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

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

The Islamic city and spiritual indebtedness

Furthermore, of the meanings of the Arabic verb dana – one of the derivations of the word Madinah (the City) – is ‘to be indebted to someone’. Having named the first capital of the Islamic state ‘Madinah’, the Prophet (pbuh) indicated that by ceaselessly worshipping God — generating in the process civilizational components from which not only the followers of Islam but also the whole of mankind shall benefit — the people in fact embarked on returning the debt of creation and existence to their Creator and Sustainer. While the feat of returning and settling the debt to God had commenced for many individuals long ago while in Makkah, neither the full realization of the same by the Muslims as an organic, autonomous and self-directed entity, nor the sanctioned methods of the successful dept repayment, could materialize until the epic migration (Hijrah) to Madinah came to pass.

However, the nature of the debt is so total that man, seeing that everything around him, in him, and from him, is what the Creator owns, has no choice then but to abase himself before his Lord and Master, and give himself up in unconditional and complete service to Him; should he harbor any hope of avoiding living in a state of utter loss.[1] Allah says: “By the time, verily man is in loss, except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual enjoining of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.” (al-‘Asr 2-3)

Even before one’s coming to this world did one’s very self, one’s soul, acknowledge God as his Lord together with other souls when they all testified before Him as regards themselves, and thus, drew upon himself the burden of the debt as early as then. Allah says on this: “When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): ‘Am I not your Lord (Who cherishes and sustains you)?’ – They said: ‘Yea! We do testify!’ (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: ‘Of this we were never mindful.” (al-A’raf 172) According to Syed Muhammad al-Naquib al-Attas, “seeing that he owns absolutely nothing to ‘repay’ his dept, except his own consciousness of the fact that he is himself the very substance of the debt, so must he ‘repay’ with himself, so must he ‘return’ himself to Him Who owns him absolutely. He is himself the debt to be returned to the Owner.”[2]

No sooner is man born than he sets out displaying his inherent readiness to benefit (borrow) from this world: to breathe, to wear apparel, to eat and drink, albeit without possessing anything, save his very self, to give away in return. Man is therefore born, in a way, as an inveterate and insolvent consumer. Not only does he own nothing, but also he remains forever short of enjoying the power of bringing into being anything without making use of the available raw materials, resources and provisions created for him in nature. Creating ex nihilo (from absolute nothingness), as a sign of genuine affluence, sovereignty and might, is the right and power of God alone. Indeed, everything that man invents, conceives, concocts and creates, is possible only thanks to the unbounded bounties and munificence from God, which man then only discovers, manages, processes, uses and reuses in different ways most convenient and efficient for him. The upshots of man’s myriad civilizational pursuits on earth are never really his own possession and, as such, in no way could be solely utilized for returning the debt of creation and existence to God. Hence, being prudent, modest and grateful when dealing with God’s gifts, as well as with one’s own accomplishments, are of the virtues most appreciated, and the opposite of the vices most detested, in man.

In short, whenever he rebels against God and His guidance, man becomes truly an insolvent and helpless creature in every sense of the word. He needs God, depending on Him every moment of his life. God has no need of him: “O ye men! It is ye that have need of Allah: but Allah is the One Free of all wants, Worthy of all praise.” (Fatir 15)

The only formula for man to survive and enrich himself, both spiritually and physically, is thus to give himself up humbly and appreciatively in unconditional and complete service to Him, the Creator, Lord and Sustainer of the worlds. Man cannot turn his back on this amazingly pressing reality, best described as a wonderful bargain in which man, in point of fact, is asked to give so little but promised so much in return. About this Allah says: “O ye who believe! Shall I lead you to a bargain that will save you from a grievous Chastisement? That ye believe in Allah and His Messenger, and that ye strive (your utmost) in the Cause of Allah, with your wealth and your persons: that will be best for you, if ye but knew! He will forgive you your sins, and admit you to Gardens beneath which rivers flow, and to beautiful Mansions in Gardens of Eternity: that is indeed the supreme Triumph. And another (favor will He bestow), which ye do love, – help from Allah and a speedy victory. So give the Glad Tidings to the Believers.” (al-Saff 10-13)

“If ye loan to Allah a beautiful loan, He will double it to your (credit), and He will grant you Forgiveness: for Allah is All-Thankful, most Forbearing, – Knower of what is hidden and what is open, Exalted in Might, Full of Wisdom.” (al-Taghabun 17-18)

“And remember, your Lord caused to be declared (publicly): ‘If ye are grateful, I will add more (favors) unto you; but if ye show ingratitude, truly my punishment is terrible indeed.” (Ibrahim 7)


The Islamic city and the societal dimension of Islam

So much is Islam concerned about quenching man’s thirst for socializing and interacting, that some people could not help observing – albeit erroneously – that the Islamic ideals have a preference for the sedentary over the nomad and for the city dweller over the villager.[3] This assertion is not totally baseless, though. To be sure, Islam’s treatment of human settlements and the standards as well as the values that nurture and sustain them, is such as no other religion or ideology is able to rival it. Islam, in its capacity as the only religion in the sight of God (Alu ‘Imran 19), carefully strikes a balance between its precepts and values meant for the personal and family realm, on the one hand, and such as are meant for the whole society (humankind), on the other. While a number of them govern each of the two poles, a big portion of the tenets of Islam is still shared by both. Unless propounded at the societal scale, Islam, a universal way of life and a religion that came to raze the people’s erring living patterns and furnish them with those based upon the tawhidic paradigm instead,will, therefore, fail to materialize as such. Its real colors will thus be given no adequate ground to exhibit their glow and aptitude, and the people will be left short of perceiving and experiencing fully the excellence, beauty and pragmatism of its worldview.

            Joel Kotkin also observed: “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 Muhammad 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.”[4]

For this reason, no sooner had the Prophet (pbuh) migrated to Madinah than a shift in the focus of revelation occurred, from that dealing with the issues concerning faith (iman) and the individual spiritual upbringing — as witnessed in Makkah — to that of creating a unified and solid community and all the issues related thereto – as witnessed in Madinah. Having thus changed the milieu, from that dominated by his foes and the foes of Truth in Makkah to that dominated by his supporters and the adherents of the Islamic cause in Madinah — of the things that right away obsessed the Prophet’s mind was the urbanization and development of the first capital of the just-formed Islamic state, something that he could only dream of during the entire duration of his stay as Allah’s Messenger in Makkah. So revolutionary and far-reaching was this change in the pattern and genus of the earliest Islamic mission that the Muslims, during the reign of the second caliph ‘Umar b. al-Khattab, concurred that it should mark the commencement of the Muslim calendar, thus taking precedence over a host of other decisive occurrences and events which the young and dynamic Islamic society was never devoid of.

The realization of the Muslim community in Madinah was viable in that the ground for it was exceptionally fertile. The elementary ingredients essential for creating a flourishing sovereign state, such as freedom, land, the people (followers), the solitary cause, the cohesive struggle and legislation, were on hand ready to be utilized by the visionary leadership headed by the Prophet (pbuh), and guided by the heavenly will exemplified in revelation.

The significance of this turnaround in the fortune of the nascent Islamic community had, in fact, far more extensive consequences than it at first glance appeared. The new beginning for Madinah signified a new beginning for a large portion of the human race and its socio-political and ideological configuration, since the Prophet (pbuh) was the seal of prophets and his message the final one suited to be applied in every place and time till the end of this terrestrial life. However, at that particular juncture, i.e., during and immediately after the Hijrah, such an astounding truth was yet to become a common and widespread mass conviction, either because the Prophet (pbuh) was yet to spell out some vital aspects thereof, or indeed he did — as much as the first Muslims were in need of — but too new to the new worldview and code of life were some people, that they could hardly come to terms with what that really meant.

When the Prophet (pbuh) arrived in the town of Madinah, while getting off his camel he uttered four times the following Qur’anic supplication: “O my Lord! Enable me to disembark with Thy blessing: for Thou art the Best to enable (us) to disembark.” (al-Mu’minun 29) Now, the Prophet (pbuh) had scores of supplications and prayers to chose from and pronounce at this particular occasion, but by no accident did he chose exactly this one. The Prophet Nuh (Noah) was the one who had uttered the supplication in question. He did so when the flood by which Allah – be He exalted – punished and annihilated the immoral and rebellious section of mankind subsided and the time came for Nuh and all those who were with him on the Ark – of both animals and humans – to disembark. Under the guardianship of revelation and its tawhidic paradigm, they were to start afresh their life on earth, free from every pain and anxiety that the agnostics and polytheists formerly used to generate.

By saying the supplication of Nuh, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) seems to have implied that his migration to Madinah marked the beginning of one of the brightest and most significant epochs in the history of mankind. He knew that his followers, before long, will start playing a prominent role in shaping developments relating to the religious convictions, worldviews, and socio-political and economic structures of world societies. What’s more, the followers of the Prophet (pbuh) were bound to begin, in a little while, laying their claims to world dominion, aspiring to magnetize someday the center of gravity in all constructive human engagements to the territories that will be under their permanent control. Thus, it stands to reason that the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah entailed no less revolutionary connotations than the Prophet Nuh’s disembarkation from the Ark following the great flood, hence, the same prayer having been uttered on both occasions.

It must be said at this juncture that this striking philosophy of the ‘city’ in Islam, and to an extent the morphological characteristics assigned to it, are not distinctive to complex urban settlements alone. Every settlement, big or small, urban or rural, enjoyed the same character throughout different eras. Settlements have been created to function as a field for fulfilling the same purpose, in that they are created by man (in this case the Muslims) and are meant for man, whose solitary task on earth ought to be the execution of his vicegerency mission, regardless of where and how he may live and what legitimate means he may have at his disposal. The only divergence found among these settlements is for the most part in the lines of the contextual functions of their components and the scale and intensity of such functions. Certainly, it was this reality that compelled many to assert that the city and the rural village in Islam are homogenous.[5]

By promoting the idea of “the excellent settlement” in both urban and rural contexts, rather than “the excellent urban settlement” at the expense of the rural ones, Islam advanced a workable plan for an effective doing away with some persistent depressing social trends, which are as old as the emergence of human urban settlements. Perhaps, one of the most disturbing trends is unremitting and hardly controllable migration from rural to urban areas. Via creating conducive and “excellent”, not only urban, but also rural settlements throughout the land — each settlement evenhandedly and equitably catering for the needs of its citizens who share the same vision and strive for the same set of goals — there would never be enough room left for breeding the causes which typically compel the people to abandon, en masse, certain places in favor of the others. Since there would seldom be highly appealing and highly unappealing areas (settlements), neither would opportunity be given for an ‘inferiority complex’ to establish itself as an awkward psychological group syndrome. However, at the individual and even family level, a limited tendency towards dissatisfaction and desire to move from one place to another shall still remain a possibility, but then again that would thus be only on the strength of certain individual judgments normally influenced by lots of other human as well as natural factors.



[1] See: Al-Attas Syed Muhammad al-Naquib, “Islam: the Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality”, in: The Challenge of Islam, edited by Altaf Gauhar, (London: Islamic Council of Europe, 1978), p. 37.

[2] Ibid., p. 37.

[3]See: From Madina to Metropolis, edited by L. Carl Brown, (Princeton: the Darwin Press, 1973), see the editor’s introduction, p. 38.

[4] Kotkin Joel, Islamic Cities: Can the Past Be the Key to the Future?, http:/

[5] Miura Toru, “Reinterpreting Urban Studies: Towards a New Perspective (Conclusion)”, in: Islamic Urban Studies, edited by Masashi Haneda and Toru Miura, (London: Kegan Paul International, 1994), p. 335. 

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