Conceptualizing the Phenomenon of the Islamic City (Madinah) (Part One)

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

From Yathrib to Madinah

Prior to the Hijrah (migration) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) from Makkah to Madinah, the latter was called Yathrib consisting of several loosely interrelated settlements. Its population was made up mainly of Arabs and Jews, the former being divided into the Aws and Khazraj tribes and the latter into Banu Qaynuqa’, Banu al-Nadir and Banu Qurayzah tribes. Because of this earliest delicate and incoherent social geography of the place, it may be that the name Yathrib was not originally applied to the entire Madinah oasis, but rather only to a section thereof and to some of its settlements.

However, after the arrival of the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions from Makkah (Muhajirs or Migrants), as well as after the conversion of many a Madinah citizen to Islam, the city morphology and population structure were set to change forever. The first stage of such a drastic transformation hit the road as early as during the instant building of the principal mosque – ahead of anything else – which at once assumed the role of the center of gravity in the affairs and developments instigated and flavored by the aspirations and goals of the new community – as we shall see later. The city’s name was expectedly altered in the process. The name adopted for the model Islamic city was Madinah (meaning simply “the City”), derived from the Arabic words maddana and tamaddun which mean to civilize (urbanize) and civilization respectively. From the same root the concepts madaniyy and mutamaddin, both of which denote civilized, civil and cultured, are derived too. The urban fabric, spatial arrangements and functions of Madinah – the prototype Islamic city – were emulated for centuries by the Muslims all over their vast territories, as much as the indigenous geographical, climatic and other inherent factors and conditions permitted.

The adoption of the name Madinah was a judicious, gradual and not at all a hasty and prejudiced course of action on the part of the Prophet (pbuh), thus enabling everyone to come to terms with the new phenomenon and its far-reaching implications. This could be inferred from the substance of the Madinah Constitution written in the wake of the Hijrah. Therein, it was still stated Yathrib rather than Madinah, whenever the home of the migration and its general population was implied.[1]

The Prophet (pbuh) was not in favor of retaining Yathrib as the name of the novel and unique city-state for two major reasons: firstly, because its meaning was miles away from reflecting Madinah’s newly created lure, uniqueness, aura and dynamism; and secondly, because the name Yathrib, in addition, bore a couple of connotations which were not only improper for naming the impending urban marvel, but also were, to an extent, offensive. The most upsetting and attention-grabbing meanings of Yathrib are reproach (tathrib) and malevolence or ill will (tharb). While still in Makkah, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have once said: “I was ordered to (migrate to) a town which will eat up towns. They used to say, Yathrib, but it is Madinah. It removes the bad people like the blacksmith’s furnace removes impurities from the iron.”[2]

Indeed, changing the name Yathrib was just one of the numerous examples in which the Prophet (pbuh) is seen altering the improper pre-Islamic names of the people and every so often of the places. Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani remarked that the Prophet (pbuh) loved very much beautiful and meaningful names, but hated repulsive and meaningless ones.[3] In one hadith, the Prophet (pbuh) said that the dearest names to Allah are ‘Abdullah (the servant of Allah) and ‘Abdurrahman (the servant of the most Gracious).[4] As such, the two names were the ones which the Prophet (pbuh) gave most frequently to his newly converted-to-Islam companions. In Muslim b. al-Hajjaj’s anthology of hadith (Sahih Muslim) there is a chapter entitled “Excellence of changing ugly names to good names”, which contains reports that the Prophet (pbuh) changed, for instance, the name of ‘Asiya (Disobedient) to Jamilah (Beautiful).[5] The original name of the Prophet’s wife Zaynab was Barra (Pious), but he changed it to Zaynab saying: “I did not like that it should be said: “He had come out from Barra (Pious).”[6]   

True to the expectations and anticipations of the Prophet (pbuh), the old name of Madinah, Yathrib, was occasionally the target of the Madinah hypocrites’ undying attempts to sneer at and ridicule the Prophet (pbuh), Islam and the Muslims. While discoursing on the battle of the Ditch (Khandaq) or Confederates (al-Ahzab) – one of the most petrifying confrontations between the Muslims and their diverse enemies inside as well as outside Madinah – the Holy Qur’an reveals that the hypocrites, who had already displayed their true colors in the course of the battle, at one point said to the Muslims intending to poke fun at them: “Ye men of Yathrib! Ye cannot stand (the attack)! Therefore go back!” (al-Ahzab 13) It should be noted that the event of this unholy Confederacy against Islam took place in the fifth year following the Hijrah. By then, the Madinah community was already standing firmly as a sovereign city-state with no single ambiguity left as regards its philosophy, purpose and vision. And for one to call then the inhabitants of Madinah “the People of Yathrib”, especially under the earlier-defined conditions, was really something of an oddity and could only mean covert mockery and ill will.

The Prophet’s words in the aforementioned hadith: “…They used to say, Yathrib, but it is Madinah…”, some people would associate rather with the Madinah hypocrites. That said, another inference could be reached here, that is, the Prophet (pbuh) did not pronounce this hadith while in Makkah, but rather after his arrival in Madinah. Because of this, once the Prophet (pbuh) changed the name Yathrib to Madinah, he is believed to have completely prohibited the usage of the former. Infringing this tenet meant committing an offence.[7]


The Islamic city: a microcosm of Islamic civilization

The name Madinah (the City) was not given at the dictates of chance, as the advent of the new worldview and those who had exemplified it in their thoughts, words and deeds implied the advent of a whole cluster of new concepts and philosophies. Of them was the idea of the urban settlement, or the city, which transcended the conventional divinity-free idea that the same is a relatively permanent and highly organized center of population, of greater size or importance than a village.

Similarly, the city as perceived by Islam easily transcends what some theorists attempt to say even today on the historical phenomenon of the city in general, that the same, for instance, is a mere unique, cumulative, historical process, which takes its particular form “through a long chain of individual events, subject to a host of accidents of history and of site, and to the broad influences of culture, climate, and economic and political structure”; or that the city should be solely looked at as a pattern “of activity in space which facilitate the production, distribution, and consumption of material goods”; or that the city is planted only “to dominate a subject countryside, to prevent a resource from falling into enemy hands, or to defend a border”, etc.[8]

The philosophy of the city in Islam partially or wholly runs parallel with what is meant by all these definitions; nonetheless, it is far more than that.

In addition to relatively being that which the city phenomenon is and would always be thought of, the city in Islam, more importantly, stands for the ground of the people’s submission to Allah Almighty, their Creator and Lord, and of their intimate interaction with space, surroundings and, of course, with themselves at various levels, given that the city is a scene where the people live, work, play, learn, worship, rise and fall. The outcome of these and other activities which the people engage themselves in cities, and other settlements of theirs, is what we call cultures and civilizations whose substance and moral fiber 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 thereby achieved. 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 are bred and nurtured therein. Regardless of which is cause and which is effect, civilization and the Islamic urbanism seem to be destined for rising together and falling together.Hence, it was most suitable for the name of the prototype Islamic city to be derived from the word tamaddun, which denotes civilization.

For al-Farabi, an outstanding Muslim philosopher of the fourth/tenth century, who wrote on the ideal city (al-Madinah al-Fadilah), “the fashioning of a city (state) is not the outcome of a natural process; it depends, like the moral life of individuals, on the right decision being taken, it makes all the difference whether ‘will’ and ‘choice’ are directed towards the true good or not. The result will be either a good or bad city (state).”[9] Furthermore, “the excellent city resembles the perfect and healthy body, all of whose limbs cooperate to make the life of the animal perfect and to preserve it in this state.”[10] The ruler(s) of the excellent city, the foundation and source of the policies by which the city will be governed, must align will, resourcefulness and energy with vision and pragmatism rooted in wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom and knowledge the ruler(s) must receive firstly by means of his predisposition to rulership by his inborn nature, and secondly from his fervent and fruitful relationship with the divine reality, i.e. the revelation conveyed to the Prophet (pbuh) and embodied in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah. Due to his central qualities, such a ruler may well become something like a visionary forecaster capable of warning of things and problems that are yet to come and befall the city, as well as of telling of and solving particular predicaments which exist at present, unlike those who had detached themselves from divinity and through their faulty judgments missed the right path, bringing about, in consequence, nothing but ignorance and wickedness to their cities.[11]

Ibn Khaldun – one of the greatest Muslim historians, and also known as the father of modern social science and cultural history, who lived in the eighth/fourteenth century – wrote in his celebrated “Muqaddimah” that apart from defense purposes cities are also built because the people once risen above desert life and desert culture as a necessary development in their civilizational growth, start seeking tranquility, restfulness and relaxation, and try to provide the aspects of civilization that were lacking in the desert. This unavoidably leads to the emergence of sedentary culture brought about by luxury and comforts, and which must be governed by someone who is superior over others and who shall act as a restraining influence and mediator, i.e., royal authority, upholding peace and order. Such developments can occur only in large and complex urban areas, hence, Ibn Khaldun proclaimed, while entitling some of the “Muqaddimah” chapters, that “Royal authority calls for urban settlement”, that “Dynasties are prior to towns and cities; towns and cities are secondary (products) of royal authority”, and that “Only a strong royal authority is able to construct large cities and high monuments”.[12] It stands to reason, therefore, that the existence of Bedouins is prior to, and the basis of, the existence of towns and cities. Urbanization and, as such, refined civilization, is found to be the goal of the Bedouin. The life and achievements of the city are the life and achievements of the dynasty: “If the dynasty is of short duration, life in the town will stop at the end of the dynasty. Its civilization will recede, and the town will fall into ruins. On the other hand, if the dynasty is of long duration and lasts a long time, new constructions will always go up in the town, the number of large mansions will increase, and the walls of the town will extend further and further. Eventually, the layout of the town will cover a wide area, and the town will extend so far and so wide as to be almost beyond measurement.”[13]


The Islamic city: a place for total submission to God

One of the derivations of the word Madinah (the City) is the Arabic verb dana[14] as well, which means to obey, to submit (to), to owe allegiance (to); hence the word din which means religion, faith. Thus, the city of the Prophet (pbuh) was dubbed Madinah so as to signify the Islamic pivotal precept that man is the vicegerent on earth and has not been created except to abide by and absolutely submit to the Will of the Lord of the universe. Since the Prophet’s role was to receive revelation from God, convey it to men, and by educating them and applying the guidance divinely given, lead them forth from the depths of darkness into light, he is to be as unquestionably respected, followed and obeyed. Obeying him means obeying God; rejecting and disobeying him means rejecting and disobeying God. Allah says to this effect in the Holy Qur’an: “He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah: but if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over them.” (al-Nisa’ 80)

Also: “And obey Allah and His Messenger; and fall into no disputes, lest ye lose heart and your power depart…” (al-Anfal 46)

The same idea also applies to the notion of obeying ulul-amr minkum (those charged with authority, or responsibility, or decision, or the settlement of affairs among you). The Qur’an says: “O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and his Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last Day: that is best, and most suitable for final determination.” (al-Nisa’ 59)

Yusuf Ali, the translator and expositor of the Holy Qur’an, commented on the substance of this verse: “All ultimate authority rests in Allah. Prophets of Allah derive their authority from Him. As Islam makes no sharp division between sacred and secular affairs, it expects governments to be imbued with righteousness. Likewise Islam expects Muslims to respect the authority of such government for otherwise there can be no order or discipline.”[15]

Thus, the city of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and every other Islamic city and, indeed, any form of Islamic settlement in any time and place, was a hub of worship (serving). Worship (‘ibadah) in Islam is a wide concept encompassing each and every action of man, irrespective of its nature and the level where it might be undertaken, on sole condition that God is intended to be pleased thereby, and the divine norms pertinently conformed to. In such cities, Allah – be He exalted – is the only absolute authority and His words of guidance are a source from which virtually everything as to managing this terrestrial life originates. Accordingly, the job of those who are entrusted to administer such cities and settlements, and rule over their populace, would not exceed the perimeter of the right and the most efficient implementation of what has been already prescribed, aspiring to preserve the faith, life, intellect, posterity, and wealthof their subjects. In other words, their task would be but ensuring the masses their general wellbeing by finding a feasible and effective modus operandi of putting into operation the set of infinite standards and values. Owing to this, the ruler in Islam – regardless of the amount of authority vested in him – is sometimes called al-ra’i, guardian, and the subjects al-ra’iyyah, those who are cared for.

An authority on this, Ibn Taymiyah, wrote in his acclaimed Book “Public Duties in Islam”: “The first essential is to understand that the aim of all authority in Islam is to ensure that all religion shall be God’s, and that the Word of God shall be all-high. For God – be He glorified and exalted! – created His creation for this purpose alone. To make it known He revealed the Scriptures and sent the Messengers. In this cause the Messengers and the believers strove.”[16]



[1] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), vol. 3 p. 223.

[2]Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab Fada’il al-Madinah, Hadith No. 1871.

[3] Al-‘Asqalani Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, (Cairo: Maktabah al-Kulliyyat al-Azhariyyah, 1978), vol. 8 p. 216.

[4]Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 2759.

[5] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Adab, Hadith No. 5332.

[6] Ibid., Hadith No. 5335-5336.

[7] Al-‘Asqalani Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 8 p. 216.

[8]Lynch Kevin, GoodCityForm, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998), p. 327-343.

[9]Al-Farabi on the Perfect State, a revised text with introduction, translation, and commentary by Richard Walzer, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 433.

[10] Ibid., p. 231.

[11]Ibid., p. 245-253.

[12] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, translated from Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), vol. 2 p. 235-238.

[13] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 235.

[14]‘Abd al-‘Aziz ‘Abdullah b. Idris, Mujtama’ al-Madinah fi ‘Ahd al-Rasul, (Riyad: Jami’ah al-Malik Su’ud, 1992), p. 22.

[15] The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary; see the commentary of the verse59 from the al-Nisa’ chapter (Note No. 580).

[16]Ibn Taymiyah, Public Duties in Islam, translated from the Arabic by Muhtar Holland, (Leicester: the Islamic Foundation, 1992), p. 19.

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