “Islamic City” anything more than an orientalist construct?’
Word count: 2,997
The notion of the ‘Islamic city', its origins, authenticity and formation has been a topic of much
debate, often criticised to be a creation of Western domination. Yet this notion has never
concluded to an agreeable definition. Therefore, understanding the term ‘Islamic city' is a
pivotal point in any discussion trying to answer; who constructed the ideology of building a city
that is identified as Islamic? The French Orientalists challenged the classic concept of the
Muslim city, fuelled by interests in colonial expansion. By focusing on the Orientalist approach
to the Islamic city, the first half of this essay aims to establish whether the Islamic city was a
mythical Orientalist construct or a reality. This essay will firstly provide a brief overview behind
Orientalists motives that challenge the concept of the Islamic city for Western colonial interests.
The second half of this essay will discuss definitions of the Islamic city and what makes it
Islamic. We will focus on the urban design of the Islamic city and how the colonial paradigm
uses the ideology of urban space to jeopardize the Arab/Islamic identity of the city. This essay
essentially will show how the Islamic city was being used as a political tool in order to further
either an academic or a political agenda. Furthermore, by assessing the role of the Islamic city in
the production and consumption of culture, this essay will aim to conclude that the Orientalist
colonial paradigms of the Islamic city were only a mythical factor to its origins. Thus, in this
essay I will argue that there is more to the term ‘Islamic city', thereby, deconstructing
Orientalist writing and choosing a politically correct option for the identity of the Islamic city as
both an Islamic and Arab identity.

In order to understand the debate surrounding the Islamic city (madinah), it is important to
look at the arguments put forth by two Orientalist approaches towards the Islamic city and their
motives behind it. In the early 20th century, The Orientalist English approach focused on the
Islamic city's architecture, religious and urban factors. Whilst the main focus for the French had
been a meticulous breakdown of the Islamic city and its structure. The French approach began
at the commencement of colonialism, when France started to control large areas around the
Mediterranean basin and saw the Islamic city as a system that needed to be addressed in detail
before the French could politically control it. Stern notes that it was the absence of autonomous
organisation in Near Eastern cities, which Orientalists used as an example to prove a lack of
organisation in the Islamic society and Muslim town planning (Stern and Hourani, 1970:26).
Orientalists emphasised that the main feature of the Islamic city is the looseness of its structure
and absence of corporate institutions, thus, the West did not approve of any jurisdiction that
was unfamiliar, thereby using it as a political tool to justify colonisation (Ibid). The Orientalists
believe that by not adopting a classical political structure, it was not possible for the Islamic city
to overcome state affairs effectively, as Shari'ah law was not considered to be a legitimate form
of autonomy. However, King notes that the notion of the Islamic city originates in the West,
therefore it is "defined in difference" to a Western city, in an attempt to justify the Orientalist
perception by claiming the Islamic city's origins as Western (King, 1989:72). Therefore, it is
crucial to understand the colonial paradigm attitude towards the ‘Islamic city', as the classical
city plan formed by the Marçais brothers illustrates a reductionist and ignorant perception
depicted by Western travellers.

Orientalism conditions Islam as a negative construct and the Muslim town planning was a
simple representation of the religion through urbanism. After the Muslim conquests, the
emergence of Islamic rule brought about a revolution in both the urban environment and
government of the region. The philosophy of space and urban design ultimately transformed to
adapt to the religious demands of the Islamic Law (Shari'ah) practiced. Thus, it was this concept
of a new urban environment, which submits to a new autonomy that Orientalists struggled to
accept. Orientalists believed that the urban design of the Islamic city was from Roman
influences, due to previous Western domination. The hypothetical model suggested by the
Marçais brothers of the Islamic city deemed the city to a result of a series of pre-existing
Western sovereignty, which influenced a small and eccentric sample of pre-modern Arab cities,
known as isnãd (chain) of successive authorities (Abu-Lughod, 1987:155). Orientalists believed
this chain of authorities to be the construction of the Islamic city over a period of time. Thus, the
West argues that after the rise of Islam, these influences remained. Thereby portraying the
Islamic city as a negative construct, born of the projection of ‘otherness': what was not the
Western, the modern and the capitalist, the West were able to effectively reduce the significance
of anything Islamic (Beaulieu and Roberts, 2002:80). This Orientalist construct undermines the
entire concept of an Islamic city, by claiming it to be a result of Western domination; therefore,
cannot be a city simply identified as Islamic or Arab.

By questioning the identity of an Islamic city, scholars began to consider that if, in the instance;
all Islamic towns were denied the status of being identified as an Islamic city (Apaydin, 2015:4).
Essentially, this ideology excludes large numbers of the Arab/Muslim human population from
any category of civilisation, thus creating a fundamental political issue globally (Ibid). It became
evident over a period of time that those with a political or academic agenda would attempt to
outline the Islamic city in a particular manner, which would result in excluding Muslims or
Arabs. The intentions of Orientalists became clear, thus, it is not surprising that the West
continues to vitiate any non-Western ways of life, creating a divide between the ‘West' and
‘East', the ‘superior' and ‘inferior'. However, the debate continues as scholars have read
between the lines of colonialism and argued for the urban nature of Islam.
Henri Lefebvre, a French Marxist philosopher furthered the ideology of social production of
space as a complex social construction affecting spatial practices and urbanism, where norms
such as religion, values and politics shape the urban space (Gharipour and Ö zlü , 2015:2).
Thereby, the geographical, cultural and religious aspects of Islamic urbanism show how the
West perceives the East; more explicitly, how the Muslim world was depicted, defined and
produced by the Western traveller (Ibid). What we should really be questioning is; can the
Islamic city be produced, defined and depicted by Western travellers? (Gharipour and Ö zlü ,
2015:1). Both the historical and contemporary aspects of urbanization should be acknowledged
to understand the impact of Islam on spatial structures of cities and to judge the applicability of
Western urban planning models to cities in Islamic countries (Amirahmadi and El-Shakhs, 1993:
vii). Muslim space is naturally formed around the centre of a Muslim religious and cultural life,
where giving the central position of the spatial design in this city to a mosque is a recognised
hierarchy in the Islamic urbanism.

An Islamic city is a result of characteristics, both of physical formation and of social structure,
derived from Islamic fundamentals (Hourani, 1991:53). However, it came to the conclusion that
the concept of the "Islamic city" was less useful as a category of an explanation than, for
example, those of the medieval or pre-industrial or Near Eastern or North African city (Ibid).
The weight of traditional definitions originates in a preoccupation with the medieval and
premodern cities of the Middle East and idealizing models based on descriptions of these cities
(Bennison and Gascoigne, 2007:15). The Islamic city tends to have the beliefs, traditions, and
laws of Islam shaped into a framework held by cities in the Middle East and around the world
that are strongly inspired by Islam. The significance of cities in the Islamic society shows the
vast size of certain cities in the medieval Muslim world and the importance of merchants, not
only as generators of wealth but as religious leaders, intellectuals and exemplars of good and
worthy citizens (Kennedy, 2010:274). The city is permeated with an Islamic spirit, which stands
for the embodiment of Muslim commonwealth and values, by facilitating a Muslim's worship. It
is important to note what defines an Islamic city as Orientalists claim it not be Islamic or Arab,
neither from its urban system nor its socio-economic features.

The Islamic city is identified as an inward oriented city, which ascribed religion a special role in
the form and organisation of the city consisting; a central mosque, a market at its centre,
surrounded by close-knit and ethnically segregated residential neighbourhoods (Türeli, 2009).
Yet, George Marçais attempted to identify a unique morphology of an Islamic city, in the chain of
Orientalism, as he cites Renan to legitimate his view; "the mosque, like the synagogue and the
Church, is a thing essentially urban (citadine). Islamism is a religion of cities" (Abu-Lughod,
1987:156). Thereby, undermining the novelty of defining unique characters of the Islamic city;
it suggests that Islam shares the same quality of urbanism with Judaism and Christianity (Ibid).
Today, archaeologists and urban planners have been influenced, whether willingly or not, by the
literature of Orientalism purporting to describe the essence of the Islamic city (Abu-Lughod,
1987:155). Moreover, the most profound implications of the Islamic city are corroborated by
the fact that most scholars today agree that the madinah does not fit the stereotype of
Orientalism (Kahera, 2012:1). The Islamic city is more than just the simplistic Oriental construct
attached to it. The Orientalist construct failed to consider the diverse beginnings, historical
transformation, and other aspects that develop the form of a city, such as; investments, use,
external threats, internal social dynamics, and physical determinants of climate, materials, and
topography, to cite but a few (Türeli, 2009). It is very important to note that virtually all of the
cases cited by Marçais are North African. George makes specific references to Maghrib terms not
used in other regions and is in contemporary reference to foreign (i.e., European) merchants
(Abu-Lughod, 1987:157). Conversely, George Marçais's research intended to establish the
unique characteristics proving distinguishments in the Islamic city that differentiates it from its
European counterpart. (Al-Sayyad, 1996:92). In other words, the Orientalist scholarship
reflected a Western bias towards any city or urban space outside Europe and this unmistakable
bias is what historians and local travellers continued to focus their efforts towards.

Islam is essentially an urban religion (Abu-Lughod, 1987:156). Thus, it is not dubious that the
function of Islam has been emphasised further on the urban design of the Islamic city. Thus,
enabling the Islamic city to provide a greater functionality to meet the Islamic framework and
socio-economic and cultural needs of the Muslim community. There are various factors that the
Orientalist construct failed to recognise which played a decisive role in shaping the urban
design and social structure of the Islamic city. The built environment of the Islamic city appears
to have certain definable characteristics (Kennedy, 2010:274). Islam is the very feature of an
Islamic city is what molds the rest of its characteristics into place, it is the foundation of an
Islamic city- it is what makes it Islamic. The role of religion is tied into the urban design
principles of the Islamic city as the application of Shari'ah law (the Islamic Law) essentially
stems from Islam. The Islamic city reflects the rules of Shari'ah, as it lays a guideline in all
aspects such as the cultural, behavioural, socio-economic and living environment (Saoud, 2001).
Therefore, "the area of Islamic law, proved the best source for city building, as the problems
arising from the city-building process were well recognised and addressed within the
framework of Islamic values and ethics" (Hakim, 2008:13). The principle of privacy became part
of Shari'ah law where the height of the wall must be above the height of a camel rider, which
aided the determined form of the Islamic city. The cultural beliefs of separating public and
private lives are apparent in the absence of formal planning with the narrow winding streets
and the closed-off residential quarters (Kennedy, 2010:274). These definable characteristics of
Islamic urbanism in an Islamic city are what sets this city apart from the typical Westernised
city or a city from Roman times. Abu-Lughod supports this as she states that the forces that
shape cities are never as simplistic as "Islam" or "Christianity" as geography, climate,
technology, society, and laws all play a role (Chant, 2014). Therefore, it is no surprise that
geography plays a key role in understanding the urban layout of any city, as most Islamic cities
are found in the Middle East.

The natural circumstances of the Middle East meant that the built form and urban planning of
the Islamic city needed to be expressed both through the weather conditions and topography of
the region (Saoud, 2001). Thus, the implementation of the courtyard, terrace, narrow covered
streets and gardens reflects the necessity for a population to be able to cope with hot weather
conditions that dominate most of the regions in the Islamic world (Ibid). The closed residential
quarters regulated the spatial order between uses and areas and were a result of the Muslim
concern with the privacy and sanctity of domestic family life, which had to be protected from
prying eyes (Kennedy, 2010:274). Kennedy disputes the Orientalist construct as he notes that
the Islamic city was designed to consist of narrow streets as no wheeled vehicles were used by
the Medieval Muslim society, but instead animals and humans for transport, thus, there was no
need for wide, well-engineered streets, the sort that Roman towns had required (Ibid).

The historical debate over what the Islamic city is or whether an Islamic city had ever even
existed at all due to its Roman origins, is still very much taking place. Le Tourneau comments,
"Nothing is more foreign to a Muslim town in the Maghreb than the rectilinear avenues of a
Roman or a modern city" (Raymond, 1994:3). There has been a consistently growing confidence
among archaeologists and urban scholars that it is the Roman street patterns and insulates
layouts that have been adopted and had a great influence on the medina streets and building
plots in the Maghreb (Saoud, 2001). The references to an Islamic city being a result of a chain of
authorities through history originating from Roman times employs a certain reluctance towards
explicitly using the concept of an Islamic city because of the concerns the Orientalism
perception arises (Ibid).

Al-Sayyad expresses that in the defence of the Islamic city concept, it was now legitimate for the
national scholars to use the flawed work of the Orientalists whose work was already being
contested and even discredited in the West for its biases (Saliba, 2015:21). Scholars such as Al-
Sayyed perceive the Islamic city as a single entity with distinctive forms and characteristics
(Ibid). Moreover, this debate has been furthered as Sauvaget states "the Muslim city is no longer
considered as a single entity, existing in itself, complex and alive" (Raymond, 2002:3).
Essentially, this deliberation branches out to whether the identifiable Islamic city features can
be seen and applied throughout all Islamic cities or unique to particular regions. This dilemma
is widened further as distinguishments were made by religious reference when Orientalists
attempted to define Arabs. Whilst ‘Europeans' represented ‘Christians', ‘Muslims' represented
‘Arabs', thereby becoming the Europeans vs. Muslims (Islam). This shows how specific
terminology was used to subconsciously create a division between the East and West, thus,
justify the colonial paradigm to colonise the Islamic city and ‘reclaim' it. The idea of the Islamic
City started to be used as a political tool and not as a rhetorical argument (Apaydin, 2015:4).
The reason behind this was due to the questions the West probed, making the notion of the
Islamic city crucial to define. The civilisation was defined as an urban society: "civilisations live
in cities" (Ibid). However, Orientalists were not referring to a nomadic or Muslim civilisation,
thus in the light of this framework, we can see the importance of the city definition for the
Islamic society (Ibid). We should understand that ‘the city' is not a stable entity with a solid
form, but a constantly evolving paradigm, thus a complex sum of perceptions of life, depictions
of visitors and conceptualizations (Gharipour and Ö zlü , 2015:1).

To conclude, the Orientalism scholarship begun at the commencement of colonialism, where

Orientalists effectively emphasised the loose structure of the Islamic city to justify colonisation.
The Marçais brothers questioned the Islamic city, as they believed the city to be from Roman
influences, due to previous Western domination. By doing so, the Arab/Islamic identity of the
city is suspected, excluding an entire Arab population from civilisation, creating a fundamental
political issue globally. Therefore, Orientalism scholarship was used as a means of a political
tool to further political agenda in colonisation. The Islamic city can be defined as a social
structure and physical formation derived from Islamic fundamentals, consisting unique
characteristics such as a central mosque, to meet the requirement of the Islamic society. What
makes this city Islamic is the role of religion, applied through Shari'ah law. Furthermore, the
Marçais brothers successfully undermined the Islamic city by suggesting that Islam shares the
same urbanism as Christianity. Orientalism conditions the Muslim town planning as a negative
construct and to be a simple representation of religion through urbanism. However, the
construct failed to consider the topography, climate and other aspects that develop the form of a
city. The political tool of Orientalist writings continues to influence the essence of the Islamic
city. Yet, it can be agreed that the Islamic city (madinah) today, does not fit the stereotypical
Orientalism scholarship. Thus, there is more to the Islamic city as the term was a mythical and
simplistic Orientalist construct used to perpetuate colonisation. Thereby, this essay
deconstructs Orientalist writing as the politically correct option for the identity of the Islamic
city is both an Islamic and Arab identity.

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